“This Painting is A Book (Please Read it)” series is a ludic exploration of art space and public interaction, challenging norms and behavioural patterns.
It is customary that one should look with their eyes and not with their hands, while viewing art on display. As an artist working with children every day, I embrace their playfulness, answering their quest with an artwork they can touch, examine and interpret in their own way.
Explore at your own peril: just like a gamer’s Easter Egg, “This Painting is a Book” invites the onlooker to inspect, prospect, seek and decode. The findings might be rewarding; colours, words and senses are mixing and suddenly this painting IS a book without you knowing.
There is an old saying – a man lives for as long as his name is being spoken after death. Our duty as living souls is to make sure his story is not forgotten.
People call me dreamer, adventurer or migrant; my close friends call me a story gatherer.
Six years ago I lost a friend to suicide. It hadn’t been a long friendship. Still, it marked me profoundly because of all the untold stories it held.
In 2007 I followed my heart – and the man who stole it – to the other end of the world.
Together, we made a friend – a fellow expat who defected during the Communist Regime and had been living in Brisbane for a long time. Alex was starved for news “from home” – he hailed from the same place where I spent my Romanian childhood.
There is a great difference between leaving your home forcibly and leaving of one’s own accord; his nostalgia was different from mine but similar in how we both remembered times, places and people that were no longer. We shared the need to belong somewhere while feeling misfits in either of our worlds.
I was lucky: my new family and their friends rallied around me.
He was the loneliest man I ever met, too proud to accept what he saw as pity.
He never fully adjusted here; yet his travels back in Romania brought the bitter realisation of his longing for the home he left behind and never found again.
He always joked – or so we thought – that he won’t live to see his sixties. And sure enough, the year he turned 60 was his last.
This happened during the beginnings of my intercultural marriage. It opened my eyes to my own dilemmas: where do I belong and most importantly, what is the story I want to leave for my children?
I’m a curious hybrid – I spent my childhood under the Communist regime in a small village surrounded by mountains. As a teenager, I grew up during the transition to a much-promised Democracy that never took flight properly, after the Romanian revolution. I sailed around the world most of my twenties, circumventing the globe three times. Then in my thirties I settled into a new country, in the Capitalist World.
When people ask me where I’m from, I tell them I am a World Citizen; deep down I know I’m from my mountains.
My sister and I had this childhood game: blindfolded, we put our finger on a map, then imagined the world through made-up stories. One day my finger stopped on Australia: I didn’t know much about it but the closed borders couldn’t prevent our imagination from wandering. My tale was a wild chase, riding on the back of a kangaroo.
Alex’s life story gave me the ultimate gift: the understanding that we are all made of memories and dreams; our final story is driven by how we reconcile them with each other, blending past wisdom with meaningful present.
I’ve many memories but lately, my thoughts go back to my village.
I remember the embers dancing through the air, the sky – a shade of surreal blue and the smell reigning over the place. Hearts in our mouths, we, children, were all hanging in that space where time stopped: a minute had the weight of an eternity and a half.
It was baking day; nothing could beat the sweet anticipation of the fresh, hot bread taste. Maybe even some plum jam – my Nana lived thrifty yet gave generously. There was never room for wanting in her household: her cold room was stocked, her bread box was full – just like our hearts.
I’ve always loved sour dough. I can’t describe the disappointment when – in my twenties – I tried for the first time a supermarket loaf. My heart still breaks for everyone who’s never known the true taste of freshly baked bread and settles for this sad affair of puffy bread.
Back in those days, that was my truth. I was living happily under the sun, eating the bread, picking fresh apples and plums, climbing trees and running through the forest without a care in the world. Our village was surrounded by mountains. I spent my early years finding North, learning the paths to every summit, learning all birdsongs and finding each wildflower there was. In between exploring, I helped on our small, fast-paced farm.
To my child eyes, my grandfather was a grandiose man, all mighty and fearless.
I can fit one of his old shirts now – this tells a different story of his stature.
He was self – taught, whether it was becoming a bee-keeper, growing tomatoes up in the mountains, building an adobe kiln or designing an automated circular saw.
He wanted us to live by two truths: We can be anyone we want to be and do anything we put our mind to. The other was to keep true to ourselves and live a meaningful life.
In my native Romania we have “glasul pamantului” – voice of the land. The mountains whispered it to me. It wasn’t really a voice; more like a painful tug of my heart. I couldn’t really understand what it meant; only that I felt something every time I was in my mountains. Later on, I felt the same in the Canberran grasslands.
Once I hit school age I was returned to the city, although I longed for the tiny village school. My 6yo dream was to work and live off the little land we had. I didn’t understand that the land did not belong to us, or that our hard work would go to the “collective”. However, the mountains were our blessings and our curse. A village tucked under a mountain ledge, inaccessible to cars was not a priority for the Agricultural Production Cooperative. At the same time, this meant that frost-resistant hybrids or mechanical agriculture reached us slower, limiting our crops to whatever could be grown at that altitude, mainly corn, potatoes and plums.
