Emma Pratt: A Return to the Heart of Things

December 2014, Seville. The night before, overcome by tiredness, I had dumped my clothes, including my new ivory-coloured silk shirt on the bidet in lieu of a convenient hook (gosh, three French loan words there). The bidet taps hadn’t been turned off properly and a slow drip through the night had caused the ink from my dark clothes to run into the shirt, now ivory with reddish splotches. I screeched in horror and then issued forth a furore of expletives.

I’m not normally one to be so obsessed with clothes, but this was my fancy-pants shirt I had bought myself to celebrate being a finalist in a painting award. I’d told Maggie Gresson excitedly that I was off to buy myself a new frock for the occasion, but it had been whittled down to a new shirt. It wasn’t from the usual cheap shop, it wasn’t ten years old and ill-fitting or worn. It was smart and my grandmother would have been proud (I had teamed it with an op-shop black jacket I bought ten years ago, but we won’t mention that).

The saggy, sad excuse for a shirt that lay in the sink in front of me was almost a metaphor for the days ahead. When German artist Antje Schiffers was having coffee with me before her opening in Seville last year, we had talked about post-exhibition blues – that vacuum left in the wake of the euphoria of realizing a project, of getting it up, out, performed, off your chest and before an audience and, oh, here it comes, acknowledged as half-way good. Any performer will recognize these blues as my sister, who works in theatre, does.

Into the vacuum floods (because heaven knows, nature hates a vacuum), in my case, scary thoughts. I face that void where, if I stopped making art and telling my stories I would be alone, or cease to exist in any meaningful way. “Just waiting to die” is what my sister says of the days when you do nothing special. You have another coffee, flick through your phone, take the rubbish out, sweep the floor, fold the washing, watch telly.  It was probably due to tiredness, and in my case, a mix of winter dark, and clocking up another Christmas away from New Zealand that increased the slump.

So, how did I confront these blues? I went outside. I got some sunlight and soaked in Seville in mid-winter. Dark narrow streets leading out onto sun-flooded plazas full of people and orange trees, stray cats, friendly dogs, a cafelito at a table on the sidewalk and my beloved 2nd century wall that envelops us in the park and protects us from northerlies. I focused back on the small things of life that presented before me – what I call the heart of things – like pulling out grass in the park with Clara and Blanca (there is a patchy clump growing between some cobbles) to talk about what roots do. Clara decided she wanted to experiment with transplanting and the grass is now happily growing in a pot on our balcony next to the gardenia.  I then got stuck into some drawing.

August 2014, Uferstudios, Berlin. While waiting for Pete Wheeler at the café, a man comes up to me and asks in a distinctly kiwi tone if I knew where Judy Millar’s studio was, as he had a meeting with her. I confessed I didn’t but I was sure that Pete would. The man, named Ian if I remember rightly, managed to locate her and they sat a few tables down from us as Pete and I got on with our chin wag and Javier kept an eye on the girls. This sudden Kiwi cluster in Berlin had me feeling like it was a typical day in some Wellington café. Nice. The only down side of Berlin is that, being built on lots of reclaimed swamp land, and what with Global Warming and all, it’s lovely and humid and the quantity of itchy-bitey things and wasps drove us to distraction.

I mentioned Pete in an article a few years back. I had been ruminating at the time on the meaning of being at the heart of where it was all happening.

“Just being in Berlin wasn’t enough, he told me. Artists couldn’t simply arrive there and start knocking on gallery doors. You had to earn your stripes first by making work there and creating encounters, getting to know people and slowly making your way into the scene.”

“I remember inwardly sighing during this conversation. My finances didn’t make for moving about, starting up collectives and making things happen in that way. I had also just discovered I was pregnant and the pace of things was going to alter significantly. These things are best done in the fresh bloom of post art school life when you have the freedom of movement, exist in the bosom of arts friendships and networks and you can commit yourself uncompromisingly to advancing your work. You go where you need to go and do what you need to do. It’s a precious, precious time, not to be wasted.”

 – From the Postcard “The Heart of Things” August 2009

Talking with Pete again, this time in Berlin, summer of 2014, I could see that with time he had re-assessed his ideas on the heart of things too. He had, since my first meeting with him back in Auckland, dropped his uber-cool gallery, that had him parading himself rather uncomfortably at Art Basel, in pursuit of a different perspective on art and what it was all for. He had also become a dad and he was busy working out how to make his studio more child friendly, tactfully adding that my girls should remove themselves from the makeshift darkroom where there was acid and various other products within reach of small, curious hands.

January 2015, Seville. I had to spend an afternoon looking after La Tata – Javier’s mother’s old nanny/house maid. La Tata is now of an unknown age past ninety. When I first started writing my postcards back to New Zealand in 2007, she was of an unknown age past eighty.

Blanca came with me and brought her small plastic animals which she proceeded to line up on the table. La Tata’s care-giver was unwell so the family were taking it in turns to sit with her for the few days. She was quite put out because it meant going to stay with Javier’s mother instead of being in her own apartment. As we sat there she complained to me about it every five minutes –

“The care-giver is sick, and I have to be here in this house, but I don’t want to be here, I just want to go home. But what are you going to do?”

It is clear that La Tata is losing her faculties. I’m only half convinced she knew who I was. Fair enough. She’s cooked, cleaned and cared for folk for almost seventy years of her life. Sitting with her a while always helps me put some perspective on things. I am made thankful for the platform a childhood in New Zealand born of comfortably-off parents has given me.  I have changed countries because I wanted to, learnt other languages because I was curious, read what I wanted, voted, chosen my career path and had the self-esteem and tools to stick with it.

I asked her to tell me about when she started working with Javier’s mother’s family. The distant past was entirely clear in her head. She started working when she was nine.

“Hang on, I thought you started when you were thirteen?”

“No, no, nine or ten. I was just a chiquilla. My father was dead, from cancer, and my mother couldn’t cope. There were seven older ones and there was another after me even younger. So I went to make beds and fold washing.”

Soon she was ironing, cooking simple meals and cleaning. Later she would take the children to school in the morning (never going there herself) and finish by ironing until eleven at night. She was the one the children went to when they were sick. She was the one who would whip them up egg and potato. She was the one who would calm them from their bad dreams at night.

La Tata would was born in the 1920’s into the poverty of the vast Spanish working class. Later there had been Civil War and later forty years of post-war oppression. In the 1940s, the famous bullfighter Manolete, at the age of about 28, was keen to retire. He argued that he had already earned more than five generations of his family ever had.  I can only imagine how these things can shape the psyche of a nation and generations of people. But I see their fruits around me in Spain today. I don’t think La Tata would even know what the blues, let alone post-exhibition blues, were.

La Tata watches Blanca play with her animals.

“What beautiful eyes she has. So large and dark in that white little face. Ay chiquilla, que guapa eres.”

  1. Chiquilla (chi-ki-ja)  -chica  = Little girl
  2. “Ay chiquilla, que guapa eres.” = “Ay, Little one, how beautiful you are.”
  3. Cafelito (ka-fe-lee-toe)= Well, if you can’t work that one out….

Image credit: Emma Pratt. Street Art in Neukölln, Berlin, August 2014: We suspect, sadly, that Karlo the Cat came to a rather unhappy end here.

Emma Pratt