Navigating by Light: An Interview with Kate Lyons-Dawson

I haven’t blogged for a while because I’ve been busy the last few months preparing for an art exhibition, Navigating by Light, with my sister and fellow artist, Kate Lyons-Dawson. And now it’s on! Yes, as I type, our paintings and drawings are hanging on a wall in Fox Hole Small Bar in Sydney CBD, where they’ll be until 12 October. Exciting times!

In the lead-up to the show – and okay, hanging the show and opening the show – Kate and I were both pretty busy, plus I’m in Sydney and she’s on the South Coast. This interview is a bit of a catch-up and my attempt to pick Kate’s brain about our current show and her art practice in general.

What is it that keeps you going with art? Apart from the blind panic in the face of impending deadlines 🙂

Delving into art keeps you so interested in looking. Once I extricated the idea of art from that of perfection and the dissatisfaction this entailed, I began to enjoy the process; it’s a journey and has become integral to my approach to life.

You seem to use a lot of blue in your works. Actually we both do. Why do you think you do – what comes first, colour or subject? Both?

I think personal colour comes a lot from place and for me sky and sea fills my whole vision with a neverending blue colour chart. But my blue palette rests on an earthly range of rusty hues and seem always interwoven in my work.

What part does light play in your work?

Colour wouldn’t exist without light and I only regret that I don’t have the eyesight of a bird, as we humans, miss so much pattern and colour. But I never grow tired watching what I am able to see.

A Trace of Day, oil on canvas, 465 x 690 mm, 2015.
A Trace of Day, oil on canvas, 465 x 690 mm, 2015.

Tell me about the day you took the photo/s for your painting A Trace of Day.

It was on my semi-regular walk at day’s end, the last of June. It was a bit late, but the cloud cover made it seem even darker and as I entered the track to the beach, I could see it was an amazing moment. The sun was lighting up a band of cloud on the horizon and as it lowered, further layers were revealed. For the whole length of the beach and back, it just continued to deliver – colour and drama – it was atomic. As I was leaving I turned for one farewell moment and caught sight of ‘A Trace of Day’. In all the wonder I’d failed to notice the moon had risen.

I think you said Luminous Flux (one of my faves) came out of the same afternoon as A Trace of Day. What’s going on in this painting? It feels like a beautiful ocean sandwich.

Luminous Flux, oil on canvas, 615 x 470 mm, 2015.
Luminous Flux, oil on canvas, 615 x 470 mm, 2015.

Luminous Flux was a response to those first moments I walked onto the beach. I was trying to get as close to the action of the horizon clouds while still indicating this was a landscape. But you’re right, I think it became something else by zooming in and limiting the panorama – who knows? Possibly a sandwich. Yeah, I love it too, and I would also like to paint the moment just before the wave crashed, where the water was just a dark indigo band, creating a whole different dynamic.

The labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral, France, and Mt Keira in Wollongong (featured in Axis Mundi) are subjects you keep returning to – what draws you to them?

Ever since I read Rebecca Solnit’s excellent book about the history of walking, Wanderlust, I have been obsessed with labyrinths but especially the one paved into the floor of Chartres Cathedral. As Solnit writes, ‘A labyrinth is a symbolic journey or a map of the route to salvation, but it is a map we can really walk on, blurring the difference between map and world.’ I was intrigued at the idea of a walking meditation at a time in my life where a need for action coexisted with the search for meaning and peace.

Axis Mundi, oil on canvas, 460 x 600 mm, 2015.
Axis Mundi, oil on canvas, 460 x 600 mm, 2015.

Far from the medieval churches of Europe my personal form of walking meditation centred on the local escarpment, particularly Mt Keira, and I researched some of the local Dreaming about the West Wind and his six daughters: five of which became the Five Islands and Geera, who in her loneliness once her sisters were thrown into the sea, transformed into the mountain. Coming from our big family of five girls and two boys created a certain fellow feeling with that story. I’ve read since that a personal Dreaming depends on where your mother was when she first felt you in the womb. The ancestors who live in that place give you ‘anima’ and that concept resonated with my deep connection to my local surrounds.

I think I know the answer to this but maybe I don’t! Do you think an artwork’s ever finished?

