Wonder and hope

Pakenham Upper artist Lana de Jager. Pictures: STEWART CHAMBERS 210377_07

The power of art has proven both lifesaving and life changing for one Pakenham Upper woman, who fell to a deep depression following a traumatic experience. Lana de Jager aims to bring “wonder and hope” to those who view her work.

Growing up, art education was just as important as academic education for Lana de Jager, so it should be no surprise that she ended up working in a creative field.

After graduating university with an arts degree, Ms de Jager embarked on a graphic design a career, a job that was solely to ensure she could stay on top of her bills.

But away from the 9 to 5 life, the natural creative came out, and she dedicated one day per week to focus on creating – but only small projects came from that, Ms de Jager said.

“That’s not many hours to hone a skill,” she explained.

A rabbit is just one of many artworks completed by Lana. 210377_03

Five years ago, Ms de Jager fell into a heavy depression after losing three of the closest people in her life. Her beloved mom and grandparents all passed away within a brutal two-year period.

“I totally lost my mojo. I had never experienced depression. It was debilitating,” she said.

“It’s called an existential crisis, partly because you don’t know what the point of being alive is anymore. Other than my brother, they were the closest family to me.”

Despite being firmly against the idea of speaking out, a cognitive behaviour therapist proved crucial in allowing Ms de Jager to see some of the light again.

“At that time art turned into a therapy for me and so many stories and images started crowding my brain… mostly stories of loss and grief and family – making those pictures was the focus I needed,” she said.

“So I just made them, not knowing what I would do with them and after having being accepted into group exhibitions in the city, I realised making art had become the most meaningful thing for me to spend my time on.”

Eventually, Ms de Jager’s graphic design hours declined and she slowly transitioned to making art full time by the start of 2018.

Ms de Jager printing artwork. 210377_01

She had to overcome two main obstacles to allow herself to create art – spending money on a printing press and a home studio, and being OK with the fact that her art often touched on “awkward and uncomfortable subjects”.

“I had to decide to act like a professional artist and get all the tools needed for it instead of continuing to treat it like a craft or part-time thing,” she explained.

“I also had to accept what my art looked like … I have a laboured, realistic style, which is not something everybody likes, but was also art and I didn’t have to work like someone else to have the privilege of being an artist.

“Lithography is as old as the masters … Albrecht Dürer revolutionised printmaking in the 1500’s … since then it has become an independent art form – independent from painting or commercial printing.

“Overcoming my personal barrier was a great achievement and an even greater relief. With every new project I try to challenge myself not just with the content but to learn new printmaking techniques.”

Ms de Jager – who has been living in the Cardinia Shire since 2014 – said it was “exciting” to see art expand in the area.

“I have also loved watching the shire change as we become a more multi-cultural community. It’s enriching us all as we learn about each other’s heritage,” she said.

“The arts seem to be growing quickly in this area, which is exciting.”

But the Covid-19 crisis has really affected the arts sector, like many, decimating any hope of an artist obtaining an income.

Ms de Jager said art should make people feel “wonder and hope”. 210377_10

Like many, Ms de Jager was in no means immune to the effects of the global pandemic, which forced her brother – who was living in Barcelona – to come back home to Cardinia.

“I felt like I was in limbo in February and March. The Covid cases in Europe were starting to go through the roof,” Ms de Jager recalled.

“It felt like this unavoidable wave was going to come for us too. When my brother lost his job due to Covid-19’s impact on Spain, he flew here, just before flights were being cancelled.

“Once he got here, something opened up for both of us – we knew we had to make art together, because we might never get another chance.”

Ms de Jager had two solo exhibitions booked – set to be held in May and in October – as well as several other group exhibitions.

“Suddenly all that potential income was wiped out, even though I had spent a lot on a residency, materials and framing already. Exhibitions take an incredible amount of planning and work is sometimes done as early as a year ahead,” she said.

With less than $50 in the bank, the passionate artist had no choice but to turn to grants. Thankfully, Ms de Jager was selected to receive $5000 from the State Government’s Sustaining Creative Workers initiative.

Spaniel dog. 210377_04

The money will go towards the completion of one of Ms de Jager’s current projects – Minerals and Memory.

“Since I had my own crisis of existence, I’ve wanted to understand what ‘existence’ is,” she said, when asked to explain the project.

“For some people it’s based in faith – to have somewhere to go after death – and for others in the legacy of family – leaving something behind. Some people find the meaning in their life in their work. I haven’t found the answer, so I’m still looking and this project is part of that ‘looking’.

“The only things I’m sure about so far, is that, for a living thing to have ‘existed’, there needs to be physical proof, but there is also the memory of that person or animal.

“So, on one hand, if we are talking about physical proof, then you can analyse the minerals and elements our bodies are made of.

“When you think about memories, then you can think about how our history is told though stories – parents telling stories of the funny thing their child did or stories of the war that elders tell their grandchildren. In these two ways creatures like humans and animals might live forever. It’s the kind of things we really need to feel when we are faced with all this loss and global death.”

Without the vital funding, Ms de Jager wouldn’t know whether she’d be able to see out the fascinating art concept.

On a practical level, the money will go towards paper, ink, studio materials and gallery fees – where Ms de Jager will exhibit Minerals and Memory later this year in Melbourne – but on a personal level, the message behind the grant means more than money ever could.

“At a time when making art seemed so unimportant, Vic Arts said ‘nope, art is actually completely important – get your skates on’,” she said.

“I really needed that mental support.”

Pakenham Upper artist Lana de Jager. Pictures: STEWART CHAMBERS 210377_07