Monthly Archives: June 2013

Burning Down the House

"Mobo" oil painting of my tin horse.

“Mobo” oil painting of my English antique tin horse. The painting was burnt but I still have the actual horse. 1989

I can’t show you a new drawing this week as I am still working on it.  So I will tell you a  story instead, of when our house burned down in Sydney in 1992.  Are you sitting comfortably?  Then I will begin…

Pre-story note: The four illustrations in this post show my favourite of 15 burnt paintings.  I am lucky to still have photos of them.  The images can live on my blog as from today, if nowhere else.

"Mary Podstolski" oil painting of Mum.

“Mary Podstolski” oil painting of Mum, which I painted for Dad after Mum died in 1987.

The fire happened on Friday afternoon around 5 p.m on 15th May 1992.  It started while everybody was out.  I had gone down the road with Alicia (middle daughter) who was then four.  We had gone to collect Emily who had been playing with her friends at their house.  Emily (eldest daughter) was seven.  Trish and I sat inside having coffee while my children and hers played together in their back garden.   Trish and I didn’t notice the sounds of a helicopter overhead or sirens.   Perhaps the children called us to go outside to see the action but I don’t remember.  Trish went to the bottom of the garden and in a very serious voice told me that I had better come and have a look.  We could clearly see our house in the distance – with smoke and flames blasting out of the roof.  The helicopter, it turned out, was filming the event for the evening news!  Can you imagine what it is like to recognize that your house is burning in front of your eyes?  Rigid shock.

We got in cars and rushed back up the hill.  The fire brigade was already hard at it and we had to identify who we were to be allowed to turn into the blocked-off street.  All we could do was stand and watch.  It was far too surreal to be emotionally crushing.  Rather, it was like watching from behind a screen.  Somehow I rang Matthew who was still at work.  He will never forget the call because I was extremely calm.  I told him that all of us were safe but the house had burned down…and could he please come home now?

I was busy talking to firemen, neighbours, our children and police.  Everyone was supportive and comforting.

"Emily on the Flying Thing" oil painting of my oldest daughter, Emily, when she was nearly two.

“Emily on the Flying Thing” oil painting of my oldest daughter, Emily, when she was nearly two, at a park in Denmark (Europe). 1986

I wasn’t devastated.  There was nothing to be done and all that mattered – ALL – was that we were unharmed.  Matthew drove home in I-can-hardly-imagine-what state of mind.  Not long afterwards his cousin, Andrew, turned up to babysit the children as we had been going to attend a concert that night (Billy Bragg).  Oddly enough, the week before we had been to see David Byrne in concert.  He had sung ‘Burning Down the House’!  (Needless to say, Andrew’s babysitting wasn’t needed on the 15th May after all.)

"What Does Alicia See?" oil painting of my middle daughter, Alicia when she was two.

“What Does Alicia See?” oil painting of my middle daughter, Alicia, when she was two, looking out to sea at Plimmerton, New Zealand. 1989

Guess what caused the fire?  No doubt about it.  It was a RAT.  A rat had moved into the wall cavity exactly one week before and every night I would hear it running around in the roof.  I didn’t know that rats chewed through wires but now I do!  The firemen confirmed that the fire started in the roof cavity and was ‘consistent with a rat’.  I was jolly glad it was the rat because my first guilt-ridden thought had been “what appliance did I leave on?”  Thank heavens it hadn’t been my fault.

Some very good fortune came out of that fire.  We had only bought the house nine months before and it was our first home; rather old and ramshackle.  We had insurance so we were able to have a brand new home built.  Most of our photos survived because part of the house was left standing and that was the area with my photo albums in.  A lot of my books survived too, even if the outside covers were singed.  I can still open a book and get a whiff of THAT smell.  My oil paint tubes survived as well though they looked rather grimy.  (That was before I had started to use coloured pencils.)

It was never a tragedy because it was only stuff.  Sad about the paintings but most of our losses could be replaced.  Nothing replaces people and we will always feel that the timing (after I took Alicia out) was miraculous.

I heard David Byrne sing “Burning Down the House” again during his outdoor concert at Perth Zoo in 2009.  I still like the song.

A photo of our family room a few days after the fire.

A photo of our family room a few days after the fire in 1992.

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Faulting and Folding

"Hawkins Hill" oil painting of hills of Wellington.

“Hawkins Hill” oil painting of hills of Wellington. 1991

Wellington had a huge storm this week.  I’m afraid there was a lot of damage.  The sea came in and broke up the roads in front of it.  It even entered the houses.  It smashed the waterfronts around the southern bays.   (It is still raining and freezing today, my sister writes, though the wind has dropped.)  The highest wind gust, I read in the news, had been recorded at Hawkins Hill.  It was 248 km/hour.

When I heard the words ‘Hawkins Hill’ I thought of my 1990 painting of the same name.  The old radar station used to be up there when I was growing up.  As it was a very high peak, you could see the radar station from many points, including from my parents’ bedroom window.  When I think of Hawkins Hill I think of cold southerlies.  On the other side of Hawkins Hill are more hills, undulating until they disappear into the Cook Strait.  Beyond Cook Strait is the South Island.  The South Island was magic because I never got to travel there until I was a teenager.  You could see the snowy Kaikoura mountains of the South Island from Island Bay (one of the bays which got hammered this week) and you got fantastic views of it from ‘up the hills’.

I remembered, when I saw Hawkins Hill mentioned in the news, that I had been meaning to write a post one day on faulting and folding and how my art subject matter went from hills to kimono.  I had learned the term ‘faulting and folding’ in geography class at highschool.  The term describes hills (just as you see in my painting) which are formed and molded by earthquakes; thrust upwards and bent – like solid versions of waves in the ocean.  I grew up in seismic Wellington, surrounded by these hills in all directions.  You see similar shapes in Japan, California and … any place with earthquakes.  They make lovely shapes though my father, who came from a very different landscape in Poland, found them claustrophobic – “like buttocks” he said.  However, as they are what I grew up with, I feel affinity with them and I liked to paint them.  I also enjoyed climbing them, playing childhood imaginary games amongst them, looking at the views from the top, making forts, making out (later on), damming their streams and riding over them on my horse.  “Up the Hills” is part of our family terminology.  “We’re going up the hills today.”

So how do I get to the subject of kimono?  Kimono are simply faulting and folding in material AND in glorious technicolor.   I almost die of pleasure working on the landscape of the kimono.   Mmmm, rich colours melting into shadows or highlighted by sun; ridges and valleys, peaks and troughs of fine design-infused material…what could be lovelier?

Faults and folds in the kimono of Ichifuku san, so much like the hills in my eyes.

Faulting and folding  in the kimono of Ichifuku san, so much like hill shapes in my eyes. 2013

[Note: the above drawing of Ichifuku-san is shown in stages in a work-in-progress page: see it here.]

New Zealand and Japan – not so different.  Both have earthquakes, volcanoes, hot springs, long and thin island shapes, polite people – and faulting and folding.  I live in Australia so I can assign both New Zealand and Japan to magical places.  They are both landscapes across the water just as the South Island once was to a girl who lived at the bottom of the North Island…dream-time places to visit now and then (but not often enough to lose the magic).

"Tourists Southbound" an oil painting showing a view of the Wellington hills from the Interisland ferry which crosses the Cook Strait.

“Tourists Southbound” an oil painting showing a view of the Wellington hills from the Interisland ferry which crosses the Cook Strait. 2000

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"Waiting" a portrait of Satohana in Kamishichiken.

“Waiting” a portrait of Satohana in Kamishichiken.  340 x 520 mm. 2013



“Waiting” is a portrait of Satohana who was waiting for (I presume) her family to exit the theatre after a performance of Kitano Odori.  The drawing “Rare View” illustrates what happened next; when Satohana and a small girl (perhaps her sister) walked off together hand-in-hand.

"Rare View" Satohana walks away.

“Rare View” Satohana walks away. 2013

I started “Waiting” while I was still in Art Hell before I had finished with “Sakura at Dusk”.  It wasn’t until I had destroyed “Sakura at Dusk” that I could put uninterrupted heart and soul into “Waiting”.  I had to get the former irritation out of my life first!

I am presently on the opposite side of Art Hell.  I am briefly in Art Heaven.  (YAY!)  What is this state?  It is a state of blissful optimism.  I am on an art high.    The drawing worked.  My confidence is restored and I’m pleasant company.   I feel inspired to go straight into another drawing and have, in fact, already prepared it today.  It is so much easier to be inspired to do a new piece when the work just completed has overcome its obstacles.  Being on a high doesn’t last any longer than being on a low.  Soon I will even out and be boringly normal again.  However this high is lovely while it lasts.

“Sakura at Dusk” unofficially became “Art Hell” to me . (Art Hell and Art Hell 2 are the posts referring to this.)   Conversely as I’m currently in Art Heaven, to my mind Satohana is my ‘”Blue Angel”.   Rest assured, the lady’s not for burning.

Related page:  Subject 2: Geisha

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