Unsubscribe / How automated email campaigns ruined email for me

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 Beth Kirby's email arrived this morning.

Beth Kirby's email arrived this morning.

There was a time, to be honest not that long ago, that I looked forward to opening up my email account(s). Sure, I subscribe to a fair few newsletters and alerts that ping my inbox and provide a sense of distraction, whether I am looking for it or not, from work related missives. But before 2018 no one hassled me. 

This year I'm being hassled.

Blame it on the energetic (read: manic) entrepreneur. They are the hungry lone wolf with an idea, a sense of mission and a sales target. Given my field, this entrepreneur – on the blogging/instagram/workshops/coffee table lifestyle brand book circuit – is always a female creative.

Usually, I am lured in with a freebie, a well worn and successful technique to get hold of my email address. Click for: SIMPLE WAYS TO RULE INSTAGRAM. Download the freebie guide to Strategy/Filters/Hashtags/Blah blah etc etc. 

Next thing I know I'm deep in someone's Sales Funnel. Now that I've got the guide, the one that told me I need to proper camera to take photos for my social media feed, I can purchase some Lightroom presets for only $270. Bargain. Do you know how hard they worked on perfecting those? Years! Do they work? 780,000 followers on Instagram say YES!

Don't I want to be successful? C'mon. There's room at the top. 

As a communications peep I'm particularly interested in decorum, and the shifting goal posts of culture. I live by the credo: try not to be a pest. This tribe though, schooled in Resilience training, are persistent. Persistence, I can only guess, must pay off. 

The Campaign Monitor/Mailchimp missives arrive several times a week. In the early days I'd email back,  messages like "You're coming on a bit strong. Could you you send me fewer emails?" Fewer emails is never an option. You are either all in or out. I unsubscribed.

Getting to know these frenemies has been instructive. I've become increasingly fascinated by the tone, techniques and language of the genre, the necessity of autobiography. Self declared experts are not wall flowers. There is always a before and after. Before either involves working for the Man – regular paid employment stymies creativity – and/or is a variation on the Lost Years. Unfocussed, gin-soaked, depressed or just aimless. Somehow I thought that's what the twenties were for; I was mistaken. After is awesome. Being Your Own Boss, Living Your Best Life. 

This is a space where failure is celebrated only in so far as it serves to strengthen the contrast with the success that follows. 

The thing is, with the traditional structures of moral and 'lifestyle' guidance – church and newspapers long in decline – there is undeniably a counsel vacuum. I'm as vulnerable as the next person to well meaning advice. I mean, how should I live my life?   

This morning after Beth Kirby shared some chestnuts with me, she's had some epiphanies (You CAN'T escape pain) and I read her plea to fill out a short survey so she can SERVE me better I started on her Guide to a Slow Morning Routine. It occurred to me, it's true, like a bunny in the headlights: I can't escape. The pain I feel when I look into my inbox, it's real.  










Work culture: self employment and doubt

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I’ve always been interested in organisational culture. In larger organisations where I’ve occupied Operational roles, I’ve gravitated to the HR component and the way explicit policies in fact underpin and enforce values. Is texting colleagues outside of work hours okay? Can you use some work time to exercise? Where does the organisation stand on morning tea breaks or shared lunches? That kind of thing. Healthy, safe, functional workplaces are a reflection of a thousand and one things put in place with humans who can successfully self-regulate their emotions, feel confident that situations can be repaired when they go the rails, and take responsibility and pride in what they do.

The great satisfaction, of course, is in working together to make something.

Working between organisations and self employment I’ve often reflected on the pleasures and drawbacks of both. This week I was painfully reminded of the drawbacks of being a Boss Lady when I faced a powerful and persistent sense of self doubt.

Horrid, miserable self doubt.

Which is weird, since I should have been on cloud nine. On four separate occasions clients said these very nice things about my work:

“Thank you, I love your work.”

“This is excellent stuff. The words go to  the very essence of CommunityOSH.”

“Love your work.”


While I’ve accepted the praise with grace I had trouble really taking the words to heart. It’s like I couldn’t hear them. 

Usually at the end of a project – when it’s gone well – it's cause for celebration: champagne, lunch out, cake for breakfast.

I just figure, if I can’t celebrate my small successes, who will? But instead of high five-ing myself recently I’ve literally just flipped a page in my notebook and got onto the next thing.

Joyless, sad sack me.

So I took a long hard look at my organisational culture:

~ Exercise encouraged
~ Morning tea a must
~ Communication boundaries in place

Tick. Tick. Tick. And then I realised, what I’m missing is the Boss Lady’s version of colleagues.

The stabilising force in this triangle – outside of myself and my clients – are my regular collaborators and creative colleagues. And right now they are roughly 800 kms to the east.  

It’s been hard to value my work because there’s been no one to share it with. The sense of “working together to make something” has been too fleeting.

In short, I’m facing the hardship of relocation, upheaval and transition. Transition – just here to share something that is probably not news to anyone – is just a bitch.*

Yeah, yeah, I know it takes time. In the meantime I'm doing the Boss Lady version of getting a boss.

I'm engaging a mentor. Stay tuned.


*Note, a bit of colourful language is okay, just not too much.

Image: Noel McKenna (more image details not avail) from the exhibition Landscape – Mapped, 1
8 November 2017 – 2 April 2018, Queensland Art Gallery


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On the phone recently my former studio parter, the highly creative and visionary craft practitioner Pauline Tran, had a question for me and this blog. 

"Have you written about flow?"

She meant creative flow, that term coined by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a key proponent of the positive psychology movement (if that doesn't mean anything to to you he is one of the USA based academic fraternity studying the pursuit of happiness, or pursuing happiness, or both). 

It isn't a subject I've tackled, though it's something I think about often and describe tangentially when I'm reflecting on creative projects and collaborations. Of course, we were both thinking about how fricken' hard it is to achieve this state while you are in that highly tactile stage of mothering small children – or children with disabilities – enmeshmed  in their emotional and physical needs.

What does it take, to find the space to create the conditions for creativity? I know that a sense of safety and solitude are important, or at the very least uninterrupted time – enough of it – to allow for energies to quieten and thoughts to sharpen. There has to be time for false starts and true procrastination.

Time, on its own, however, is not enough though.

Finding a way of transitioning from the one thousand and one demands of the here and into the realm of imagination, art making or laying words down requires passing over an uncomfortable threshold.

Changing roles without resorting to crazy-making compartmentalising (the kind that causes internal schisms) requires self awareness and discipline. But creativity makes additional demands. It asks its subjects to be vulnerable, receptive, and curious. 

I'm often gripped by agitation anticipating getting down to work. 

Every person engaged in creative work has their own way of smoothing the passage but utilising a "third space" to shift gear and decompress is critical. 

Driving – moving from home to studio setting – can be enough, so long as it takes time. Mindlessly gazing into the fridge and foraging around the pantry can be a good tactic. But my go-to is walking. Walking is the ticket. 

Of course once you're in, absorbed in the work, joys abound. I love the feeling of discovery, things coming together, exercising capability and skill. Facing and overcoming technical and other issues, no drama. It's in this state that I often have a rush of self recognition: as in I am communing with some essential part of myself and I'm least self conscious.

The capacity to find and inhabit this space is always a huge relief. Though I am able to find my way there, when I visualise creativity it is always in my mind's eye a beautiful, wild stallion: majestic, untamed and afraid. I'm aware that I have to approach it with utmost care and be very, very still in order to gain its trust. When I think about this metaphor – which is always vivid – I know that it's telling me in simple terms that that the horse might bolt but it also reminds me that creativity is unpredictable and in some regards a dangerous undertaking.  





The Florida Project

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The Florida Project (Sean Baker, 2017), an indie feature film set on the fringes of Disney World in Florida, documents the life of the working poor and unemployed – single mums, carers, the self-medicating and misfits –who get by, pay check-to-pay check, living in a constellation of down at heel hotels on the scrappy outskirts of the town.

