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 Semaphore is a newsletter and publishing project about art fromWestern Australia | Semaphore is a collaborative project and practice | Semphore enters into a dialogue with art from its rooted location of Boorloo on Noongar Country |


Chapter 2:
How to Break Up with Your Day Job and Date Your Solo Practice

07 June 2020
A reflection on making it at home by Emma Buswell

Part two in a series of reflective texts by Emma Buswell on her time in COVID-19 isolation and the impacts it is having on her relationship to art making.


On the 8th of April I was dumped. Well maybe dumped is the wrong word - I got broken up with. Well, ok let’s just say “we’re on a break”. There was the classic it’s-not-you-it’s-me speech followed by a few awkward moments of me trying to rein in my tears and hold back the verbal outburst that was crawling up from my stomach through my throat with all the speed and violence of a freight train hurtling through space. Blinking through the misty tears I asked the voice on the other end of the Zoom call: what happens next?

I think I should back track a bit and say that I haven’t been in a romantic relationship with anyone for the last 8 years. My most meaningful relationships are with my housemate’s dog Sharon, my close circle of friends who share an appreciation for potatoes and my immediate family. My significant other is my job. We see each other three times a week but I think about them all the time. What are they doing, do they miss me, and do they see this as a long term thing? Will we grow together?                                           

Is there a future here?

So, the breakup:

I had sensed it coming for a few weeks, a creeping trepidation that bad news was coming. I would reach out to friends and family panicked and anxious and they would say: don’t read into it, you’re safe, you work for local government; you are in the most secure, the safest possible position of anyone. It didn’t help me feel any better, and certainly didn’t make the mounting sense of dread I felt go away.

I remember when we first started dating; I’d just come out of a long term but casual dating relationship with volunteering and front of house work at other orgs. That kind of financially irresponsible and fraught speed dating was all I’d ever known, and then on a whim, thinking to chuck my hat into a ring I applied for my current position. I never expected to succeed, or to even get a first date, and so up until a few weeks ago I’ve felt immeasurably lucky and privileged to be in this working relationship. I’d finally settled down.

When you’re not in a relationship, you invest your love and passion into your work. It becomes your motivation and the lens through which you engage the world. At least that’s how it’s always been for me. Its why when I come home after a particularly gruelling day, I might bitch about work in the same way my friends might divulge the nastier details of their intimate relationships with the same vitriolic energy. It’s also why the feeling of being at an opening, surrounded by people who experience the same fervour for art that you do and who relish in its celebration is like being one with thousands at a festival. To realise that you’re not siloed with a small group of friends on an island, and that in fact there are cities, fields, and crowds of people that turn up, that visibly demonstrate that same love, can feel like validation and solidarity in the same moment. It is a frenzied kind of vigil. That endorphin induced high becomes addictive, and like all addictions that feeling can be dangerous and abusive.

In the second week of April I got the call, “we need to talk”. Cue the second most hellish 15 minutes of my career: the bf had decided we needed to go on a break, that they didn’t want to do this but that they had no choice, and it was by no means about me it was just the situation. For the rest of that week I angrily cooked lasagnes and discreetly called other colleagues to see how they were doing. It’s only now after this time apart that I’ve been able to decipher my pattern of behaviour during this time for what it was.

I stumbled across an infographic the other day on the 7 stages of a breakup. Shock, Denial, Negotiation, Isolation, Anger, Acceptance, Hope. The week after I was stood down, I moved around the house in a daze. I was zombified, repeating a route between my bedroom and the fridge countless times forgetting what I went to the fridge for. I looked through old emails, watched all four seasons of Utopia and stagnated. I didn’t know what to do next. Where do I put all this anxious energy?

4 days after the call I had a burst of manic energy and decided I was going to establish an online art prize. It would be amazing; there’d be a call out, a nominal entry fee, judges from around the country and a beautiful catalogue of documentation with selected artists photographing their work in their domiciles. It would be a record of this time. In an effort to still feel relevant I had invented a fantasy of still running an art prize this year anticipating the void left behind in the wake of “the break”. I was in denial and trying to create the next best simulacra of my normal life.  

For me, the negotiation phase of my post break up blues took the form of reinvention. You know that classic rom com moment where our heroine decides she’s going to give herself a makeover, both physically and philosophically. She will be reinvented, reincarnated! She will be better! Brighter! Brilliant in her new manifestation. Effortlessly a more-cool version of herself, if she by chance bumps into her ex, they’ll be overcome by an instantaneous feeling of regret and fall to their knees begging to take her back. I would make the boyfy rue the day they sidelined my aspirations and made me feel like a gangrenous liability that had to be cut in order to salvage the whole.

