Interview with Mahlimae
Go out to the garden, sneak under the ivy and listen ever so quietly for the whispers of echoes. Fear not these little creatures, for they have untold gifts within and timeless secrets drawing you into their world, a world that Nicole Watt aka Mahlimae connected to when she was very young. These tiny beings whispered for her to bring them to life and now we can all share in their exquisite presence.
My favourite things are coming together this January, beinArt gallery and Mahlimae, for her solo show Lost souls of the Erlking. The details of the King’s story can’t go untold and we were lucky enough to have an in-depth chat with Nicole. We spoke about the origins of the story, the beginnings of her creations and delved into the journey of bringing this fable to life.
“For me, he is the harbinger of loss, the plunderer of innocence, the indistinct faceless predator concealed in each psyche. It was the capacity he holds for vampirizing innocence and twisting the child-like heart into a blinded thing whilst society turned away, that connected me with this character on a deeply personal level…I have met this creature before, many times.” —Mahlimae
Kylie Dexter: We have to begin with The Erlking himself! When I first heard that you were going to base your solo show around this tale, I spent some time reading all the different versions of the fable and some of the poetry based on the original story. I would love to hear your interpretation of it and what connected you to its origins?
Mahlimae: There are indeed a great many tales recounted by elders over the centuries that revolve around an Erlking-like figure. Whilst his title has morphed and contorted many times through the years in poetry, musical compositions and in literature as recently as the 1980’s, the spirit of the Erlking remains one to be feared. For some he is an omen of death, to others he mirrors a source of confinement and impending depredation. For me, he is the harbinger of loss, the plunderer of innocence, the indistinct faceless predator concealed in each psyche. It was the capacity he holds for vampirizing innocence and twisting the child-like heart into a blinded thing whilst society turned away, that connected me with this character on a deeply personal level…I have met this creature before, many times.
In tangible terms, he was very difficult to conjure up emotionally, but also as his form is so fluid and completely open to artistic interpretation it seemed wrong to give him a recognisable anatomy. I won’t say much more as hopefully his vision will speak more to this than I can at this stage.
KD: You have been working so intensely on this show for almost the last year. How has the journey been so far? The creation process must have been an incredible one as I know it was important to you to honour the story and its characters.
M: Yes it has taken me over 12 months to prepare and create for this show and I know it sounds cliché, but it has been an incredibly cathartic experience. As I touch on in the next question, I needed to tell this story for my personal growth and healing. Each character within this exhibition from the gathering of lost children down to the tiny sleeping snail has a ‘real world’ face for me and as such, it was incredibly important to convey these souls and their unfortunate truth with honesty and in a way that accurately reflected my inner vision, rather than what I thought people would be expecting to see. Reconciling all those elements in my mind and coming to terms with the fact that there isn’t a ‘correct’ way to tell a story was a major hurdle to overcome throughout the creative process but the process itself was well worth it.
KD: The story is a dark one in origin, what draws you to explore these themes and to help bring them to life in such a honest way, I mean the innocence that the echoes hold allows us to move freely into the depth of those darker narratives.
M: Before making the change to creating art full time, I spent the majority of my professional life working with and advocating for our most vulnerable children in need of protection. Over the decade in that job, I encountered what I would consider the most evil of human beings, and in contrast, some of the purest of souls. It was through those experiences and my vicarious trauma, I came to feel like darkness was all around me and somewhere within that abyss I became lost. I lost my direction, my sense of self, my confidence and any hope in humanity. What ensued is a long and personal story but as that beautiful line from one of my favourite Roethke poems quotes “In a dark time, the eye begins to see”. Once your mind’s eye adjusts to that kind of darkness, even if it isn’t a place you reside permanently any longer, it is inevitably easier to navigate your way around those depths and the narratives that take you back there. It is important to my healing and my sense of duty to those little ones I couldn’t help, to let their light shine through the eyes of my Echoes so they may finally be given the acknowledgment they deserve. They will forever be my guide to grant me safe passage through the infinite night.
KD: What do you hope the viewers will experience when meeting these works in person?
M: Ideally I would love for viewers to meet my work for the first time in a silent, dimly lit room, with nothing around to distract them from what they have to say. That’s a near impossible ask, but I would hope that people could stand in front of this installation, take a deep breath, silence all the voices in their mind and connect to it in their own way. Whatever the result I am grateful people would take the time to come and view it in person.