Haha! We’ve had many discussions on this topic; always inconclusive. My feeling is that there’s a point at which you can see that you’ve achieved your objective or aim of your work. But then there’s this small band where you can push it a little further, achieving either that special moment or, going too far, you lose it forever. Maybe the elusive thing we value in art falls somewhere in that zone.

How do you know when an idea or image can be developed into an artwork?

Almost anything can be developed into an artwork. Sometimes the ideas with the merest possibility can be the most effective, but by looking hard you enter the moment. Sometimes it can come from pushing yourself to just make marks, rather than be invested in the subject, or times where a subject grown familiar is seen anew. I was lucky to be in Chartres Cathedral for the Easter light celebration and my theoretical idea of the labyrinth was forever changed when I walked its length by candlelight.

I remember last year at our gaffa gallery show there was that moment after hanging the works where we had that weird feeling of surprise, like we hadn’t fully anticipated what that would be like! And, at least for me, hadn’t completely considered how our works would sit together – though it worked out really well. Seeing our works up at the Fox Hole now, how do you feel?

Kate making some last adjustments to hanging the show at Fox Hole.
Kate making some last adjustments to hanging the show at Fox Hole.

Having not worked together or seen the other’s progress as we prepared for the show, it was a special feeling seeing our works alongside each other at gaffa. Yes, somehow part surprising, part relief; pleased to see we were in tune although coming from such different approaches.

That moment of truth at the Fox Hole made me realise that until it’s up on the wall you’ve been holding your breath. It was a lovely moment. It’s always nice to be exposed with other like-minded souls.

What are you cooking up next?

It’d be good to explore further my atomic sunset series and other walk-related images. Each time I approach a work attempting to loosen up my technique, I end up holding on to the realistic and the detail, so I’d like to push this a lot more. I’m also keen to collaborate on a work with you – it could strain the relationship a bit, but then, we can take it 😉 What do you say?

You got it, sister. I’m not sure how we’d go about it but hey, why let that stop us!

Navigating by Light runs at the Fox Hole until Monday 12 October.

Station to Station: film review

499903062_640I spontaneously went Train Mad* on the weekend (god it’s so tempting to say loco) and it all started with seeing Station to Station at Sydney Film Festival.

It’s totally amazing. I don’t want to talk it up too much but it’s The Best Film I’ve Ever Seen. Okay it’s not, but it’s still very, very good and an incredibly different film experience. If you want to take a trip without jumping on a train or dropping acid, this is the crazy journey movie for you.

In a nutshell, Station to Station is part of a public art project – 62 1-minute films of a 24-day rail journey across America, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and 10 ‘happenings’ that took place along the way. It’s the brainchild of Californian artist Doug Aitken and involves a host of artists and musicians, all of whom rode the train at some point and contributed creatively to the project in one way or another.

The train I rode home on later that night. It was okay I guess, but could’ve done with a recording studio and some swivel chairs.

Giorgio Moroder. Giorgio Moroder’s 1970s moustache. Beck, Cat Power, Patti Smith, Ed Ruscha, Thurston Moore and Greg the train driver who loves his job all make appearances. There’s a mesmerising whipcracker leading a posse through a train station, Victor and his growling dog sitting in the Mojave Desert, talking about old times when the railway first arrived, the beautiful music of Black Monks of Mississippi, and much more.

Essentially the movie’s about what it means to be a creative person in the 21st century, and ways of expressing ourselves. It touches on inspiration, creative processes, artistic philosophies, technology, and how to create a fricking awesome disco yurt. It’s not really about how the project came about, how much of it was planned and how much actually just “happened” – for that, you can go watch this insightful interview with Doug Aitken, charmingly hepped up on caffeine.

Was it annoying watching 1-minute instalments over an hour-ish? No, there was way too much visual and aural stimulation to captivate you. It was break-neck paced and sped you along on the ride. But yes, I did want to know more about each film and seek out further information about it, and sure, it did take a little while to adjust to the style of the film. It had a certain rhythm. Some people found it soothing, like the woman next to me who nodded off a number of times. Meanwhile I sat there wide-eyed, trying to absorb as much as possible like a bug-eyed, radar-dish-eared sponge . . . person.

