Our Earliest Imaginings

Our formative years soak into our bones; and we carry narratives about our past that help us make meaning in the present.

The stories we tell ourselves are, by nature, subjective and powerful. What are your earliest memories of the arts? Did you grow up actively immersed in arts, or did they seep in organically? Were you a solitary dreamer who heard the muse calling out through cracks in the streets, in the pages of books or the whispers of nature? Did the arts feel fenced off and foreign, or integral and intrinsic?

Adaptive, protective, destructive or expansive, like all the best movie plots, I love my narratives multilayered and complex, with unforeseen twists revealed at the end that upend assumptions or spiral us back to our beginnings. Stories around our vocation and family of origin are especially rich territory for this, and as an artist with a penchant for depth psychology and shadow work, revisiting these stories through the passing of years yields interesting spaces for growth as I discover new chapters, and read old ones with new eyes.

When I was tiny, around 4 years old, a young Art Teacher came to stay with my family. The place she had been living had become dangerous, she reached out to a Baptist church in Mackay for safe refuge and my parents offered her a room in our home at Far Beach.

But I was oblivious to this part of the story back then. Indeed I really only remember two things about her yet she cast a mythical figure across my childhood and across the years I sometimes think back to her legacy as sowing the earliest seeds in my creative journey.  

The strongest impression she left was actually a tangible object – a Beautiful Bowl she’d created in clay that nestled upon the humming fridge in our little orange kitchen for many years, long after she had gone. Often I’d climb up, and not quite able to see over the edges, my tiny hands would scope its organic curves feeling for treasures amongst eclectic kitchen detritus: keys and coins, biro’s and hair ties. My only other memory was an unusual first name I’d never heard since.

I grew up and now it is my own studio filled with all sorts of cryptic treasures; archetypal imagery rich with symbolism and sculptures imbued with sensual forms. Often conceptual and contemporary, my practice seems so different from anything I grew up around, and the creative fire within me sometimes seems as if it was sparked from the ether, or seeped up like duende from the depths. My parents didn’t make music or art, we didn’t go to galleries or theatre and there were no literary classics on our small bookshelf*, so it is temping to believe a narrative where the presence of the Art Teacher was one of only few moments where the arts burst into my childhood. It’s an understandable perception, particularly when so much contemporary culture surrounding me as I grew up was censored, even burnt, and my own creations thought blasphemous by those anxious over new and unfamiliar expression, but that’s not quite how things unfolded. Yes, the culture was conservative, but that that doesn’t mean it was devoid of creativity – in truth the expressive arts were always there, flickering, smouldering, sometimes ablaze, throughout my early years, because art is about creative human expression, and that spark is an intrinsic part of being alive.

Of course our perceptions and expressions of art will be shaped by the myriad of ideas that swirl about culture and context, high art and pop culture, originality and communal expression and, for some of us, contested and fraught boundaries between the secular and the sacred. But as an adult I find it interesting to tease out the stories of my past and, like searching fingers in the artists fridge bowl, delight in finding the sparks that flesh out my heritage and recreate my narrative.

Though transfixed by the beautiful catholic statuary I’d occasionally glimpsed in Mater Hospital wards, growing up Baptist in regional Australia, traditional religious iconography was otherwise rare. Yet, our subculture had its own particular expression of symbol and spirit.  Music was an intrinsic part these years and through hymns and song I knew its power to evoke deepest emotions. My sister and I sang items for the congregation and I began music lessons early, Dad dreaming someday I might play organ in church. Thanks to their love of old school gospel, we got decent doses of Johnny Cash and Elvis, and curiously, through gospel band Country Way touring regional Australia on the same circuit, somehow legendary country guitarist Barry Thornton ended up staying with our family as well. Like their Bible, my parents took Christian hospitality literally too.

It must have been around this time of the Art Teacher that my parents bought a couple of paintings by Mackay artist Clem Forbes; his traditional landscapes revealed by scraping polymer pigment back to board adorned the lounge room between green and orange curtains. Amidst their simple forms, my mother delighted in pointing out a paradolic creature hiding under a log in the Australian bush in the same way we would spend hours outside finding shapes in clouds.

Eungella (?) Clem Forbes circa 1975

And while we didn’t have stained glass in our simple wooden chapel, like medieval peasants in times past, before I could read I’d imbue religious stories through imagery – in rhythmic line drawings scattered throughout Good News Bible text, and luminous illustrations of Etta DeGering storybooks transporting me to halcyon gardens and hypnotic lakes where creamy moonlight streamed across indigo waters after Jesus calmed a storm.