Six-year-old Moonee (the incredible Brooklynn Prince) and her mum Haley (Bria Vinate) rent a hotel room crammed with their possessions, a blanket over the window and large a TV screen at the foot of the bed. The hotel is managed by the industrious Bobby (the wonderful Willem Dafoe) doing his best to enforce rules, undertake repairs and extract payments from his errant tenants.

While the film occasionally shifts perspective to Bobby or Haley Florida Project centres on vibrant and inventive Moonee as she roams the pastel hued hotel grounds, the adjacent swamplands and nearby highways in search of adventure with her gang of friends. These unsupervised excursions frame the small children against absurdly oversized shop fronts: gross theatrical backdrops, vernacular icons of mid twentieth century pop and consumer culture and exploits them to great effect. Occasionally they cross paths with civilians: horrified tourists landing at the hotel on the back of badly made online accommodation bookings, pedophiles looking to take advantage of the unsupervised children, hospitality workers.

I’ve not seen Baker’s other films so I can’t compare its tone its predecessors. He is a director influenced by vérité film traditions and improvisation; whether you like the film will depend on how you lean. 

Moonee happily accompanies her mum as they schlep a bag of perfumes around to the more salubrious hotels, dodging staff, and cajoling tourists into making a purchase with practiced flirtatious wit. She is largely oblivious to the downward direction of their lives. But Haley’s increasingly desperate measures to provide a roof over their head and the ramifications of her actions – ranging from social ostracization to the attention of the authorities – means the film unfolds with a grim inevitability.

What are we to make of Haley? With social skills that could easily garner her an appearance on the Hard Prisons reality TV series, she is difficult to like or empathise with. Neither neglectful nor caring she approaches parenting with the part-time commitment of a foul mouthed primary school buddy. And while she includes Moonee in her escapades, she has no capacity for modelling emotional regulation or an inclination to protect her daughter from the antisocial behaviour that surrounds them. 

The Florida Project draws a line between the stresses on Haley’s life and her behaviour – erratic, unbalanced, vengeful, inarticulate –  and asks that audiences view it in the context of her socioeconomic circumstances. It offers no back story. This is a young woman with no partner, no family, little in the way of friendship, no hopes and, shockingly for an American film, no dreams, either for herself or Moonee. There is just the present with its infinite setbacks and urgent problems.

Some of this is obscured by Brooklynn Prince’s winsome Moonee; her irrepressible vitality is a shield. If there is any saving grace is the film is careful not to exploit her vulnerability and innocence. With so few reprieves, I can’t tell you how grateful and relieved I was for this crucial artistic decision. This is a difficult film but it's also hard to watch.


How I learned to stop worrying and learned to enjoy having my photo taken

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 sweetpolka shoot  #1. Me, a bit terrified but surprised to be having fun. The auspicious outfit. Photo: Emma Byrnes.

sweetpolka shoot  #1. Me, a bit terrified but surprised to be having fun. The auspicious outfit. Photo: Emma Byrnes.

 Demonstrating  connectedness  for   banking not-for-profit Community 21. Photo: Emma Byrnes.

Demonstrating connectedness for banking not-for-profit Community 21. Photo: Emma Byrnes.

 Hand model for Tea & Sympathy. Photo: Emma Byrnes.

Hand model for Tea & Sympathy. Photo: Emma Byrnes.

 sweetpolka shoot #2.  Looking serious but actually feeling more relaxed this time round. Photo: Emma Byrnes.

sweetpolka shoot #2.  Looking serious but actually feeling more relaxed this time round. Photo: Emma Byrnes.

When I’m working with clients who are business owners I counsel them that if they can tolerate it, they should be prepared to be the face of their “brand” to some degree (working within the parameters of their temperament, sure). Given that most are passionate about their work and motivated by a deep sense of conviction talking about their business is a tap easier to turn on than off. Enthusiasm peaks just before I mention having photos taken. At that point it doesn’t so much as taper off as plunge.

Which I totally get. There was a time that just thinking about having my photo taken would bring me to sweat. Someone would hold up a camera to my face and the level of threat that I’d register was somewhere in the vicinity of a hand gun.