Okay so it’s a tiny bit of a sausagefest and it’d be nice to hear more female perspectives, plus it could do with more sweet marching bands. And okay, I found out later it’s *cough sponsored by Levi’s cough*, which made me start to feel a little uneasy, especially when I read some bad press surrounding this fact and one of the happenings. But I’m just going to glossss right over that with a flip ‘hey, someone’s gotta pay for it’ and cling to the sheer delight of the actual film-watching experience.

I loved the heck out of it and wanted to watch it ten more times and then do a whole lot of research on everyone and everything in it, especially where I can find a custom-made ‘light sculpture’ train, decked out in pretty lights, that can map the landscape it travels on with lasers!

If you’re a musician, artist, writer, filmmaker, any type of creator, or you love smoke, installations, landscapes, movement, lights, songs or, dammit, you just love trains – if you’re an alive person, watch this movie. Four and a half stars from me.

This review was largely tapped out at Town Hall train station and on the Inner West line, Sydney.

*Train-themed things I did after watching this film:

I rode this 1890s loco on the weekend. It was cool fun once I got away from the coal dust - could never have been a steam punk.
I rode this 1890s loco on the weekend. It was cool fun once I got away from the coal dust – could never have been a steam punk.
  • listened to train music (‘Carriages’ by Tiny Ruins, ‘Train Song’ by Feist and Ben Gibbard, ‘Train Song’ by Vashti Bunyan)
  • read train poetry (‘Travelling’ by Ania Walwicz)
  • rode a steam train to western Sydney and back
  • researched the Ghan and Indian Pacific trips up-down/across Australia.

Cloudhead: four-hour drawing marathon

Pastel on card.
Pastel on card.

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of looking up. One day recently I walked past a wall on which someone had graffitied ‘Look up!’ so I did. I’ve thought about it and done it pretty regularly since then. Where I live, you’re likely to see the underbelly of a plane, almost too close for comfort, and near my work there’s a lot of construction going on and fun stuff like a building shaped like a paper bag. I see a lot of people standing around looking up at that. Inside my work, in a museum (my new dream job!), I see more underbellies of planes, old ones this time, spaceships, helicopters. Out the window there are cranes towering over rubble, working on new apartment blocks in the heart of the city. Interesting times.

Ink on mat board.
Ink on mat board.

But mostly when I’m looking up I’m watching clouds. Clouds are amaaazing. Actually clouds in themselves can be hell boring but the sunlight on them can make magic. I’ve been drawing, painting and photographing clouds for a number of years, now that I think about it. I have a bank of cloud images, a backlog I’m slowly trying to turn into artworks. Over sea and dam, city and suburbia and dairy country, Australian clouds, Thai clouds, Cambodian clouds, clouds from planes . . . especially looking forward to doing something with those babies.

Pastel on card.
Pastel on card.

My faves are sunrise/sunset and crazy-arsed storm clouds. That’s why I love Turner and Clarice Beckett – they were out there in the elements, strapping themselves to masts or getting pneumonia from exposure in order to record the beauty of bad weather. Though as romantic as that sounds, I’ll probably stop short of risking my life for my art.

Recently I set myself a four-hour drawing marathon challenge, to help me through my cloud backlog and because my drawing muscles needed a workout. The task was from Robert Kaupelis’ Experimental Drawing, a great art book from 1980 that’s now considered a classic. The task is ‘50 Non-stop Drawings in Four Hours’, which pretty much explains the whole concept.

Pencil and pastel on paper.
Pencil and pastel on paper.

So I set aside an afternoon, got a bunch of different-sized papers together – some were card, some cartridge, watercolour paper, some with ripped edges, some toned with ink or wash beforehand – and a wide array of mediums. Then I went for it, using a handful of photos for reference and basically trying to come to grips with that age-old question: ‘What the hell even is a cloud?’

I managed about 25, and a lot of them are small, gestural and super rough. It was a great exercise, though not many actually look that great or are anywhere near finished drawings. They can’t be, if you’re spending less than five minutes on each. But one I’ve already sent as a postcard, and a few I might work up into a proper drawing, or use as a study for a painting.

Watercolour and pencil on Arches paper.

Thanks for the idea, Bob (who has moved on to the great drawing school in the sky). Think I’ll try another marathon again sometime soon.

