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  • Writer's pictureAndrew McIlroy

'A happy childhood is hardly worth your while': My messy life as an artist

“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

Nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying school masters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.”

Frank McCourt, 'Angela's Ashes'

Frank McCourt was in his mid-60s when he sat down to commit his childhood memories to paper, producing his first and best-known book, ‘Angela’s Ashes’. Yet while enjoying critical acclaim, some critics questioned the truthfulness of his bleak depiction of childhood, diagnosing in him with a severe case of self-pity.

Throughout my adult life, I too questioned the value of my own unhappy childhood. In what way did it shape the person I am today? How much blaming could I get away with, passing fault back onto others? Was it all just something to endure, or was its contribution ultimately of higher importance?

Author Frank McCourt Photo: New York Times

Certainly, this puzzle both instinctively and consciously shaped many of the important life decisions - and the lesser ones - I faced along the way.

Of late I thought the childish anguish and erratic behaviours I acted out over the years had become well disguised by my artist’s persona. I liked to think that I had confidently separated out all my emotions and long banished my ghosts from whence they came.

Paradoxically, I also felt a fraud.

To be frank, I thought I had pretty well bluffed my way through it all.

Yes, that is until recently.

You may see as you get to know me that I don't have many friends. Relationships have always been a difficult thing for me. But I have come these days to deeply value my rather small selection of remaining friends.

Friends it is said are expected to be honest with you. Long time friends are expected to be even more forthright. Afterall, they are the ones you can count on to tell you the truth.

The author and classmates under the 'benevolent protection' of the Catholic Church (c1971) Photo: St Clare's Catholic Primary School, North Box Hill

The author's formative years were spent under the strict tutelage of the Christian Brothers at St Leo's CBC, Box Hill

"Growing up, you were, well … messy”, he said barely concealing his amusement. I put my cutlery down and stared straight back at him. I was not expecting this conversation over our catch-up lunch. Afterall, it had been over ten years since our last reunion and there were more pleasant things to talk about, surely. Ok, Brett and I had known each other for over forty years and held few secrets from each other but some things were better I thought left well alone.

But he was right. I was messy. Scatty. Undisciplined. Intolerant.

Should I take this moment to apologise for the hurt I know as a self-centered, unkind teenager I inflicted on him? Or had the fact we were still friends after all this time excused the sins of the past?

I wanted to say something, anything - preferably witty. But I couldn’t. I felt exposed. In that moment I was not the sophisticated worldly artist I wanted to portray. It was like a mirror had been held up in front of me.

And Brett's words bothered me for some time. Until I just decided to let them be. I was not going to explain it away, or excuse my behaviours. I suspect I could, but decided instead to let them sit. Maybe they will come to best explain some things I thought, if not everything. Afterall, I was just a kid back then.

In my head tor some time I just couldn't join the dots, to make better sense of it all.

But my old friend had brought this all into sharper relief.

A greater realisation did eventually hit me. I do still live a chaotic, undisciplined, messy life. That part of me prevails - except when it comes to my art and the discipline it involves.

All is not lost it seems. The two can co-exist it seems. But what is to be made of that?

My life today is lived primarily in service to my art, sharing the belief that the artist’s life must be lived out for the sake of creativity and authenticity. But does this life need to be so pained in order to genuinely feel and be creative I pondered.

Often you run into artists who claim that a life of sex, drugs and rock 'n roll is essential to who they are as artists. But at a some point, you find they are not actually producing that much art. They are living the life of the artist without the work.

Sure artists living out their artistic life may sometimes use drink or take drugs or whatever they do in order to deal with pain, to smooth things over. But so do people who do not produce art. It is not like only artists drink to cope.

The creative solitude of the art studio

We all have our demons, that we may shamefully hide from view. But we can also use them to pull our way through life. We can use them for good things instead of trying to let them destroy us. We can embrace in effect the joy and the pain of our human experience. But an artists responsibility goes beyond this.

The Swedish director, writer and producer Ingmar Bergman (1918 - 2007) - also famously described as living a 'messy life' - insightfully takes this common experience further.

"It's the human condition, you could say: memories, emotion, being, pain, even the simple fact of living, breathing. Everything at once: the human experience. We all have it, even the people who don’t - or can’t - express it through art. But it is the job of the artist to sit with our feelings, to be receptive to them, to examine them, turn them into narrative or paint or film.”

No doubting, this task can be difficult for artists. Bergman describes it as a 'flowing-over feeling', of containing too much, holding too much, feeling too much. We as artists must examine our experience until it becomes painful, excessive, overwhelming - too much humanity.

It is this painful existence that gives life to an artists work.

“It oozes out of me like a broken tube of toothpaste; it doesn’t want to stay within the confines of my body, Bergman explains. A strange feeling of weight and volume. Soul volume perhaps, which rises like clouds of smoke and envelops my body.”

Ingmar Bergman Photo: The Independent

Here, Bergman places great weight on solitude and the discipline that can accompany it - "where the artistic process unfolds in the lonely hours, when the work happens and you have to control that creative energy. You have to discipline yourself to fulfil it. And that work only happens alone."

For Bergman, solitude heightens artistic receptivity in a way that can be challenging and painful.

"When you sit there, alone and working, you get thrown back on yourself. Your life and your emotions, what you think and what you feel, are constantly thrown back on you. You cannot run away from your emotions and your memory and the material you are working on. Artistic solitude is a decision to turn and face these feelings, to sit with them for long periods of time."

Ingmar Bergman Photo: New York Times

"It takes the courage in this. You run into your own pettiness. Your own fears. You run into all kinds of ugly sides of yourself. But the things that you have experienced in your life become the art you produce. And there's no easy way to get to it, if you want to make art. "

Making art, being true to one's creativity is the life-giving means of giving order to and gaining clarity from the chaos that surrounds us. In this task it seems a happy childhood is indeed hardly worth your while.


The author (2019)

Main Photo: The Author (2019

Andrew McIlroy is a visual artist and arts writer, living and working in Melbourne, Australia


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