On the way to an exhibition… written for Regional Arts WA.
This story was submitted by a member of the regional arts sector: Jenny Potts Barr. We love sharing stories from the sector. If you want to find out how to submit your own stories, take a look at the submit your story page. We can’t wait to hear from you!
Jenny Potts Barr describes herself as a story maker, painter, drawer, wanderer, and wave seeker. Like many, the last two years have presented challenges for the South West artist as her plans were thrown into uncertainty at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic…
“…give me everything that’s left…” Dialogue on the Headland by Robert Graves
In the lead up to my last solo exhibition in March 2020, my proposal for another solo was accepted at Bunbury Regional Art Gallery. I had proposed a show about love, landscapes, and memory inspired by the poem ‘Dialogue on the Headland’ by Robert Graves. The exhibition date was set for March 2022.
The following then happened:
Covid hits March 2020
My 2020 show closes after only one week as the Covid pandemic shuts down life as we know it. My work stays in the exhibition space for two and a half months, the doors are closed. No one sees it.
All three of my children immediately begin home schooling. Our business sets up at home. I lose my computer, my desk, and time.
My proposal was based on a unique local private shell museum called ‘ The Bellview’. I started the working drawings in situ. With Covid, the owners shut the doors. They already had a policy that no photographs were allowed, so there was minimal online presence. I search and screenshot any evidence of the interior of the museum I can find. They are mostly low-quality images that blur when magnified, from someone else’s viewpoint.
Regional lockdowns occur and my small coastal hamlet fills with ‘strangers’. The internet goes to poo, the mail is clogged, and the surf carparks are full. But we have no cases.
When the regions open, the Shell Museum changes its opening hours to school holidays and weekends only. This makes access difficult for me. I try drawing in situ again, but it’s very cold - its winter by now- and I find I don’t like drawing so publicly. I draw and draw and draw. Birak/ Summer holidays 2020/21
The year draws to an end. My work is all over the shop, bits of this, bits of that, no coherency. The First suicide in my small community occurs.
Then the Second.
One year down 2021
I find myself staring at some of the ‘stolen’ photos from the Bellview and spy the small dolls on the top of the central cabinet. I hadn’t noticed them before - such attitude.
Another photo of a hand on the glass keeps wanting my attention. And I start trying to track down who made the Bellviews’ carpet that I’ve been obsessing over. My car is broken into on a visit to Fremantle and they steal my bag containing my precious Leica and several of the working sketchbooks from my Bellview studies. I get the sketchbooks back but not the Leica.
Makuru/Mid way 2021
The next youth suicide hits my community; and more deaths, not Covid related, occur.
I decide to take a first responder suicide course. This proves very useful.
My first image of everything comes together. The words, the doll, the shells. I think, okay, I’ve got direction.
I get notification that the digital drawing app that I have been using for over 5 years, where ALL my work is, is winding back. I’m to use their newer app instead, but it’s not entirely vector based. Draw- the app- continues to work, however.
ATAR is looming. I turn 50.
My dog is diagnosed with bone cancer and enters three months of palliative care.
I participate in Open Studios. It is a relative disaster as my entry is mixed up with a big-name drawcard artist. I spend the majority of the next two weeks:
Giving directions as people say things like, “Thanks” and just drive off; or “I suppose I should come in and look.” Or they berate me, saying “you’re supposed to be open!” Architects pretend to be interested in art but check out my toilet and bathroom instead. Someone almost busts me in my underwear on a day off. I sell very little and spend most of the time explaining how to use digital drawing tech. By the end, I have taken away all signage and boycott social media. I am gifted three visitors who make it worthwhile, but decide this gig is not for me. I have to find a new printer - this turns out well.
I make a conscious decision to join the newly formed local ocean swimming group. I swim daily, but usually never with people. I join people to fight the isolation. They are always laughing and having coffees together. I want in.
I draw and draw and draw.
My new works are rejected from two local art awards with high profile curators on the selection committees.
As I ocean swim, I am reminded of other lines of poetry that have kept me warm across the years and start to imagine my next show. I conclude that I must be obsessive, with a slight masochistic bent, if I wish to keep doing this to myself.
I submit a working title, bio, and statement to BRAG. My exhibition gets a small set back by the size of the award I have been rejected from - this eventually proves helpful, although stressful, to begin with.
My continuing situation of working in isolation, in a regional area, with no mentor and no professional support and no representation becomes glaringly present to me.
Birak/Summer Holidays 2021/2022
In December I finally get the last ‘use by’ email from the drawing app. I’ve got six weeks; the app will be closing by mid-January, but they don’t confirm a date.
I spend the last weeks of 2021 saving my work and exporting my drawings to Illustrator. The work isn’t finished. The files convert to PSD’s constantly and won’t open in Illustrator. I don’t have Photoshop, and I work in vectors. I quickly up-skill as best as I possibly can in Illustrator.
January 10th. I am shut out of the drawing app. I have saved everything but realise too late that I have forgotten the time lapses. Fresco tells me they don’t exist. I cry. 3 months to go I give up my studio space to facilitate study and living arrangements in my very small house amongst family. The kitchen table and I reunite our long-standing working relationship.
Two fire fronts threaten, one north and a very large one south. I spend days going from one lookout to another. We have one road in and out where we live. I am left to manage whilst my husband joins the fire brigade efforts.
My show is set to open in April 2022. Omicron arrives in WA; Level 2 restrictions are introduced. The WA border opens. Peak numbers are expected late March. I push the idea of gallery closures away.
Russia starts a war against the Ukraine. Floods take out the eastern seaboard. I cry my way through finalising my last works. I feel uselessly grief stricken for the Ukrainian people as war crimes unfold.
My work goes to the printers. Sourcing the right paper, the coloured mounts, and the framing is all being challenged in small ways. Three weeks to go… “Life is composed of lights and shadows, and we would be untruthful, insincere and saccharine if we tried to pretend there were no shadows” - Walt Disney
I am, by far, not the first artist to question the relevance of the practice of art in times of great human suffering. I hope that what I have created adds some lightness, joy and beauty to peoples lives because thats what the making of it over these last two years has done for me. As Picasso said “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life”.
‘Ever Evers’ featuring the poetry of Miriam Wei Wei Lo