On acknowledging (and thanking) your influences

Dock

I talked a little earlier about how useful it can be to understand where (and who) I draw your influences from. But I think it’s also valuable to take the time to thank those who have helped me, and contributed positively towards my outlook on life. I’ve found that very often these people weren’t aware that I took note when they explained their philosophies, or complimented their boyfriends kindness, or ranted capably about the insidious impacts of lawyers on societies.

One of the most influential women in my life, especially early on, was my grandmother Zoe. My father’s mother grew up in a rural environment, on the Western edge of New Zealand, spearing flounder in rivers, and luring eels with rotten eggs. I think the tomboy side of her nature made her easier for her grandsons to relate to. It also meant that she believed in boys being boys, and if you were the younger sister to two boisterous elder brothers, she believed in girls being boys too. Much to my sister’s glee.

Zoe encouraged adventures, from hunting for freshwater crayfish in streams, to tracking down and harvesting aquatic life in tide pools. I can’t remember if she actually encouraged us kids to set more and more elaborate traps, for the birds that (for 360 days of the year) dwelt peacefully in her beautiful gardens. No doubt she figured that the blackbirds faced little chance of imminent extinction, despite beer crates balanced atop pencils, tied to 40 yards of string, held by the twitching hands of excited children.

Zoe also travelled. She spent time in Europe with my Uncle Brian, back in the days when him and his hippy mates used to get mistaken for the Bee Gees. No doubt a more exciting prospect in the 1970s than it would be today. When she returned, she was armed with tales of grand squares, enormous galleries, and statues taller than giants. She had a way of explaining Paris that excited even my eight year old mind. Her gentle enthusiasm for all she’d seen no doubt contributed to my sister and my nomadic aspirations.

I’m not sure if her love of painting came before or after her visits to the great galleries of Italy and France, but as long as I remember, she encouraged our fledgling artistic talents. She had a room full of easels and canvas, and though we tended to be let loose with water colours and charcoal, occasionally I got to dabble with the rich smelling, sumptuously coloured oil paints. She explained to me what she’d learnt in her latest art classes, and after a while it wasn’t as a grandchild, but as a fellow artist.

As importantly as any of this though, and probably the one lesson I try to value above all others, was that she never judged us. She didn’t try to push us grandchildren in a particular direction, and she was supportive of whichever goals and dreams I chose to share with her. When I went through difficult things much later in life, she took the time to let me know she was thinking of me, and she didn’t express disappointment. She was the only person that still sent me letters, which somehow found their way to me in far off lands. And she was one of the only people to whom I wrote them, when I thought I had tales which she’d enjoy.

I took Francoise with me to visit her a few weeks ago. She was smaller and more frail than I remembered, but told stories of her past with a twinkle in her eye. And she was as ever, interested and engaged in our own tales, especially of travel. I told her how much we’d enjoyed our time with her as young children, and how much she taught me about art. I told her that despite all my cooking experience I’d never dared try to replicate her famous banana pancakes, for fear of failure.

Zoe passed away on Sunday. One of her most important art lessons was around distancing yourself from your subject. If I was struggling to draw from a photo, she showed me I could take the picture and invert it. You could then forget about trying to draw an elephant or a unicorn, and instead concentrate on drawing the shapes. In trying to come to terms with her death, I’ve found it easiest to do something similar. I’ve turned my sorrow on its head, and I’m starting to draw from the shapes that form it.

I think I’ll look out for over ripe bananas when I go shopping tomorrow.

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