My world and images

Selwyn Rodda
By Selwyn Rodda

There it was, in the grass. An undulating,  glistening gray streak, weaving through the green to the stream. Even if the sky had split asunder revealing paradise itself, my five year old eyes wouldn't have budged. This was a miracle of 'alien' life, something wholly removed from the ordinary, cause for rapturous attention. And then suddenly I wanted to hold it, to see it, to drink in every quicksilver detail, with an urgency that matched its own to conjoin with the slipstream of water nearby. Snapping out of my transfixed state, I rushed to the eel and attempted to pick it up. Like water, like wet smoke, it simply slipped out of my grasp. I tried again, squeezing as hard as I dared, not wanting to hurt it. Nothing I did could slow it, each desperate fingerlock the fish evaded, spilling from my fingers like a tube of rubbery wet soap, the gap from eel to water closing rapidly. And then it was gone, for one moment flopping through air from bank to its element as though it was surrendering itself and in a flash it had swum out of sight, leaving me at once elated and frustrated. Next time you won't get away!

Art is a slippery business. I think I'm onto something, I catch a scent, a glimpse of something enticing, something redolent of meaning and mystery in equal portion. And I pursue it headlong, to possess it, yet not in the sense of ownership, rather as one possessed, to be one with the elusive object, or subject, of desire, or simply to delight in its divine, unkowable autonomy. Yet of course I cannot still the eel. It is already beyond me. And my art is a snapshot, an approximation, a best guess, of my having been touched by something that shook my world and loosened the stays of possibility. It's as though my imagination were a raging torrent, sometimes a billabong deep, dark and cool, full of elusive life, of fin, scale, eye, flipper, mouth, teeth and flesh. Its denizens are shy and the flashes they afford me are the speck of sand you try your best to embellish and lacquer into a pearl. And all the while mystery is the ultimate 'truth' of art, the wonder of not knowing and the joy in being (when inclement weather, atmospherically or humanly induced, doesn't get to you). While many humans propose, artists compose. "Compose yourself!" is as fine an enjoinder as any.

I started drawing as a young child, in response to and as an alleviation of anxiety. I had an abusive father and words were things that could be traps, that could hurt, that could lead to violence. Images were, in glorious contrast, freeing, abiding inviolate  in a world of my own yet beyond my own, they didn't even need captioning, and to this day I feel put upon when it comes to naming a drawing or a painting. I do so reluctantly, as though a title were a semantic cage, a linguistic prison, a shutting down of possibilities. This is perhaps why I am so drawn to poetry: language used with the utmost precision against precision, language used as possibility, living language, suggesting dimensions beyond mere denotation (though when you order a hot coffee you want it hot! Barista beware!).  Images were also a way of processing emotions that were difficult to put into words. Children know this instinctually, that images speak. Artists I am interested in and moved by know this, retain this knowledge, and I am left cold and unmoved by 'visual art' that clearly derives from the intellect, from conceptual calculation, that illustrates concepts and does not well from the mind's knowing eye and the hands attempt to embody these phantasmagoria, be they observed directly or imagined out of cloth, however whole, holy or holey. Books that thrilled me, such as The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Alice books, James and the Giant Peach, Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Iron Giant, all had worlds beyond the mundane, passages into a higher dimension of imagination and thrilling possibility. Somewhere a brute with clenched fists couldn't reach. Yes, this casts art as wish-fulfilment. But art is the world reconstituted, an act of restoration, defragmentation, healing, abreaction, purgation,  justification, truth-telling, re-inclusion, the settling of scores (Dante, oh boy), the writing and righting of wrongs, redecorating, reordering, concentrating, refining, defining and realigning. The world made whole again, given back to us, like the eel in our grasp for one sacred moment, even as we slip day by day form its own grasp on us.

I now live, after surviving into my 49th year (and someone close to me reminded me that is a privilege in a world where many don't), in a seasonally alternately freezing and boiling country town, Creswick, out of Ballarat in Victoria, Australia. Freezing now, and I mean I can barely type. We leave food out because it is warmer in the fridge. Drawing is still solace and self-extension, and processing, letting images well up without judgment, analysis or calculation (and I forget the cold when I draw, a bonus not to be sniffed at). What rises of itself might have its own value that imposition and intellect would dispel. Also, one drawing a day seems to keep a sense of futility at bay. My life cannot be a disaster so long as I can draw. It is the gift that so far keeps giving. I live in a house that does a better job of keeping the heat out than the cold, in desperate need of renovation, which I spend my time doing when scant money allows, built in 1951 with various extensions, attended by a magnificent, shade-yielding oak with symbiotic black truffles surfacing like Cerberus' pungent droppings.

I live with my two delightfully opinionated teenage boys and I care for my elderly mother who spends her days making sense of her long, eventful and remarkable life (from the Ukraine to Austria to Australia, encounters with Soviet thugs, Nazis, a husband or two and life as a G.P. pathologist and psychiatrist, history, histrionics, body and soul) by writing her autobiography. The 'fam' is completed by an old dog with a fatty tumour on one paw like a swollen testicle (vet advice is not to operate), a human-adverse  cat and a human-hostile snake. And oodles of invertebrates, assorted birds (hordes of quarrelsome, punkish cockatoos), kangaroos, the occasional frog and the Hadean screeches of fornicating possums round out the picture. Did I mention the cold?!

I hope to get back into painting again one day soon, but not having a proper studio is a barrier and drawing is so much more immediate, less messy and makes me feel connected to a long unbroken chain of human expression. When I draw, a splendid, slow, uni-tasking, contemplative, totally absorbing  yet thrilling activity, I feel kinship with the 'cave artists' and everyone since who has blunted or dragged an implement on or across a surface to bring forth a visual 'truth' about the world, the mind, the soul and everything and anything that cannot be figured in words or song.

I'm still trying to catch that eel. Hopefully I'll never learn.


  1. Fantastic read and images, this guy is a special artist with a special mind :-)

  2. Thanks for the insights, Selwyn. I've always loved your images and now know more about where you're coming from. Inspiring and endearing. More power to you.
    Much love!


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