Melbourne International Comedy Festival: Some funny shows I saw

Last week I was down south of the border in Old Melbourne Town and saw a whole bunch of great, mostly ‘alternative’ (whatever that means) shows at Melbourne International Comedy Festival. A number of them are still performing down there as I type, or are soon to be seen at Sydney Comedy Festival (the one nobody seems to know about), late April/early May. So Melburnians and Sydneysiders, get your arses out of your home theatres, or wherever your arses are, and check out some live shows why not.

Alasdair Tremblay-Birchall and his Amazing Disappearing Enthusiasm (Can–Aus)

Alasdair Tremblay-Birchall’s stomach can be turned into a bum at any time.

Alasdair Tremblay-Birchall’s amiable, understated demeanour and vaguely James Spader voice will lure you in and amuse you with his collection of random stories. The show centres around the idea that he hates feeling awful and the ways in which he seeks to avoid this. Navigating lady parts, unique methods of dealing with loud flatmates and working out that his gut can actually be moulded into a bum are some of the highly entertaining avenues that he explores to achieve his goal. 

Eric Hutton: Eat My Talk! (Aus)

Eric Hutton – one of the shiniest cybermen in the Australian alternative comedy scene.

‘Eric Hutton has long been considered one of the shiniest cybermen in the Australian alternative comedy scene’ says Eric’s blurb, getting my award for best line in the MICF program. Unfortunately, Melbourne seemed largely oblivious to this on the night we went to see him, with the small audience being made up of other comedians and friends. He therefore performed a hilarious sort of deconstructed anti-show, giving amusing insights into his jokes/stories, sharing background anecdotes and regaling us with tales of various audience responses to his material. The highlights were the bits in character, especially the climactic dramatisation when Eric Hutton, President of the World, tries to take on ISIS with his bare hands – a crazy-hilarious scene that stayed with me throughout the festival. Amazing stuff.

Discover Ben Target (UK)

ben target
Discover Ben Target and it will change your life. (Not guaranteed.)

If you’re the kind of person who hates audience interaction at comedy shows, this might not be for you. However, I am exactly that kind of person and I loved this. We walked into the room . . . except we couldn’t – there was a toilet-paper web across the aisle. We were told by the sound guy not to break anything and had to clamber through it Entrapment-style to our seats. Which were jammed so closely together that we had to separate out the rows before we could even sit down. Then Ben Target rode in on his bicycle in his dishevelled cream suit and used an unnecessary stepladder to climb the one step to the stage. The show unravelled beautifully from there into a well-orchestrated, prop-heavy, awkwardness-inducing, nightmarish team-building exercise. It was one of the best comedy shows I’ve ever experienced.

Mark Watson: Flaws (UK)

mark watson
Mark Watson manages to mine his inner demons and find laughs.

Last time I saw Mark Watson was what seems a looong time ago, in good ol’ 2008, at Hifi Festival Bar where he hosted a 24-hour stand-up show. One of the best things about him is his manic ability to make you feel like you’ve seen three shows for the price of one – he manages to cram several sentences (and jokes) into the space that people normally reserve for one. It was great to see him again, although there was a different vibe this time – it was clear he’d been through the wringer in the past year or so. Part of his undoing came at the premiere of the Thomas the Tank Engine movie, and with assistance from audience members he recreated this hideous experience for our entertainment. The usually very upbeat, rapid-firing Brit has ably transformed some of his darkest moments into sometimes poignant, mostly laugh-out-loud anecdotes – no mean feat.

Cordon Review: The best Belgian TV show you’ve never seen, probably

Grab a nanna rug, a whisky straight-up, an emergency snack stash, and settle in with the gang for the duration.

While you’re waiting patiently for the next season of The Bridge or the next WTF instalment of Fortitude, perhaps you’ll consider Belgian series Cordon. This gripping 10-part drama/thriller show speculates about what might happen in Antwerp should a fatal virus break out in the city and start spreading through the population.

It’s probably going to work out fine.

Episode 1 kicks off with Anwar, an Afghan refugee, being freed from a shipping container by his cousins – that all seems above board. Then it’s just another ordinary day around town, really.