As I write this now, more impressions rush in, colours and sounds, textures and scents; Sunday school craft tables filled with rusty scissors and bottles of glue, an adored vinyl apron – a beloved Christmas gift I wore so proudly, the scent of stenographed handouts and old ladies singing, guys strumming guitars and tambourines ringing. Fat waxy crayons in old Biscuit tins, these truly were a few of my favourite things.

I describe myself now as a Recovering Baptist with affectionate irony.  I’m a wanderer and wonderer, always destined to traverse her own road. The curious ones born with a penchant for symbolic exploration inevitably push up again the constraints of fundamentalism sooner or later. And while so much of my early years were more Footloose than Flashdance, art, music and spirituality remain integral aspects in my life and I am grateful for all the early sparks of creativity that kindled this child’s imagination.

And, now looking back what other sparks might have been glowing in the embers unseen until now ? I could write a book, but for now, here are some new pages to the stories above.

For five decades those Clem Forbes paintings have hung on my parents walls, following them from Mackay to Rockhampton, Townsville and now retired, to Peregian Springs. I recently discovered he is fondly remembered as an influential figure in Mackay’s fledgling art scene, a passionate advocate of the arts and environment, whose painting and teaching inspired a generation and whose long held vision for a Public Art Gallery came to fruition just years after he passed. In 2004 Mackay ArtSpace’s career retrospective Clem Forbes – Image Maker paid homage to his contribution to the arts. Reading the catalogue, not only was the project overseen by Robert Heather an old colleague from my casual days at Cairns Art Gallery, but it seems likely our green Forbes painting was of Eungella National Park. Eungella was a mythical place, filled with pythons and platypus, and once, a church hosted “Blue Breakfast’ of blue eggs and toast – indelible imagery that formed a visual backdrop to my childhood.

I found copies of the DeGerring books at a school fete and looked up the artist. Robert Berran -Americana film, fiction and religious illustrator who had served as a medic under General Patton in World War Two. A technically gifted artist, Berren liked his men rugged, his women beautiful and his Jesus’ blonde. God Bless America indeed.

As for those minimalist line drawings in the Good News Bible (the KJV only phase would came later) -they were created by a Swiss artist who had once served in the refugee camps of the same war. With billions of her images printed on rice paper across the globe some suggest Annie Vollotton is the most published female illustrator in history, yet I’ve never heard her name until now.  (Does anyone know if this holds up?)

I sometimes wonder what happened to the Art Teacher and the Beautiful Bowl, that both disappeared about 5 fridges ago. I grew up to create clay bowls of my own – sublime vessels inspired by wombs; mysterious spaces of gestation, transformation and renewal simultaneously ethereal and deeply grounded. If you run hands inside them, sometimes treasures lie within their curves as well. I paint moons too, though with hints of blood and shadow –  more Kate Bush than American General – as I explore the divine feminine aspects of the sacred and sublime. .

I love spiralling, circuitous paths that unfold across our lifetimes; the patterns that re-emerge and themes that reveal themselves across time through repetition and synchronicity, piquing our curiously, leading us on, beckoning us to dive deep.

tanja stark

I am at home in my beautiful art studio out in the Brisbane bush, and adore long days of solitude, filled with podcasts and pondering, interspersed with bursts of wild woman dancing… just because I can. Yet with covid ending the creative events I used to curate, so much real life migrating to zoom, and a few health issues, I’ve been feeling more isolated from the rhythms of community. So when I spotted a story about a little wooden chapel that has been turned into a community art gallery at a Uniting Church nearby, I was intrigued and resolved to explore more. And there, at the very end of the piece was a phone number of the Minister, a name I first heard when I was Four.

Dona, the Art Teacher had reappeared…and this time the safe sacred space was hers.

4 thoughts on “Our Earliest Imaginings

  1. Tanja, I share your interest in Jung, shadow work and all things esoteric. I love your art and writing!

  2. Thanks, Tanja, for sharing this insightful piece. I enjoyed reading about your own art journey and how our paths are intrinsically anchored in, and indeed, largely formed by our past experiences.

  3. Thanks, Tanja, for sharing this insightful and beautifully written piece. I enjoyed reading about your own art journey and how our paths are intrinsically linked, and indeed, largely formed by our past experiences. I found it very relatable albeit different.

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