But a few years ago taking my freelance business to the next level I had to document my folio, a task that I approached with palpable dread. Designers are often their own worse clients. Just dragging my work out caused me actual physical pain. (I can’t break that down in 50 words or less but I think it has partly to do with my relationship with process and also a fear of judgement).

And while photographer Emma Byrnes and I had a long friendship to draw on, this was the first time we’d worked together. We didn’t really have a language for collaboration, no points on the board, though I sensed she was the right person for the job: intuitive, sensitive, and with a camera in her hand part psychologist, part animal trainer.

I thought we were going to lay the work flat and Emma would take a photo. Shoot. Repeat. But that’s not how it panned out. Firstly, Emma took a shine to my outfit. She thought I should appear in shot with my work, a surprising suggestion; the portfolio genre is disembodied, not counting the occasional hand holding book pages flat. But the idea will give you an insight into Emma’s approach, feeling her way through a given situation with openness and curiosity.

I had not bothered with my hair or worried with the makeup bag that morning. The lack of preparedness crossed my mind. But I placed trust in my photographer. I became a willing participant. Emma’s attitude was contagious. Before long I experienced a sensation I only reliably associate with writing and sometimes designing – when it’s going well, that is – a satisfying absorption and state of unselfconscious flow.

I know, “What the heck?”, right?

Since this shoot I’ve found myself moonlighting as a middle-aged model – no one is more surprised that myself by this turn of events – moving from behind the camera art directing shoots for clients and in front of it.

I have become a moving human prop for my photographer collaborator: the blurred person adding scale and texture to the photo for a small, seaside makers market, a hand model for a tea brand, a figure moving around oversized puzzle pieces for a community banking not-for-profit.

It turns out I really enjoy making images. I like it a lot. Here’s what I’ve learnt:

Taking photos takes time
Sure, it will be over more quickly if you rush it but capturing a good image takes time.

Be prepared
Think about the shots you want to get ahead of time. Be guided by how you intend to use them.

Go for tone over expression. Humans are too inconsistent to give good face. The tone of a series of photos is more memorable.

The “decisive” moment
In regards to portraiture, the idea that a photographer can capture some essential aspect of her subject – authentic, unguarded – might be true but is it helpful to the subject? I don’t think so. The thought is more terrifying than appealing.

Approach it like a performer
Like most stressful situations, it’s useful to assume a persona.

Show a willingness to try different things. Often an on-the-spot solution to a particular problem will emerge.

Attention to detail
Give your props and setting plenty of thought beforehand but be flexible on the day.

As in, have reasonable expectations. More than likely you will still look like yourself. I never expect more than six good shots out of a four hour shoot all going well. Some set ups will bear no fruit. It’s no big deal.

Even my celebrity friends are getting older. It’s okay. We’re all growing old.

Of course, this whole about face has prompted to ask: what else am I hating that I could be loving?

The Gold Rush

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I think most of us accept – embrace even – branding, that branch of marketing concerned with differentiating goods and services in the market place. But how prepared are we to extend the logic of branding to actual human beings? 

Writing a professional development workshop a couple of weeks ago on the subject of 'branding and online marketing for artists' got me thinking about this issue.

Mostly I was faced with my own discomfort. While I admire the inventive way that the mega famous engage with their own 'brand' (crossing over to a place where they talk about themselves in the third person – Hi Taylor! Sorry you had to kill Taylor – or creating a multitude of personas like Beyonce aka Fierce just to manage the internal stressors and/or respond creatively to dealing with their own image dominating global popular culture) what does any of this have to do with those of us more ordinary? I'm talking about regular creative peeps, those still doing their own shopping and most of their own chores.

But with my tween headed to 'VidCon' conference this weekend where teenagers will be signing up for sessions with the titles along the lines of  'Building Your Brand: Growing Your Audience' moderated by those in their early twenties I realise those reared in the age of social media consider this kind of thinking old hat, even obstructive.