Friendly police commissioner Lex turns up at his girlfriend Jana’s flat with a moving truck and pal (and fellow cop) Jokke, only to find Jana now has cold feet about moving in with him; Ine, a pregnant teen, is busted by her folks trying to run away to join her boyfriend in Spain. (Run, Ine, Run!) And Miss Katja arrives with a busload of schoolkids on an excursion, inexplicably at NIIZA, the centre for infectious diseases. Fun! Oh, and Anwar’s also at the centre, having shots for some random respiratory infection, as you do when you’re an illegal immigrant new in town. He’s probably fine.

Where things get interesting is, of course, here at NIIZA. Suddenly two doctors are sick, displaying rapidly developing flu-like symptoms. But not the good flu, the BAD FLU. The alarm is raised, Miss Katja and kids are quickly ushered out of the centre and get back on the bus – PHEW – but then are immediately taken off again as the centre attempts to avoid an outbreak.

Gryspeerts: when will it be his turn to shine?

Meanwhile, grizzled journo Gryspeerts receives a tip about the school trip incident and alerts his boss that shit is going down. No dice for Gryspeerts, his boss isn’t interested. Poor Gryspeerts.

Meanwhile meanwhile, Sabine Lommers, Minister for Public Health and all-round ball-breaker, holds an emergency briefing. The upshot? A ‘cordon sanitaire’ will be set up in the city around the infection zone – nobody goes in or out – effective immediately and in place for 48 hours. This is a 10-episode show though, called Cordon, so get comfortable, peeps!

Jokke is stuck in the cordon and not impressed one bit.

Jokke has the unhappy task of rounding up potentially infected people and returning them to NIIZA; eg. Anwar. Then when he’s about to leave NIIZA for home, uh-oh! Lock-in time. Will Jana, after a change of heart, make it over to Lex’s place and beyond the cordon zone? Will Ine be reunited with her Spanish sweetheart? How will Miss Katja put up  with those brats for 48 hours?

This show is a real nailbiter. I enjoyed it a lot, though ‘enjoyed’ is the wrong word – it’s grim stuff, let’s face it. Cordon has an ominous, unsettled feel when you realise no one is safe, and it’s rooted in reality (Ebola, anyone?) and is therefore scarier, to my mind. The cold, stark way it’s shot reminded me a bit of the movie Contagion, and the cordon becomes claustrophobic and worse pretty early on. The series is mostly plot driven but I found myself caught up in the characters’ stories and the way their story strands intersect. You want them all – OK, most – to make it, but you know deep down that’s not how it’s gonna play out.

I tried to find out more about the show, looking for Jokke heartthrob memes and whatnot, but there’s not a huge amount online. But I did read that the US have bought Cordon and are working on their own series set in Atlanta, soo . . . there’s that. They’ve cast black actors for the leads (including David Gyasi from Interstellar) so could be interesting?

I’d catch the original series while you can – all episodes are still on SBS on Demand at the time of writing [Ed: it’s now available on Stan, people, so get to it]. Grab a nanna rug, a whisky straight-up, an emergency snack stash, and settle in with the gang for the duration.

Go Team Gryspeerts.

Welcome to the Happiness Hotel*

Once upon a time, a high school teacher left her job to travel and work overseas, in ‘any job but teaching’. To cut a long, not-fairy-story short, I found myself in Galway, working as an ‘accommodation assistant’ at . . . let’s call it the Grand Galway Hotel.

I had no idea what an accommodation assistant was, as will become obvious when I tell you that it means cleaner. Which I’m telling you now. The couple of lines in the Galway Advertiser’s Situations Vacant section hadn’t clued me in, otherwise I might have gone elsewhere – although I was broke, and it wasn’t a great time to find a job, heading into summer with most positions already taken by fellow travellers.

So yep, in my mid-twenties I was a cleaner in one of Galway’s most terrible hotels: terrible partly because they were possibly the last hotel in town still accepting sporting teams and hen and buck groups – eeeesh – and partly because the people running the hotel were a bunch of dicks.

Our hotel lobby. I spent a LOT of time dusting that fountain in the mornings. Oh wait, that's the Shangri La.
Our hotel lobby. I spent a LOT of time dusting that fountain in the mornings. Oh wait, that’s the Shangri La.

