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Joshua Yeldham surrenders to nature
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Joshua Yeldham surrenders to nature
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Joshua Yeldham surrenders to nature
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Conversations
12 September 2017

Joshua Yeldham surrenders to nature

Interview by Nathan Scolaro
Photography by Toby Burrows

Nathan Scolaro on Joshua Yeldham

It can be easy to get locked into a fixed way of seeing the world, to think we’ve got a handle on what it means to love, be creative or be kind. We tend to throw these words around like we’ve mastered them, assuming that everyone understands them the way we do—until you meet someone like Joshua Yeldham, who offers a perspective that is so completely foreign that your mind is opened and your sense of the world is altered forever. This conversation did that for me. 

Joshua has been immersed in a place of deep curiosity and attention since early on in life, seeing the world through a mystical, almost spiritual lens. His physical journey has taken him from suburban Sydney to the Swiss alps, Venezuela to Rhode Island, and from the Australian desert to settle in the Hawkesbury River—an idyll of creeks, mangroves and rock faces north of Sydney where he now lives with his wife Jo and two children, Indigo and Jude. His inner journey has seen him emerge from a childhood being bullied for his dyslexia to a young adulthood of wild exploration, which fired his creative spirit and led him to make the Emmy award-winning film Frailejón about his encounters with a hermit in the mountains of Venezuela.

Throughout his twenties, Joshua sought to build a bridge between himself and the landscapes he encountered. He found expansiveness in solitude, spending much of his time in the Australian outback, where he started to draw and paint his deepening connection to nature. So much of Joshua’s work is created in the spirit of gratitude and devotion. When he was told he couldn’t have children, he began creating an entire series of owls, believing they were responsible for his infertility. He and Jo then fell pregnant and the owls became important totems, attracting the interest of hundreds of buyers who hoped they would help them conceive.

Joshua is now one of Australia’s most acclaimed and sought-after artists, with work spanning photography, painting and sculpture. Each of his creations is layered with highly intricate pattern-work and etchings, reflecting the layers of story and mythology that emerge when we pay attention to the natural environment. His sensitivity, his ability to tune into the subtleties of the world around him is deeply inspiring. I leave our chat feeling liberated at all the possibility that exists around us to grow in awareness and form richer connections with the land, ourselves and those we love.

This story originally ran in issue #48 of Dumbo Feather

I loved the book so much, the journal for your daughter Indi. It’s bursting with love and joy and creativity—the paintings, the poetry, the photography, the way the story is told through them, it’s really moving. And I guess I wanted to know how your creative spirit has evolved over the years, from before having children, because you have two now—your son Jude also, to after.

I think that as a creative person in the early days I had that privilege of being self-obsessed, where everything was about my creation. And when you’re young, you’re able to dedicate endless amounts of time to your own quest, to your art, to really discover your potential. And when I fell in love, deeply in love with Jo, we wanted to have children. Then I was told I couldn’t have kids, that I wasn’t fertile, and the ball really came tumbling to a halt. Suddenly fertility became the most important thing. And

This story originally ran in issue #48 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #48 of Dumbo Feather

painting the creation became the vehicle for me to cope with being told I couldn’t have kids.

That went on for a couple of months. Lots and lots of creation paintings. Then new hope emerged with another doctor that there was the potential I could have children. While that was going on, I started to make devotional art, and I started to do things with a sense of spiritual hope, or with spiritual aspiration to survive what was really that period.

When Indi was born my whole career changed because I had an opportunity to change the history books and be the first man in my lineage, the first father in my lineage, to actually work and live with my children closely and intimately. As far as I know all the men in my father’s family have gone away to work and only have short, pure moments with their children. And

I wanted to get on the ground with my kids, feel them, taste them, and be as much involved in their imaginings as they, I hope, are involved in mine.

So unlike a lot of artists that have isolated themselves from children: “Never come to my studio when I’m working, don’t disrupt me” kind of attitude, I wanted them to be all in. For some artists, if someone disturbs them they feel they’ve lost that moment and they’ve lost that creativity. And at the start it was hard for me, but

I had to realise that even if a toddler disturbs me in my studio, the creativity would keep coming back.