What is the promise? What is the opportunity? Manage your online and social media presence well and you will get noticed. With a bit of patience and hunger you can monetize that attention. No study required. 

Sure, it's designed to do your nut in. Capitalism as it intersects with online culture is a confusing landscape, to be sure. Community and competition are difficult to distinguish. Same goes for authenticity and a carefully crafted self presentation. Freedom and enslavement, ditto.  

A digital detox is out of the question – social media is a garden that needs constant tending – but if things go pear shaped by all means get some fresh air. I find a podcast can get me over a hump. Just don't leave it too long, ok?









20th Century Women

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Though I've long been obsessed with American culture of the late 1970s and the very early 1980s – in terms of cinematic mis-en-scene, particularly costume and production design – I've never seen a film that addressed it directly. Mike Mills' new indie feature, 20th Century Women is set in Santa Barbara, California in 1979. Mills takes this historical moment and unpacks it with loving attention to the behaviours, attitudes, politics and cultural markers of the time.

While the film ostensibly tells the story of a single mother Dorothea Fields (a glorious, radiant, wry chain-smoking Annette Benning) and her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) as they negotiate his growing independence, it's also a loose portrait of women in his life – these are the 20th century women of the title – his childhood crush and object of affection (Elle Fanning) and their housemate, a twenty-something budding artist going through a personal crisis (Greta Gerwig) weathering it in the safety of their rambling mansion, a grand old building being restored by a middle-aged hippy mechanic (Billy Crudup).  

Overlook the slightly contrived set up; it doesn't make much sense. Mills is not a director all that interested in plot but what it lacks in narrative momentum or sense of urgency it more than compensates with a loose, open-ended energy and a commitment to exploring age, especially middle age, and the internal and external forces that shape us. He has an eye for dramatic images – a car sitting in a parking lot in flames, Jamie elegantly and perilously skateboarding down steep Santa Barbara boulevards – that render the ordinary poetic. 

Teenage Jamie likes to repeat that Dorothea was born in the Depression, a shorthand way of describing their difference in age as well the changed world he is coming of age in. When the motley crew sit down to watch President Jimmy Carter's speech on the 'Crisis of Confidence' about the rise of materialism in America Dorothea is the only one who agrees with its sentiments. But in many other respects she's a woman of her time: taking wealth creation into her own hands with a stocks portfolio, a professional job, and, in one very funny scene, cutting a dinner party short when the conversation steered by the younger women veers towards the subject of menstruation. 

While Dorothea worries about the kind of man Jamie will grow to be, Jamie concerns himself with what he perceives as Dorothea's loneliness. But is she lonely? I wasn't so certain. Jamie's worry exposes the difficulty of their relationship, the mutual love and worry that underpins it. I loved 20th Century Women's tenderness and claim it makes for the importance of sharing the things that excite us –  music, books, ideas – while maintaining that the very things that shape us also set us apart. And then there are the shirts. In its loving homage to the late 1970s it rifles through the wardrobes from the era and pulls out not one or two but too many good shirts to mention. 





The Dream State

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  Image: Sean Meilak,  Purple and Orange Arrangement , oil on linen, 51 x 51 cm, image courtesy of the artist and Niagara Galleries, Melbourne. 

Image: Sean Meilak, Purple and Orange Arrangement, oil on linen, 51 x 51 cm, image courtesy of the artist and Niagara Galleries, Melbourne. 

In Sean Meilak's recent body of work Europe and intergenerational bonds loom large. It’s in the family history, roots that reach from Malta to Italy and the city of Tripoli in Libya.

Across the Mediterranean Sea in the city of Bologna the painter Giorgio Morandi sits in his studio arranging vases, bowls, cups, candleholders into intriguing and affecting tableaux’s, putting paintbrush to canvas. His still life paintings – modest, metaphysical works filled with quiet intensity – emerge from this soil.

Post war, emigration, from the Old World to the New.

