At the opening night party of a writers’ festival, I watch a lady with fine, wheat-coloured hair. People surround her and she nods, happy and clutching her white wine like a string of beads.
‘I want to be her,’ I whisper in Aarna’s ear, as the lady’s disced earring rotates and blinks.
The next day, we see her on the stage between a famous Australian cartoonist and a famous Australian restauranteur. The panel is on the juncture between writing and art. From my plastic chair in the audience, I learn her name is Janet Hawley, and she’s been interviewing artists—mainly Australian, but also international—since the 1970s. I’m beginning to recognise the feeling I have. It’s a feeling I’ve had before.
Like when, on a flight to New York, a woman called Prudence slid into the space two seats away and waited a moment before asking me about my book. I like the way she rubbed almond oil into her palms. A week later, her best friend’s daughter Katie walked me around Columbia’s journalism school. Eliza has told me our star charts correlate. She told me while we sipped drinks bloody with Campari.
I don’t know much about Australian art but Hawley makes me want to learn. After the applause Aarna and I join the droves of older women heading to the Collins Booksellers Book Tent to buy her book, which is yellow, tome-ish, and has an attractive cover. Encounters with interesting women needn’t exclusively be In Real Life. Andrea Lee wrote an entire short story collection called Interesting Women, and the story titles are things like: ‘Anthropology’, ‘Interesting Women’, and ‘Brothers and Sisters Around the World.’ I’ve since told Aarna about the collection. We first bonded while talking about therapy on the Paris metro.
Artists in Conversation
The heat in the tent is white. Beside me, Aarna’s flushed. On the stage, Janet Hawley reads from her book, her hair falling forward over the sides of her face.
“I knew Brett Whiteley slightly from his first superstar show, held in Sydney’s Bonython Art Gallery in the 1970s, on his return from living overseas for a decade. Every art lover, hippie and socialite in town […] I was taken to a quiet room off the courtyard, and Whiteley entered for the pre-arranged interview. [He] appeared to be in a surreal daze, big eyes under a wide halo of curling ginger-blond hair […] A rapid staccato flow of disjointed, disconnected words spewed out of his mouth [but] when he wasn’t stoned, he was the most lucid of speakers.”
When it’s over, I ask Aarna who Brett Whiteley is. Aarna and I have looked at a lot of things together: mauve waterlilies, Karlie Kloss off-duty, raison-studded buns from Poilane. She taught me to like contemporary art and made me move briskly between nail-riddled Jesuses in gli Uffizi. Slapping along the Seine, we congratulated ourselves over our ability to make analogies which we found meaningful: ‘the difference between a regular and patent leather finish on a Repetto flat is similar to that between the Eiffel Tower lit and the Eiffel Tower sparkling.’ I am grateful to Aarna for bringing me to the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival, putting me in contact with spiritual mentors and accompanying me as we buy the same book— — —
‘You must deepen the game by adding contradiction, argument, toughen a picture by having a point of tension in it, risk, obliterate, edit, or the painting won’t have mystery’.
‘Paintings are like slides, skins off God’s eyes’.
‘I love the calligraphy of dog wees in Paris’.
‘I paint pictures in order to understand; I exhibit pictures to show that I don’t’.
‘The immediate effect was a heightening of reality, in that everything I looked at took on an intensity, an expandingness’.
The mud at the festival is cakey orange. Small pools turn violet in the afternoon sun. Aarna and I sit with our heads bowed grazing fingers through the new grass. I wonder what Wendy Whiteley wore to her husband’s art party in the 1970s. Necklaces, probably, but how shaped? I think about layers of bright, angular beads. Aarna stares off into the adjacent paddock to a band above the horizon of pale, clean blue.
East Sydney Dreams
Aarna and I get invited to drinks at the bottom floor of a Darlinghurst pub. There’s a new guy there—tall with flowing hair. He thinks Australian cinema is boring then tells me about an article he’s read in The New Yorker about the Tamil Tigers. He won’t stop clutching our legs, as if shaking his point into our hearts.
At twenty-one, I was thrilled at the thought of Boticelli’s ‘Primavera’. My stupider self squirts out of me and I agree: ‘Yeah, it’s all just grit and pain and landscapes.’
‘Heroin’, agrees Aarna.
The Whiteley studio is a stone’s throw from my house. I go there for penance, where a nude drawing class is set against Brett’s sprawling Alchemy—lashes of paint, transmogrified birds and body parts. ‘Climbing my tree, green branch, green branch, dead branch, break, fall heavily to ground’. Books and posters and wall scribblings, people murmur around a box of Japanese brushes and the room is wide and slabbed in light. I trace dreamy, dizzy circles and do not feel the need to talk.
In Lavender Bay, fish drift in milky green water. A feather hangs on the surface and seaweed billows beneath. There’s a boardwalk to the Whiteley house behind the rail sidings. The passage up to Wendy’s garden is torn open and soft green. Inside, flowers rupture from stems and leaves drip over a couple in the undergrowth holding hands. Women thread inky routes in jogging gear and groomsmen idle in a line. When you push further in, the sounds become more dulled. And you’re eaten, fall into the earth with Brett’s ashes.
There are a lot of paintings of Jesus in gli Uffizi, and I tried to get to all of them, reading the wobbly translations because I thought I should. Margaret Olley, aged twenty-five, joined the ‘droves of Australian expatriates heading to London and Europe.’ With hindsight, she felt she ‘first went to Europe too young’.
‘I meet [interesting women] everywhere these days, now that there is no longer such a thing as an interesting man.’
As a student reporter I wrote articles about things I saw in Italy and France. Pasta, the Arno, the time my hair caught fire while holding forth on Italian cuisine. What makes the culture in Europe more important than a stretch of open sky?
The Whiteleys have inflected my dreams. So have Prudence and Katie. As Katie walks me to the Columbia subway station she tells me it’s a shame I’m not sticking around to meet her friends. I am regretful too, though there will be others: Mareike, who feeds me strips of German literature from her Berlin apartment or Stef, a law school mate who has similar feelings about men, scents, history—we joke in change rooms trying on club skivvies.
Meanwhile, I read Helen Garner and all the memoir pieces in Meanjin. Words refract off sun-baked concrete, splay through rustling boughs during dawn walks in Holder. The writing is as seminal as statues in Florence. What art is privileged is often dependent on resources. My copies are full of bark and sticks because I read them on the ground during lunch breaks at ANU. I give Peter Carey to a friend in England, though it’s a while before I’ll discover Andrea Lee. In her collection, diasporic women flirt with Milanese men, tussle with locals on Madagascan isles, have reluctant heady chats with women they meet in Thai resorts. Helen Garner is thanked in the acknowledgements.
 Janet Hawley, Artists in Conversation (Slattery Media Group, 2012) 93-94
 Brett Whiteley in Hawley, 101.
 Brett Whiteley in Hawley, 103.
 Brett Whiteley in Hawley, 102.
 Brett Whiteley in Hawley, 98.
 Brett Whiteley in Hawley, 99.
 Brett Whiteley in Hawley, 98.
 Hawley, 59.
 Andrea Lee, Interesting Women (Fourth Estate, 2003) 118.
Jacinta Mulders is from the Blue Mountains, Australia. She studied Italian film and law before completing her MA in Prose Fiction at the University of East Anglia. Her writing has appeared in Meanjin, Seizure, Oyster, and Pollen. She lives in London.
Image Credit: Marcos Paixão