What was good about it:

  • not much.
  • but seriously. The best thing about it was making several friends from different countries (mostly Eastern Europe), such good friends that I probably stayed on in the job for another month or two instead of telling the manager to stick it.
  • free biscuits. Okay, stolen biscuits.
  • free lunch. Which was not that great and which one of my colleagues refused to ever eat again, after she’d seen ‘something bad’ happen during the preparation of the lunch. She refused to tell us what it was because we wouldn’t have eaten it either. In hindsight, maybe I should have pressed her for details . . . In hindsight, maybe there really is no such thing as a free lunch.
  • picking up Irish lingo; eg. ‘I’m awful for the chocolate’ (I love chocolate), ‘Sound’ (cool).
  • laughing at the way Irish colleagues said ‘garage’ and ‘film’ (it’s got two syllables!); all of us, Irish colleagues as well, comparing pronunciation of ‘turkey’ and deciding (me included) that Australians say it the worst.
  • on days when there weren’t a lot of rooms to clean, we’d make hideous instant coffee and chat while we tidied. Or we’d watch TV, something universal like the world weather report or MTV, drink coffee and eat biscuits, and my friend Egle and I would joke around while Julia napped on one of the beds. The two of them together were a superfast cleaning machine, so they could afford the time. If they finished early, they’d come help me.

    Us in our beautiful aprons and domestic servant up-dos. In Edwardian times.
  • There were days when we cleaned rooms after hen nights and found plastic penises and fairy wings, or leftover alcohol and hefty tips. One day Egle and Julia, both giggling, dragged Katka, our supervisor and good friend, and me into 107. In the bath was a clear plasticky, vaguely oval-shaped thing, about the size of a toddler, quivering like jelly. Egle and Julia laughed while poking it to make it wobble about, as Katka and I looked on, mystified. It turned out they had found a packet of condoms while making the bed, and had filled one up with water. Julia’s vigorous poking caused it to explode, spraying us and most of the bathroom with water. It was hilarious on an otherwise boring day.
  • There’s something vaguely comforting about making up rooms for strangers. Smoothing pristine white linen over the mattresses, making envelope corners and tucking the edges in tightly; folding fluffy towels and hanging them on the bathroom rails; placing pyjamas under pillows; wiping down enamel surfaces until they gleam. There was a strange, anonymous relationship between us and the guests, involving a certain care on our part . . . it was somehow reassuring.
  • I’ve found some nice, even heartwarming things in rooms: a note in 313 saying, God loves you. Thank you for taking care of us, signed by some group called Peace of Jesus and weighted with a two Euro coin; in another room a paper bag, taped up with To the girl who cleaned our room scrawled on it, a swirly-patterned nylon scarf inside. (It was hideous. I treasured it anyway. Though not enough to wear it.)

    There were always hijinks galore at the Grand Galway Hotel.
    There were always hijinks galore at the Grand Galway Hotel.

Slightly less pleasant experiences:

  • having to somehow fish socks out of a cigarette-and-urine-filled toilet bowl.
  • finding someone had wet the bed in a possible drunken stupor (‘Just turn over the mattress,’ I was told by management. If that was the policy for a 3-star hotel, I did NOT ever want to stay in a 1-star room).
  • suspecting a creepy porter of harassing younger female colleagues and not being able to do anything about it.
  • same creepy porter saying to Katka: “You shouldn’t be supervisor: you’re no good. It should have been given to someone smart. A man.” When we called him out on it, he called us all fucking bitches. We reported him and you know what happened? He was given a holiday. Management paid him a low wage in cash so they didn’t fire him. See above comment re: management being dicks.
  • discovering used condoms in various places. Katka had once found one in a kettle. In fact Katka had a few horror stories like that, such as finding shit not in but next to the toilet. The worst one I heard was when she found a businessman who’d had a heart attack during the night and fallen out of bed. Dead.

The worst thing that happened while I was there was when a cleaner called Jess opened 310, thinking it had been vacated. The guest had hanged himself in the bathroom. He was a 30-year-old Albanian who’d overstayed his visa and was being deported the next day. Whatever was waiting for him in his home country had been worse than death. I went with Katka to air out the room after the body had been taken away and the room had been blessed; everything else had been left mostly untouched. (The Irish: their first priority will be to bless a room, not clear away implements the deceased used to harm themselves.) It was not pretty.