I wanted that kind of energetic relationship with creation. So that took a little while, and my children grew up on the floor of the studio. And I learned to deal with distraction. Often it felt like I was stealing moments to paint. And in stealing moments I had to upgrade my technology and become a much more accurate archer. I became more able to create anywhere, at any time. Still with frustration, but I had my children with me by my legs. As they grew up, they gained power by creating worlds that I had come into and they claimed for themselves. And then Indi, whose words are hugely powerful for me—she probably is in my top three people to give feedback on all my work—she started to be a commentator in this world.

What kind of commentary did she give you?

Well, I had a painting that was in the Wynne Prize a couple of years ago because of her. So I thought it was complete, and she came in and said: “Dad, Dad, you’ve slacked off on the sky.” And I said, “What are you saying?” She said, “I know you’re tired, so you’re just telling yourself it’s done. But it’s only one layer, you’ve got to carve it.” And the thought of me carving it was exhausting. There’s no way I could carve further that day. And she went to bed. And that night I just knew she had set me up. I went down and redrafted through the night. And when she woke up in the morning I said, “Better go and check.” And she took a look, came back out and said, “It’s finished.”

[Laughs]. Oh gorgeous. What is the perspective that she brings, do you think? That children bring to art?

Firstly, I think they’re observers. Indi is certainly an observer of me. For 12 years she’s just watched me, and I think she’s learned about charm. Because

what Jo and I raised our kids to be interested in is that there’s charm going on around us. And if we are subtle, we feel it. And then we see new vitality.

And from vitality comes evolution—incredible evolution in ourselves. So Indi saw my painting, and she saw vitality in the tree. And she could detect that my vitality stopped at the skyline and I hadn’t completed it.

Very interesting.

And I think that knowledge, that awareness of vitality informs everything in life, including how we find a life partner. So even though she wouldn’t say those words, Indi’s been able to see where charm is around her, she’s able to see where the trickery is. And these are really great skills that I don’t think are very often taught to our kids.

No. And subtlety is something I’m discovering to be very powerful in life also. Being sensitive and listening to the moment. But I think many of us as adults are out of touch with that. How do you tune into the subtlety you’re talking about?

If we think about the owl. The owl is able to treat stillness as currency. So it trains to be still, which is what you have to do in nature, because in stillness you can read stories and patterns into the landscape. And you’ve got to see storylines so that you’re more able to see your own storyline, really.

So subtlety is being aware that you are actually living in a story. From that awareness of story, and interpretation, we learn new skills, and we can start to go back a few pages and rewrite the stories if need be.

And this is an ancient knowledge that has evolved, even back to the basic knowledge in India, over four, five thousand years ago: that ability to rewrite ourselves. Once we tune into the stories, and have an awareness of us in them, we can start to interpret the stories differently, or rewrite them.

It’s such an incredible notion, that we can rewrite ourselves by rewriting our stories. What is it about nature that lets use tune into the subtlety and the stories we are part of?

I think the word “communing” is very beautiful. That we “commune.” And I think that we have higher intelligent conversations with ourselves in nature. Nature opens up our creativity and higher ground.

If we look at the coconut: the outer husk is the roughest storyline of life, it’s the challenges and the ups and downs, the constant chattering that goes on in our minds, it’s the running out of petrol or paying insurance. Our real work is inside the coconut. In that milk of the coconut is our higher consciousness, our pure imaginings or writings or dancings. And for me the question is how do we release our awareness on the surface of the coconut and how do we absorb the succulent part that is milk inside the coconut. And I think this is what nature can do for us, it can make us succulent. It can make us flexible. And the great word that comes to me now is “sensual.” And so even you and I right now, we’ve already gone to the sensual in a matter of minutes by making those vows to each other. And just the feeling I get through the computer screen is that we’re ready to go anywhere without hurting each other. Sensual means that we will explore our higher ground in a safe way.

That’s really beautiful, and I agree with you that nature is a powerful space for us to tap into our consciousness, or this deeper part of ourselves. I know this to be true. But I think in modern life we are so removed from nature, we forget or are simply not aware of its potential. I think nature isn’t a resource for a lot of people. And I just wonder how we make it more accessible I guess.

