Arts and Culture

Artist Lynette Wallworth explains why finding meaning is an art and making meaning is art

DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 20JAN16 - Lynette Wallworth, Artist, Studio Wallworth, Australia captured during a press conference at the Annual Meeting 2016 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 20, 2016.  WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM/ Jolanda Flubacher

Artist Lynette Wallworth on art that draws on lived experiences to become a tool for transformation in the lives of others. Image:

Lynette Wallworth
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Arts and Culture

  • Artist and Crystal Award winner, Lynette Wallworth, describes how her work calls attention to moments happening on the periphery – such as individual moments of loss.
  • The capacity to see the narrative in the moment and to help to elevate it into meaning is what an artist does. This practice deeply relates to wellbeing.
  • This article is being published as part of the Centred-Self series, drawing on the voices of the Forum’s Cultural Leaders to engage the perspective and leadership of artists to catalyse a culture of wellbeing for social change.

All of my work is based on true story, real people, the things of life. For those I have filmed, whose lived experiences become the heartbeat of a work, I have often explained that art is taking the personal and turning it around in such a way so that it reveals the universal. The gift from those who let their stories unfold in an artwork is that their lived experiences can become a tool for transformation in the lives of others. The capacity to see the narrative in the moment and to help to elevate it into meaning is what an artist does. In the art that comes from life the hyper local and the universal entwine, the unfolding drama happening in a far-off corner can have resonances that reverberate across the politics of nations.

One of the singular inspirations of my artistic life points to exactly this idea. It is Pieter Bruegel’s painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c1560 and the poem Auden wrote upon seeing the work in the Brussels museum where it is held. I adore this painting. It has proven to be a point of endless contemplation and inspiration for me. It is philosophically how I think about my own work.

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In the painting, a seascape on a sunny day where someone fishes by the water’s edge, the ploughman passes by with his cart and the shepherd gazes fixedly at the benign sky, in a far off edge a small pair of white legs have fallen into the green sea and are about to be submerged. That is Icarus. He of the story. Deadalus, his father, was an artist, he built the Labyrinth of Crete. Like many artists during times of political upheaval, Deadalus is imprisoned along with his son in order that he not share his artistic understandings with the public.

So, under this persecution Deadalus and Icarus attempt to flee. Deadalus builds mechanical, wax covered wings which they will use. Like many who have come after them, the refugees are attempting to escape in a shaky craft. Icarus, youth-filled, forgets his father’s warning and flies too close to the sun, his waxen wings melt, and he ends his life, like many who have followed him, drowning in the unforgiving sea. In the painting, for all it’s activity, no one notices.

Auden wrote of this work, “about suffering they were never wrong the old masters, how well they understood its human position, how it takes place while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along”. He talks about "how everything turns away, quite leisurely from the disaster.”

Pieter Bruegel, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c1560

That is why the painting inspires me. I have always understood that my work, is to try to call attention to a small moment, but perhaps the most significant thing, happening in a far-off quarter in a busy world. The thing that no-one is noticing. We cannot stop the world, so how do we draw attention to a moment of alteration, that might signify much.

Auden understands this challenge and writes of “the expensive, delicate ship that must have seen something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, but has somewhere to get to, and sails calmly on.” We know this is how much of life is lived. Our busy, personal perspectives draw us ever onward and, enmeshed in our own lives, we can miss world changing moments that slip by out of sight. I make my work the endeavour to pull attention towards the small, unfolding, essential drama that might be otherwise overlooked.


This “pointing to”, is the stuff of my work, but an alertness to these moments has trained me, and so it is also, the stuff of my life. I am in some way, always in the painting looking for the event. That is where the ritual and ceremony of making art and making meaning, becomes a useful practice.

A few years ago, I was travelling to Memphis to show Collisions, my VR work, at a film festival there. My travel took me from LA to Denver, then a brief change of carrier for a late-night flight from Denver to Memphis. As we lined up to board, I noticed a woman ahead of me, something in her demeanour caught my focus and I paid attention.

When we boarded, I was in the same row as her but across the aisle and so I listened as she told her seat mate that she was traveling to Memphis to see her Dad, and it was possible her Dad was dying. The man next to her, didn't engage her much in conversation. He was doing a sudoku puzzle. He had a whole book of puzzles. The flight was only about an hour and half long and as we descended the woman did what anyone who is anxious might do, she turned on her phone. I didn't notice, I only heard her moan and turning, saw the long text that I knew held the worst possible message for her. She put her head in her hands and wept. The man next to her asked if she was okay and she nodded without lifting her head, so he went back to doing his puzzle.

After a few minutes she turned and lent her head on the plane window, a tiny window covered with small droplets of winter night, her shoulders heaved, and she cried silently there.

The plane landed and everyone did what they do, grabbed their things and, impatient to be somewhere else quickly, left the plane. Except for her, because she was struggling. So, I waited and when the plane was emptying, I crossed the aisle and sat by her side. She cried and said, “I’m 63 it's not meant to feel like this.” I said, “He was your Dad, and you are his child.”

She cried as I helped her gather her things and we slowly left the plane. While we walked down that sad, badly lit airbridge, she sobbed softly, telling me she had recently taken on two jobs to pay for her father’s chemotherapy and she had thought the chemo was working. She was in shock. By now the airline stewards had noticed us and one of them asked me if she need a wheelchair, I said yes and a lovely, kind, young man said he would not let her walk, even when she complained that she would be fine. He said, “You still have a long way to go, let me help you”.

So, as he carefully pushed her towards the baggage claim where her children would be waiting, we walked behind her in a strange cortege that now included the flight crew. The stewards asked me if she was my friend and I said no. “She is just a woman I noticed on the plane, but she is going to remember this night forever and amidst those painful memories I want her to be able to recall, that on a plane full of strangers she was not alone. Someone noticed that worst thing in world had just happened.

Even in our most tired, busy and distracted days, there is always the opportunity to turn towards the one small thing that matters. That is the joy of art and life, there is always meaning to be made.

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