Madeleine Slavick - 2015 R.A.K. Mason Fellow, NZ

Madeleine Slavick - 2015 R.A.K. Mason Fellow, NZ

Madeleine Slavick has published several books of photography, poetry and non-fiction. 

Two solo exhibitions were on display during her residency:

-"Hong Kong Song" at Aratoi Museum (Wairarapa) which has since been exhibited at the Wallace Arts Centre in Auckland (2016)

-"Red" at Victoria University (Wellington).

Slavick wrote this account of her residency.


Day One

On the first day I get lost. I turn off the state highway to find a cemetery that is signposted but I never see it. Instead, about fifty minutes on a gravel road through golden hills, groves of pine where the temperature dips, slopes of a stringy plant I do not recognize, maybe six homes, all fenced, and groups of deer, sheep, and cow, some of which have just been milked and are making their way back, almost single file, to the grass where they have come from.

Day Two

I enter a wildlife reserve and listen to stories about the eel. They grow about one centimeter a year. Have pretty blue eyes that do not see well. Breathe through their skin, purple-grey. They are fed every afternoon, their teeth meeting the steel of a long-handled spoon. Trout and duck swim around them, and I wonder how they relate with another.

Day Three

I spend time with cows. Grass stained knees. Shins darker than the rest of the leg. In the summer, their coats pale. I count 27, all stopped, all staring, so I also stare, and maybe twenty minutes later, when I continue on, they all walk in the same direction, on the other side of a fence, as if I have become part of their herd. Then I meet a woman who makes cheese. She has four cows and invites me to meet them on the hill. She points where one cow stands at the top of the ridge in profile. One by one they smell my hair, and the sweater that I have removed. I touch the tuft of hair on the hard ridge at the top of their forehead. Their horns are gone. De-budded.

Day Four

I say goodbye to a poet. He had received a travel grant to be away from his job for a year, and is moving on to another country. We have been writing on different cycles of day and night, sharing birdsong, the kitchen, a fire, road traffic, and a porch that wraps around the house. I remember reading somewhere that to be heard, we must either raise our voice or lower it: he lowers it.

Day Five

I walk for hours. In the bush. With a man I love. Cool air, leafy forest floor, a warm hand, a longer stride, blackberries, and honeysuckle with no scent. Fern, ponga, tmesipteris, rimu, very young lancewood, kahikatea, and one stand of sequoia. Day after day, we see how small we are.

Day Six

In the early morning, I find an injured hawk, mouth open, leg broken, wings fully splayed on grass. With every passing car of the highway, the hawk tries to fly off. The wings spread as they should but the legs can’t lift off.

An artist at the centre has an unspoken bond with the hawk, has helped at a bird rescue centre in the past, has recently taken to photographing the raptor, and likes using the Te Reo word ‘kahu’.  I first go to her for help, and although asleep when I’ve knocked on the door, she steps into action, finds cloth and a cardboard box, directs me to face the hawk, hold up the cloth which he stares at, while she comes from the side, throws her cloth over its body and places the wrapped bird into the prepared box. They stay in the back of my car together as we go to a centre for a consultation, and then to a veterinarian who injects the bird. No money changes hands.

For me, it is the first time I see the passage into death, and do not know what to do for the rest of the day.

Day Seven

Rain. For how many hours do I read, write, rewrite, coming into the kitchen for coffee and the chili vegetable stew I have been eating for a few days, adding silverbeet and spinach from the Studio garden, and celery from mine. Rain again as I sleep.

Day Eight

Wind from the tail end of a cyclone, and I go out into it, walking in the gardens around the house, and into the nearby hills. I also drive into it, to a nearby town I haven’t photographed before. Manholes look manmade. Retro board games for fifty cents at a second-hand shop. Two Mormons talking to children at a school fence. A window taped, then re-taped. Long grass swimming in wind, and I am reminded of words I have written:


All night the wind

changes its mind.


There’s wind tonight.

More than one girl undresses.


Day Nine

Another town. In the back streets, what looks like a drive-in church, then a drive-in community centre, a club with fifteen slanted parking spaces, and a railway station which isn’t used anymore but is painted very white. I find the house of the town’s first-born child of European descent. There is a sign in front that tells of a murder that happened across the street in 1892.

Day Ten

Art in the city, two hours away. We are exhilarated by the mind and hand.

One of us – the kahu artist – has video art at a museum. People respond to her work, this time of the morepork, or ruru. A young child reaches her arms up to the monitor as if calling to the ruru to come, fly down from the wall, and play. We meet two educators who have worked with children responding to the video, and their ruru art is as wondrous.

Another artist, a painter, has work at a gallery. The youngest of the residents, she has a down-to-earth intelligence. One painting has already sold, even though we are there for the opening reception. If I had enough money, I would also purchase a piece. A poet purchases a cup of coffee next door, served with coconut blossom sugar.

We visit one of the first galleries in New Zealand, run by the daughter of the founder. She has positioned the 197 or so pieces of a collage in a cloud-shape on the left wall, while her father had the same pieces along the top of the four walls – a rim, or brim.

At a public gallery, we see portraits of a gang, in bandanna, tattoo, swastika, leather, silver chains, ring, hood, helmet, and silver hair. The artist has left digital marks from the photo-printing machine at the bottom corners of prints as if a digital signature, the gallery attendant says, to keep the prints as they are. Raw.

The day of art ends with my exhibition of things Chinese installed at the library of the university. There are massive couches nearby. One can sleep to the images.

Day Eleven

Town again, camera again, words again.