So behind you is a shelf with very orderly books and objects. Now I can see the symmetry in the way that the shelf has been neatly stacked. Right? There’s pleasure in the placing of the objects, with your books and vases, your tape deck which talks to a storyline in history, going up to a model of a building. So as you ordered that shelf, you’re feeling something and making connections, through this arrangement of objects in time and space. And in that subtlety of your shelf is storyline. And when you read into that storyline, you can discover your “sensual-ness.”

I think you’re picking up on something important here, that I make this distinction between nature and man-made when in fact everything is nature, right? This iPhone is nature, it’s a product of man and so it’s nature. The storylines are all around us.

Well the iPhone is the optimistic side of our obsession with the phone. And by the time we’re elderly we may have spent some 50-plus years in terms of hours on the phone. The optimistic side is it’s very internal that you scroll through something like Instagram, you’re not usually communing with others when you’re doing so, you’re having a reaction or experience. And

I think eventually, for more and more people, they will see charm in things like meditation because the iPhone’s teaching them to get lost in solitude within themselves.

And meditation is so powerful in that it bolsters our nerves; it rewires our nervous system, and it lets us bare witness to the storylines in our head. So my positive belief on all this is that eventually people become more accustomed to closing their eyes and hearing a higher voice in themselves—a higher consciousness. Because they’ve remove themselves from chatting so much to other people, all day every day, chatting, chatting, chatting, on that outer coconut level. The phone is teaching them to go deeper.

When you’re surfing the internet and you’re going through Google and you hop on a subject matter and then you go from looking up, you know, car mufflers to suddenly visiting Costa Rica and a whole lot of whales in a matter of seconds, it’s wonderful.

[Laughs]. I’d never thought of that! How great. So you’re an optimist, Josh? Would you describe yourself that way?

You know I have a part of that. I also have the practical cautionary perspective that’s weighing up stats about taking a risk. But as I get older and have the kids, I realise that a lot of people are making a lot of noise and we can really pare it back. Take a lot of the weight off our shoulders.

A lot of our fears have no evidence behind them, and if there's no evidence that the worst-case scenario will occur, we can stop looking for it, and return to looking for something charming.

Like we do on Instagram, we’re always swiping for the most charming things. I think we can practice that in our lives—swipe away the unnecessary fears, the irrelevant, the redundant. They no longer exist in our evolution so we can quietly and politely ask them to move on and focus on the charm.

I love this word “charm” you keep using. And in the book I really loved reading about this great sense of play and sweetness you bring to life, particularly to fatherhood. Did that come naturally to you as a father? Or were you conscious of that, of doing it differently to the way your father had, because I know he was quite removed from your life, due to how much he worked.

I think it’s a mix. You’re right in that I was conscious to parent differently, my wife wouldn’t let me do what my beautiful dad did—work, work. Before having children as I said, I just needed the studio to become the greatest painter ever. And then luckily two things happened: I realised A, I’m never going to be the greatest painter ever, because the reality doesn’t exist—you’ll be chasing tails the rest of your life if you play that game. The second part was that I fell in love with a girl who I was not willing to lose this time. With other relationships, they came and went. But this time it was a marriage. A unity.

Unity is: I love you because in you, I love me. I love you and I want to marry you because I see myself in you and I love that. I love myself in you, and that, for me, is unity.

But then is that speaking to the ego? Is that a narcissistic way to pursue love and relationship?

I think it’s speaking to consciousness, to this deeper part of ourselves. To the milk of the coconut. So basically I can fall in love with someone, and I can fall in love with them because they fill desires of mine, they patch up my negativity, they dissolve pain for me. But

the love of evolution is the one where you actually love yourself through the other. And I think that sustains you through difficult times or challenges—because you’re not being a chameleon to someone else.

You’re not shape-shifting. You can wake up in the morning and feel completely whole. In earlier relationships, less matures ones, we tend to give ourselves to someone else to the point where finally we are just exhausted, we have been trying different types of personalities. We’re on the husk of the coconut. The love of evolution is where finally we’ve transcended, tasted the milk, the higher consciousness with your partner. And, you know, there, in the milk, anything is possible. Anything. Anything.

How did you and Jo meet?

