Decades ago at the start of a Melbourne autumn, my friend Sara invited me to a party. I don't like parties—she knew this—yet still I heard her bright expectation on the other end of the phone. I'd been watching the street darken through the window when she called, and as she waited I lurched around silently for an excuse that didn't sound like a lie. "We'll have to go shopping for outfits," she said when I finally agreed to go, as though this would be part of the fun.
Back then I was working in an office that smelled of old carpet, as a secretary for an Ear, Throat, and Nose doctor whose orders, issued in a thin, pained voice, echoed in my mind when I wasn't there. I often wished I'd had the foresight to train for another profession—something unassuming yet autonomous, like archiving or copyediting. But in quiet moments, it was the life of the nuns in the brick building opposite mine that I longed for, the building's blinds always drawn like eyelids against the day.
In my real work as an artist, I seemed to be failing, but couldn't have stopped my sculpting if I tried, which somehow made the failure worse. As if to punish myself, I filed each piece away in plain sight on my long workbench under the window that looked out at the nunnery. My creations would eye me as I drank tea in the mornings, an audience at once indifferent and resentful. At other times, they would form a kind of company and look out with me at the neat figures of nuns on the grounds, whose heads always seemed inclined toward each other in serene conspiracy. How wonderful, I would think, to believe in a creator being to whom we all returned.
At ever-increasing intervals, I would attend shows by friends from art school whose work had met with some measure of success, and eat cheese with them. I would wonder whether they believed I had attended in order to benefit from their connections, and wish that feeling pleased for them were not such an effort. Then I would stay up late, warring with a block of clay to focus my attention to its stillest [End Page 231] point, pressing out the contours of some face I had seen or dreamed, hoping it would prove the exception to the disinterest my work had elicited from gallerists and dealers in town.
While the face or figure was still emerging under my thumbs, everything would feel possible, as if I were solving the final alchemical riddle. Some afternoons, the living force of the clay seemed to fill my blood with light, at other times it felt like a kind of birth. Even if the result was disappointing, I had the labor—more and more, I saw that this was what I lived for. But my hope was brazen; each block I cut lifted my sails for a few days. To preserve this feeling, I would sometimes abandon a work while its features were just appearing. Yet these abandoned works, too, were disappointing, as if without the warmth of my moving hands keeping their fate mobile and pointed toward the future, the promise that once had been visible died. This death was more devastating when I carried a work to the final stage: it emerged into the room with me, open-eyed; we looked at each other and I saw not only that it was dead but also that it had never lived. I would lay it to rest alongside the other half-dreams and register in my body another kilo of phantom weight. Then I would wish not for success but to relinquish the desire for an audience, which shadowed truer things. I would see some awful story on the news—a mudslide in Bangladesh, or a child murdered by a man with lizard eyes—and recognize my absurdity.
On the Saturday before the party, I met Sara at Myer. I trotted behind her like a lady-in-waiting, bundling dresses under my arms. I remember...