Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
Bad Art Mother
By Edwina Preston
Paperback, May 2022, 336 pages, ISBN: 9781743059012
Veda Grey is not a respectable woman. She doesn’t care for norms. She won’t conform to societal expectations, won’t temper her imagination, and cannot control either her alcohol addiction or her sharp tongue. She’s a poet whose work is as much torture as it is desire. She is compelling and infuriating, funny, pathetic, brave, and uncompromising. She is also a mother, and the main narrator of Bad Art Mother is her son, Owen.
Bad Art Mother is alternatively told in Owen’s recollections and Veda’s letters to her sister, which are being turned into a companion book to Veda’s collected works of poetry. Preston weaves together these multiple points of view into a complex pattern of personal frailty and public prejudice in a way that ends up being transformative and tragic at the same time. Preston engages with the real 1920s art world with characters who are reminiscent of many historical characters from Gwen Harwood, whose famous acrostic has the last word, to the artists who were part of “Heidi circle” — that’s John and Sunday Reed, Sidney Nolan, Joy Hester, and even the Ern Malley saga, and Preston has done her history, however, the characters in Bad Art Mother are unique, linked together in different but connected ways by Owen and Veda.
Owen is a child who is ping-ponged between carers, traded for time, but also loved and fussed over. His perception is rooted in and around care, both from the perspective of the carer and cared-for. Owen’s confessor is his ‘aunt’ Ornella, the most grounded of his carers – a stolid non-artist. Although Owen decries his own lack of literary prowess, especially against the dramatic intensity of his mother, the prose of his narration presents a deep observation that is often artistic:
Rosa bought me paper offcuts, different kinds of art paper: thick, crinkly strips that absorbed water paints and ink; canvas paper that was like fabric, with fibres and small lumps that a pencil could capsize on; sheer, smooth polished paper on which my texts ran beautifully; chalky paper that was perfect for black finaliser. (141)
Even the way he describes his father Jo’s food is sensual: “meat melted off shank bones; celery fell to liquid, carrots to butter” (141)
Veda is a tragic figure, both sharp and interesting, weighed down by hunger, not just to create something of worth in her writing but also her desperation to be of worth, as both artist and mother, which vacillated with a deep-seated self-destructiveness:
Mother had recreated herself again recently. She was trying to entertain me. She was trying to win me back with her fun fun fun self. She had become an egg-and-bacon-frying, over-talkative, late-night crazy woman. Reckless. And embarrassing. She would wire up tin-can telephones, or regale me with enormous impossible jigsaw puzzles, or being a combative game of Chinese checkers – she was exhausting. (140)
Veda’s narration is primarily in epistolary form – letters to her sister Tilde which are more vibrant and interesting than the poetry we get to read and perhaps her more pertinent creative work. In it which we come to understand the subtle but pervasive ways she is diminished by her husband Jo and his collusion with Mr Parish, a self-aggrandising person I think most of us will recognise in one form or another. Parish’s ego and role as successful ‘Poet’ and art patron coupled with Jo’s desire to impress him, causes Veda harm:
On Wednesday last, Jo was putting up the latest exhibition by an artist called Frank Healy – abstract blots and shapes and lines; it was not clear whether the images were landscapes or strange writing characters from an ancient civilisation. Anyway, I said to Jo: ‘Gosh, doesn’t it remind you of Egyptian symbols, those blobs and shapes and wedges. It’s like hieroglyphics!’ No response. Twenty minutes later, witness the arrival of James Parish, and this is what I hear come out of Jo’s mouth: ‘It really is fabulous stuff, James. Reminds me of hieroglyphs!’” (112-113)
There is so much about this book that is compelling. It manages to be both funny and tragic at the same time, without stereotypes or polemic. Though there are moments of bad behaviour on the part of pretty much every character, nothing is over-simplified. There are as many different ways to create art, from Jo’s food or charity work, to the Mirka Mora styled murals of Jo’s waitress Rosa, or the ikebana flower arrangements of Mrs Parish, as there are ways to be a partner, a parent, or a patron. Throughout the book, Preston’s writing is subtle and poetic, weaving together a range of themes from the nature of artistic creation, to societal norms and expectations, and the way in which memory itself is a kind of artistic creation:
In their wafting gaseous forms, the conversations that night were antithetical to memory, Ornella. They were a chain of present moments, popping like bubbles colliding with other bubbles. (284)
Bad Art Mother is a terrific book, full of nuance, history, love, desire, loss, and good and bad mothering jostling the notion that all such binaries are subjective and that love and art can be held as much in the trivial or in ephemera as in the grand gesture.