Jess couldn’t face working in the hotel anymore, coming back only to give our manager (Mary C – the C is for Classy) notice. Mary C was seemingly all understanding, but quietly relieved as she’d accidentally hired too many accommodation assistants and had been planning to fire Jess anyway. After Jess left, Mary C laughed and said, “What an eejit. The stupid girl can’t even come into the hotel!” (Oh sorry! The C was for Cowface.)

Last I knew, 310 was being used to store furniture during renovations and everyone gave it a wide berth. I wouldn’t be surprised if all these years later, it was still out of circulation. People were pretty spooked (not Mary C, though, but I’m not sure she’s a person).

Any lessons to be learned from my experience? Read all job ads carefully, kids! And then at the interview (meeting, whatever), if you still don’t know what the job is exactly, ask. And then (and even after the first day, or anytime), you can still say no. Or leave. Or hey, stick it out and make friends and eat aalll the free biscuits. Then one day when you’ve had enough, and you know you’re about to quit and management isn’t watching, grab a colleague, run down the fire escape, jump over the wall and leg it to the nearest bar serving happy hour cocktails. You will not regret it. Those cocktails will be the sweetest you ever tasted.

Out of curiosity, I just googled the Grand Galway Hotel – it’s now allegedly 4 and a half stars, yet sitting pretty in the bottom half of Galway’s hotels on Trip Advisor. From the look of the reviews, nothing’s changed – except in the social media age, everyone now knows what it’s really like. Neat.

One more lesson: when visiting Galway, make sure you do your research first. Splash out on a really good hotel.

*’If that’s the Happiness Hotel, I’d hate to see what the sad one looks like’ –– Fozzie Bear, The Great Muppet Caper.

Summer (lions) reading: Amy Poehler’s ‘Yes Please’ and Nick Offerman’s ‘Paddle Your Own Canoe’

I’ve been getting my comedy reading on. A few months ago, I got hooked on Parks and Recreation. If you haven’t seen this show (now in its final season) because you live under a rock like me, it’s great; in the vein of the UK series The Office, it was initially meant to be a spinoff of the US version.

Set in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana, it centres on super-positive public servant Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), dedicated to kicking arse in the bureaucratic nightmare that is the Parks and Recreation office – slowed right down by her deadpan boss, Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman). They’re ably supported by a talented ensemble cast and the writing is brilliant – that great mix of crazy-funny and heartbreakingly poignant.

'"Yes please" sounds powerful and concise. It's a response and a request. It is not about being a good girl; it is about being a real woman.'
‘”Yes please” sounds powerful and concise. It’s a response and a request. It is not about being a good girl; it is about being a real woman.’

Anyhoo: reading. I’d heard great things about Amy Poehler’s recently released book, Yes Please, and managed to get my hands on a copy before Christmas (bless you, Alex). I hesitate to call it a memoir, though it largely is. It’s also a bit of an advice column by the funniest agony aunt around, and part photo album/part scrapbook, which is lovely and adds a personal, candid touch.

The main narrative tracks Amy’s start in the world of improvisation through to performing in Chicago’s Upright Citizens Brigade and various other groups; she also covers her time on Saturday Night Live and Parks and Rec. This thread is intercut with chapters about other aspects of her life, such as childbirth (‘Is it too late to flood the hospital room? Or turn it into a really fun foam party?’), being a parent, and her experience of the entertainment industry (‘Hollywood is a crazy biz and I know the biz cuz the biz iz in my blood’). There are special-guest chapters written by others, such as her mum who writes about the day she gave birth to Amy; Amy then urges readers to seek out their own birth stories from their mothers (and even provides lined pages where these stories can be written – too cute).

Yes Please really appealed to me, for a number of reasons. Amy Poehler’s kiiind of my contemporary, though a bit older; she covers a lot about growing up that I can identify with (eg. Judy Blume, sleepovers, terrible 80s fashion). I really appreciate and am trying to apply her creative advice (about writing but could be applied to any art form): ‘You do it because the doing of it is the thing. The doing is the thing. The talking and worrying and thinking is not the thing.’ (That’s a shame because I’m a goddamn expert in the latter.)