I made over my bedroom, to accommodate a studio and floor to ceiling storage. It’s fucking sick. I put led strip lighting on the underside of Bunnings storage units to display my art collection, pimp my ride style; I logged back into Wix for the first time in months and had another butchered hack attempt at carving out a section of cyber space for myself; and I stuck a potato in the ground because I was finally going to grow a veggie garden after years of talking about it. I deep dived into feeling a misplaced sense of pride when the potato diverted to its natural state and started to sprout, regardless of my not doing anything other than giving it a long hard look every afternoon and fondly stroking its little leaves.

I don’t really think I need to say anything about isolation; we’re all there, doing that right now. I will say that being dumped and not seeing all your work friends during this time is pretty shit. Not having an external focus or drive is also pretty tough. To have one of the earthly tethers that connect you to this industry severed so abruptly is really, really hard. All that energy and focus you have, normally directed towards a deadline, or a project, or a shared common goal within your organisation doesn’t just disappear. It’s suddenly on top of you, snapped back like a taught rubber band to ricochet and whip you in the face. It feels like a kind of heavy pressure; a game of tug of war where one team suddenly lets go and the team on the other side of the line is sent crashing down and into each other. The push and pull, and the teetering balancing act that relies on two opposing forces working collaboratively in activity, is gone and you are alone in the not knowing.

Anger. There’s a lot of that. I’ve taken to calling this window as my period of revengeful productivity. I quickly sought out other opportunities and seized on the possibility of turning inward towards my arts practice as a way of getting over recent professional setbacks. It fucking worked. Out of an action originally occupied with rage and spite, I’ve found this sense certainty in my ability as an artist. I’ve been making the most of it during a time that feels simultaneously immeasurable, endless and corruptible, like it might be taken away at any moment. I made a silly jumper that immortalised the weird feelings around this weird situation we’re all facing, and then knitted myself another full of flames to manifest my day dreams of burning everything down.  Carpe Diem.

Taking time to treat myself, a favourite phrase from one of my art school friends, has been invaluable. Instead of focusing on administrative processes, bureaucracies and admin tedium I’ve been luxuriating in the steamy wide bath that is practice. A few friends and I have been talking recently about a new curatorial project. One of them suggested I include my own work – an idea I immediately rejected. I feel like I’ve fallen into that pattern for a while, and in a way it makes me feel anonymous. I explained that I want other people to invite me into things and my participation in exhibitions to not just perpetuate a cycle of carving out a space for myself with a toothpick in a quarry. I’m drawing lines and setting boundaries and it feels good.

Since focusing more on my solo practice, it feels like people have been reaching out, starting conversations and wanting to know more. I memed up. I’ve accepted now, (acceptance is of course the next step in this process) that it’s ok to realign your priorities and to give yourself more time for making and thinking, and to separate yourself romantically and emotionally from the workplace.

I’m no longer furiously scrolling through their posts, disappointed by a lack of action I wanted to contribute to, disillusioned when I see other organisations carry out the actions and strategies I’d pitched for us to focus on during this time. It’s not useful anymore. Instead I’m thinking on what I as an individual can contribute, distinct from this relationship.

This break has tested our bond, and we’ll probably never be the same. I guess me and the ex will still be friends. I’ll always love them, but it’s different now.  We’ll chat. I’ll show up to our meetings, engage with the tasks at hand, but I’ll look forward to coming home to my arts practice. I think it’s definitely identified our limitations. So from now on I’ll direct my focus toward what I can control, what I can meaningfully produce, and for me, now, that is my practice. I’m retrofitting. I’m forming my work life around my art self, and work will now be the crutch to support my making as it was always intended to be. Making will no longer be the therapy and coping strategies to distract my brain from work.

Like our rom com heroine, I am realigned, reinvented, and getting better. But this time for myself.

^^ Images courtesy of Emma Buswell.

Kaya. We acknowledge the Whadjuk People of Boorloo boodja who are the traditional owners of the land where Semaphore is made. We respect their culture, their custodianship, and their continuing contribution to the life of this city and this region. That includes recognising and respecting sovereignty while working in solidarity towards a treaty and supporting ongoing connection to country. That means linguistic rights, economic opportunity, and artistic endeavour. To their Elders, past, present and emerging, we say thanks.