Twelve Questions: Michael Leunig

Michael Leunig.
Michael Leunig.

1. What kind of child were you?

I'm told I was in a world of my own, happily self-occupied, dreamy and contented in my own company. I saw fairies in my garden and was afraid of an invasion by foreign soldiers. World War II had just ended. I don't remember my earliest drawings - art materials for children were scarce back then. I drew on the footpath with chalk and charcoal. I copied images from the Arthur Mee Children's Encyclopaedia in blacklead pencil.

2. Have you always had your own world view?

Yes, I imagine so. I started out with a sensual experience of my world. Impressions, textures, noises, sparkling light, pleasure and pain ... The sensuality of personal experience probably remains a vital part of my world view. It has been called the felt life. One feels the painful state of the world and yearns innocently for universal beauty, health and peace - but in time one learns to work as calmly as possible with the appalling realities of humanity. A world view is probably an expression of self.

3. What's the worst bit about being a Living Treasure?

There is no practical benefit such as a modest train fare concession or a free icecream once a year. No special hat or T-shirt, no velvet cape, no medal, no food vouchers. Nothing! A terrible disappointment. All one gets is this reference when being introduced at a public event in front of an audience. What sort of look am I supposed to have on my face when I hear this? It's a bit embarrassing and rather funny. I take it lightly and with good cheer. I don't want to sound priggish but there are some very grotesque and dubious Living Treasures in Australia - and for me there is an unfortunate guilt by association factor.

4. Which success has meant the most to you?

The success of the young doctor whose training told him he should have had my toes amputated after a terrible burns injury I suffered in childhood. Against learned advice, and taking a serious risk, he avoided the amputation, tended my burns with great skill and devotion over a period of weeks, saved my toes and even taught me to walk again. He loved his little patient well. On top of that, he didn't charge my parents a penny because he felt it improper after taking such a risk. Had he failed I could have lost my foot and he knew it.

5. You draw ducks and teapots and a character with large eyes and nose. What do those things all mean?

The duck began as a whim. I put it into a drawing because I liked it and it improved something. I've learned to respect the whimsical. Now it's a symbol in my work, of nature and innocence and playfulness. A presence which is non-threatening. There's something abstract and comical about the teapot. It's ridiculous. I started creating the character fairly casually and unself-consciously but the eyes and nose give it a primal vulnerability, an absurdity. It's almost genderless and ageless. I've even considered it's pre-birth. Foetal. What makes it work for me is it's a primal thing. I'm speaking to that level in people.

6. Where do your spiritual beliefs stem from?

I don't think I have spiritual beliefs in the structured sense - but I believe in the absolute necessity of spirit and a healthy spiritual life. It grew inside me by itself, which is surely the very nature of spirit, and instinctively I protected and nourished it. I also absorbed spirituality by osmosis. Perhaps my natural spirit was recognised and left alone by my parents and allowed to flourish freely when I was a child - my unique inner life was given their blessing. I never had a spirit-breaking, soul-destroying religion drummed into me.

7. How is Australia faring under the Liberal Government?

I think Australia's mood and morale have worsened considerably. The actions of the Government are harsh and its demeanour has been appalling. Citizens are mostly able to understand and bear tough measures but they cannot abide administrative bad faith and leadership that engages so obviously in bullying and antagonistic culture war against much of the population. The sense of autocracy, corruption and overbearing male authoritarianism is palpable and, of course, people don't like it. It is evident that the Government refuses to embrace the whole of society with warmth, compassion and magnanimity. The wealth divide is growing alarmingly. The sectarian tough guy political culture has never been so narrow, immature, emotionally retarded or so dysfunctional - and it is all so utterly boring, unimaginative and colourless. The people of Australia are mostly lovelier, saner and wiser than the Government.

8. What, in your opinion, is the best of human emotions?

I'm not sure about the best of human emotions but I value these qualities in people: kindness, forgiveness, warmth, humour, eagerness, generosity, humility, patience, lyricism, flexibility, openness, skilfulness, authenticity, daring, magnanimity, equanimity and dexterity.

9. What does love mean to you?

Love is the natural spiritual quality that brings meaning, nourishment, understanding, vitality and beauty. If we create something with love; with devotion, adoration, goodwill, eagerness and mature innocence - a meal, a painting, a home, a speech, a relationship, a baby, a society, a bridge, a business, a footpath, an antidote, an atmosphere or a simple garden shed - then that thing or that situation we create with love will be likely to work beautifully and be a joy to behold. Love is more than a passive feeling, it is an active, functional, intelligent catalyst or impetus in the way things are going. It is also a mystery. As Mozart said: "Love, love, love; that is the soul of genius".

10. When have you failed?

A lot, always and rather constantly. Too much to mention in detail. Life is not an either-or situation or a success-failure situation. We're all a bit successful and a bit failed. The egg was cooked perfectly but the toast was burned. I'm a Wabi-Sabi sort of person I hope. Wabi-Sabi; the lovely Japanese idea about aesthetics that sees true beauty in the qualities of imperfection, incompleteness and impermanence. The beauty of the worn and well-loved thing. I failed badly with my formal education but the sky did not fall in - in fact the clouds parted and the sun came out.

11. When did you last cry?

Recently, a tiny trickle. Music awakened something. I cried and sobbed a lot as a child. I went through a period in my 40s and 50s when tears came easily and I enjoyed them. I learned that all tears are healthy and good. When tears flow something starts to heal and something shifts inside that really needs to shift. Always. Crying is the breathing of the soul. The refusal or inability to cry is a sort of suffocation.

12. What is the best way to allow children to become who they need to be?

To not loom over them too much and boss them about. To recognise they are essentially intelligent. I think children are pretty good at the start and it's our job to preserve them like that rather than to prepare them for the world. Let what is natural in them grow so they have a good sense of themselves. Give them a lot of freedom and trust. A happy child wants to learn. Look after their sense of security, their natural wisdom and the rest will work itself out.

• Michael Leunig talks about his work at the Auckland Writers Festival on Sunday, 4pm-5pm, ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre.

- NZ Herald

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