KD: I know you have a deep connection with nature and of course your beautiful home where you are surrounded by it, in its most rugged form. Please do tell of the whispers and energy you get from your surroundings and your incredible studio and how it influences your work?
M: These whispers you speak of are definitely one of the two loudest guides in my life and my work but I would say one of the most difficult to articulate. I vividly recall the moment when my husband and I first stepped foot on our property here in Tasmania; there was something in the air that day which I felt in my bones and still do. This place, the groans of the trees, the chatter of the birds at dawn, the smell of the air, the vibrations under your feet if you walk barefoot on the moss…it is pure inspiration and speaks to me so clearly in a language I can’t interpret for anyone in any way other than to create with it.
There is a sign I read whilst walking in the Tarkine Forest in north-west Tasmania a few years ago, it reads “Deep in the forest the land holds many secrets, take care as you walk this land, remember that the spirits of the old people remain”. Whilst my Echoes may host many stories, one of the consistent themes running through them is the sense of disconnect, of sadness and loss that I feel when I look from the outside in at the world we are becoming, the intuitive knowledge we are losing, and the skills our children are no longer observing and the deep connection with nature we have disfigured and twisted into servitude. I often wonder what those ancestral spirits would have to say about the way we are treating the Earth.
KD: What do you think it is that makes so many people connect with your sculptures on such a deep level?
M: This is such a difficult question to answer and one I have asked myself so many times before. Perhaps the best way to start to understand why this is so perplexing for me is the knowledge that these Echoes are not actually something I set out designing with intent. There was little premeditation involved in their initial existence as they have been with me in some form or another since childhood; lurking in the corners of my imagination, my sketchbook, my stories. I had no sculptural experience before I decided to bring them to life in this way so they are very much instinctively formed from inner vision. Over time they have come to inhabit a deeper narrative, but overall I feel in some way they chose me, not the other way around. This is an incredibly humbling thought and the main reason I am floored when I receive a message or email from someone sharing with me their deeply personal experiences with my sculptures; it is truly astonishing for me.
A common thread that seems to run through a lot of the feedback I have received from people is that my Echoes connect with some an intangible sense of home within, their eyes reflect a subtle familiarity, like a mirror to the world or ourselves…a feeling of belonging. I understand for some this would be confronting, but perhaps for many is it just enough to make them feel like they’re not along in this world and some days that’s all we need.
KD: I am so privileged to own some echo’s, some from their early beginnings to more from recent times. They have changed in character themselves, how do you think you as a human have changed over the last few years of this journey.
M: Trusting in my own instincts and vision as an artist has always been one of the most difficult things for me to grasp. The form of my work is and always has been outwardly simple, which has attracted both commendation and criticism. Yet it is this seemingly simple form which I feel imparts their complex vulnerability, an emotion further nuanced by the situation of the viewer. For me this is a unique capability I feel would be overshadowed and concealed by detail if they were any other way. Learning to eloquently balance an intricate story housed within an uncomplicated shell, has been particularly challenging when self-doubt is sitting on my shoulder humming her paralysing siren song in my ear. As time goes on however, I am discovering ways to silence her and keep going…this has probably been the biggest change for me since I started sculpting at the end of 2013 and has opened the flood gates for greater possibility which I think reflects in my work. Aside from the aesthetic changes that they have undergone as my skills have become slightly more refined and deliberate, over the last two years especially, I feel that I have begun to grant myself the freedom to imagine them in a wider range of settings which in turn, has allowed them to speak on a broader spectrum of issues and emotions.
KD: We would love to hear more about where you live in Tasmania, and what a day in your life is typically like as a full time artist?
M: I live in the far South of Tasmania, on 20 acres of forest covered property on which my husband and I built our own home 10 years ago. We built my studio in the trees a short way from the house about four years ago using some left over building materials and some recycled windows, as it started becoming clear my small desk space in the house was no longer appropriate. My studio has now become an integral part of my life and my creativity; the space and all within it really is an extension of myself, I feel safe to be myself in there.
A day in my working life usually starts at dawn (our roosters take care of ensuring I don’t often miss the sunrise) with animals to be fed, dogs to be walked and school lunches to be made before the rest of the house awakens. Work begins once my little ones are out the door but I usually try to meditate for 15 mins or so before I get started, which is my gateway, I step into between the reality outside of my work and the alternate world within it. Once inside my studio I switch off, make a pot of tea and that’s where I remain until my girls are home from school and my focus shifts back to family until they are in bed. Usually at this stage I could curl up and sleep but often there are emails to return, sketches to finish, photos to edit and so the day ends this way.
