“At first glance,
Burton’s art room is a hidden world full of strange eccentric
characters and mysterious minds. But stay a while and in that room
you'll find all the joy and sadness of life, the pain and comfort of
community, and the ultimate meaning of art. This hidden world is our
world; it is where we all live, together and alone. In Hidden
Mirranda Burton is writing about what matters most, and she does so
with such gentle humanity and wisdom these stories will stay with you
long after you turn the final page and reluctantly close the art room
door. It is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read.”
artist has turned her weird and wonderful experience teaching art to
intellectually disabled adults into a new book of graphic short stories.
launched yesterday at the Melbourne Writers Festival by
Mirranda Burton, include Ronnie, who hugs vacuum cleaners, Steve who’s
prone to farting and stripping naked, and Annie, who only draws genie
bottles. Ms Burton, a former Disney animator with no previous link
to the intellectually disabled, writes that entering the
like opening a new tin of ink and rolling out a colour I had never seen
The book gives fictionalised sketches of people
at a Melbourne institution with conditions such as acquired brain
injury and Down Syndrome. Ms Burton draws herself as an earnest
woman keen to do the right thing. But the students’ obsessions send her
into fantasies of asking Elvis Presley for teaching advice or walking
inside a vacuum cleaner, where she asks the resident genie whether her
art room has a future. “It’s affectionate humour,” she
says. “I think
if you work in this industry or have a relative with a disability, and
you can’t laugh, you'll go crazy.”
The students taught her that art could be unselfconscious, without ego
and a handy vehicle for emotions. Mercurial
Eddie can’t speak, but lights up when he devises scrawled pencil
drawings of his bike, his mandolin and his teacher. Gentle Melanie
draws a touching love heart for her boyfriend. “It's symbolic
she’s expressing. Whether it’s a fine piece of artwork that will go in
the National Gallery is completely irrelevant,” says Ms Burton.
was inspired by autistic woman Julie, who would hold her
art up to block her face when photographed. It also describes the world
of the intellectually disabled, that not many people see, that
of people misunderstand and fear”. Mindless bureaucracy - cost
cutting, building closures - is a constant threat to the characters’
fragile world. Echoing a recent news story of the closure of a disabled
men’s house in Northcote, Julie is bereft when she is suddenly moved to
a new suburb. She takes a bus to her old neighbourhood shop “just so
she could buy a chocolate bar from a familiar face”.
While she will
continue teaching, next month Ms Burton starts a year-long artist
residency at Clifton Pugh’s property Dunmoochin, near Hurstbridge.
Hidden was launched at Federation Square by comic book artist and
publisher Bernard Caleo. Mr
Caleo said Hidden
was “a very significant book in the development
of autobiographical comics,” because it doesn’t navel-gaze. “It’s
clearly Mirranda's story, it’s her life, but she’s like a guide, a
Virgil, taking us the reader into an unseen, unexperienced world. The
art students are trying to understand this incomprehensible world and
we’ve got Mirranda doing the same for us, the reader.”
I had flown in from Perth to attend
The 2011 Melbourne Writers Festival. I wasn’t on the programme that
particular year, and, truth be told, was not sure why I’d come. I spoke
the previous year on being a professional writer; now here I was being
a professional slacker instead.
They had invited graphic
novelists to work in The Atrium at Federation Square as part of the
festival’s Don’t Feed the Artists installation, a high-definition
camera set up to chart their every sketch, projected up onto a huge
screen. Having spent the day watching worlds created with my friend
Andy, the two of us reclined in matching beach chairs, I ventured
across to the bookstore. I perused the shelf looking for something
special... something different.
I wish I’d gone to the Hidden
launch at MWF 2011, but me being me, I missed the boat. As it was, she
made my festival. Mirranda never set foot into my world and yet it
feels like she was there, seeing what I saw, taking it all in alongside
me. Together but alone, we thought about what it means to love, be
loved, and stay human.
If I ever meet her, I’ll give her a big
hug, unless she’s not a hugger, in which case I’ll just say, “Hey, I’m
Laurie, it’s great to finally meet you,” and politely shake her hand.
I love this book more than muffins, cakes and most types of biscuits. Read it and you will too.
Laurie Steed is a writer, reviewer, editor, and freelance journalist.
I feel uncomfortable around the mentally disabled.
isn’t something that a person is supposed to say, but I feel as if it’s
something that I have to say. I have very little experience with, and
knowledge of, the mentally disabled, and thus I either find myself
patronising them or being slightly afraid of them. I’m working on it,
as clearly this is not ideal, but it’s a work in progress.