Fast forward – almost 40 years: I’m looking at embers again. The sky turned shades of grey and orange this time. There’s no bread in sight, just worried looks and crying children. The harrowing 2019-20 bush fires scenes on national television – especially those from Mallacoota – will haunt our nation forever. I felt for all the people loosing their homes. The old heart tug was back; houses can be rebuilt but I wept bitterly seeing hundreds of animals carcasses laid along the roadside, waiting to be buried – that’s a sorrow one can never forget.
I was fifteen when we left the village for good, after my grandfather’s cancer diagnosis.
I vowed to go back, till my field, keep bees, ride my horses and make plum jam. Instead I became a journalist; then changed it for a new dream as I set sailing around the world.
It’s a good thing that we can dream, that dreams change, following a natural order as we walk through life. One dream is gently laid to sleep, a new one takes shape and sometimes we uncover the forgotten ones or the ones we don’t speak about anymore but still hold dear in a hidden corner of our souls.
When I was younger, home was a notion carried in my soul: my mountains, where I longed to return. Till then, home was where my head laid, whether a fluffy pillow or a mossy rock.
Never had I imagined I’d be living side to side to the kangaroos of my childhood story.
In the early days, I was home sick in a new place that I didn’t understand. A place where people drive the wrong way and eat bad bread, speaking funny English that I genuinely struggled to understand.
Yet it was a welcoming place to start again. I received same love I had in my village of yonder. My mother in law has a superpower: she can turn a house into a home, gathering friends and family, living by the “don’t build a higher fence, build a longer table” saying.
I was lucky to be welcomed with open arms by all her friends. People I hardly knew genuinely wanted to know me or to help me adjust to my new life. The phone was ringing with kindhearted offers of advice, friendship and love. Asking about my job search, or whether I needed a ride to the mall. I was suddenly adopted within that small community as one of their own children. I certainly felt being one. After moving to Canberra, I truly missed our connection. Until a few years ago when we still had a landline, I loved getting calls from those lovely folks. Time made these calls rarer; we all got older. Some of my early friends received their final call. But every time we visit Brisbane, it makes my heart sing, catching up with those remaining.
I never had my farm back. I didn’t become a beekeeper. I never returned to journalism. Instead I focused on my own little family, thriving in the Capital city that others call boring and aloof.
I have been slowly growing my roots by photographing people wearing my hat and telling me their story. I made best friends for life – a circle of fierce, like-minded people for whom I should do anything to protect them.
I’m making up for the wandering years by reviving old dreams and making new ones.
A few years ago I decided to fulfil my teenage ambition of being an artist. Middle aged, with two young children and working two jobs, I took the chance, enrolling to be a Visual Arts student. It was tiring, thrilling and spectacularly beautiful. And it landed me on the dream job, teaching art classes.
The first lesson was memorable: “- You talk like Gru” said one little girl. We all burst into laughter – an instant bond was formed. I’ve been nervous about teaching, but I knew then that I would be all right. I talked about getting lost between the five languages I speak and the confusion in finding the right pronunciation.
While my accent can’t be helped even after so many years living here, I moved the conversation towards diversity. Instantly, everyone contributed their own heritage – Dutch, Russian, Irish… what languages we speak at home and how the universal language of art governs them all.
My childhood put the base of who I am. My love of bread helped me teach my children many lessons: money value? – look at how many breads a week’s worth of minimum wages buys in a country. Patience and resilience? – let’s bake bread from scratch. Although it has became more like let’s make pizza from scratch, thus starting our own family traditions. Someone’s life outlook? – look at the bread they eat. It tells so many stories.
Above all, I keep coming round to my grandfather’s words, asking us to live a meaningful life. I try to fill each day with things that matter.
I made some First Nations friends who explained more in depth the land connection I have felt. I started listening to it, finding new stories in my beloved grasslands.
After the utter desolation, seeing so many animals killed in the bush fires, I joined the Community Fire Units. In my art practice, I started a project focusing on endangered species.
Recently I discovered an old song – “I’ve never been to me”; I’m told it’s a one-hit wonder but it hit a chord with me because it echoes my old man’s words.
In my travels around the world, I have seen lots of paradise corners but also lots of pain.
I don’t know whether I’ve been to “me” or whether I’m living a meaningful life yet; this is definitely the closest.
And while my story has yet a few pages to add, I’m using my time wisely, teaching my children to set anchor, make memories and forge dreams of their own, finding sense in these ever shifting times.
The world is mad, and we’re all falling through the fractures Of things half done, where we’re half right amidst the clamours; Half spoken truths, to hide intentions and to ease the conscience Just like half-hearted love, sold for a petty halfpence.