I love Amy’s straight-talking style – she sticks up for aging, and takes well-aimed shots at plastic surgery (in haiku form, of course): ‘Hey, shooting poison/in your face does not keep you/from turning fifty’. (Now that I think about it, poetry is a wonderfully employed device throughout; the development of her friendship and comedy partnership with Tina Fey, her ‘comedy wife’, reaches its climax with an acrostic poem no less.) In a very classy move, she outright refuses to speak directly about her clearly painful divorce from Will Arnett, instead focusing on the lighter side by pitching a bunch of self-help divorce books, such as ‘The holidays are ruined! This book is one page long and just contains that one sentence’.

She writes warmly about how she came to be Leslie Knope in Parks and Rec AND THEN I CAN’T READ ANYMORE BECAUSE I’M ONLY UP TO SEASON 4 SO SPOILERS GAH. But she does have a list at the end of the chapter where she praises each cast member in turn and, like the rest of the book, it’s written in a down-to-earth, heartfelt, grateful way that’s just really lovely. The gushing is tempered with gems like: ‘Nick Offerman is someone I would run to when zombies attack because he can build a boat and is great company.’

'I am your average meat, potatoes and corn-fed human male, with a propensity for smart-assery, who has managed to make a rewarding vocation out of, essentially, making funny faces and falling down.'
‘I am your average meat, potatoes and corn-fed human male, with a propensity for smart-assery, who has managed to make a rewarding vocation out of, essentially, making funny faces and falling down.’

Speaking of whom, Nick Offerman brought out his own book in 2013 and I was lucky enough to receive a copy for Christmas from my partner, who searched all of Sydney’s bookshops during Hell’s shopping period. (Bless you, Shane.) Paddle Your Own Canoe: One man’s fundamentals for delicious living is a great companion read for Yes Please, for obvious reasons but also because both Nick and Amy place emphasis on their acting/comedy careers as art. They take themselves and their work as artists seriously. Not in a pretentious way or at the cost of having fun, but they work very hard at it and have a healthy respect for themselves and their peers. These books are also two parts of the larger story about the little show that could – Parks and Recreation was often on the chopping block but managed to survive and thrive, which is great news for anyone who needs laughter in their lives (ie. ALL OF US).

Along with drinking your fill of manly-man advice from the guy who plays arguably TV’s manliest moustachioed man, Ron Swanson, readers gain insight into Nick’s life from his birth in the middle of a cornfield in Illinois; growing up, working hard but also finding time to get up to no good; moving out to Chicago in a used Subaru to pursue acting; eking out a living building theatre sets during lean times; and working his way up oh-so-gradually from bit parts, to appearing full-frontally in HBO’s incredible series Deadwood, then *cough* Miss Congeniality 2 and roles in Sundance contenders, to eventually becoming the Ron Swanson you know and love.

While you’re being amused by Nick’s humorous anecdotes, you also reap the rewards of his varied life experience. He places emphasis on finding a hobby – nay, a discipline – and working away at it, whether it’s your dream to act or fashion a canoe you can paddle off in. (He runs the Offerman Woodshop alongside his acting career.) As a bonus, there is rich advice for wooing the ladies, and he pays tribute throughout to his talented actress wife, Megan Mullally – perhaps sometimes too eloquently (do I need to know exactly what they get up to in the woods?), but on the whole it’s adorable.

The main themes underlying Nick’s uniquely deadpan and wickedly humorous book are living life while holding true to good old-fashioned values, minding your manners and, like Amy, having gratitude for all that life has given you. ‘Paddle your own canoe’ is his variation on beat your own drum, and, if you have the opportunity, do literally make and play your own drum as well (or canoe – anything, really: ‘Cook, play music, sew, carve. Shit, BeDazzle. Maybe not BeDazzle’).

Both books are refreshing, positive, often laugh-out-loud antidotes to a lot of the . . . well, crap of modern life, celebrity, and traditional and social media at the moment (with the exception of Parks and Rec castmate Aziz Ansari getting all up in Rupert Murdoch’s racist grill on Twitter this past week – taking the Parks and Rec on-set ‘No Assholes’ policy and applying it like a blueprint for the world: beautiful stuff).

They are in some ways like a soothing balm. The message is to trust yourself. Create what you want to create. And, like Amy Poehler says, be whoever you are.