Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Moss-haired girl

Found at the Lifeline op shop in South Lismore: a copy of Michael and me and the Sun, by Barbara Hanrahan. (This shop has a marvellous book collection - huge - and most books are 3 for $2. It's possible to find many old and out-of-print books there. A real treasure house.)

Barbara Hanrahan (1939 - 1991) was an Australian print-maker and novelist, born in Adelaide, and living and working there and in London till her death at the age of 52 after a long battle with sarcoma.

Michael and Me and the Sun was written in the last year of her life, much of it while she was in hospital (the book itself makes no mention of this; I discovered it later). It's a memoir of her time in London when she first went there in the early 1960s to continue her study of printmaking.

She was so eager to get there that she went long before the term began, and worked for a while as a teacher by day, while taking classes in etching, wood-engraving, and lithography four nights a week.

I felt too shy to ask any questions, I just wanted to learn by watching what other people did. And to make myself feel safer still, I drew one of the moss-haired girls I'd drawn in Adelaide, in a flower-sprigged dress like the girls wore in my grandmother's Girl's Own Annual of 1911. She ran stilly in her buttoned boots on my piece of zinc, a leafy bough in her hand. On the next plate she was bigger - she floated among the branches of a tree with peck-beaked birds all around her. I put my head down and pressed my finger hard on the etching needle, and drew in the shivery lines of her hair, the lacing of her bodice, her billowing skirt. I lost myself in detail: dots and swirls and zig-zags. The old atmosphere lapped around me again. At the art school on the Terrace in Adelaide I'd escaped the pinprick worries of everyday as I'd worked at my prints. It happened here, too. I forgot the school and the flat in the surety of ritual - the escape from an everyday world as you went through the crazy ceremony of inking up your plate, then wiping the ink away from your hand till all that was left just filled the line of your drawing. The room was full of bustle, yet full of the stillness of concentration. For those few hours I was surrounded by my own kind of people. It didn't matter that the bearded boys in black aped Jackson Pollock, that the old ladies did their kittens and puppy-dogs, that I did my moss-haired girls - we were all part of something bigger than ourselves. Surrounded by the familiar smells - printing ink and stopping-out varnish and damp paper and turps and methylated spirits - I was content.

From Michael and Me and the Sun (UQP, 1992)

I love this moss-haired girl. And I do not think she runs 'stilly' as Hanrahan said.  There is so much strength in her, as she grasps those branches. Look at her sturdy legs in their buttoned boots - she is the very essence of defiant and independent young woman, for all her 1911 clothing - she is almost jumping into the air.

And what I love about the passage above is the description of the absorption in ones work, which surely must be the most satisfying and happy-making aspect of doing anything, whether it be print-making or gardening or baking or writing.

1 comment: