Interviews

Ejo #87 – Let’s Talk About Death, Baby

As a society, we are crippled by the concept of death.  Grief, following the death of a loved one, can be such a lonely challenge to endure – but it needn’t be.  Having the support of your friends can help to take the edge off the pain.  But they don’t teach this kind of stuff in school so sometimes, despite their best intentions, the well-meaning remarks of friends can actually make things worse.  The last thing you need to hear when you’re in the depths of despair is “You’ll be OK”.  Yes, of course you will be OK.  But at that very moment you are not.  What you need is compassion, not a meaningless cliché.

When my father died, it almost destroyed me.  I’m not joking.  I honestly don’t know how it’s possible to feel as bad, as empty and as crushed as I did and to somehow still survive.  I was trapped in a black hole.  I felt completely alone, but I didn’t want anyone to reach into my darkness either.  I pushed people away.  It’s such a confusing, bewildering and miserable thing to experience.  I remember after a couple of months, going on a weekend away with some girlfriends.  I managed to keep the black hole contained, most of the time.  But there was one occasion when I could no longer fend it off, and the darkness just flooded out.  We were walking along, and without warning I started bawling uncontrollably.  My father was dead, and I just couldn’t stop crying.  I apologised to my friends and walked away, looking for a place to retreat and get a hold of myself.  I turned a corner and sat down on a bench, but instead of subsiding I was engulfed in sadness, collapsing in a heap of body-shaking tears.  My friends peeked around the corner, their faces contorted with anguish.  I could see they wanted to help me, to comfort me.  And even though that’s exactly what I needed, I was sending out a powerful force-field signalling them to stay away.

I finally got my shit together and we carried on walking, as though nothing had happened.  And I know it was just as bad for them as it was for me.  I’m not telling this story to shame my friends.  It was a terrible moment for all of us.  I tell it to demonstrate how tricky a minefield grief is, even amongst the closest of friends.  It is a harrowing abyss of ugly, difficult emotions for the person experiencing it.  And a sickening feeling of impotence and helplessness for the people around you.  Even though I know what grief feels like, I am still completely at sea when a loved one loses a loved one.  I still don’t know what to say or do.  I still feel helpless.  And I know that many others in that situation feel the same way.

I can’t write anything that could ever take away the pain of someone’s grief.  But I do want to try and alleviate the debilitating feelings of inadequacy most of us feel in the face of someone else’s bereavement.  I want to open a dialogue, to start talking about it, in the hope of making it less scary.  There is no “etiquette” handbook for what to say (or not say) to someone in mourning.  No two situations are the same, and everyone will react to the death of a loved one in their own way.  But I feel pretty safe in saying that there are a few things you should try not to say.  Each heading in this ejo is something that was actually said to a grieving person.  I know they were heartfelt thoughts from people struggling to know what to say, but these platitudes are just not helpful to someone who is in pain.

 “Be strong.”

The day my father died, the worst day of my life, someone told me, ‘Your Dad would want you to be strong, for your Mum.’  Wow, thanks, but I really didn’t need to hear that.  What was said stayed with me through the years.  Now, if I’m comforting a friend experiencing the heartache of grief, the one thing I do feel comfortable saying to them is, ‘You don’t have to be strong, it’s OK to fall apart if you need to’.  Because the reality is that you are going to fall apart in some way.  I spoke with several friends who have all lost someone close to them – a parent, a friend, a spouse – and they were kind enough to share their experiences in the hope of helping you (and me) next time someone is in need of support.

*          *          *

“He wouldn’t want you to be sad.”

“My first experience with death was when I was 14 and one of my best friends died.  My mother was deeply unhelpful.  ‘These things happen’, ‘he wouldn’t want you to be sad’, etc.  All I wanted to do was shout and scream and listen to self-indulgent indie music with a roll-up between my fingers.  A couple of decades later my father, also my best friend, snuffed it.  I wanted to just talk about my amazing father and cry and mention his name more than once without people all looking a bit shifty and looking at the floor and not knowing what to do.  I did not encounter these problems when I was 14. Apart from people also saying when dad died ‘he wouldn’t want you to feel like this’.  FUCK HIM, HES DEAD!!  I’m sad.”

 “I understand how you feel.”

“I think the worst thing a friend said to me after both my parents were killed was, ‘I understand’.  I know they thought it was comforting, but it wasn’t.  They didn’t understand.  How could they?  I didn’t expect them to.”

 “At least she’s no longer in pain.”

“When someone is grieving, say something meaningful or don’t say anything at all.  The number of trite, hallmark kind of statements I got after my mother died made me want to punch people in the face.  Yes, it’s true that ‘these things happen’, ‘it was for the best’ and ‘now she isn’t in any pain’ but it lacks any empathy at all to say these things. 

“It will get easier.”

“What didn’t work for me was being told that someone knew exactly how I felt, and then getting advice on when I should feel better.  Being told how you should feel, or how you will feel, is not helpful.”

“Life goes on.”

“Life goes on for you, but I just lost someone and life has stopped for me.  Also, don’t push someone to talk about it unless they want to talk.”

“It’s time to get over it.”

“Even though time passes, grief doesn’t.  You just learn to manage it better.  I think once the funeral is over people just forget and move forward – but clearly not those who were deeply affected.  There is almost an expectation that you should just move on and get over it, not understanding how deep and prolonged the impact can be.  I think we need to all be more mindful, especially in the first year after someone has died, how hard it can be for those left behind.”

 “Time heals all wounds.”

“I don’t believe that time heals.  For me it’s a constant thing I carry with me every day and no matter how much time passes, it never gets easier.  Especially important events in your life when you wish your parents were there to share it with you and hold your hand and tell you that they love you.  They never saw me or my brother get married, or had the opportunity to meet their first grandchild.”

“These things happen.”

“Some people can be dismissive.  The ones that reacted as if I had just told them that I’d lost my handbag.  I don’t blame them for reacting like that.  I guess some people don’t know how to respond or act in tragic circumstances.  But it’s not helpful when you are grieving and upset.”

 

As you can see, hollow adages don’t work.  So if you can help it, please don’t use them.  What stood out after talking to my friends was that all everyone wanted was to have their grief acknowledged.  Here is what they told me:

 

“The best way to help is to just be there.  Offer some food, your company, your time.  Ask what they need and be willing to listen.”

 “Amongst the confusion, the numbness, the tears and anger I remember something one person said to me when I lost my parents.  It was exactly what I needed to hear at that time.  He said, ‘I have no idea what you are going through.  This is the hardest thing you will ever have to go through in your life.  I am here for you if you need me’.  That was all I needed to hear.  I wanted someone to acknowledge that it was hard and that they had no idea how I was feeling.  I wanted someone to just hug me and not speak.”

 “Just agree that the situation sucks and is incredibly shit.”

“One of the nicest (if you can call it that) things someone said, and they were a work colleague who I wasn’t good friends with, was “I heard your mother died and that’s really terrible.”

 “People don’t know what to say or what to do.  The answer is, just let them be.  If they want to shout and scream, just hold them and let them.  They don’t want any answers from you.  You can’t give them any.  Just listen, patiently, for as long as they need.  There is no solution.  Let them remember, let them tell you the most boring anecdotes, let them bore themselves with the memories, and most importantly let them be what you might consider a drama queen.  Because when it happens to you, you’ll see that it’s not that dramatic after all.  It’s life.”

 

What have been your experiences with offering or needing support after someone has died?

Ejo #83 – Fergus Miller: Because Your Candle Burns Too Bright

In late 2012 my friend Svetlana was given a subscription to a music streaming service as a gift, from her husband Andrew.  One of the first new albums she discovered was from a band she’d never heard of called Bored Nothing.  I’ll let Svet describe her reaction:

I have no idea what made me click on the Bored Nothing album, but doing so literally changed my life.  I became completely obsessed with it.  It was absolutely perfect in every way.   I listened to it five times a day for two months. I’d listen to it when I got dressed in the morning, driving in the car, hanging up the washing. I drove my family crazy. I probably drove my neighbours crazy too as I’d blast it through the speakers while jumping on the trampoline with the kids.

I kept thinking that if I were an indie movie, this album would be my soundtrack.  There was a song for every single mood I’ve ever experienced.   Elated, serene, sad or pissed off – I could find a track that matched my frame of mind.  It wasn’t just the music that I loved, it was also the incredibly thoughtful and poignant lyrics.

I asked my friends if they had heard of Bored Nothing and not a single one had.  Sadly, they were all listening to the same stuff they listened to ten years ago because they couldn’t find new music that they liked.  So I started a music blog – to help my old-fart friends discover new music.

And that’s how the Australian music blog “7 Seconds Of Sound” was born.  The fifteen months I spent as guest writer on the blog were, creatively, some of the best of my life.  I love music and I love writing, so when Svet asked me to be a contributor it was a no-brainer.  The rewards were many.  The discovery of incredible new music that I would otherwise be oblivious to.  The opportunity to hone my writing (and interviewing) skills.  And a wonderful new way to bond with my gorgeous friend, Svet, whom I missed dreadfully.

Another, unexpected bonus was the chance to actually get to know some of the artists we were reviewing.  Both Svet and I got close to a couple of musicians, our admiration for them as musicians evolving into a mutual appreciation of each other as human beings.  I feel lucky to still be in contact with a couple of the people I reviewed, and to call them my friends.  But my experience pales with the rapport that Svet developed with Ferg.  They transcended the fan/artist bond that brought them together to form a true friendship (OK not BFF’s, but still, the type of friend you can message at 4am knowing they won’t get pissed off at you).  Svet describes meeting him for the first time, at one of his gigs:

I was so ridiculously nervous. It was pretty comical considering I was a confident woman almost twice this dude’s age.  I just walked up and said “Hello, I love your music” suddenly stuck in a weird, awkward moment with my musical hero.  Shaking like a leaf, I told him how super nervous I was and he asked “Why? Are you about to take a test?”.  I laughed, but didn’t tell him it was because he’d been in my head for hours a day, every day, for months.

When the gig finished Ferg came up to me and Andrew, and we started chatting. He gave me a record of his self-titled album. I was so blown away by this. The artist that I was obsessed with was not just a great musician but such an incredibly lovely and generous person. I told him about my blog and asked if I could interview him, and he agreed.

That was in early 2013. They did the interview and had a couple of drinks.  Over the next few years they sent each other emails and messages (yep, even at 4 o’clock in the morning) and had lots of diverse and interesting conversations at his gigs.

ferg-3

 

Earlier this month Fergus Miller, tragically, killed himself.  He was 26 years old, he was a beautiful person and he was an incredibly talented, self-taught musician who played almost every instrument on his debut album.  This ejo isn’t about his depression or about his suicide.  It’s about Ferg.  It’s a celebration of his spirit, which will always live on in his music.  It’s about making sure that as many people as possible can hear the songs that he gave life to.  It’s about music, and how it eclipses all the bullshit and rises above the pain of the person creating it (however excruciating), to become something that touches and connects people.  And perhaps even soothes their own pain.

Svet has, understandably, been devastated by Ferg’s death.  She cried for days after learning the terrible news from his wife, Anna (who must be utterly heartbroken).  The intensity of Svet’s grief caused her to be angry at herself though, reasoning that they hadn’t been close enough for her to have the right to be so sad:

“But after listening to his friends and family talk at the funeral and seeing all the touching tributes on social media, I understood my grief. Ferg was such a warm and sweet person. He gave so much of himself, through his music and his relationships with people, that even meeting him once felt like you’d known him for a lifetime.

We may not have known each other well but I will never forget his sincerity and kindness to me over the years. His music has played in my head pretty much every day since I first heard it in 2012. It inspired me to set up a music blog that resulted in some incredible experiences and connections with artists I respect and admire from all over the world.”

A regular series on 7 Seconds Of Sound was called “Give Me Five” where we asked musicians to talk about five songs of their choosing.  As a tribute to Ferg, I’ve asked Svet to select five of his songs, and to write a few words about each one.  I’d really love it if you would take the time to listen.

“Bliss” – Bored Nothing

“My second post on the blog featured Bored Nothing’s “Bliss”. I love this video as it shows what makes Fergus so bloody special. Here was this dude who just wanted to make music for the love of it. He doesn’t look like he has tonnes of cash to buy the most expensive instruments or put together an extravagant and stupidly shallow video clip. He just obviously loves making music and is lucky enough to have awesome friends who help him make video clips.  Even if he had millions to spend, his video clips would probably still be the same as there’s nothing better than hanging out with your mates and a bunch of ducks in the backyard.”

 

“Get Out Of Here” – Bored Nothing

“Get Out Of Here” and “Charlie’s Creek” are definitely my favourite Bored Nothing songs. Both songs have a nostalgic beauty to them and flawlessly balance Ferg’s soft voice with quiet instrumentals. He is a great storyteller of sad tales of love. It just blows me away that he was probably about 20 when he recorded these songs and possibly much younger when he wrote them. Maybe it takes the confusion of adolescence to write sweet songs like these but so many people try hard to capture the bewilderment and uncertainty of that stage of life and fail whereas Ferg seems to be able to do it effortlessly.

 

“We Lied” – Bored Nothing

This film clip is a perfect visual accompaniment for this gorgeously wistful song. It was filmed during Bored Nothing’s 2014 European tour.  It’s serene and simple with no hint of boastful pretense of life on the road. It feels a bit voyeuristic watching it as you’re not just observing a band during quite moments on tour but you’re watching sweet and intimate moments between Ferg and his girlfriend at the time, fellow musician Anna Davidson. They were married not long after this video was filmed.

 

“Public Phone” – Wedding Ring Bells

I once gave Ferg some completely unsolicited advice and luckily his gentlemanliness prevented him from telling me to get stuffed. I told him two things. The first was to definitely include subdued tracks like “Get Out Of Here” and “Charlie’s Creek” on his next album as the focus of those songs are his beautiful lyrics and his great vocals. The second piece of advice was to incorporate more cowbells in his music. Disappointingly, he never did the cowbell thing but after Bored Nothing broke up, the self-titled album for his next project Wedding Ring Bells was laden with softly sung, quietly played songs. Public Phone is my favourite track on that album, with its sweetly sung philosophical lyrics about love and the inevitability that it will end in bitterness and disappointment. It’s the perfect song to listen to while looking out the window on a rainy day.

 

“You Win, Baby” – Wedding Ring Bells

Ferg’s friend Marcus Sellars put together an incredibly touching playlist for Ferg’s funeral. He included a lovely demo version of “You Win, Baby” that sounded like it was recorded in his lounge room. Ferg was playing this song to his friends for the first time and there was some funny banter between Ferg and his mates at the beginning, including his friend Catie saying she needed to put on her glasses so she could hear better. It was so nice hearing his laughter and listening to how relaxed and happy he was. For a moment I forgot where I was and then he started singing and it hit me yet again that Ferg was gone, at which point I completely lost it and broke down in tears. 

ferg-2

 

For nearly two and a half years 7 Seconds Of Sound has been on indefinite hiatus.  During that time I’ve applied gentle pressure on Svet, every now and then, to perhaps revive the blog, because I miss it.  In a way, now that Ferg is gone, it’s almost like the closing of a circle.  Even though I never met him, Ferg had an effect on both Svet’s life and mine.  His life was short, but his influence was wide.  Rest in peace, Fergus Miller.

Ejo #60 – The Extraordinary People I Know: Karien Mulder

What is art?

Well, do you have all day? And several bottles of wine? I bet we still wouldn’t come to a consensus. How do you define something so personal, so illusory? I’ve been to galleries where the exhibits have not only left me cold, but actually perplexed. How is this considered art, I’ve thought to myself? And yet there are people fawning over the work. Gushing over it! By the same token I have stepped in front of a painting and been totally mesmerised, unable to look away. Unable to walk away. Lost in another world, another time. Transfixed.

Leo Tolstoy defined art thus:

“Art is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty or God; it is not, as the aesthetical physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man’s emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward the well-being of individuals and of humanity.”

And that’s about as good a definition as I’ve ever heard. I wonder how many bottles of wine he had to drink to come up with that one!

Now let’s get into some deep and meaningful stuff. Is Chryss Stathopoulos an artist? What is an artist? Someone who creates art, right? So, by definition, yes, I am an artist. But honestly, to call myself that feels like a lie. I create art, sure. I write regularly. I paint once in a while. I take photos when something catches my eye. But in my own opinion, that doesn’t make me an artist. A true artist is following a calling. Maybe I have a calling, but I sure as hell don’t follow it. I’m too married to my salary (right now) to give up being an air traffic controller (shackled by what I like to call the “golden handcuffs”). If I was a true artist I would say to hell with the money, to hell with the travel, to hell with the lifestyle and I would sit down and do everything I could to make a living from my “art”. But I don’t. So when I meet people who have done just that, I look at them with great awe and admiration.

One such person is the subject of this month’s ejo. Karien Mulder is a visual artist and designer in Dubai. I know her because our husbands work together. There are a lot of things about Karien that intrigue and inspire me. And most of them have to do with how different we are.

For instance, I didn’t grow up in a war zone. I spent my formative years in the leafy, Melbourne seaside suburb of Elwood, where the most exciting thing that ever happened to me was winning a spelling competition. Karien, on the other hand, grew up in Rundu, a town on the border of Namibia and Angola, during the South African Border War. Her parents were both in the military and her father was sometimes absent for months at a time. I imagine that as a young child she saw and experienced some pretty awful things. And as children do, she would escape the real world by playing. Her favourite memory of that time is spending hours chasing “sand lions”. She would patiently trick them out of the ground using a blade of grass to tickle the side of the sand funnel until they popped up. Only to put them back again. Another pastime she loved was drawing (particularly faces), something her mother taught her to do and something that would become a lifelong passion.

Catching sand lions

Catching sand lions

After they moved to South Africa (once the war was over), Karien’s mother allowed her to use the spare room of their house as a studio – and in a way it was this act of encouragement and support that really gave Karien a chance to flourish and grow and figure out that being an artist was what she really wanted to do. School was never a highlight for her, but the high school she transferred to in South Africa did have a fantastic art department – and so a confluence of opportunity presented itself to her. Art as a life choice.  She took hold of it and still hasn’t let go.

A young Karien hard at work in her studio.

A young Karien hard at work in her studio.

Having a mentor, I believe, is an important part of walking the artist’s path, and Karien has had a few along the way. People that she’s learned from, people who have guided her and inspired her. From the high school teacher with the shaved head and flowing skirts who taught her that actually creating work is more important than talking about it, to her best friend from whom she learned that every decision an artist makes should be towards creating better work. Karien’s most influential mentor though is the man who taught film at The Open Window School for Visual Communications, Pluto Panoussis. He opened her eyes to a whole other, moving, world, a world that she has confidently inhabited since.

But Karien had made a commitment to being an artist long before taking Pluto’s film class. At the tender age of 21 she packed up her car and drove to the South African coastal town of Langebaan with her cousin. She left because her father had just died. She left because she wasn’t enjoying the graphic design course she was three quarters of the way through. She left because it was the right move to make. It was a major step for her and I can’t imagine that she did it with no fear whatsoever. But she did it anyway. And while she was there, not only did she take part in some art exhibitions and work on her painting, developing her technique and skill. It was in Langebaan that Karien met the other love of her life, her husband Nic.

