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(Republished on mamamia.com.au 29.5.2012)

I was admiring Ben Quilty’s etchings of artist Margaret Olley, the sketches he did when he was preparing his winning portrait of her for the Archibald Prize, when I thought I’d better call my mother.

I’m not sure what it was that made me connect mum with Margaret. It could have been just the image of an old lady staring out at me from those intriguing prints. It may have been the knowledge that Quilty, a long time friend of Olley, would have visited her in her studio many times before she sat for him. That certainly made me feel mean with my own time.

In any case, duty or guilt called and my mother answered.

“I was beginning to wonder if you were still in the land of the living,” she quipped. She’s magnificent, my mother. She could have represented Australia in the olympics of passive aggressive behaviour.

“Surprise. I’m still here,” I answered, marveling at how well the passive aggressive gene had carried through to me.

“What have you been up to?” I changed the subject.

“Oh, just the same old things. Nothing very interesting happens here.” Somehow, in between my last visit and this phone call I had failed to provide my mother with a life. My eye roll must have been audible because she straightened up.

“While I’ve got you on the phone, would you mind looking up something on the Internet for me?”

And so our conversation became just like most conversations we’d had in the last 10 years. Transactional. A series of tasks for me to deal with.

These days I play the role of interpreter of the modern world. She plays the role of a time traveler who refuses to learn anything new. I’m pretty sure she’s convinced she’ll be returning to the past soon where none of this internet stuff will be relevant.

It’s a tedious routine that robs our relationship of more personal moments.

These transactions take over. They use up all the time we have together and worse, they fill it with frustrations. Her frustration with growing old. My frustration with an ever growing list of responsibilities. The latest inclusion on this list, IT expert to the aged.

At a certain point, I’m not exactly sure when, my mother and I missed our opportunity to relate to each other as friends, peers, equals. The last time I looked, I was a child and she was nurturing me, looking out for me, explaining the world to me. Then, with no formal handing over of the baton, I found myself doing the same for her. I’m mothering my mother.

Somehow we missed that moment in between, when we should have been forging along together, at the same speed, feeling some sort of mutual admiration for each other’s adult power in the world. There should have been a salute from her and a word of thanks from me before I gazelled off into the future.

I’m aware that some people have experienced that crossover point, that lucid moment of mutual respect in their parent/child relationship. Friends of mine have enjoyed years of hanging out with their folks, sharing common interests, empathising despite their generational differences. Not me. For some reason, I blinked and missed it.

I admire the Ben Quilty portraits of Margaret Olley precisely because they seem to exist in that kind of moment.

Quilty has always revered Margaret Olley, describing the artist as having a “powerful bearing” on his career. Olley on the other hand was typically modest when Quilty asked to do her portrait. She initially refused.

The fact that she finally “let him in” for these portraits, to observe her ageing complexion and glorify, as he often does, a face’s decline shows both trust and respect.

However, unlike the Quilty portrait of Jimmy Barnes, which is more observational, the artist standing back to comment, there’s a one-on-one aspect to these portraits of Olley by Quilty and it looks to me like both artists are having a meaningful conversation.

Perhaps as has been reported, she was imploring him to stop painting ugly things like skulls. That’s the sort of thing my mother would say but coming from Olley, it doesn’t sound like “tidy up, son”, more like sage advice from one artist to another.

Or maybe she was passing on her energy to Quilty explaining how she continued to be so prolific an artist despite her age. In the round up following his Archibald Prize win, Quilty told the Art Gallery of New South Wales that Olley had described herself to him as “an old tree dying and setting forth flowers as fast as it can, while it still can”. A matron with metaphors.

Of course it’s disingenuous to draw a parallel between the Quilty and Olley relationship and that of my mother and I.

Olley was never Quilty’s mother. She never changed his nappy or packed his school lunch. She never listened patiently to his endless questions or instinctually reached out to protect his melon head as he crawled enthusiastically past the sharp corner of a coffee table. First impressions count.

Their relationship began on an intellectual level, Quilty looking up to her experience, Olley excited by his young talent. So the conversations they had were always going to go beyond the sorts of things that mothers say to sons.

Still, I can’t help thinking that there’s something to learn from these Ben Quilty portraits, or the conversations that I imagine went on behind them.

Maybe it’s just a case of finding the thing in common. Quilty and Olley were both artists, they grew their relationship from there. If I could only stop thinking of my mother as a mother I’d have half a chance of seeing the engaging, social, multi-faceted woman she is outside of our family. She needs to stop thinking of me as that accident prone kid with the melon head too.

Perhaps I’ll give it a go this weekend.

Although it may have to happen in between clipping her dog’s nails, making sense of her letter from the council and recharging her prepaid sim.

(Ben Quilty’s etchings of Margaret Olley courtesy of Jan Murphy Gallery)

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