The metamorphosis of Megan Dunn
Julia Holden opened the door to her studio above Resene. She wore dark blue overalls, her eyes sparkled with something akin to optimism. “Are you ready?” she asked.
“Yes!” I said.
This is what she does. Her series I’m your Fan combines sculpture, painting, performance and photography. Julia works with each sitter. You get to pick a famous portrait. Like a David Hockney for instance. Or an Yvonne Todd photograph. Then Julia will douse you in house paint and turn you into an approximation of your favourite work of art. Sometimes in front of a live audience. Sometimes not. I told her one-day—causally— that if I was going to be made into anything it would have to be a mermaid. She took the bait. Julia emailed me, determined to make it happen, she found the time and the clay.
Along the right hand side of the room all manner of guff. Chairs, rolled up coils of beige carpets, miscellaneous office things moved out of the way and stacked in a haphazard line. A large rectangular mirror leaned against a wall. We moved beyond the bric-a-brac, towards the windows.
“Oh wow,” I said, as we rounded the corner. “You have been busy.”
Julia had made me a giant mermaid tail, covered in large scalloped scales, curled around the base of a papier mache rock. The room smelt of oils and seaweed, as Julia had been beach combing that morning trying to find some plastic waste to add to the scene for verisimilitude.
“I couldn’t really find any plastic on the beach.” She’d been hoping for some fishing wire. “I would have settled for a plastic bag or a bottle, or even a can.”
“Well, that’s probably a good thing you found nothing,” I said.
A likeness of the cliffs and white frosted waves from my fading print of Waterhouse’s A Mermaid now hung behind the tail. The original print didn’t include plastics either.
“You can really paint!” I told her. “You’re amazing.”
I couldn’t believe she’d dashed this off over the weekend. I had also sent her a photograph of my Smurfette figurine, a coy green tailed mermaid, wearing a line of pearls, her eyelashes thick and coquettish.
“Yes, I used that for the tail. It was quite useful.”
Julia walked around the scene, touching up the rock. She had made a chicken wire frame and then coated it in clay. It had taken a heck of a lot of clay to make the tail.
I had sent her my measurements by text, after Rich coiled the measuring tape round my waist and hips at home. We hoped we had got it right. But the measurements were a bit off.
The tail was fixed to a rickety wooden school chair and balanced on a makeshift stage. The tail and papier-mache rock scenario felt precarious. A fun house waiting for me to step inside and somehow make it seem real.
Julia set to work painting the clay tail a deep oily petroleum blue, then she fossicked with a floppy stinky bit of brown seaweed draping it around the base of the rock like a feather boa.
I wandered around, looking at her paint pots, brushes in glass jars, the printout of Waterhouse lying on a wooden trolley, surrounded by pots of paint, ready to be ripped off.
But there was a catch.
I had to have clay hair. I wasn’t keen on the clay hair but didn’t like to say. My hair is the one bona fide thing I have that is mermaidy so to cover it with mud seemed a real shame.
I also had to take off my brown Lee jumpsuit. A telling moment. I am not sure how Waterhouse’s mermaid model felt about getting her kit off, but it probably wasn’t at best, benign. I bet she wasn’t above a Resene paint shop either, lanes of cars outside, the staccato feet of birds circling the aluminium roof and the hum of the air con. Its perceptible drone and whirr.
Julia gave me a dressing gown and I pulled it on and scooped my hair into a shower cap, a synthetic nest for my bad, self-deprecating thoughts. I did my usual spiel about not being very attractive or did I actually manage to shut up for once?
I had said yes to Julia and this artwork because I was on the hunt for the END. Where was the full stop for this project? How do you draw a line under the mermaid’s tail? I didn’t want to quit my job as a woman writing a book about mermaids because it was the best job I’d ever had. The pay was terrible, but the sense of PURPOSE was immense. And the synergy! The creative frisson with other women, other artists, like Julia…
“Come over this way,” she said. “’I’ve got your hair over here.”
I sat down on a chair. The hair was also stretched over some chicken wire and had to be kept moist.
I had come long way from that redhead in high school who was trying to make a terracotta mermaid in her ceramics class during lunch time, alone, teased by girlfriends, bored by maths, wanting to be an artist, but also to be as beautiful as Daryl Hannah in Splash, but when I took my mermaid out of the kiln—she had split in two. Her tail detached from her torso.
“There,” Julia said. She lifted the clay hair – it looked a bit like a Roman helmet – from its wire frame and attached it to my head. I sat still and tried to be a good subject. She’d done this for me. To help me realise my dream. We were two women intent on exploring the meaning of the mermaid together. We knew that the meaning could only be found in the subconscious mind—my obsession spurred her on, the collective psyche of women was reaching out to me, wanting me to get it, to do it, to finally reveal the meaning of the mermaid and why she is so essential for women to embody.
But alas, the clay hair.
She had made it long, so it covered my boobs that are on that downward slide into old age. They are not there yet, but there will be an end point for my boobs. Also, my nipples are so much bigger than a full stop needs to be. Sometimes I notice tiny whiskers sprouting from the aureole. She cupped the clay as best she could around them. Julia wasn’t judging me the way I judge myself.
We had some jiggery pokery to try and work out the tail. I stood on the platform at the back of the chair, turned this way and that as Julia tried to make it look like the tail joined my waist. I’m not quite sure we got there.
But we’d done everything we could, so Julia began to paint. The first lick of the house paint was wet and rasping, a cat’s tongue. But she got down to business fast.
“The painting is the quickest part,” she said. “You can’t move now or talk. You have to be very still.””
That suited me fine. I prefer not to talk at the hairdressers. I stared at the plastic tarp on the floor. I felt myself harden— or was that the skein of house paint drying? I became the rock. Still. And remote. Unmovable. I felt for a second how ‘The Little Mermaid’ in Copenhagen must feel seated on her rock in the ocean. I bet she felt nothing at all, because she wasn’t human. She was matter. She was hard. And it was only our dreams that rasped and flowed around her. She wasn’t even the sea foam that broke and eddied against her rock as tourists passed by, click-click. My own clay mermaid was gone, and I couldn’t remember her face, if I’d even given her one, just that I had worked so hard on her, I’d wanted so badly to create something beautiful, something statuesque. That’s a compliment for a woman who is not petite and pretty, but stands out from the crowd and is strong. My mother named me Megan because it means the strong. And yes I guess I am statuesque.
Julia had salvaged me a laptop and painted it silver, because the ruse of my Waterhouse reboot was that I was the mermaid who Skyped, who surfed the net, even though that terminology is ancient, and I am writing in the age of Zoom, time had leapt forward again and I am now the mermaid in the era of coronavirus, in one of the safest countries in the world, who held a laptop on her lap and stared into it instead of a mirror.
She brushed red paint onto my lips. Then got ready to photograph the scene. Julia stood back behind the camera positioned on its erect tripod to get the money shot. Cl-clicked. For Julia the artwork is the photograph—the documentation of the painting. We had no other witnesses that day for which I am glad. It’s hard enough to be your own witness.
I know other things about Julia which I have not said, feelings thick and inchoate, like paint without form, and the private things that she shared with me made me more alert to who she was as a person and there were things, I shared with her too, about my own blocks, my own feelings of helplessness and destitution. I don’t own a house, I confessed. I have no safety net. No roof.
I keep my phone close too. “I always keep my phone close as I worry about Fearne,” I said.
I am the siren on edge for any emergency in the real world.
“I think I’ve got the shot,” Julia said. “What do you think?”
I had tired of the pose and climbed down from the rickety chair.
“Maybe I should have told you to think about what emotion you wanted the image to convey?” Julia mused.
“Hmmm,” I said. I looked blank. She had captured one of me offhand looking at my phone. “I like that one best,” I said. “It’s me. I don’t photograph well. I never do.”
The photo was empty of that elusive quality that would make a pair of eyes return to it again and again like waves breaking against Waterhouse’s rocky foreshore. I wasn’t a convincing mermaid in the shower downstairs at the back of the Resenses shop either. Thick paint clotted in skins above the plughole. The paint reminded me of old orange peelings, withered and gross. I picked up the Lux apricot shower gel and found a dead fly underneath it. The shower at the back of Resense’s clearly doesn’t get much use.
“All right I’m nakey mother! I‘m ready to be made into a mermaid,” Fearne said after I got home that afternoon.
I sat at my Mac in the bedroom, typing, my back to her.
“Mum! More urgent. I’m nakey nakey. I’m ready to become a mermaid.
“Coming,” I checked my emails, scrolled my feed yet again, a nervous wreck, waiting for a life overhaul. Julia had sent me a photograph of our shoot already and said my partner and I think you look strong.
“MEGAN, I’m lying down here!!!!
“Okay! I’m coming.”
In the lounge, she lay on the carpet, naked except for Mermaid Linden’s pink monofin.
“I’m ready to be a mermaid,” she said.
Megan Dunn: The Mermaid Chronicles is exhibited at Te Pātaka Toi Adam Art Gallery in Wellington until December 18. The exhibition charters Megan’s interest in the rise of professional mermaids and the enduring myth of mermaid in art and popular culture (includes a merman too.)