Day Twelve

In the morning, I give a talk at the regional museum about my photographic images of Hong Kong to artists, colleagues, friends, people unknown to me, and an art reviewer. I come back tired, sleep for a while, then walk across a paddock that has no animals. The second paddock I think will be as smooth, the green as young and new, but the ruts from the last cows are ankle-deep.

I listen to the river until the dusk thickens.

Day Thirteen

An Open Studio Day. About twenty-five people come and meet the artists here. Conversations and scones, coffee and poems, introductions and thanks to sponsors, and six presentations.

That evening, we visit the farm of the caretaker, and meet another raptor, frozen, stored in the large freezer for the kahu artist to photograph, the bird’s grandeur intact.

My hand is licked and sucked by young calves, thinking I will feed them. Three piglets also come running. Manure that has dried looks like seaweed. I video the tip of a bale of hay blown by the wind and call it a bale tail. About sixty cows are clearing a piece of land, eating the bark.

When the photography is done, the bird is buried under a tree. We had also placed the injured kahu that we found the other day under a pine, with a layer of needles on top, but when we learn that the bird is still toxic, it is also buried, with a rock on top.

Day Fourteen

The kahu artist leaves and I miss her. I spend the day writing and writing and by evening, I need to walk. I need to balance writing, a solitary and sedentary act and usually inside, with photography – more social, physical, and outdoors. The act of walking is to observe, touch, love. And I think of Ernst Haas: “Photography is a certain kind of loving. A picture – you should be able to rest in it, sleep in it. And live in it.”

Day Fifteen

I bring an artist for a ride in the car. We find a boat filled with water, an old cheese factory, a man in a singlet who greets us when we stop at an abandoned building. We see and hear magpie in their dark blue coat. We move slowly down South Road No. 2, paved, and more slowly down South Road No. 1, gravel. We find a cliff walk built in 1911, the same year as the clockmaker-family-home, which was rebuilt into our artist residency centre.

In the evening, a new resident arrives. She is staying for a week, and in the first hour or two, shows us her paintings, photographs, and prints.

Day Sixteen

I go home for the afternoon. How good it is to be in my loved one’s arms, and I return to the centre refreshed, solid in my resolve, and work late into the night.

Day Seventeen

Two writers come to the Studio. Tomorrow, I will discuss my manuscript with a publisher, and they hear my pitch first.

Day Eighteen

The Fellowship will finish in a few days, so I search for the cemetery I never found. I see the sign again, turn off the highway again, and then notice a newly built wooden fence – the old headstones are behind.

The first graves are for soldiers, and I sigh, especially at the stone for a 21-year-old who died in Vietnam – a blue and silver ballpoint pen placed by his name. I think he liked to write. There is also a white bridge nearby to commemorate people who have been killed, and maybe also killed, in the two world wars. One set of surnames for WWI and another set for WWII.

A man who died in the 1800s has a new grave from his descendants in the 1900s. The grave for a three-month-old has a plastic butterfly under a plastic bubble. A woman who survives her husband by 28 years is introduced as ‘also his wife’. I misread R.I.P. as T.R.I.P.

Across the road from the cemetery: a paddock. I massage a cow, especially at the tuft. Her body warm, a little damp, and maybe tired: making milk for an absent one for many days of her life.

Day Nineteen

Last night I stayed up late with a painter and a poet: ‘digital nomads’ they call themselves. Then I read by the fire, dipping into maybe five books, this story, that poem, and an essay or two. And so late this morning, I am still asleep when the phone rings: a novelist and her new project. Maybe there is nothing more joyous than the birth of a book.

After necessary coffee for extra glee, I walk along the Makakahi. The breeze off a river. Little grass coming up from the rocks of the bed. Robust dandelions, buds knotty, and leaves that seem to grip the finger. The orange wildflowers my father loves. I think I might like to swim.

On the walk back, I collect the plastic for a steak and vegetable pie and afghan chocolate chunks, one passion fruit drink can, one iced coffee carton, three wrappers for take-away coffee, the full packaging for a meal at McDonald’s, a Tui bottle, a slip of paper from a lodge with a Zenbu wifi code, two greasy pockets less the chips, a piece of car window, and about six indecipherable pieces of plastic of various sizes and griminess.

The first and last blackberry the plumpest.

Day Twenty

Wind comes.

I stay at the desk most of the day, editing, erasing, adding, re-arranging, changing my mind.

Two artists have created e-books and are sending them out online. Excitement again, just like the day of visual art in the city, but this time right here in the house, right on our devices. The residents, both women, work in ways quite different from me and I am observing.  I have not embraced the digital. Maybe I need to reach out more.

One concrete poem is in the shape of a tear or a drop of water. Another a bee. The artist may write a series, typeset them by hand, and make fine prints. Her husband thought of the idea, and he himself is printing his paintings on fine paper, testing out colours and sizes and papers. They need the city for this, and have gone in several times.

Day Twenty-one

I thank the writer who has sponsored this RAK Mason Fellowship – she has given me time and space.

I thank the artist who has reviewed my manuscript – she has given me a sense of ease, as has the publisher when we speak on the telephone and who welcomes me to submit it.

Two residents are leaving tomorrow, so tonight, after our last shared meal, we celebrate by seeing the moon and its dimples, Jupiter and its bands and four of its moons, and a globular cluster at the edge of the Milky Way near the Southern Cross. I thank the centre for its telescope, for its membership pass to the wildlife centre with its kiwi and eels, and for many other things over the past three weeks.

Day Twenty-two

One artist leaves on the 10:30 train, and as I am driving out several hours later, a kahu lands on the side of the road ahead, its feathers reddish brown, maybe the way my hair looked ten years ago, before this silver.  

Index Previous Next