Memories are Not Silence: the trauma of witnessing and art making.
A Phenomenological exploration of my lived experience as an artist.
By Elizabeth Jean Deshon (Libby) Woodhams PhD

Background to Study
Theories of Art and Ethics
Objectives of the Study
Research Methods
Review of Literature
Conduct of the Study
Compassion/Empathy, Sameness/Difference and Witnessing
Blackness, Despair and Helplessness
Contemplation and Solitude
A Sense of Place
Intimacy, Art Making and Trauma
Exhibition Works
Art Works and Phenomenological Description
The Drought Paintings
Ceramic Bowls
Gallery of Images

Exhibition Works


A constant refrain of phenomenological study is the 'form emerges in the doing.' This is as true of the form of presentation as it is of the content of the works. The visual works that comprise the exhibition are largely completed in five media (in order of 'doing') mono prints on paper, oil and acrylic on canvas, fabric works, shellacked books on paper and glazed ceramic bowls. It is very different from what I would consider my normal exhibition format where all works are framed and hung on walls. The dominant symbol of a desk/table came to me as an inspiration some months ago and it seemed to answer the needs of this study in a way that was as multi-layered as the works themselves. First, and most pragmatically, the desk with its multiple compartments held and contained the books, drawings and writing, not only physically, but as metaphorically as the conduct of this study has held and contained me so that I was able to explore my experiences in a supported and disciplined fashion. Second, as already mentioned on several occasions, thinking and painting are so intertwined for me that I am not able to classify the two modes as one being more important than the other. It was only when scanning images for this study that I realized just how frequently the image of a desk/table and chair has emerged in my work over so many years. Third, in the same way as the painting of a waterfall united my love of landscape and my experiences of AIDS (and gave me the title of this exhibition How a dying baby became a waterfall) so, too, has the image of a table united some disparate experiences. During my theological studies a table was both my symbol of 'family' and of 'Church' - with both pointing to the essential nature of both - the hospitality of sharing a meal (sustenance) and experiences in a domestic and ordinary way. The image of a table further recalls one of my most poignant experiences of AIDS - also the subject of a fabric piece Four places and only one chair - and it is included as a tribute to Tracy Lee, a drag queen, who did so much for the gay community and who died from AIDS some years ago 1. Fourth, this exhibition is overloaded in that many more works are included than would normally be the case. I have chosen to include so much material because it is a visual illustration of the magnitude of the task of a phenomenological study - writing, rewriting, editing, refining, re-painting, uncovering and drawing together of so many elements and experiences. This exhibition is obviously a final work in that it is the culmination of this particular program of study. I judged that it was particularly important, because of the research methodology chosen, that the steps along the way are revealed as much as possible - so others might come to know 'how it was' and 'what was it like?'

It has already been stated that these works ought not be considered illustrations of any particular experience. As visual artist, Deborah Walker (1997, p.68) points out:

The foundation and influence for my image making has always arisen from my profound interest in and understanding of other, parallel worlds. Literature and poetry always had a powerful, unidentifiable effect on my feelings and understandings. Yet, my idiosyncratic web of sources cannot be very easily communicated in relationship to the source of my images.

1 Tracy Lee was a drag queen in Sydney who, even when very ill, continued to work for various AIDS related charities. As sometimes happened, Tracy Lee's dying came at the same time as many others and his friends were 'deathed out' and he sometimes felt acutely alone. One day I drove him home to his sparsely furnished house where, in the dining room, was a table exquisitely laid for four with lace tablecloth, glasses and cutlery - and only one chair.