Sunday, 12 May 2013

Jaguars, Jaguars Everywhere

One of the inexplicable things I’ve done as late is rent studio space at the back of an art gallery here in Balgowlah.  Although reasonably priced, it’s something I can barely afford.  Nor do I have the time to use it much because I have to earn money in other ways so I can pay the rent.  The owner has encouraged me to write there but that has proved impossible.  It’s a friendly place, with a lot of chatting going on, and it’s hard to convey why writers need solitude.  (Or why I like most to write in bed.) None of other artists there need solitude; in fact they crave the company.  And I like it too, when I paint.

The room where I paint is at the furthest reach of the underground space.  I share it with Marijose, a Mexican filmmaker in her early 30s.  Gradually - ineluctably I’d say - her presence has influenced me profoundly.  Our conversations are the kind you’d expect between two migrants, allowing for the difference in our ages, and a kind of shared past.  Her parents had studied at UCLA as I had before moving to Australia, and the great metropolis of Los Angeles is of course Mexican in origin.  Back in the 1970s when I imagined an academic career for myself it was to be in Latin American history, but that like many others was a dream discarded.

I was tempted to rent the space in order to finish a large canvas I’d begun in the kitchen of our tiny flat, where it was awkward to paint and would be worse to varnish.  It was companion to another I’d done of the scene outside the window, a panoramic view of the chain of sparkling swimming pools stretching out to the horizon.  The inspiration for both of these was that marvellous John Cheever story ‘The Swimmer’ and the Frank Perry movie based on it.  Graham Greene once wrote that stories make better movies than novels do and I think he had a point.   Both versions of ‘The Swimmer’ are about Neddy Merrill, a man who had fluffed it in his suburban paradise.  Though set in New York’s Westchester County it has a strangely magic realist, surrealist cast to it.  Merrill sets himself the task to swim across town by swimming in one pool after another and as he does he swims into his past.  It’s a heartbreaking tale of failure and regret, with the soullessness of suburbia at the very core of it.
But when I moved the unfinished canvas to the studio and began to work on it Marijose was the first to comment.  ‘It looks just like Cuernavaca!’  That’s where her grandmother lived and where she spent many school vacations.  It’s also where in 1975 a good friend took a three-month intensive Spanish course to prepare for her stay in Mexico and our trip to Cuba.  It is also now, alas, a centre of the infamous Mexican drug wars. 
All these bits entered into mix and the canvas morphed from Sydney suburbia with Cheeverian echoes to my inchoate dreams of Mexico and what I have come to name it - ‘Cuernavaca’.  And it is clear that both canvasses have that feel about them.  They are Mexican, in style, in colour.  All of which, needless to say, was unconscious.
The next thing I tried was a still life of roses, with a bunch from the local Coles as models.  The roses framed the bottom of the canvas and the upper two-thirds was white.  I couldn’t decide whether to leave that as it was or to fill it in with something.  But what?  I tried irises, ala Van Gogh, but it was saccharine. Then I had an idea.  What about a jaguar?  Marijose agreed. A jaguar would be just the thing.  It would disturb the painting. It would obviate the sentimentality of the roses. The roses were okay.  Would attempting a jaguar spoil them?  I had to get the jaguar right.

I spent a good part of a year drawing and painting jaguars, as well as cougars or pumas, as they are in Mexico, though I’ve yet to get up the gumption to put one in the space left by the roses.  I did other paintings instead, studies for that real one.  Our space is filled with Mexico-inspired art, some of it completed, the rest works-in-progress.  And suddenly, after the year had ended, I began seeing jaguars.  Jaguars were everywhere.  Not the animals themselves but their skins, or reproductions of them.  Jaguar spots are everywhere.  They dance before my eyes.   I have seen them on bags, on scarves, on shoes, on boots, on umbrellas, on tights, on tops, on dresses, on hats, on underpants, on iPhone covers and upholstery.  Then I saw the underpants modelled in Vogue and the accessories featured in the style pages of weekend magazines.  Not a day goes by when I leave the house that I don’t see a woman with those spots covering her torso or her limbs or the bag she has slung over her arm.   Twenty years ago leopards were the rage.  Now it’s jaguars.  It’s given me a very eerie feeling, as if I had unleashed these millions of spots myself.
No doubt someone from the fashion world could tell me what it’s about.  Or maybe Jung is the one to go to for the answer.  Or perhaps Dr Freud.


  1. Sara! What a wonderful insight into your painting process, and the inspirations for the paintings. I feel privileged that you're sharing these on your blog. And the Jaguar and roses are wonderful. They are truly Blake's 'bed of crimson joy' somehow startled into being quite another kind of vegetation, where a large, meat-eating cat would be - well, not quite at home. I wonder why Marijose made that suggestion. It's a strange one, and yet obviously right.

  2. I just realized my mistake - that the jaguar was your idea, and Marijose agreed - still, a great idea!

  3. Thanks, Dorothy. The jaguar I put in with the roses is only photoshopped. I've yet to actually attack the canvas again. But the success of the photoshop gives me ideas, not to mention encouragement. I had another picture to put in but had trouble with the camera. All of this is so tricky. Imagine having to get on top of it all at my age - but guess it's good for the neurons. What I seem to have lost so far is the knack of getting the picture onto the Facebook post. It happened the first couple of times but not thereafter. And in the rush to get this posted and onto other things I forgot to put in the links - other than the picture ones.