So I was working as a filmmaker, this was in my twenties, and I had a good run and I got some money from the Queen. I was working on this movie out in the desert, and I came back to Sydney and met Jo at an exhibition. She was a photographer, and we had this incredible conversation. And at the end of the night, I said, “I don’t know you but please come out to the desert with me.” And she didn’t at first, but after about six weeks of me calling her from the sand dunes she finally came out.

And what was it about her that so enthralled you?

Well I think it’s partly what I said before: I was hearing myself when I spoke with her. I could hear the loving part of myself. I loved that I was loving. You start to hear it. And I told her what I was learning in the desert and I was honest with her. And she just allowed me to be me and evolve. And I think that’s the beginning of realising that this person could possibly evolve with you. When she came out to the desert she just took off into the dunes with her photography and we lived in this little Kombi van that was our home for a number of years. And I was making this film. Then the film got canned, I was so upset and exhausted by the process, and the truth of it was it wasn’t a great script. But Jo supported me so beautifully that I felt, in my sorrow, I needed to paint. So I bought reams of paper. And we were back in Sydney by this stage, but I decided to go back to the desert. Jo couldn’t come because she had to work. So I said, “I’ll go back and paint a picture for you every day.” But when I said, “I’ll paint for you, ” it was “I’ll paint for me.” And I painted. And I discovered that I felt free to explore the desert in a sensual way that when those works arrived back in Sydney, and my sisters saw them in her new gallery with my mum, and said, “Let’s put them on the wall,” it felt effortless. It felt like “wow, that’s charm.”

And I was also reading a philosopher called Gurdjieff at the time who was a very naughty, mischievous man in the 1800s. He was a charlatan and a rag-trader and an embezzler and he actually created a religious organisation that had all these followers, and still does, in New York and Paris. He had one amazing story that stayed with me where he went to a village on a horse and visited one of his colleagues who had the most rotten fish in the backyard. And this colleague apologised, he said: “I’m sorry, you can’t stay in this house, the fish is so rotten, no one will take them.” And Gurdjieff said, “Let me see them.” And he saw that the fish hadn’t been taken care of and were pickled in oil. He said, “I’ll take them. I’ll have them all.” His colleague couldn’t believe it. “Why would you take them all?” And Gurdjieff said, “I don’t know, but I feel charm in them, I feel connected to your stinky fish.” So he put them on the trailer, on his horse and cart. He crossed the mountain back into the middle of Eastern Europe, and he went through a new village and people came running out, running out. And they were Jews and they said, “Pickled herring! Pickled herring! How much for your pickled herring?” So for me, I felt I got a chance to have this exhibition, it was the pickled herring one, where the sorrow I felt about not making a movie in the desert was transformed into my first exhibition of paintings.

So you hadn’t painted before then?

No, I mean I was a child that lived in drawing. But I was so insecure, “I can’t do this.” I had never imagined that I would be able to make imagery as a form of currency.

Wow. I love this idea of the pickled herring, that we can find beauty in the neglected and give it new life.

If we think about data, and we go back to the example of the iPhone, the web, we do a search and we have data. We have data flying around us, beside us. Even this conversation at the moment, just data, it’s just information. It is then our wish to turn the data into knowledge. So what is the process that does this? Very few of us ask that question. I think if we learn that process, we become better at doing it. And one of the ways it occurs is that data turns into knowledge by consciousness activating the data. By action. Now if we don’t use our consciousness, the knowledge turns back into data. Then the next level is okay, what is wisdom? From knowledge to wisdom, what is it? It’s when higher consciousness says to the knowledge, “I wish to expediate my evolution. I wish to go faster to evolve. I wish to be stronger to evolve.” And if you activate the knowledge it becomes wisdom. So, I’m not going to lunch with you because last time I had lunch with you, you ripped into me about how I’m being idle and lazy. And I’ve had enough lunches with you to realise, from the data of your chitter chatter, that I can’t do anything in your eyes anymore. And yet, I wish to evolve further, so my wisdom says I should no longer invest my time with you, because I wished to be better, and your story of me is limiting me.

Yes, right. It’s really big thinking, this!

