COCKLING—A STORY IN A THOUSAND WORDS
A picture, they say, tells a thousand words. So what is Cockling at Goolwa’s story? How can the simple heel-toe dance of “cocklers” (people who dig for cockle shells), their feet sinking in soggy sand of the in-coming tide, in the flux of early summer warmth, on a remote beach south of Adelaide tell us? What story worth a thousand words? What was it about this scene that attracted me to capture it? First in photo and then several years later, on canvas in acrylic.
I think the water reflecting the sky, all silver, the people on the wet sand, a mirror, swaying and twisting for cockles captured my attention. I’d been there, on the glassy surface, watching for bubbles, grinding my heel into the bog, feeling for the sharp edges of shell and plucking out the cockles that snapped shut when exposed to air.
I was there, but then I watched. Mothers, fathers, and children lost in the moment of twisting and hunting and collecting cockles.
‘What will you do with all those cockles?’ I asked.
‘They’re for fishing,’ one of our friends said. ‘Bait for fish.’
‘Hopefully, we’ll catch a few fish and have them for dinner tonight,’ another said.
I imagined fish, fresh from the sea, thrown on the barbeque and the cockle bait inside them buried once again in our stomachs. We continued digging for cockles…family and friends, one with the ancient, outside time—nothing else matters but the cockles.
Goolwa, if I remember, has mounds of spent shells in the sand hills, monuments to generations upon generations of Indigenous Australians, their open-air kitchens and meals. Did they perform the same ritual, on the same patch of wet sand, delving for cockles to fry on their fires? A quick perusal of Google reveals they used nets to collect cockles and catch fish. They then cooked the cockles on a campfire.
We are here, they are gone, but their spirit of history lingers, reminding us, though we seem different, we are the same. We are digging, dancing and delving for our dinner. We are still, in the moment, alone in our thoughts in a forgotten corner of the world, unknown by the world, yet one with this country’s past. And God knows each one of us—each part of us, even the unknown parts of ourselves and our secrets.
What if I shared a little secret—an artist’s secret? Okay, I’ll tell you. I painted this picture in less than two hours. Now, that I’ve told you, would the painting be worth less to you? Must time be equated with worth? Sometimes I do take hours upon hours, layers upon layers, and more hours planning to get the work right. But not Cockling at Goolwa.
I love the beginning of a painting; laying the foundation, engaging my inner-natural child, the paint flowing from a thick brush on a damp canvas, colours blending, mixing as I go. One side of the brush crimson, the other blue and a dab of white. Sienna somewhere there in the foreground shadowing the sand. Mid-yellow added incrementally to shroud the distance in light grey for perspective. Then just a hint of heads of land jutting out halfway across the horizon with a suggestion of ultramarine in the grey. So simple, and sometimes, like with Cockling at Goolwa, the scene emerged before my eyes. In the world of artists, I believe the term “magic brush” or “magic hand” has been used. Um, trade secret, so don’t go spreading it around.
So there you have it, in less than an hour, surf, sand, sky and tones in all the right places.
Now for the people, the twisting, turning people, their feet in the boggy sand. How do I paint them? I had a break, and drank a cup of tea. I remember not all the children hunted for cockles. Some body-surfed in the shallows, some played cricket and one little boy with a wish to be hunted, or to be warm, buried all his body except his head in the sand. I found him and he broke out of his sand-grave, the sand zombie.
‘Don’t go tracking your sandy footprints into the shack,’ I said.
He washed himself off in the surf, then sat wrapped in a towel and shivering in the sun while watching the cockle hunt.
All the while the “cocklers” cockled for cockle shells. Soon the boy joined the hunt for cockles.
Then when the paint was dry, I plotted the people in with pencil and then painted them in with a finer brush.
‘I like that painting,’ a fellow member of the art group said. ‘Don’t do another thing to it. Don’t even frame it. I’ll buy it as it is. How much do you want for it?’
Paint barely dry, I took the work home, signed it and then the next week at our Christmas lunch, I delivered Cockling at Goolwa to them. The buyer showed the work to others at their table and all admired it.
What made another person connect with Cockling at Goolwa? For this person, their son and family spent many summer holidays at Goolwa, doing just that, cockling. Time out, out of time, unwinding, relaxing, happy times, happy memories, captured on canvas…in less than two hours. And I must admit, the story is slightly less than one thousand words.
But, perhaps as you look at the copy of Cockling at Goolwa, you may have a story of your own about the painting. Maybe a painting’s story is not just one person’s story, but stories from many people, one thousand words, or more…
(c) Lee-Anne Marie Kling 2016
* * *
On the other hand, my novel, Mission of the Unwilling took many hundreds of hours—many years to complete.
Mission of the Unwilling paints a story of Minna, seventeen and on the cusp of adulthood, searching for love and her place in the world. But she is plucked out of her world into space. With reluctance, she engages in a mission fighting the war against the alien cockroach called Boris.
(c) Lee-Anne Marie Kling 2016