Art, spirituality and nature are intertwined for Australian artist Joshua Yeldham. His 300-plus page memoir Surrender is addressed to his first child, daughter Indigo, but its hypnotic beauty allows any reader to dive in and draw their own inspiration. The book makes clear that creativity has been Yeldham’s most reliable friend, a companion he’s willing to share through metaphor as well as more straightforward advice and recounted experience.
“As I read the landscape, I am reading myself,” he writes. Respecting and giving himself over to the wild seems writ in Yeldham’s DNA. Every page has an image, including Yeldham’s intricate oil landscapes that touch the sublime, his recurring owl motifs and photographs from his treks as a young man through the Swiss mountains, the Amazon via Venezuela and stranded in the outback north of Broken Hill.
This is a visual meditation on a life well lived, interspersed with often poetic text. Yeldham’s carefully crafted words in the beginning have a patina of pathos given we learn that as a young man he suffered dyslexia. Words would “flip and tumble off the page”. He was bullied by other kids. His school reports show a distractable boy, who misspelled and missed the point of assignments. Formal schooling was not his forte.
And yet he scrapes his way into the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design and pursues his ambition to become a filmmaker. He takes off to Venezuela for inspiration and meets a Spanish-speaking stranger called Chucho in the foothills of Mt Humboldt, who becomes his guide.
Yeldham films Chucho and their trek on a Super 8 camera. Back in the United States, he makes another film, Silver Threads Among the Gold, about elderly people being abused in a public house authority in Providence. Finally, he makes Frailejohn, a 60-minute, 16mm feature film featuring Chucho. His 11 trips to Mt Humboldt to film Frailejohn pay off: the movie wins Yeldham an Emmy.
But open returning to Sydney, he backs away from success. Aged 24, Yeldham “retreated from the rush. My navigation was scattered”. No other explanation is given for him walking away from making film.
He takes off in a yellow Kombi into the desert and gets bogged, isolated from any town. Stranded in unforgiving heat. He has a sweetheart back in Sydney, Jo, who will become Indigo’s mother. He holds Jo “as a light guiding me back to safety”. He takes shelter, and waits.
We meet Jo via her own journal and photographs of the family – the couple also has a son, Jude. Lucky are they all to have Yeldham’s story so vividly rendered, replete with advice for art, life and owning fear: “Intellect cannot keep up with pure bursts of creativity,” Yeldham reminds them – and us. “As we surrender we become awake.”
I’d have liked more detail on how Yeldham practically approaches his art, though that’s obviously not his intention with this book. That said, we do get a little insight into his work practice. “I sand back the surface of the painting and in this destruction I allow areas of paint to collapse,” he writes, “and I lose control and stop searching for perfection.
“Letting go of stability, I seek out new patterns in the faded lines, a hint of fresh growth after the fire… In every painting there is a sanctuary that I can never touch.”
Moreover, the advice to the creative spirit is vivid and invaluable, often with a well-chosen image by its side to meditate on its import.
“When you observe your vulnerability in nature you adapt, like a plant stretches to the light,” Yeldham explains. “Nature will provide for you… as you realise you are your landscape and not separate from it.”