By Sally Nansen
A shadow hovers in the wings and we are nervous and skittish on this stage. A few days ago in Bunnings a woman asked me tensely to remember to keep (what was then) the designated 1.5 metres distance from her while we both gazed at the swiftly disappearing winter seed packets. The following day, again while I was wonderingly assessing the depleted seed stock aisle, another woman rebuked me as I at last reached at some seeds for a future spring. "None of us will be here in spring," she said aggressively, unhappily.
As the granddaughter of a Jewish man who fled the Holocaust, I was suckled on the proverb, "Remember history and lose an eye. Forget history and lose both eyes." My life has been spent in an odd contrivance of time travel, always realising the sober significance of past events to illuminate, warn and define present generations. In cheerful times, my position can rattle those who would enjoy a lighter experience of life: "Why do you want to think about that? It's in the past." Perhaps to them I do appear like the one-eyed Cyclops; unbidden, worrying and strange.
But 'remembering history,' as with all experiences of the human condition, has its own graces to bestow. There is the oft-marginalised wisdom that comes in learning from the past. And, in contrast to the comment of my distressed seed compatriot above, there is also hope.
In recent years this hope has been most clear to me through the company of deceased artists: those I tenderly call, "My dear dead." I keep good company with these fine old souls, poetically at least, because I find their stories nourish and hold me. As a less experienced artist, I stumble after the ephemeral track left behind from their steps, trusting that it will give guidance. I have learnt that the past is only a lonely landscape for a time traveller until we realize we are not alone.
In the present situation my thoughts again turn to these artists and how they continued doing their art during really epic world events: How the Melbourne artists, Joy Hester, Sidney Nolan, John Perceval, Albert Tucker and Arthur Boyd kept drawing and painting between the interventions, deprivations and upsets of the Second World War. I think of Ukrainian-born artist, Sonia Delaunay, and how she creatively and doggedly adapted to the political, economic and social conditions of a string of staggering world events that affected her personally: The First World War, the Russian Revolution, the 1930's Depression and Nazi Germany. How, to keep her art, and life, going she just kept adapting: dead end, turn around, find another path, go down there, fall down, get up again, try this path now...
This is what the dead artists tell me: Life and art can be lived out, focused and small, before the heavy backdrop of world events. It can and it will. The inquiries of life - of art, the tending of these precious personal seeds, can go on.
Another grace offered by history is the position of retrospect. Standing thus we see the stunning arc of a person's life, and in the case of the artists, their life's work. In the end it is their art that endures, not the world events that may have defined it.
This too shall pass.
Don't be distracted. Don't be afraid. Keep making the art.
Sally Nansen is a writer and artist in Melbourne. She was the winner of the Australian Womankind's Photography Prize, Issue 5, 2015.
Painting by Sonia Delaunay, 1914, Musée National d'Art Moderne
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