KD: Spiritwoods is your incredible new range of pure and gorgeous botanical products, I feel a relationship between your work as Mahlimae and this new venture. It all seems to lead into getting in touch with something that most of us have been too busy to connect with. Can you tell us a little about Spiritwoods and how it came to be?
M: Moving to Tasmania opened my eyes to something I was missing before. When we first moved here and started building, my husband and I lived in a caravan with no electricity, no running water, no heating other than our campfire; none of the modern conveniences of our previous life. It was when all was stripped back…when night times were spent by the fire under an expanse of stars, when days required manual labour and a reliance upon the garden for nourishment and healing, when life slowed down without distraction, my eyes were opened to the energy of this place, of the land, the symbiotic relationship between the fauna and flora, the responsiveness of the forest to the elements. For the first time since I was a child, I really connected with nature again and it became so clear to me how much I was missing before…how much many of us are missing.
Although I can’t replicate the whole of this experience for people, I am passionate about helping others forge that connection in some small way within their own lives, no matter where they live and what their daily lives entail. This is the impetus behind Spiritwoods and the products I have formulated, which I launched in September last year. Each little pot or herbal blend contains a concentrated and unique amalgam of pure, natural botanicals which I have carefully selected and combined for their properties with the intention to heal in some way – the skin, the spirit, wellbeing, ritual. It’s my way of bottling the wild magic of this place and sending it all over the world in a hope that people will grant themselves 5 minutes a day to stop and breathe it all in.
KD: What does 2018 hold for you, any big exciting plans you can share with us?
M: 2018 is getting off to an incredible start for me with my first solo exhibition opening at BeinArt Gallery; this story has been with me for a great many moons so it’s exciting to see it finally come into its own. Breathing space will be short lived however as I will pretty much be diving straight back into my daydreams again preparing work for my mini solo at Haven Gallery, NY in November. I am thrilled to be sharing that time and space with the talented Scott Radke and another of my favourite artists yet to be announced publicly so there is much to look forward to.
Some secret plans are in the works for connecting Spiritwoods with a larger audience and my husband has just taken over the lease of a small country pub down here in the Huon Valley; so I think sleep will be hard to come by this year for us both, though much to look forward to.
KD: I always love to do my 10 quick questions so we can get to know you better!
KD: If you were an animal what would you be?
M: Probably a snow leopard – we share a lot of similarities in character, a propensity for solitude, most active at dawn and dusk, preferring cold mountainous habitats and a dislike for water. Plus I have been known to wail and hiss if necessary.
KD: 3 things you would take on a desert island?
M: Well practical things like a flint stone, fresh water and a knife are fairly predictable so let me choose my sketchbook/pencil, an assortment of seeds and my dog (for company, not food)
KD: Favourite smell?
M: The smell of the forest here after winter rain. It’s a beautiful mix of damp earth, decaying mushrooms, eucalyptus leaves, wood smoke and melting snow; it smells like home to me.
KD: Most exciting place you’ve seen?
M: The area around Cradle Mountain to Lake St Clair here in Tasmania is breathtaking; especially in the late Spring. Everything grows in response to the harshness of the weather; the shrubbery is stunted and tough, like miniature versions of their kin in sheltered habitats, leaves are tiny to avoid freezing by the snow, the bark is gnarled and dappled with lichen, there are so many birds sharing the duties of overseeing the geography with the incredible towering rocky outcrops and snow-capped mountains. It’s a very beautiful place.
KD: Best advice you’ve ever been given?
M: At the end of 2015 when I was considering making the change from social work to creating full time, my husband said to me “if it makes your soul happy and it’s what you want to do, then just do it”. It was a scary leap of faith but his advice made me realise life is too short not to take the chance to follow your dreams.
KD: Favourite quote?
M: There are so many quotes that move me, it is very difficult to choose a favourite but the one I have within view every day is an pertinent excerpt from a Nabokov quote “Imagine me; I shall not exist if you do not imagine me”
KD: Favourite TV show?
M: If only I had enough time to watch it….Black Mirror is probably the cleverest TV I have seen recently
KD: If you could have 1 superpower what would it be?
M: As a child I always wished I could fly in real life as I did in my dreams. I imagined being able to fly would mean a version of safety from the world, a natural ability to escape in some way which has always been appealing to me.
KD: 5 people to invite to a dinner party, living or dead?
M: I’m going to avoid any obvious martyrs, royals or saints here and go for fascinating conversation: