Sunday, April 30, 2017

Return To Self

I set up the tripod at the edge of my neighbour's pool, flipped the timer on my digital camera and walked to the deep end. I dove in as the shutter sounded and swam the length underwater. Surfaced, stepped out of the pool, checked the shot. Repeated the process. Over and over. Some photographs are of me mid air, others are of the splash as my body entered the water.

Dripping wet, I carried the tripod (with camera still attached) to the backyard of my mother's house. There, I stripped off my bikini, flipped the timer on my camera and lay on a plastic banana lounge in front of overgrown trees, a raised vegetable garden bed and oversized pots of herbs. I let myself linger in the midday sun, got up to re-set the timer again, lay down slowly – repeating the succession of movements until they formed a rhythm.

I wasn't thinking of composition or light or what might make a good photograph. I thought about using my body as a life model for painting again; of movements I want to draw; of capturing the moments when I am relaxed and unselfconscious, in motion or sunbathing naked alone in the afternoons; of David Hockney's photo collages and swimming pool paintings and the way time is captured differently in photographs and paintings. Then I turned the camera off and lay down again, focussing only on the sensation of warmth and water evaporating from my bare skin.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Girl Friend

On a visit to my childhood friend, Olivia, she gave me a small stack of letters. They were my sporadic correspondence to her from when I was around eleven years old to fifteen or sixteen. I stopped writing when life became too tumultuous for me to explain. Here are two of them – a glimpse into who I was (in private, girlish conversation) and a friendship that has remained. Click each letter for a larger version.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Remembering I Can Swim

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"...The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about." David Foster Wallace, Kenyon Commencement Address, 21 May, 2005.

For the last few days I've been laid low with an inflammation in my abdomen. The pain was so acute it made me faint. My GP prescribed a course of antibiotics and told me to come back if the pain didn't go away. I asked what would happen if it didn't and he said, "Surgery."

I panicked at the thought of losing more time to illness. But the antibiotics are working and the pain is gradually subsiding. Mostly, I slept. When awake I ran small errands, hung out with my family, told myself it would be ok. And it is ok.

Normalcy is still foreign to me. I am re-learning that most problems are small and easily resolved; most illnesses are minor and fleeting. I guess this is what life feels like after surviving a perfect storm and learning to manage a complex psychological condition: it takes a while to trust that that the next wave won't be a violent wipeout after all. And in the unlikely event that it is, I've proven I can make it through anyway.

Above: Walking before sunset at Collaroy Beach, Sydney, 2017.

Friday, April 07, 2017

The Evolution of Dooney Pink

When I first used pink in my art I hated the colour. I chose it for over-the-top girlishness, seduction and as a lewd reference to 'pink bits' (slang for female genitalia). I preferred the hottest, brightest, most intense shades – for paint and panties. Back then, my favourite was Elsa Schiaparelli's Shocking Pink. I liked the idea of the colour more than the colour itself.

Over the years, pink became a signature colour in my work. I refined it in 2008, adding white and a little yellow. I had grown tired of the purely conceptual. I wanted to look at the colour and feel pleasure. To me, at least, the current version of Dooney Pink is sensual and gentle:

Last time I saw my framer, she asked if I knew about Baker-Miller Pink (below). She said it reminded her of mine. I looked it up when I got home. I was amused to discover it's close to the pink I mixed for myself and was made with a similar intention – to create a pleasant feeling. Baker-Miller Pink was named by Alexander Schauss in the late 60s. He claimed the colour reduced hostile, violent or aggressive behavior. In the early 70s it was used to paint several prison and psychiatric facilities with the hope that it might soothe inmates' behaviour. Early results were positive but later results indicated an increase in violence. A report in 1998, titled The Effects of Baker-Miller Pink on Biological, Physical and Cognitive Behaviour, revealed conflicting results. Personally, it reminds me of musk sticks; a sickly sweet confection made of sugar, gelatine and musk oil flavour.
The idea of being imprisoned in a room painted in either pink makes me feel nauseous. I don't have much interest or faith in colour psychology these days. And yet I still find the very particular shade I mixed for Dooney Pink pleasing – and pleasurable.

Top: Self-portrait in pink panties, video study for my Lake Eyre series.
Dooney Pink, since around 2008.
Baker-Miller Pink.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

In Memory of Sighthounds

My whippet passed away last year. So did his brother – my father's dog. They were each seventeen, two more years than the breed is supposed to live.

They died several months apart but in the same way. Each came to me, weak and seeking affection. After watching my father die I can recognise the signs of a body shutting down. I let them sleep in my room and hand-fed them little balls of mince. Removed their collars, petted them for hours at a time. Carried them outside to pee. When they became too weak to eat anymore I called our vet, Gillian. She came to my mother's house to euthanise them. Each died peacefully in my lap while I stroked their sleek fur and held back my tears until they were gone.