Burton, thankfully, is not me. Mirranda Burton is an extremely talented
woman, who tells stories about her time as a teacher within an art
class for the mentally disabled. What kind of disabilities her subjects
suffer from are never revealed, simply because they don’t matter. What
matters in Burton’s Hidden
is their personalities, their voices, and how they express themselves through their art.
first story concerns the mercurial Eddie, who lives for his sister’s
visits, his pencils sharpened to fine points, and his etchings. He
etches intricate patterns on pieces of paper until the paper is nothing
Then there’s Julie, the resident rock’n’roll
afficiando. Julie’s so skilled with lino prints that Mirranda attempts
to enrol her into an art course at a local TAFE-like institution,
however unfortunately Julie can’t get in because of a lack of computer
skills. She has also recently moved home and was mugged.
characters who are in the class include Steve, the flatulent weather
guru who stages nude protests when he doesn’t get his way, and signs
his art ‘p’ and ‘s’, short for ‘pig’ and ‘stink’. Annie, who feels the
need to protect the art room from those ‘different’ from her, aka the
high support mental patients. And Ronnie, one of those patients, who is
obsessed with fans and vacuum cleaners.
Themes of anxiety and
fear run throughout the graphic novel, but it’s because Burton feels
protective of her class, rather than afraid of them. She tries to
understand and help them in ways big and small, whether it’s trying to
find Julie alternative accommodation so that she doesn’t feel so
afraid, or constantly sharpening Eddie’s pencils.
But most of
all, Burton is worried about how the outside world sees her class, the
increasing funding cuts to disability support, and the ways in which we
see people who are ‘different’. Naturally, it was an idea that somebody
relatively privileged and ignorant like me had to mull over, anyway.
irony of researching comic books is that I don’t get too many
opportunities to read them anymore, and so I hope that when I do get to
read one, it’s worth investing my time in, leaving me with questions,
thoughts and feelings. From Hell
left me feeling disturbed. Rooftops
left me feeling pensive and nostalgic. Maus
left me feeling emotionally drained and sad, but then again if anyone can read Maus
and NOT feel that, they’re either an android or a sociopath.Hidden
was one of those graphic novels that left me with a distinct feeling. I
suppose the most accurate way that I could describe it as disquieted,
the feeling that I’ve looked into a world that I’ve never properly
understood, and like Burton, becoming emotionally invested in these
people so I start to fear for them, rather than actually fear what they
The longest story, ‘That’ll Be the Day’, concerns Julie,
and for good reason. It’s the most ambitious, both in terms of emotion
and artwork. Using strong black and white contrasts and fine lines,
Burton’s art is also characterised by people who manage to be
expressive, even as they are drawn with basic strokes. It’s a skill,
and I’d put Burton up there with Clowes and Burns in that regard.
the real surprise came from Burton’s whimsy, which fully suited an
introspective piece such as this. Told from the author’s point of view,
there are flights of fancy, such as when Burton, confounded by Annie’s
questions about ‘medicine being yummy’ on the Titanic, is floundering
in a cup of tea. My personal favourite imagination interlude is in
Julie’s story, when Burton converses with Elvis and Buddy Holly before
sinking into a record as if the vinyl was quicksand.
Empathetic, intriguing, and very funny in places, Hidden
is one of the best graphic novels that I’ve read in a long time. I look
forward to seeing the art that Burton produces in the future, as she’s
a talent in deserve of recognition.
One of a number of
graphic memoirs inspired by the success of Persepolis
but I appreciated the confident blacks on display in the solid art.
Burton teaches art to intellectually disabled adults in Australia, and
the stories here deal with how it is to work with people who don’t
operate the way others do. “Memoir” is somewhat incorrect, since we
learn nothing about Burton herself, why she came to this job, or her
life outside it.
The first character introduced, Eddie, speaks
only in sounds, but his obvious care for others in the face of his own
obsessions is touching. Eddie’s verbal tic is illustrated through
pencil scratchings in his word balloons, a visual technique that sums
him up elegantly. Steve is annoying in many ways, his focus on
illustrating the weather report only a small one. The autistic Julie is
obsessed by rock’n'roll and literally hides behind her art. It’s not
all discouraging, though. One patient, Kate, shows improvement through
diet changes and art therapy. Underlying all these glimpses into
moments in patients’ lives is a fear of encroaching budget cuts.
