Michael Leunig

Thursday, 4 June 2009

I am not an Artist. I have never had a show. I don't paint on canvasses. I never will. But everything Michael Leunig said about the artistic life had me nodding my head this evening because I happen to be to the very crusts of my toes an artist. When I sculpt clay I am an artist, when I sculpt words, when I cook dinner, when I look at the world, when I plan my day with the creative, the life, in mind. When I fall down the meaning well (yes, Mr Eric Maisel, I concede I am a meaning slut) and drag myself up in the space of five minutes from despair back to equilibrium, via some sort of creative approach, I am an artist. And so are you.

It's been a bit of culture shock getting back into work after a four-day weekend. The train ride tonight felt like a giant shithole of people who all hate each other's guts. It is tiresome living in a city in the twenty first century. People's conceptions seem so limited on what it is to be human.

Or perhaps I make the biggest mistake of all in presuming this about other people. Make the mistake of presuming people are as flatpacked as the culture conforms themselves into. Maybe this is the worst sort of creepiness about our culture. It could lead to all sorts of horrible evil.

And so tonight on the train I felt lonely. It feels like it's some sort of great failure to admit you feel lonely. Only losers feel lonely. I must say, it has been quite lonely returning to a quiet life living alone, with a job that gets me down due to its computer-focussed nature, and a cold culture. A culture where I suspect almost everybody feels lonely.

I was almost not going to go tonight to see and hear Michael Leunig speak at the Victoria University Rotunda session, of conversations with Australian writers. I am so glad I did. It only took about 10 minutes of him talking before I felt this overwhelming urge to weep. We forget so easily what we are, and to have it spoken back to you by someone who is not afraid to talk of love and innocence - it felt too much. I admit I was halfway through a glass of red wine by that time but I swear that had little consequence :) It's not Mr Leunig's speaking style that does it so much - he fiddles with his hands, he stumbles over his words, he is nervous. I can see the twinges of depression hitting his eyes in certain lights. I can see the anxiety that twaddles the fingers.

It's what he says that makes me want to cry. All this talk about the culture being too sharp and hard, and the ideas that come from your brain often falling flat until you dip down into your guts and your subconscious and into infantility and somehow drag something back up that is good, that has twinkles in its eye, and the fact that Leunig was sitting in a university that would not have let him in when he applied there and at which, if he did attend, he would want to do a Bachelor of Eye Twinkles. It was because there was someone up there talking about God, about cultural holy fools and the role cartoonists fit within that, about enchantment, about whimsy, about writing from the gut. And the duck. Of course he talked about the duck.

And it's also how he can manage to say these sorts of things and it doesn't fall embarrassing or twee. Instead it makes me want to weep.

But what I liked the best was the way he talked about the concreter he saw in the city one day who was concreting the edge of a gutter. He was doing it with love, crafting it. And yes, it sounds "wet", to use Leunig's word, to talk about this sort of thing. That's the problem. Many things sound wet these days which ultimately are about love, and craft, and the divine living within the human. And I'm so glad I went tonight because I need to keep reconnecting with the things that give life its breath in a culture that considers such things as side issues.

One of the audience asked him why he came here tonight. Contained within his typically charmingly rambling answer was the fact that he grew up in the area, that he could look out the window and see the Maribyrnong where he used to hang with his dad, that Henry Lawson slept in Footscray Park one night and maybe wrote a poem in there, that the Leunig Street round the corner was named not after him but after his dad. And that he had spent most of the week alone and how lovely it was to be there in this room with these people after he had been feeling a bit lonely. And I felt much less lonely :)

And so the end of the night was the converse of the lonely train ride at its beginning. I love you, Mr Leunig. A man so nondescript that even though I have seen him before (I saw him and Gyan doing a spot together at a writers' festival a few years ago where he drew pictures while Gyan sang the stories) I sort of forgot what he looked like. A man who looked much more beautiful at the end of the night than when I first saw him because the divine and the whimsical enveloped him like gossamer.

All those people on the train are just as beautiful. We must begin to change our culture which demeans us at every turn. Makes us forget who we are.

Mr Leunig helps me remember :)


  1. i am so jealous!
    recently finished reading his book The Lot
    and practically gave up underlining things cos the whole book would nearly have been lined!

    you know, i always think of leunig as someone who makes me smile and laugh, but when you said the word 'weep' it resonated in my gut so strongly

    perhaps that is the only way we can react when someone presents us with the gift of uncommon commonsense

  2. Good post...a prophet of our age:) I actually was at the tattoo studio just yesterday getting a leunig picture on my chest, but had to postpone my appointment due to going a bit grey at the sight of a woman with a motorised needle:) Im hoping that having spent the last four days in bed with the flu and not eating anything but cuppa soup might have had more to do with it than the prospect of an hour of pain

    Spending any time in Adelaide will fuck you up like that:)

  3. Kel - yes, I think he makes the culture weep in some ways, doesn't he? He talked a lot about the cartoonist playing the role of that which is not spoken about in society.

    Would have been nice if you were there :)

    Monk - wow, a Leunig tattoo. Sounds cool.

  4. I loved this post....I wish I could have sat next to you and listened to him last night (or tonight or tomorrow night or whatever the heck it is with our time difference!)

  5. Barbara - now, that would have been cool :) I wonder if you would have been wanting to weep as well? It was this really intense feeling. Bizarre. Just felt like such a sweet sort of mood wth him talking about whimsy and enchantment :)

  6. This was my introduction to Michael Leunig! I've looked over his cartoons, & am watching a couple of videos. I am drawn to anything whimsical!

    Without a doubt, you're an artist - especially with words. Also, everywhere I turn now, I see mandalas...

  7. Sherry - I am honoured to have been your introduction point to Mr Leunig. He is a national treasure of ours :)

    Yeah, whimsy doth rocketh, don't it.

    Thank you for that compliment. I appreciate it. While I feel that way to the bottom of my toes, I also feel like a pretender who is going to get caught out. I guess that's just the space, huh *shrug*

    That's interesting mandalas are speaking to you. Perhaps you should do one :)

    Do you have a blog, Sherry baby? (come, come, come out tonight)

  8. I don't have a blog, Sue, but maybe someday. (I have to work up courage, just to leave a comment!!).

    Love the new look.

  9. PS from 2014: I have painted on canvases. Well, canvas from a pad, not framed and stretched and stuff. But I have, and they're on my wall, and I love them, not because they're technically awesome but because being creative is awesome :)


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