Well, I can give you a package now of thoughts that are just rudimentary—or we can go firing into higher thought. And people can say, you know, Yeldham is too lofty or too spiritual, but this is just me turning up in a Porsche.

[Laughs]. I also want to talk about surrender, this strong message that comes through your book. It’s the title of your book. It’s a great word. I think it’s a word that holds great capacity for us to heal and grow as human beings. But I wonder why you chose that message first of all, for your daughter.

Okay, so we know the word “surrender” as it is used during warfare, it’s always seen as bailing out. And so it had a negative connotation. We were raised never to “surrender.” My father would always say, “Give it your best shot. Do your best. Focus.” Surrender is coming from the organic world, the natural world. There’s a beautiful awareness in nature, and is best seen in the way trees communicate through a root system to each other. It’s been scientifically confirmed now that trees communicate through a fungus called “mycorrhizae.” It’s a fungus that’s on all trees, it grows around the roots of trees, and then acts like a massive net. It’s essentially the original internet of nature. It’s just a massive broadband connection where this fungus connects root system to root system. And a fungus is a conduit for communication, of nitrogen from one tree to another. And it allows trees to become aware that another tree is in need of nitrogen. The trees send nitrogen to each other, especially ones that are in need. Right? Mother trees, they’re the trees when you go to a forest you go, “Oh my God look at that tree, that is just bigger than everything.” The whole network of roots around it will be sapling smaller trees. And this plays an important role in pumping food to them so that they grow. Now in a way that’s surrender. In a way the mother tree is surrendering its own nitrogen, its own power source and giving it to the young to flourish.

When I was thinking about surrender, I was thinking about surrendering to life. We drop the expectations we have of life and let it take hold. Well, I think maybe what you’re saying is a metaphor for that, the trees letting their community life force sustain them.

You give your charm and your talent and your love to others freely and beautifully, because in the end you only have your village or your forest.

So it’s really a message of service to others.

I think so. Absolutely. Well that really is the highest high.

This book was made for love for my daughter, and it was made page by page by her creation and being in this world. But intuitively, to let her know that I love her.

And that doesn’t really mean it’s going to be a best seller, it wasn’t made like that. It was made for her. And then it attracted some attention. There’s a rule in nature that if anything’s vibrant and colourful people stop and look at it. Like bees, bees stop at a beautiful flower just loaded with pollen. You know about static charge and bees?

No.

No. So the law of nature is, be as colourful as you can, be as vibrant. And it’s about creating the right vibrations to attract magnificence back to us. So the bees are flying at such speed that static charges their wings, and it’s a positive charge. Like, scientists have worked out that they are fluttering their wings so hard that when they land on a flower to collect the pollen, they leave behind an aura of positive energy because flowers are naturally negative polarised. So there’s a negative polarity, the bee lands and turns it into a positive polarity. So, why? Because when all the hundreds of bees are flying over that one flower that the bee before lands on, they sense the positive polarity and they don’t even bother to land on it. The charge says the pollen has been taken. So they keep flying. Right?

Wow! [Laughs].

So if we’re able to create a charge that is slightly negative, but not negative like we say, “Oh he’s negative.” But “negative” in that we’re willing to embrace other people’s positivity, such as the flower is willing to embrace that bee’s positivity, then they come. Magnificence comes to you. All this beauty and charm,

even if you’re doing a shit job and you’re dealing with a shit boss, even if you accept the shit boss, you can’t remain shit. You just can’t. Nature will remove you out of it by way of someone coming to you with their positive charge.

And this is such a beautiful exchange. And the thing about creative people is that they learn to bow when the other person is positive, and then they go quiet, and then the other person bows to the person that is positive, and it’s a beautiful thing. It’s what we call collaboration. The world evolves.

So the book wasn’t originally created for publication? It was picked up by this law of nature?

Right, for a year it sat in a drawer. And then I was given a big survey show at Manly. And the curator at Manly Regional, Katherine Roberts, said to me, “Oh we’re going to make a catalogue. Do you have any ideas?” And the minute she said that I felt like the light came out of my drawer, and I said, “Well I’ve written this journal thing, can I show you what I’ve got?” And she saw it, she said, “Wow! Do you think you could expand it?” And then we developed it very quickly for that show. And it went ballistic with people wanting it and acquiring it. I then went to the Byron Bay Writer’s Festival as a guest. I was among all these great writers like Kate Grenville, and here I was, a guy who made a journal for his daughter. But the speeches I made went so well, we were in the top three of sales in the whole festival.