Nic and Karien are one of the most in love couples I’ve ever met. Their relationship is a beautiful thing and I admire them all the more for knowing just how different air traffic controllers are from artists (trust me, I really know). But they make it work – just like any relationship, you get what you put in. And to that effect Karien made a striking comment about it. When I asked her if there was a time when she knew she was going to be an artist she said, “Art is a soul commitment. Being an artist takes way more than being married. You commit to art more than you commit to another person”.

So while Karien keeps her art close to her, closer even than her husband, I keep mine as a mistress. Not even that. More like a booty call. Something I paw at when the urge takes me. Which is not what being an artist is about (though like all relationships, some nurturing and attention could improve things). Karien and I do share a creative spirit.  But I have squirrelled mine away, encasing it in a beautiful crystal box to protect it, only imagining what it must be like to create art as a life venture.  Karien, on the other hand, has taken her spirit, exposed it to the world, turned it over and thrown it up in the air (and probably up against a few walls too).  She made the difficult choice to be an artist.  She didn’t just dream about it.

I remember once taking part in a life drawing class. At the end of the session the instructor walked around checking everyone’s work. When she came to mine she stepped back and tilted her head. “Whose is this?” she asked and my heart skipped a beat. I put my hand up and she nodded. “This is really, really good,” she said. What I did with that compliment was allow it to fluff up my ego a little bit and then I stored it away in that nice little glass box where I could look at it from time to time, and admire it. That’s the difference between me and Karien. And that is why she is extraordinary.

Karien at work!

Karien at work!

You can check out Karien’s work at her WEBSITE.

You can also read an interview she recently did with Gulf Photo Plus HERE.

And here are a few of my favourite of Karien’s works. I hope to one day start a collection.

Karien 7 ‘To Pin a Ghost’ – Digital Image Composite on Paper

 Inspired by a fictional ghost story

Model & Make-up: Yowyn Du Plooy

Styling, Compositing and Photography: Karien Mulder

Wardrobe: Corsets SA http://www.corsetsa.co.za

Assistant: Louise Malan

You can check out the project here:

http://karienmulder.com/2014/07/20/ghosts-and-girls/

 

 

Karien 8 ‘Rouge Pony Logo Design’ – Digital Image Composite on Paper

Inspired by tattoos, headpieces and vintage tattoo design.

Illustration and Model: Karien Mulder

 

 

Karien 6‘Drawing a Day Image 5’ – Pencil on paper, photographed in Instagram.

Inspired by making a drawing every day for 50 days.

Part of a work in progress.

Model: Yowyn Du Plooy

 

Karien 5‘Folk Self-Portrait’ – Mixed media on a found object (book)

A personal visual diary made as part of a project while at The Open Window School.  The idea was to develop your own personal illustration style through the medium of your choice.  Karien chose to work with random objects and explore concepts of South African folk art.

You can view the project here:

https://www.behance.net/gallery/17520957/Drawing-from-Life-A-personal-Visual-Diary

 

 

Karien 4‘Digital Self-Portrait’ – Vector illustration.

“A vector self-portrait based on a portrait I saw of Frida Kahlo some time ago.  I am (like most) a massive fan of her work and I particularly like the placement of her portraits – it sometimes reminds me of a mug shot.

Mug shots also interest me, and I have made a series these self-portraits in different environments. I like the idea of a universal self and how the decorative space is the voice of the personality.  In this way the individual ironically disappears.”

 

Karien 3“Self Portrait with handmade headpiece” – Digital Image Composite

“I made a couple of headpieces and I wanted to take some photos and didn’t have an available model.”

You can check out the project here:

https://www.behance.net/gallery/16888345/THE-MAGIC-OF-THE-INANIMATE

 

Karien 2“Pen Doodle” – Pen on Paper

 

 

Karien 1“Doodle of a Concept for a video” – Watercolour on Paper