If you liked Psychiatric
and wanted more, this would be a good next choice.
theotheradamford.wordpress.com, 19 October 2011
arvo I had a chat with alicia sometimes and Clementine Ford (no
relation) on RRR’s Aural Text. I gushed and mused (mushed? gused?) at
them about Mirranda Burton’s Hidden
a beguilingly gentle and deft collection of stories about her job
teaching art to adults with intellectual disabilities.
It sounded a bit like this:
review at 3RRR here
Excerpts from radio review:
Ford: I was curious as to how Black Pepper would approach printing a
graphic novel. It’s a sequence of four short stories that are all
semi-autobiographical stories about Mirranda's job teaching art to
adults with intellectual disabilities, Down syndrome and autism. When I
say semi-autobiographical Mirranda looms large in every story but the
stories ostensibly aren’t about her, they’re about the various students
that she has within the art room - some of them are her students and
some of them are people who just come into the art room to use the art
facilities, whether they’re supposed to or not according to the rules
of the organization that she works with. It’s a really lovely story
about eccentricity and how looking at other people’s lives can make you
reflect upon your own life and the assumptions that you make about the
way things work. And it’s rather beautifully drawn as well. If I was
going to compare it to any contemporary comic artist at the moment I'd
think about Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis
books but perhaps with a little bit more depth of field in
terms of shading. I’ve read a couple of reviews of Hidden
and a lot
of them remark upon what they call the woodcut like
appearance of the artwork. On the one hand the figures in the artwork
are very simplistically drawn, thick artwork very simple facial figures
but on the other hands the backgrounds are often very
rendered, so it speaks of Mirranda’s depth of talent that she can
undertake a variety of styles within the same story.
sometimes (interviewer): The beautiful thing about graphic novels
obviously is the picture being able to tell a story when the words fail
and to me it seems like that particular kind of story would lend itself
really wll to that format.
Adam Ford: Very much so. That’s a
really good point. Well one of the things that stand out for
trying to work out where does Mirranda come from in the really wide
spectrum of comic art (and one of the nice things as well as the
variety of style) is the subtle crossing of the line between the
depiction of real events to metaphorical depictions of almost dream
state events. And so you’ll have two or three pages that will be
essentially Mirranda talking to her students and then all of a sudden
the next panel will have her climbing inside a vacuum cleaner to have a
conversation with a genie and then she’ll go straight back to the art
room again. Or Elvis Presley in one story suddenly appears at the end
of a class and everyone suddently goes into this full rock and roll
medley, shake it all out baby, and then the day finishes by packing up
the art materials and closing up the door of the art room. So there’s a
very nice visual metaphor device being used consistently throughout the
collection . On the one hand it takes you aback as it just shifts so
quickly but on the other hand it’s a gentle move from one to the other
so it feels perfectly natural when it happens.
sometimes (interviewer): Is that a deliberate metaphor using the
potential of art to deliver a group of people who as the title suggests
are hidden from society into a place where they can explore parts of
themselves where they don’t have to be either hidden or different?
I think so. You definitely get the sense from the stories that Mirranda
tells that this is a safe place for these people, where she doesn’t
come across as a very prescriptive teacher. She provides the art
materials for them and guides them as they ask in the skills they are
interested in. One of her students is simply interested in drawing in
greylead pencil on a piece of paper until it’s so full of greylead
markings that it’s one black blob and he’ll even go beyong that and
have drawn it till the paper tears. Another of her students is very
much into linoprinting, linocut and block printing, and you do get this
sense that the art is providing a safe place. Maybe not for them to
hide because there’s a tension in the story that comes out. By the time
you’ve read the collection there’s a sub-text there about the fragility
of that kind of space. Mirranda is a part-time art teacher in a
Department of Human Services funded arts school that looks after
clients with special needs and of course in contemporary society
there’s financial pressure on maiintaining those institutions and
occasionally in these stories these tensions will rear their head. A
certain student will be moved out of her residential unit to a
different residential unit on the other side of the city. Another
student will try to undertake art classes within a non-specialist
organization and then fail to meet the entry requirements of literacy.
So there is this sense of being hidden and safety.
didn’t come right out and say it, but I really love this collection.
I’m intrigued by the venture into graphic novel territory that this
represents for poetry publisher Black Pepper, but I can see the logic
in the fit: like a lot of good poetry, Hidden
a combination of personal stories, metaphor and flights of fancy to
reveal the unique and the universal in everyday life. Here’s to seeing
more comics turn up in unexpected places.