And what’s so interesting is that it was originally a gift for your daughter, but it turns out to be a gift for many of us.

Oh, thank you. Well this project really is just coming from love. And it’s coming from the milk in the coconut, from that deeper, richer part of ourselves. I’m highly dyslexic, you know. I never thought I’d be a writer, never thought I’d be a painter. But I went through a lot of storylines in my life which had to do with ruling things out. I could barely put a sentence together that was spelled correctly, punctuated, but now I’m able to write in a way that is my style.

A lot of what make us is learning to trust, and learning to surrender to people’s comments that aren’t always constructive. Learning to surrender and really go to the source of what drives you. What drives you to be bright?

I think there is something in that: how you had so much trouble with your writing because you were too much in your headspace. But you found it when you were in your heartspace.

Yeah, I think that’s true. I mean think about when we’re stressed, when all animals are stressed. Sea creatures tighten when they’re afraid they’re going to be eaten. Everything tightens up. And once you relax, suddenly there is all of this possibility. If we’re so stressed and so worn out, there is no space for the good ideas to come.

How do we practice staying open? I mean, it’s part of our condition that we will get anxious and close up a lot of the time. Do we have to make a conscious effort do you think to relax and make space?

I think we all have these moments in our lives where we go, “Ooh, what I just did then isn’t quite right. What I just said didn’t really come from who I am. The way I behaved to that person or that animal or that tree, that’s not sitting with me.” Now we can either then forget that we had that experience and go back to the repetition of how we are. Or we can take that moment as probably one of the greatest leaps of our lives and go, “Okay, I’m just going to sit and listen to this. I’m going around to people and telling them I’m like this. And yet I’m not. Why is that?” So we create a performance, but we must choose wisely what we wish to perform, because that storyline is our visage.

Can I take you back a bit? I want to go back to that period of your life where you were told you were infertile, and then went on to have two children. I wonder if that experience felt “miraculous” to you, because I think it would for some people, to have that news, which is devastating for someone who really wants to be a parent, and then for it to change.

“Miraculous” comes from “miracle” and I would have said “yes” when it was going on—that it was a miracle. But as I became more aware I realised that miracles are where we cannot place what happened. It’s a mystery. We can’t see the mechanics behind what’s happened. As I grew in awareness, I learned completely the mechanics of what led to my child’s creation. But I still see the marvellous aspects of the sequence. There was a sequence that occurred that I and my wife and scientists and doctors and nature and the owls all played a beautiful role in. The difference is, the miracle I can’t use again.

There’s a painting on my wall now. One part of my brain says it’s childlike, it’s worthless. And there’s another part that says, “You’ve said that before about other pictures. You’ve said that before, and look at those pictures and how they evolved into what they are today.”

So you can see the mechanics behind something coming to be. And I think it’s very important in our process to rule out the express-level ego aspects that want greatness straight away.

I wanted greatness straight away with becoming a father. I wanted to make love and have a child. But I had to break down and find another way to go up the mountain than just straight up,

I had this crazy long journey with my wife, my wife carried most of the weight on this expedition with IVF. And we had to go some unique amazing way that made me more powerfully a loving father than any other way.

What’s been the role of owls in this journey for you? Because they seem to be coming up a bit.

Yeah, so Australians have grown up with many animals and there are these myths around them. We’ve grown up with black snakes and brown snakes, and we don’t go out in the bush. If we do we have this whole theory that we could be taken out, and we have fear, fear associated with our landscape. If you go back over 150 years, trying to tame this landscape, we’ve done everything possible to chop the head off of every snake that ever went anywhere near us. Before we even tried to form any communion with these animals, we eradicated them. And that can be said about a lot of our nature: that we’ve eradicated things we’ve deemed potentially risky. In particular, our fear of fire. Bushfire. We’ve done everything we can to eradicate hundreds of bushfires, and yet it’s needed for so many of these plants to populate.

