The art of hope

By Alana Brekelman (Spoonful magazine)

“Often, the thing that gives us the energy to do what we do, is buried deep in our emotional life”, Caroline Magerl muses as she flicks through the pages of her journals, “Why else do it? What makes people write for years?”

For Caroline art is “sustenance”, a way of accessing buried parts of the self. And as she discovered while writing her first children’s book, Rose and the Wish Thing, art is a way of transforming confusing personal experience into objects of beauty that can nourish not only ones-self, but others too.

“Art is a way of retrieving things and making something better out of what happened”, she tells me, as we sit at her kitchen table. I clutch an earthenware cup of tea and breathe in the woody turpentine that wafts from Caroline’s studio next door. I peek in. Her artwork peeks back: oil paintings, etchings, children’s-book illustrations, comical doodles, and, everywhere, the sketches for Rose and the Wish Thing.

Images come to Caroline’s mind as a sudden nostalgic blow, offering no comprehensible explanation. “When something needs to come to my attention, it will come to my mind as an image and I will paint the thing,” she explains, “I won’t know what it means exactly, only that it’s important.”

The transformative journey towards Rose and the Wish Thing began with an image. It came to her in the early days of motherhood — a little rabbit, with floppy ears. She had cut a pattern from a pair of “ugly” maternity pants, and made the stuffed bunny for her daughter. Years later the rabbit reappeared.       

“The Wish Thing arrived in a tired brown box. The stamps weren’t licked right to the corners. It was made with tiny stitches and inside was a red glass heart”.

Caroline began to draw the rabbit, again, and again. Slowly, the image solidified into a memory — Caroline, aged two, clutching a stuffed toy. She found a photograph that matched the memory, taken not long after her family had immigrated to Australia. Long buried emotions surfaced. The image had something to do with family, something — perhaps awakened by becoming a mother herself — about how love can be handed from a parent to a child, but how grief can to, but Caroline is not one to use a term such as ‘cross generational grief’.

It began in Germany, with Caroline’s parents, and the wartime malaise that raised them. Like many of their generation, they emerged from the war with unshakable sensations of grief, mistrust, and, most overwhelmingly, dislocation. Soon after Caroline was born, her parents applied for immigration and found themselves in Sydney. In their backyard, Caroline’s father began to build a boat. Caroline was seven when they finished it. She vividly remembers the day they launched the 45-foot steel shell into the Parramatta River. The interior was not yet finished. The plumbing was a long way off. But from that moment, the boat was home.

Theirs was a nomadic life. They travelled up and down Australia’s East Coast, mooring in muddy mangroves where the rent was cheap and the other tenants accepting. By the time Caroline was fifteen, she’d attended ten different schools.

“For all the beauty and the amazing life we had on that boat, there was another aspect, a quiet tragic aspect, that I saw in both my parents.” It was an unspoken thing, a strange, unnamable grief. “We were very much in flight — we came to Australia but we weren’t part of Australian life.”

Caroline struggled to make sense of this wordless emotion that had been handed down to her. “It was a real despair, something really, really deeply awful that I think mum and dad must have experienced and that I felt.”

In this silence and isolation, Caroline fell in love with images. She took refuge in the picture books her grandmother sent from Germany. Even when the world around was so confusing, those Eastern European narratives “made a weird kind of sense”.

So Caroline knew she was destined for a life of images. After she left home, she worked as a satirical cartoonist, illustrator and fine artist. The years passed, and although Caroline had moved on from the confusion of her childhood, images of that time, like the rabbit, kept reappearing in her art. “The intellect”, she found, “is bypassed in art”. Often, the things she’d felt but never fully understood would find a means of expression in her art.

“Imagery expresses experience, but it doesn’t always solve things. Sometimes you need words to talk yourself through it. With Rose and the Wish Thing, I had to do both”, she explains. Working first in German, then in English, she translated the images into words. For nine years, she wrote and rewrote the story, and as she made sense of the narrative before her, she also made sense of her own story.

What had previously existed only as flashes of viscerally, felt yet bewildering imagery became something tangible. Writing brought closure. The memory had taken on the form of a picture book, just like those that had given her so much joy as a child. She knew this was her chance to turn the grief that had been passed down to her into a positive gift for others. “I had to transform it in a way that would be a nourishing and sustaining thing,” she said.

Rose and the Wish Thing is a story about optimism and hope. Rose, the protagonist, is looking for something she can’t name. While her family tries to help, they can’t grasp it either. Then The Wish Thing arrives. The rabbit, like a vagrant memory, has come from far away in time and space to appear when Rose is ready. The two make friends, and, with The Wish Thing nestled close, Rose begins to see the good she’d previously overlooked. The rabbit, then, is a symbol of renewed hope.

I ask Caroline what she hopes her story will give to others. “I hope they take the positive message”, she says. Jung talks about images and symbols and how sometimes they are your food. Sometimes those images genuinely have been sustenance when I haven’t had much else — or rather, when I haven’t seen what’s there. It’s a sort of food you can’t get in other ways.”

She often hears from art collectors that connecting with artwork helps them work through their own emotions. I wonder how something so personal for the artist can also be so personal for the viewer. As if reading my thoughts, Caroline says, “The best thing art can do is show you that your experience is not unique, that you’re not stuck. That you can transform things, and you can overcome things”.