The world is staring through the bottom of the barrel, half-aware Of all the halfwits and madmen who hold the mighty triggers Over impressionable youngsters, bereft of father figures. And we’re half way to chaos, delusion and despair.
Half whispered wishes abandoned in a lonely patch of green,
Half-hardy crops and chains of thoughts that wither unforeseen
A life half lived in fears of others and their hissing,
A pitiful existence, where half the words are missing.
Automatons perpetually trapped in rushing hours Without a lot of feelings, half-broken and half-free, Leaders of no one, sealing the deal that always sours, Who know they’re only half the men they used to be.
A moon – half hidden, raising high above this madness, Lights up the sky just like the full moon, with just the same bright light And in the end, all gravitating halves will even out in roundness, Making the world a whole again, setting its new and unexpected flight.
I heard people talking – more like whispering – at the bread shop. I was only thirteen – in their eyes still a child, so they didn’t mind me being around. I saw myself as an equally important person. Important enough to take in what was shared furtively and make sense of it on my own. I still don’t know what made me do it – after leaving the bread shop I turned the TV on; although there wasn’t any program broadcasted. During the communist years, we only had a couple of hours of program, usually in the evening. Most of it was heavily laden with propaganda but every now and then there was a nice enough movie or theatre play. I don’t remember the day of the week, nor the day of the month. Just that it was before Christmas and that I wasn’t at home – I must have been on school holidays because all this happened in Cluj Napoca and I was at my auntie’s apartment, with my Nana. Our regular routine was to go to the farmhouse – and my beloved village – every Friday. It took me a good half an hour to figure out whether the “revolution live” was a theatre play or a succession of live events. I decided it was the later – the censorship would have never allowed such a play.
All these events happening in Ukraine have resulted in a big trigger; some memories have resurfaced – of times I have not told anyone before. Without comparing our two countries events, which are very different – there are some things that I can’t fathom. I have learned better than believe everything I hear or read; but I’m still uneasy about hearing that in Ukraine they just gave weapons out to civilians. Without comparing the two situations, it reminds me so much about the days of the Romanian revolution: there was so much confusion and people were manipulated to go out on the streets.
The first thing they did in ‘89 was to take over the TV/Broadcast – because they knew that’s the only effective way to manipulate the masses. And even as a child, I understood why. I remember a long chain of people – all these generals, civilians and so many people coming in saying the terrorists are shooting in x place, quick – everyone, go on the streets Then they would come again: “terrorists or the army is shooting in Y place, everyone go on the streets”. I was only 13. I didn’t understand, why they would send people in the streets, against the bullets. What could civilians do against armed people? So, people died out of sheer stupidity in the general confusion. I remember wanting to go, do my bit. There was this image of a young boy with the Romanian flag – Bucharest’s Gavroche. His patriotism and bravery was celebrated every few minutes on the TV and in the international press. I wanted to be like him – be brave and rid the country of all evil. (to my defence, I was really young) And my auntie and nana forbade me, of course. Everyone was wearing the tricolour ribbon (our flag) on their arm – I wanted to do that too. Even if the only time I was allowed to go outside was to buy bread and necessities. Of course we had tricolour in our house – everyone does. But my nana asked me one question: – How is wearing the tricolour going to help? And I thought hard and I said to her: – I dunno. but I feel that if I am wearing it, people would know I sympathise with the ones fighting for the cause, coz I can’t help in any other way. She said “careful what you wish for and be even more careful that you don’t end up being a sheep”. I didn’t know back then how clever she was.
Now in the present, I truly admire the Ukrainians for their courage. I can’t believe that war is happening in our time and the world is not doing much about it. The same world where all countries have solemnly sworn again and again that they would never allow atrocities happen… But I can’t help but wonder how many of those executed as “Russian provocateurs” died wrongly? How can one tell if someone was really a Russian provocateur or tried to be the voice of reason in a sea of frightened people? And how can we be sure that some of those people didn’t die because of petty revenge? Someone who had a beef with anyone could easy kill them and get away with murder in these trying times. Everyone is too busy to check the facts, when you get shelled left right and centre. And the most worrying question – once all the weapons are out, how can they be gotten back safely? How can civil war be prevented?
