Kavisha's Art/Etchings Article

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 FROM ETCHINGS  Magazine Illura Press  no 11  March 2013 

An Interview with Kavisha Mazzella

It’s 1980 and a young art student has just won her first art prize. As part of the award, her work is exhibited in a local gallery, and she proudly shows off her drawings to a crowd of people on opening night. She can barely believe it’s her work they’ve come to see. One of the guests she recognises as her art teacher. Like many of the students at the Claremont Technical College, the young woman considers her teacher something of an art god. But he looks decidedly human as he stumbles in her direction with a glass of wine in his hand, his body propped up by a woman on either side. He’s standing in front of her drawing now, and he’s saying something—did she hear him correctly? It’s a pile of shit? He jerks his hand towards the wall and suddenly her drawing is dripping with wine. She stands—shocked—as she hears ripples of laughter spread throughout the room. Kavisha Mazzella—welcome to the art world.
‘When I was young, my father used to take me to art galleries. The boys would go prawning and do all of those boy things and my dad would nick off from work with me and we’d go out to art galleries. That was our special thing that we used to do.’ A hard-working Italian immigrant, Kavisha’s father was a man who worked ‘eight days a week’ to carve out a life for his family in Australia. And while a large part of her childhood relationship with
her father can be summed up in four words—‘shh, your father’s sleeping!’— those afternoons they spent in art galleries together quickly turned this special father–daughter activity into a passion for Kavisha as she began to get a taste for the world of art. The artists themselves were also a fascination to Kavisha. Her dad would regularly entertain some ‘charismatic’ artist friends at her home, and even as a small child Kavisha saw there was something that set them apart, a ‘sense of freedom’ that she didn’t feel in people burdened by the stresses of an ordinary, working life. Kavisha wanted that freedom and enrolled in an art school in Western Australia so she could get the technical skills to match her passion. Then she won the prize.
Decades later, it’s a very different Kavisha who sits before me. This Kavisha admits she would never allow the art teacher to get away with a stunt like that now. And the look of steel on her face has me convinced she means it. But Kavisha is speaking out of the confidence that comes from a lifetime of public performances—experience and confidence that her 20-year-old self did not yet have access to. And it was her 20-year-old self that was left standing there humiliated that night, a young woman whose years of dreaming were undone by a glass of wine and a mean-spirited drunk. ‘It was that moment I thought “if this is the art world, I don’t want to be part
of it”. So I finished up my art course, and I really enjoyed it, but I just sort of felt like I didn’t belong—I judged everything on that one experience.’ It would be 30 years before Kavisha would pick up a brush again.
For Kavisha’s parents, convinced their daughter would ‘starve’ being an artist, her ensuing disappointment with the art world provided some small sense of relief. So they renewed their efforts to convince her to become a teacher. To her parents, whose whole livelihoods had been built from the sweat of their brows, the stability and regular income of a public service job was extremely attractive. But their efforts were in vain: ‘I went into music. I was playing in a little bar to pay for my paints, people kept on asking me to play and my life went that way.’
While Kavisha admits that music ‘didn’t have that same kind of magic [as art]’, at least at first, it was music that helped Kavisha find her voice again and rebuild her shattered sense of self and value. Music had always been an integral part of Kavisha’s multicultural household growing up so she was no stranger to its power. But while almost everyone in her family sang or played a musical instrument (or three!), and she credits her mother with ‘giving me the gift of music’, her parents were adamant that pursuing a career in music, like art, would leave their daughter destitute. ‘Music was
something that you did anyway; you didn’t do it for money. We used to play music at home but to think of it as an idea for a career—forget it! You’rejoking!You’remad!’Still,bythe time she was finishing her diploma, Kavisha had already discovered that people would pay her to sing. And the lure of the money and the validation of her talents were enough to override her parents’ anxious pleas.
Her voice has been described as ‘bell- like’, the voice of ‘a heartbroken angel’. But it took Kavisha a long time to find her sound, and longer still to write the type of songs that had the depth she was looking for. Initially employing the style of the ‘confessional’ song—or, in Kavisha’s words, the song of the
‘whinge’—it wasn’t until she looked into the Italian folk music of her heritage that she discovered not only her defining style, but her musical calling.
Kavisha was born in England, and her family had migrated to Australia as ‘ten pound poms’ when she was a young girl. Growing up as the daughter of an Italian father and Anglo-Burmese mother in 1970s Perth, Kavisha spent much of her childhood privately wishing she’d been born as blonde-haired, blue-eyed ‘Jane’. With her family, she participated in various cultural festivals and regularly attended the Italian soccer club, but was careful not to let her school friends know about that side of her identity.

‘When we migrated I felt ashamed about having a different background; I wanted to fit in. But, many years later, when I discovered Italian folk music and I started researching it with the Italian women’s choir, that shame turned into a real pride and a real creativity for me because the women started telling me their stories.’
Once she’d heard their stories, Kavisha felt compelled to immortalise the stories in song, fearing they would be lost if no-one else passed them on. One such story, the inspiration for her song ‘Wedding Sheets’, was inspired by an Italian woman’s experience as a ‘proxy bride’. A relatively common occurrence in small Italian villages, young men would travel to Australia to find work and their families would arrange their marriages to local Italian girls. Often the whole village would turn up for the wedding—with the notable exception of the groom, who would still be in Australia. When he could afford it, the groom would pay for his bride to come out to live with him; sometimes they would be meeting for the very first time. Sadly, many of those stories did not have happy endings.
It was Kavisha’s newfound love for the Italian women of those stories, and a need to reunite with her culture, that inspired her to found the Italian women’s choir, The Joys of the Women.
While the women she approached initially thought she was ‘a little
strange’ to want them in a choir, fast- forward 16 years later and the Italian women’s choir has been invited all over Australia to sing and share their stories. The choir was so successful that Kavisha founded a second choir, La Voce Della Luna (The Voice of the Moon), when she moved to Melbourne. While building on the success of The Joys of the Women, La Voce Della Luna shares their modesty. In 2012 they performed at WOMADelaide, one of the world’s largest world music festivals, and while travelling with the 37-strong choir to Adelaide by train, Kavisha fondly remembers watching members of the choir singing and sharing their home-made food with strangers in the carriage. ‘People fell in love with them.’
In 2011, Kavisha was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia ‘for services to community and music’. She has also received an ARIA award for her 1998 album Fisherman’s Daughter and has accepted numerous awards for her music scores, vocals and lyrics. And while Kavisha admits those awards are nice, her greatest satisfaction comes from showing them to her dad—in acknowledgement not just of the way she dared to follow her dreams, but also of her parents’ efforts to bring her up and ‘the values and sense of social justice they taught me’.
More than the awards, Kavisha believes she owes her life to music.
When her first marriage broke up, she went into a crippling depression. Desperate for something that would
‘help [her] stop crying’, she went to her doctor hoping to be given medication. Instead, she got ‘tough love’. Afraid Kavisha would become addicted to the pills and create a bigger problem, the doctor told her to ‘go home, have a good sleep, and, when you wake up, make a plan’. Twelve hours later and Kavisha had her plan: she was going to learn flamenco guitar—one of the most difficult guitar styles to master.
For the next three months, Kavisha learnt what it felt like to be challenged musically. ‘I was used to people saying
“Oh what a beautiful voice” and all this and I couldn’t do it! I was really struggling and I was crying in class in front of the teacher. It felt like being 10 again.’ Consumed by her desire to master the difficult solea rhythm, Kavisha would fall asleep next to her guitar and wake up tapping the rhythm on her chest. ‘I did that full on for three months, and I forgot to kill myself because I had another problem: the bigger problem was how to do this fucking rhythm!’
But while Kavisha appreciates the depth of the creativity that comes from experiencing what she calls ‘the shadow’, she is not an advocate for staying in that place. Instead, she believes the journey back into the light is just as critical to the creative process.
Simply put, the most important thing about going to hell is to ‘make sure you get a return ticket’.
Six years ago Kavisha found love again, but that relationship didn’t go the way of others and end as a failed love affair. It lasted. But that posed a new problem for Kavisha when she realised she didn’t know how to write out of happiness. ‘When you’re content, creating from contentment is really a shock; in fact, you don’t know how to do it!’ In the end, it took help from an unexpected quarter to break through her creative block, and also saw Kavisha take her first steps towards a return to visual art.
In October 1991, the refugee boat SIEV X sunk, killing 353 people, while, allegedly, the Australian navy looked on. The event spoke loudly to Kavisha. She was the daughter of a refugee—her mother had fled Burma to India during World War II—and was working with refugees in theatre at the time. As the SIEV X story unfolded, she felt moved to sketch some of the images she had seen. As she hung her drawings up on the walls of the theatre, she suddenly felt ‘sick in [her] guts’ that people would see her work. Surprised at the violence of her physical reaction, and the realisation that three decades later the wound still hadn’t healed, Kavisha knew it was time to conquer what had now become a debilitating fear.

It was Andy, her partner of six years and now her husband, who decided it was time Kavisha attempted painting again. So he bought an easel in a second-hand shop and brought it home. After a few months of walking past the easel—each time imagining the easel taunting her to ‘Come on! Use me!’—she gave in.
Kavisha began to paint the images from her songs. The warm, rich melodies and    lyrics    from    her    albums    were transformed into beautiful, vibrant pieces of art, paintings that now hang in a local restaurant, Franco Choo’s, and in households in Italy, France, and Australia. Last July, Kavisha was asked to exhibit her paintings in Italy, at the Artegiro gallery in Montefiascone, Lazio. But, despite experiencing only positive responses to her artwork since that first fateful exhibition three decades ago, Kavisha still only managed to bring
herself to turn up on the last night. ‘I couldn’t be there for the opening night. I think I wouldn’t have been able to bear it. Right now it feels like [the art’s] just so personal, because there’s a kind of naivety about the work—it’s not sophisticated work—it’s work straight from the heart. I feel like it’s almost a little child up there.’ Asked if she thinks she could ever attend an opening night, the answer is ‘one day’.
While Kavisha’s music career continues togrowandmature,shefeelslikesheis ‘just starting out again’ with her career asanartist.Still,thereisnodoubtthat Kavisha’s world is now firmly shaped by those two loves. ‘I think I’ve got to that point now with the music, with the art, that I’ve realised it’s something I must do, and whatever people say, whatever they don’t say, I don’t care
anymore—it’s liberating.’