Whippets were my father's choice of dog, long before either of us knew that artists favoured them. He trained these two. They still remembered the odd ways he spoiled them, like letting them eat the last piece of banana. After they died another trace of my father was gone. But I am thankful for the time I had with them and the comfort they gave me.

When Gillian retired recently I drew our whippets for her. I sketched from a photo, fast, so I could finish before I started to cry. Then I delivered it by hand to her surgery. Gillian knew the link between the whippets and my father – and I know they lived so long because of her care. Drawing them as a gift seemed like the most meaningful way I could thank her.

Cairo and Jim, 1999 - 2016. Lead pencil on watercolour paper.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Round Trip

A few weeks ago I decided it was time to go back into the world – specifically, my world. I booked a one-way train ticket to Sydney for $66, made three cotton jersey dresses to wear, packed a backpack, arranged to stay with an old friend of my mother's, J., and left a couple of days later. I haven't travelled on such a tight budget since I was a student.

In Sydney I had coffee with Patrick Gallagher, chairman of Allen & Unwin. I hung out with J. for the next day before catching a night train to Melbourne. There, I stayed with another friend of my mothers, N., for around a week. I had lunch (and, on another day, coffee) with Lord Mayor of Melbourne, Robert Doyle – together, we created my first public artwork, Ten Dicta For Young Women Who Are Artists. I also met two collectors of my work in person for the first time; had lunch with my old friend, gallerist Andy Dinan (and saw her purpose-built space MARS – which I think of as a new model for the bricks-and-mortar commercial gallery); visited Cameron Menzies at the South Yarra office of Menzies Art Brands; briefly met Menzies' Head of Art, Tim Abdullah, in person for the first time; had coffee with journalist Chris Johnston (who has previously written major features on my work – and me – for The Age); went to the opening of a new gallery space for emerging artists; had tea with a print-maker; and so on. In between appointments I wandered through The National Gallery of Victoria's Ian Potter Centre and Australian Centre for Moving Image.

I was surprised by how easily I fit back into the life I had before. It feels good. I'm also thankful to be welcomed back with such warmth and interest. I didn't want to leave – there are many more people in both cities with whom I want to reconnect. But I had art to make and new plans for the future to figure out.

: The only graffiti on
Ten Dicta For Young Women Who Are Artists, 2013 – a love heart scratched around the word 'woman'.

: Self in (home-made) blue dress, reflected in artwork by Jason Sims.

Thursday, March 23, 2017


Long ago I wrote a blog entry, Solitude, about becoming anti-social and hermitic. Back then I often quoted Jean-Paul Sartre: Hell is other people. It's a line from his existentialist play, No Exit, which I revisited recently. The characters are damned souls locked in a room together in hell. There are no instruments of torture. Their hell is each other – their grating personalities and complicated histories.

Life can be like that. The hell of other people's company. We're not locked in a room together for eternity. But we are alive at the same time as each other, which is almost the same thing. A life-sentence of sorts.

I like connecting remotely by making art and writing. When I die, I hope others find some connection with what I leave behind. It's less complicated than dealing with other people. In the end, though, it's a lesser experience of life. Now that managing my mind doesn't take up most of my tolerance, I want to reconnect in person again.

It has been strange to return to the world while having a public archive of my complicated past. For a long time I wanted to start over with a clean slate. I thought about erasing all my writing – words are more specifically revealing than art. But I couldn't bring myself to destroy any more of my work. Besides, it wouldn't change my temperament or history. Eventually I thought, fuck it, this is who I am. We all have varying degrees of temperamental flaws and complicated pasts. And if we didn't start out that way we earn both through the experience of living.

The only solution I could find is the same conclusion as Sartre's characters in No Exit. To accept the complications of the human condition and get on with it. The final line of the play is
Eh bien, continuons – eh well, let's continue.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Constant Gardener

I sit across from my psychiatrist in his office, staring at the painting of the Indian garden. It hangs behind him, above his head. Long ago I asked if he placed it there for patients to look at and he said yes. I often wonder if it is special to him, or of importance in South India. But I don't question him further.

We have been talking like old friends but only about me: about my career; new art; my recent trip to Sydney and Melbourne to begin re-connecting with the world (my world) again. I am not here because anything is wrong. I am checking that my approach is sound and sustainable. Telling him about my plans. Asking for his opinion. We talk about my personal life and being open to connecting with others. About letting it happen instead of always blocking. I tell him I am quietly confident and a little scared. He says some anxiety is natural, he would be concerned by its absence. But he expects my confidence and happiness to grow. 

