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

I thought the anguish and erratic behaviours I acted out over the years were well disguised by my artist’s persona. In fact, I considered them now intimately entwined. I thought my own miserable Irish Catholic childhood gave my claim to being a scatty artist, legitimacy. Paradoxically, I also felt a fraud. That is until recently.

I have not collected many friends. Relationships have always been a difficult thing for me. But I have come to deeply value my current small pick of friends. Friends are expected to be honest with you. Long time friends are expected to be even more forthright. After all, 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. After all, 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 unsaid.

But he was right. I was messy. Erratic. Undisciplined.

Should I take this moment to apologise for the hurt I know as a self-centered, unkind teenager I inflicted on him? Had the fact we were still friends 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 being held up in front of me.

And those 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 try them on, own them and walk around with them for a bit. Maybe they will help explain some things I thought, if not everything.

And a realisation did eventually come to me. I have lived an undisciplined life. Yet I am a particularly disciplined artist. I have little discipline in my personal life but I have extreme discipline when it comes to my art and the way I run my life around it.

To me that is pretty disciplined - living primarily in service to one’s art, and in spite of a common belief that the artist’s life must be lived out for the sake of creativity and authenticity. Often you run into artists who live that life of sex, drugs and grift and at one point, you find that they are not actually producing that much art. They are living the life of the artist without the work.

But if you live the more disciplined kind of life - spending long hours in solitude, working to produce your art - sometimes one can use drink or take drugs or whatever they do in order to deal with the painful sides of this, to smooth things over. But so do people who do not produce art. It is not like only artists drink to cope. Doing so does not make you more interesting or creative - and it may even destroy you. Living out may not be worth the risk.

Thinking this through, it occurred to me that we could separate our artistic pain, the experience of feeling deeply, from leading a painful life, whatever its origins. One is not necessarily dependent on the other.

The creative solitude of the art studio

But we can also use our demons to pull our way through life. You can use them for good things instead of trying to let them destroy you. You can embrace in effect the pain of our human condition and creativity.

The Swedish director, writer and producer Ingmar Bergman (1918 - 2007) - also famously described as living a 'messy life' - wrote of this link. “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 can be difficult. Ingmar describes it as a flowing-over feeling, of containing too much, holding too much, feeling too much. We must examine experience until it becomes painful, excessive, overwhelming - too much humanity.

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

And yes, I know what this is like.

Ingmar Bergman Photo: The Independent

All human beings have these moments when we feel this outpouring, our “soul volume,” as Ingmar says, being pushed out from us like toothpaste from a tube. Everyone feels this, but artists try to capture the feeling through art, contain it within some permanent form of expression.

Ingmar places such great weight on solitude - 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 Ingmar 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 to be there. 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.

And that's what Brett has reminded me – you come from a painful, messy place, but discipline – dividing up your life, finding solitude has seen you through it to become a capable artist.

The process itself can be difficult and challenging. Sometimes it is hard to move past it all. But sometimes you have to push yourself, because by the end you might get somewhere new and worthwhile. That's the hard part, pushing through the bad.

Sometimes it seems, 'a happy childhood is hardly worth your while'. It is what happens next, bringing some order to a messy life, that may just make all the difference. In the least, I have one more story to add to the ‘unhappy childhood‘ genre.


The author (2019)

Main Photo: The Author (2019

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