These are terrible times in any single way and once again, my memories run back to December ’89. I’ve seen it first hand back then – how easy the masses can be divided and ruled. Although I was a child, I liked being in the heart of things. There was the queue for bread. Then the queue for the newspaper – every single morning we queued for news – we lived for that. You learn so much from hearing and seeing people in tough times. They barricaded all roads so “the terrorists couldn’t get out of the city”. I’m yet to hear of anyone who saw those terrorists, btw – it was sheer manipulation and fearmongering. But the truth is that people died in these firings – most probably army against army, sent out by orders barked on live TV by important – looking people. Generals in command changed often, making things even more complicated. All their talking about these terrorists shooting loose, all that was achieved was working the army units against the other army units and against the militia, and the crowds against them all. I could see the tracer bullets from the window of my auntie’s apartment. Especially at night, it was scary. Looking back now, it makes me wonder whether they chose tracers in purpose, so they can be seen and feared – they are spectacular on the night sky. Auntie’s apartment was in the city centre – we had a wide view of the sky. During the day I could see the damage they did to the National Theatre building. It’s really nothing compared to what’s happening in Ukraine today, but still scary, for a country where we had known nothing but peace.
We had to stay put in the city until it was safe to go to the village. My auntie and uncle dropped me off unceremoniously, then returned back to the city once the weekend was gone. Revolution or not, people still had jobs to attend.
It felt like a heavy century was slowly passing over my little village. My dad was called into his military unit. His commander was one of the few people with good sense – he locked everyone in the unit precinct. The weapons were locked too. They would be doomed no matter what. If they go out, they would be either victims of the bullets everyone was shooting at everyone, or lynched by civilians. There was so much fear and so much disinformation those days – people didn’t know if the army was friend or foe. Im still to hear an account of it from my father. He doesn’t talk much about the revolution.
I didn’t know at the time that he wasn’t out fighting; they weren’t allowed to communicate with family members. My mother was left on her own (in Brasov, a different city), dealing with retrieving my grandma’s body and organising her funeral. My sister was with my mum. I should say my grandmother wasn’t killed; she died of natural causes.
Freaky fact: my grandmother was paralysed for many, many years and she always kept saying she wanted to die. As kids we didn’t understand much so we candidly asked – why don’t you, then? She always said “I want to see Ceausescu die before me” (The Romanian dictator) Sure enough, they shot him on Christmas. She died immediately after him – a day or two difference. My poor mum had to dodge blockades, bullets and road patrols to find which funeral company was open and would do the services. Then retrieve her own mother’s naked body from the hospice and get on with the funeral.
Meanwhile, I was dropped off to safety in my little village. To be honest, being in the village was scarier than when I could see the bullets on the night sky. Because in a way, seeing the bullets afar made me feel secure – they – whomever those terrorists were, they weren’t close to us. But also because the village didn’t have any phone. My heart was split in three; not being able to get news fast, I was worrying about my dad fighting and getting killed; about my mother and sister getting killed by accident and about my auntie and uncle (who remained in their city apartment) who could also accidentally get killed. But there were moments where I could take off on the hills and mountains and just be happy for a while, till I remembered again. I also felt very guilty that I was sheltered and others weren’t.
We were living for the news; and I understood even then as a child how easy it is to manipulate fearful masses. It was madness. That’s why now, when I look at the news I also know – just like in the Romanian revolution – the full truth will never be known to us regular mortals. My heart breaks for all the innocent people who lost their lives, for those displaced and for those fighting. Like anyone else, the only thing I can do is to pray for peace. And I can share my own story. I decided to do it because a good friend confessed to me how sick he was of all the glorified violence in our media. This is a different side of things – if you are following the world’s conflicts, please try to see things from this perspective – the impact of war on regular citizens and how suddenly their lives got ruined.
The Lost Ark is a project that brings to the limelight our unique Australian fauna and flora in the aftermath of the bush fires and the previous draughts. As we go by, the grasslands are coming back to life and we are looking at the possible ways in which we, as artists can raise awareness of all the conservation work that needs to be done.
“Comes the rain” – the latest video in the series – is a gentle approach, observing healing, resilience and beauty.
I’m extremely happy to report that The Efalon book has been accepted for the “Bookish” exhibition organised by Print Council of Australia.
What is an Efalon? Where does it live? And most importantly, does it have any friends? I’m glad you asked. Canberra-based composer Harvey Ellis Welsh has all the answers in his Efalon song, which you can buy here: https://elliswelsh.bandcamp.com/track/the-effalon
The Final Cut for “The Lost Ark – Nocturne” is finally here.
The Nocturne was in the making for a long while and we kept tweaking it, but I think we are finally done with this piece. I am totally in love with the music – it works so well with the images.
If you joined us later, The Lost Ark is a project that brings to the limelight our unique Australian fauna and flora in the aftermath of the bush fires.
One year on, “Nocturne” is a glimpse at the way the grasslands are coming back to life. We are looking at the possible ways in which we, as artists can raise awareness of all the conservation work that needs to be done.
One year on, the grasslands are back to life. 2020 has been very trying on the native fauna and flora: we’ve seen the effect of extreme draught, after the fire, smoke and hail…It’s a wonderful sight, seeing everything coming back to life.
Image: Akka Ballenger Constantin Original Score by Harvey Welsh