My attention returns to the garden. The painting has been a sanctuary for my mind over the last five years. It feels real to me. As if I have walked underneath the delicate golden arches, inhaled the scent of roses and jasmine, studied unfamiliar orchids. This is where I have been all that time I was away – in this exquisitely beautiful garden where it is always early summer. It is the place where my psychiatrist and I delved into and then reconstructed my damaged psyche. We walked through it together, confronting my troubled past. I sobbed into the grass as my broken heart healed. While I was lost in the painting, my mind was tended diligently by psychiatric nurses and staff at the private psychiatric hospital. Now, I know how to care for it myself.

I try to explain to my psychiatrist what the world is like to me now. Without the constant, exhausting struggle of inner turmoil and intense suicidal longing that came in my mid teens and stayed until a year or two ago. Everything is better than I thought. I keep staring at the painting and it occurs to me that the way I feel when I am in the world now is the same way I used to feel when I was inside the painting. Like I belong. Like everything is going to be ok.

He tells me we don't need to have these appointments anymore. If I ever want to rest for a couple of days I can return to the hospital. He doesn't expect it to happen, but it's always there for me. He does not have to say that he is there for me if I need him. I know.

I look at my psychiatrist's face and into his dark brown eyes. I realise he must have worked to a vision, with an understanding of how it would all come together: making a space for me to heal; re-planting the garden of my mind without destroying its wilderness, showing me how to tend it, how to both live inside my mind and in the world again. I think I finally get the companionable bond between us that is unrelated to our roles of doctor and patient. What we have done together – under his guidance – is similar to creating a major artwork. The process was a complex combination of experience, intuition, experiment, re-arranging, crafting and constantly refining. Except the result is not a garden or an artwork or an objet de art. It is me. Put back together again so I can live happily – and enjoy using the instrument I care about most: my mind.

Thank you, Dr. Chinna Samy. And thank you to all the staff (past and present) at Pine Rivers Private Hospital.

This is my last entry about my mental health. From now on I will maintain it in private – the public chapter is closed.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Fine Motor Skills Test, Done!

The recovery of my fine motor skills has been measured in thin lines – black gouache stroked delicately onto paper using an exra fine brush.

My linework is faster and more precise than when I started this piece six months ago. I resumed work on it this month. To my surprise, it took less than a week to finish.

I was terrified that I may never be able to use my hands in the same way again. But it seems everything will be ok.

You can see earlier progress photographs at Fine Motor Skills, Test One and Fine Motor Skills, Test Two
(click images to see a larger version).

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Grab Your Future (Together)

At the end of last year I gifted several Grab Your future By The Pussy! posters to women artists as a gesture of solidarity. I sent one to Carol-Anne McFarlane, a young artist in Florida, USA. We met (virtually) after she heard my interview with artist John T. Unger, titled Success outside the art system, a conversation with Hazel Dooney, a Dangerous Career Babe, on Art Heroes Radio.

In response, Carol-Anne sent me a hand written card on personalised paper, a copy of her first sketchbook and photos of my poster alongside her work in her studio. I was touched – and struck by how well our work goes together. You can see more of Carol-Anne's work at

Monday, February 06, 2017

PORNO Reinterpreted

Photograph of Zhitian Zhang by Zhitian Zhang, wearing the t-shirt from my PORNO exhibition in 2008. It was given to him recently by a stranger after he admired the t-shirt she was wearing – she is V., a Melbourne-based collector of my work. I love random acts of kindness and generosity. And I love the idea of men and women of different ages and backgrounds walking around (and doing cool photoshoots) in my PORNO tee.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

The Little Things

After I finished Study for Refined Face, Career Babe series (previous post), I made a card using the palette of colours that I custom-mixed for the artwork. I folded the watercolour paper in half and sewed watermarked writing paper inside. Then I wrote to J – to whom the artwork will be given – about her painting and my Career Babe series. On the last page I signed my name and left a space for CM, the commissioning collector, to sign his. The card and a label for the back of the frame were included with the artwork when it was sent overseas.

Study for Refined Face

A collector from Los Angeles emailed a few weeks ago. He has one of my very early enamels and wanted to give one of my works to a woman who's played a significant role in his career. I suggested Study for Refined Face, Career Babe series and emailed a small selection of digital studies with varying colours. We talked more about the artwork and the woman to whom he's giving it, then chose the final version together. I painted it in gouache on paper over the next week. Some days I worked in the air-conditioned conference room at the industrial facility. When it wasn't too humid, I worked at home in my bedroom-study-studio.

Every few days, I emailed progress photographs to the commissioning collector. I think of it as a virtual studio visit. I've included around a third of them below. When the artwork was finished I wrapped it in archival tissue, flat-packed it in corrugated plastic and send it by courier from Australia to Califonia. It arrived in a few days.

After production issues with the last of my large enamels and health problems that took a long time to resolve it was an extraordinary relief – and pleasure – to once again be able to create an artwork, deliver it on schedule and make it an enjoyable, meaningful process for everyone involved.