One of the most powerful and challenging aspects of our From This Place project was the Essence shoot where we asked each artist to work with us to curate their own unique portrait for the book and exhibition.
As we explored what From This Place was actually about, it became clear that ‘being seen’ and ‘being heard’ were key themes. At times this was an uncomfortable prickly space for all of us and I am so humbled by the bravery these women showed as they supported our vision.
The Essence photo was born from the feeling that there was something more, something unseen, something held in the inner life as a secret ambition or vulnerability. In the sharing of that inner and most soulful place, the artists of From This Place have shown us their ‘essence’ the thing that makes them who they truly are.
And from that place, we view these portraits as expressions of magnificence and beauty. These are not glamour portraits, touched up to make people look impossibly appealing, these are real and honest, and they are portraits that have the power to move you.
What we didn’t realise when we started these shoots was how much the artist would bring themselves to the shoot, how much their individual creativity would shine through – the ceramicist painted her body in slip clay, we had golden water nymphs, magical goddesses, women of the forest and cups of tea. In each portrait, their art was truly present.
It wasn’t easy for many of them. Most of us are uncomfortable in front of a camera and being the sole subject matter only amplifies the discomfort. There were reservations, and transformations around body image and the impossible pressures of the standards of beauty in our world. There were slow intricate steps from wanting to hide behind to being seen and for many of the women this represented a profound shift in how they felt about themselves. Who are you without special effects, makeup, Photoshop, a carefully mediated image? The answer is you are you, and there is no place to hide.
We couldn’t ask others to do what we weren’t prepared to do ourselves so both Angela and I also had an Essence portrait. Angela’s truest self created a ritual around shaving her head and all that represented for her in moving forward in life. I put my portrait off again and again while I tried to figure out how I wanted to reveal myself. Every time it started to feel too complex, too many props (I didn’t really need my antique typewriter surely), too much posturing (I want to be seen like this but not this, left not right, from behind not in front), in these clothes, or maybe these or these, I had to capture myself and strip it all right back. In the end it was a rainy 10 degree day and my only desire was to be outside in nature with my horse. I ended up in the dam in the paddock where my horse lives (she wasn’t having anything to do with the light reflector) covered in mud. A kind of primal birthing out of the waters, at one with the earth, the water, the sky. It carried the same feeling as when I first walked out of the desert near Alice Springs having spent 5 days alone vision questing. Dirty but wanting for absolutely nothing, so full and happy and alive in my skin.
Angela rang me late that night after she had previewed the photos. As we chatted she sent me image after image until there was one that both of us fell silent on.
That’s the one.
We knew it instinctively. This portrait we chose for the exhibition makes me think of conjuring water. It feels right on the edge of uncomfortable for me but that is what makes it real. Later that night I revisited a short piece of prose I had written about ‘the water writing my hand’. I’d written it months before the first artist interview for the book after taking a walk beside the Yarra River in Warburton. I’d had no intention of including it in the book but suddenly I saw those words and this image in perfect harmony. Something had worked magic under the surface and I couldn’t deny it. That prose became the preface of our book From This Place and it gives me pause every time I read it.
How deeply our stories run beneath the surface, not just for my portrait but for every Essence portrait in our book. Angela has a profoundly beautiful way of capturing women in their fullness so that the world can bask in the knowing that we are all amazing, gifted, powerful creatures of life. I stand in awe of her and all the women who said yes to sharing their most essential self with us.