Italy, 2013. The ruins. The ruins started something. The Forum, once the centre of Roman public life, a place where civic life unfolded, now a collection of architectural pieces, fragments sitting in the earth. In their midst, a reckoning with mortality. What do they recall? The chalkiness of bones. And the bones? The chalkiness of plaster. From the ruins, but possibly from elsewhere – who knows? – emerge architectural fantasies like metaphysical dreams. They return as fragments: elegant arches, columns tipped on their side like cogs, stairs.

The cast objects are many and varied. Their idiom – an austere formal language of rectilinear and curved shapes – is enlivened by a playful engagement with scale, the inclusion of found objects. A feather. Wire. Cork. The palette is soft: pinks, greys, sand, stone. Muted shades. These elegant assembled configurations invoke a kind of wonder. Is that the effect of the miniature, uncanniness, appeal to the unconscious, their invitation to play? 

Like dreams, they cast shadows. 

Pencil on paper. Drawings zero in on materials and render them in micro detail. Another iteration of scale. On the sheet, ripples, waves, lines, approximate a kinaesthetic energy. Movement in mono. 

Milan, 1981. Ettore Sottsass founds The Memphis Group, a design and architecture collective, that releases colourful, decorative, playful objects: furniture, fabrics, ceramics, glass and metal that alludes to previous design and art movements, the Antiquities, the Bauhaus. Some write it off as pastiche.  

The paintings. In them elegant formal investigations have come into contact with the detritus of life. The mundane and the precious assume a similar importance: a cylindrical cardboard roll wedged against marble. A crumpled plastic bag resting on a plinth.

What lessons are there in the cinema, in Red Desert (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964) and Querelle (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982)? Is it the way these films utilise mis-en-scene? Their scenographic mastery? Certainly they share an understanding in which the physical world is moulded to reflect the interior psychology of the performers. In Red Desert Guiliana (Monica Vitti) lies in her bedroom, its walls, floor, every object, every feature a gradation of pink. In Querelle the desperate protagonist stands in the desert. What has Antonioni done but painted the desert, literally painted the desert, a lurid colour. Oh, the emotion of artifice.

Circle back to the New World. A funeral. Father and son face one another, a casket between them, as it is lowered into the earth. What acknowledgement passes between them? A life. One life. Vitae.

– AZ

(This essay appears in Sean Meilak's catalogue for Marble Park)

Marble Park
Sean Meilak
31 January – 25 February 2017
Niagara Galleries
245 Punt Road Richmond VIC 3121


Our hearts that beat as one

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I always undertake a period of reflection at this time of year. It's not exactly circled in the calendar, in fact it's largely an unconscious process. But I can roughly break it down into 'giving thanks' and 'getting sad', followed by a sense of gratitude. 

Giving Thanks. Picture me driving with the windows down handing out large Toblerone's and bottles of Moet to those on the fringes of my friendship circle that displayed generosity and kindness. This year it included a school mum with a home yoga studio who invited me to use the space as often as I liked and the excellent Nat Thomas, whose blog Natty Solo, a natural born investigator and agitator that has taken a blow torch to the gender inequities of artworld in true style.  

Just as I'm gearing up for Christmas Cheer and Getting Jolly, confusingly I find myself Getting Sad. This always takes me by surprise. I usually cotton on when I catch tears leaking down my face for no apparent reason. But this year there are reasons a-plenty to cry. The feature length film script that didn't make it into production -– only fourteen years of hopes and dreams in that 90 pages – now consigned to the metaphorical trash. And children who are properly unwell. 

This was a year when I stepped off the hamster wheel and into deep time or 'only being' in the parlance of wellness guru Elizabeth Lesser by way of Albert Einstein. Just being. There was no other way. 

It was a year in which I often felt isolated; bad times can be like that. Sharing problems felt like a risky proposition. For every friend who met my woes with an open heart there were just as many who looked at me with pity, glad that misfortune had not visited them. 

It was a year in which I became softer – and a year in which I toughened up. 

Once my tear ducts, the very ones that had put in touch with my feelings of disappointment and pain ran dry, I wandered into the living room where I found my man playing the bass guitar.

Thump, thump, thump. 

The sound was like a beating heart. My heart. His heart. Our hearts.