So when I was out of fire, when I was told I couldn’t have children, I needed a way to create fertility. I needed the fire. I knew that. I needed to taste the darkness of being told I couldn’t conceive. And in the process of me going very dark in my work and very broody and turmoil-y, I had a run in with an owl up river. And that owl in my creative world, my dreaming, was stealing my embryos from me in my life.

How do you mean?

Because they have the ability to fly privately and take what they wish. Owls have two ears positioned differently so they get signals left, right, up and down. And the signals calibrate instantly, they then tilt their head and fly, and as they’re flying for the kill, they close their eyes. They’re totally going off by sound. And they rotate their claws, and they’re coming down with closed eyes and they go in for the steal. And I felt they were stealing my embryos, so I made pictures of them doing it. I used my creativity. And then the surrender happened. I went, “Ooh! I can’t annihilate you owl, I can’t kill you, I can’t see you, you’re invisible. You’re a master of invisibility. So you’re superior.” I said, “I’ll make you an offering. I’ll pay homage to you. I’ll only glorify your power. But please leave us alone.” So I made drawing after drawing, painting and sculptures. And at the time I was aware of this philosophy of India, it says:

“We must all live with the snake in the room. All of us have a snake to live with in the room.”

And that’s based on a time where they grew tired of living in country and there being snakes everywhere. They would come into their hut and a snake would be there. It was a daily or weekly occurrence that someone in the village would have to deal with a snake in the room, a very venomous snake. And they said, “You have to sit and live with it for that moment.” And I’ll tell you that when I was staying in the desert I had a moment where I’m waiting on the sand and a very long snake went over my body.

Bah!

And I couldn’t move. And it went on and on over my chest. And I just lay still and it passed. I was on a highway, it was just an insignificant spot on its highway. That moment I understood I was part of the landscape, I could potentially live with a snake in the room. So getting back to the owl, finally Jo got pregnant. And I started giving my respect to that in my work. I started making them more celebratory. And I had 150 fertility owls, and people started buying them because they wanted to have children. So now I kiss the owl for teaching me new knowledge, for teaching me to fly above myself, to have an aerial perspective of my life.

Amazing. What I’ve loved hearing about you talk and seeing in your work is how open you are to imbed story into the landscape, and your work is often described as having indigenous elements. But I think many of us as migrants are afraid to do that because we think it is not our right, that’s it’s appropriation. Indigenous people have that connection to the land, not us. But you are so ready and willing to do it in a way that’s very meaningful for you.

Yeah, so I have spent vast amounts of time in isolation in nature. I have embedded myself in the storylines as I was explaining earlier, as only one can do being in solitary confinement in landscape. And this is a rite of passage that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it was profoundly powerful for me and I have made connections in the desert, up river, that I carry with me always now. The other thing is that the tools I’ve decided to work with are carving tools. And they make lines or dots. And so therefore with lines or dots there is really only one dance that can be done, and that’s the dance of vibration. So between two dots, there is energy. When I tap my tools just as an Aboriginal person gets paint and dabs it with a stick, the pattern is a space, a dot, a space, a dot. Or a space, a line, a space, a line. In that repetition we meditate. We travel. We leave ourselves. Because we’re doing a mechanical repetition, and we’re asking nature to guide us. This linework is seen in Aztec culture, Mayan, Indian, African, Aboriginal—you name it. What’s powerful is the space between the dots. The silence between the vibrations. We could interpret it as the space between two stars or the space between two planets. So it’s this idea that we’re holding the universe together by that which we cannot see. And I can’t speak completely for all the layers of Aboriginal paintings, but I can tell you from my experience, that space represents higher consciousness. This is the playful area where we can have a lot fun. These dynamics between you and I right now that aren’t visible, what are they? I think as we learn more, we become more aware of the space that exists between what we can see. And that space, I believe, is everything.

Nathan Scolaro

Nathan enjoys getting elbow-deep in sentences, pressing and pricking them like a Chinese doctor until the blood is flowing just right. He hails from Western Australia, where he first experienced the joy of putting together a magazine, and now indulges his love of thoughtful, life-giving storytelling by bringing Dumbo Feather to life once a quarter.

Photography by Toby Burrows

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