I spent a lot of time being sick this week. Coughing my heart out, razor blades in my throat, you know the drill. So I took a great big pause from the busy-ness of my life, gave in and stayed in bed. Between the sleeping and waking, my eyes often came to rest on a photo of my father and me that sits on the mantelpiece in my bedroom. The tangled mess of my thoughts and dreams eventually swirled into this post below. Sept 1 is Fathers Day in Australia, so the timing is perfect. In writing it, I seem to have clicked into place one of the missing puzzles of my life. My father was a public figure and much loved by many, so I must preface this by saying what I’ve written is an unravelling of threads of my childhood memories, and of my relationship with him and his creativity. It is not biographical, it is personal.
“All fathers are intimidating…Once a man has children, for the rest of his life, his attitude is, ‘to hell with the world, I can make my own people. I’ll eat whatever I want, I’ll wear whatever I want, and I’ll create whoever I want.’” –Jerry Seinfeld
My father was charming and funny and loving and generous. Amongst many other things, he was a designer, a gemmologist, a ceramicist, a teacher, a photographer, a painter and a visionary. He told stories, had an amazing sense of humour and a penetrating and uncanny insight into people. I admired my father, I loved him, but he was also mercurial and volatile and really, really, REALLY hard to live with. So for most of my life, I was terribly afraid of him.
The mystery of why my father was the way he was has been an endless topic of conjecture in our family. His mother died when he was a baby; he lost his youngest brother to some terrible disease as a teenager; his father and mother were uncle and niece (a tradition in some parts of India); he had an undiagnosed bipolar disorder; geniuses are often a bit crazy.
Our family home in Penang sprawled on top of a small hill on a large block of land. It was HUGE, with two wings, two sitting rooms that adjoined each other to form a great hall, really high ceilings and LOTS of wall space.
And every single wall was covered in art.
You’d think that was a good thing, but my mother found most of it highly objectionable. That’s because it was almost all my father’s work, and he had a very ‘particular’ style. She was ok with his early art, it was accessible, realistic, literal and safe. But then there was his foray into modern art. These he was really proud of: the abstract stuff. Messy splotches. Meaningless scratches. Paintings that didn’t look like anything. In the 60s and 70s in Malaysia (think 40s and 50s in the Western world), this kind of art was pretty out there. Our family home was different and intriguing. (Part of the living room wall was painted with broad violet stripes).
There was one really huge piece that he hung in the very centre of the house: a cool modern work that mum found exceptionally hideous! Large, purple, decidedly non-literal, it certainly belonged to the second style. I don’t remember if I liked it. I do remember the energy of it, and how it aroused strong emotions in people. My father used to say that it didn’t matter if people liked his work, just that they felt something when they looked at it. My mother certainly felt something about that painting.
The art, the charisma, the complicated back story. My father fit almost perfectly the stereotype of many of the gifted, tormented painters of the last century, except that he didn’t make a living from his art. He was a dentist.
Yep, a dentist.
His list of professional achievements is long and impressive but sadly, much of it is now lost. He burnt most of his papers in a fit of rage and despair when he lost his ability to read and write after his first stroke. Although I was dimly aware of them, as a child I never took much notice of the accolades and accomplishments that characterised his career. But I do remember the passion with which he spoke about dentistry.
He rarely performed any dental work on me, but when he did, it was with a gentle and kind hand – the only time that I remember being close to him feeling no anxiety, only complete trust. It’s probably why I feel strangely calm when I sit in a dental chair. (It should also be noted that my dentist is amazing. And the biggest patron of my art is also another gifted dentist!)
My father had four daughters and no sons, and this might be just about the worst thing that could happen in an Indian family. I think he delighted in this point of difference from others of his ethnicity. One of his favourite pastimes was to tell anyone who would listen that “daughters are better than sons”, and proceed to extol our beauty and brains while we squirmed.
When he died in 1992 I was a young woman in a different country just starting the adventure of having my own family. The first words I said to my husband Greg were, “My father died. Oh God, I’m so sorry, I didn’t love him enough.” It’s funny how guilt is so often the first response to news of death.
I was the only one of his children that truly embraced not only his passion for photography (my earliest visual art practice), but the unique combination of science and art that characterised his life. Google just told me that my father was the first Malaysian to earn a doctorate in Dental Science. So I’m an artist with a Masters degree in Medical Science, he was an artist with a PhD in Dental Science. There is one major difference, though. A kind of chaos often threatens to take over the mind of an artist; it ruled my father’s inner life more so than he admitted, but I am fortunate to possess an equanimity that he lacked. Perhaps the discipline and rigour of medical research (albeit a HUGE struggle for me) has helped give my inner life structure and definition. I have found that balance between science and art that eluded my father.
And that painting, the one mum hated? I wonder if that painting was his grand, real, bold, authentic, take-it-or-leave-it-this-is-what-I’m-doing gesture. It must have taken him considerable courage to paint something so massive, so purple, and hang it in the centre of our home, knowing that no one in his family (or even the country) were likely appreciate it.
Today, when my mind drifts back to my childhood home, it doesn’t go first to the anxiety and pain I witnessed and felt. It goes to the violet striped wall, the orange swirls, the massive purple painting. Distinctive. Courageous. Bold.
When I remember my father, I clearly see the cheeky grin, the teasing twinkle in his eye. He’s singing entirely made up words to a Harry Belafonte song. Distinctive. Courageous. Bold.
All the scary stuff has faded, and mostly gratitude remains for the lessons in creativity and courage he gave me.
And for that ugly purple painting 🙂