Meie Kodu Articles

Mai Maddisson: Our past and present are but one!

What do you do for a living and what role does “Art” play in your life?


 Occupation wise I am a family doctor and I work about 60% time at present but I am planning to slow down gradually even more. My main interest lies in emotional trauma and particularly childhood memory. I do a little undergraduate teaching in that domain.

However perhaps I see my life, aside from my family whom I treasure, as a kind of a triangle. One side is formed by my work, another by my painting and the third by my writing. Thus each touches the other two. At times my major efforts are polarised on one aspect, at others on another.

What inspires you to paint?


 Painting wise I am essentially a story teller: I like to paint series of paintings. Among them was a series called “This nearly was mine” as indeed it nearly was as we departed on the day that the gates to and from Estonia were to be closed for the next half a century. The exhibition depicted in paint and poetry my first return to the once war torn Estonia nearly sixty years later. It was later exhibited in Tallinn as “Peaaegu ka minu”. Among the other series have been “The Soul of New York”, and “Icy warm Iceland” where I shared my perceptions of life in these places but again mostly depicted through buildings.

The stories in the paintings tend to tell of how people meet the negatives of life by converting them into challenges: Perhaps the bright colours, together with a cryptic title a method of engaging the viewer. Who would bother to walk up to a dreary grey, brown or purple image to find out what it is about!

In your last exhibition, urban landscapes dominate as the main theme. What inspirations do you draw from them? How do you see Melbourne?


 Why pick buildings? They are more readily used for symbolism as they are manmade as are most of man’s misfortunes! The paintings can be adapted to emphasize something important and irrelevances can be omitted or attenuated. Nature does not lend itself to that.

For this exhibition, buildings do predominate: The purpose of the exhibition was to launch my book called “The Soul of Melbourne”. Melbourne is mostly buildings. But the narrative gives the book a lot of depth as embroidered into it is the story of a refugee kid.

“Minu Melbourne” has many facets as you would see in the book: Since I grew up among the industrial culture (a term which I prefer to the “blue collar” which to me tends to have racist connotations) I have warmth for those people who work hard and long to give their children some of the opportunities which more affluent children take for granted.

You say that your perspective on Melbourne is influenced by your childhood as a refugee. Is there anything else that shapes this perception?


 Yes,’ life is but a journey where all our experiences one day share a place’, to quote from my book. Many things have influenced my perception of Melbourne and indeed my world. When one has met life at its most precarious both physically and materially the glitz of life becomes nebulous. One learns to treasure “those tiny, bright and shiny imperceptible specks which are readily missed to become part of the ultimate canvas”. As I wander around I tend to notice things which many would not notice: things such as the silvery moon lighting the branches of barren winter trees which are dwarfed by the CBD vast monoliths.

Perhaps I learned this skill in my childhood world where language and trust barriers accentuated what one’s eyes needed to absorb, at that time for one’s safety. Such observations of wonderment can now occur in many settings both among adversity and prosperity.

While one remains focussed on this there is little time to reflect on our warring factions or how to reconcile how one is to love and hate the same people: A legacy I inherited from my parents. Father was a German soldier passing through Estonia during World War II. When one’s mind is left free of wander one becomes acutely aware that to be born between warring cultures is to be born into a vacuum with no soil upon which to place one’s feet. How does one reconcile that without that ugly war one would not have been: That without it many, many others would have been.

My work as a clinician too has influenced my writing and painting themes. As I reflect on the forty plus years as a clinician I marvel at the fortitude of mankind: I fondly admire our refugee cohort and at times grieve for those whose lives have been irreparably fractured. I realise that human warmth is the greatest commodity we can offer each other.

I relish the peaceful mountain sides; perhaps a legacy of my memories of Geislingen which was nestled in a valley. There is something magical about trees and the mist.

My perfect world is to wander about in the mist of the mountainside daydreaming about what to paint and write about in a way that meaningfully reaches those around: Of course with the needed knowledge that my two treasured sons are OK.

Have you painted Estonian landscapes?


 Once I retire I do have plans to paint the Estonian landscape: To date my trips to Estonia have been too truncated to spend time painting. Retirement will allow me the luxury of absorbing the landscape authentically and not painting it a la Australiana which is offensive to both terrains. Pühajärv kindlasti ootab mind!Painting is something which has always been part of me: A twenty four hour day put constraints on it for a few decades but even then as I reflect on my medical student days I suspect that I enjoyed the drawing bit more than learning what the drawings meant. I can’t say that I have any noble explanation for why I like painting or indeed why I do anything else.

You have a strong psychological interest in memories and oral history folklore that have inspired you to write…


 My writing is not nearly as colourful: it has a psycho-philosophical bent and tends to be delving. It again explores the courage of people especially of children caught in mankind’s scrimmages. I tend to approach that more from the oral history format rather than interview format. As you can see from “When the Noise had Ended” I tend to like the material to be in first voice as it eliminates the risk of artefacts of my perception which interview format might create.

At present I am working towards two other books about our people, again to be written about how things looked through the eyes of the young, but with the goal of sharing with the world the courage of our parents. The books are “Hats off to our Parents” which will be about the memories of the young about war-time Estonia and the journey to the camps, and the other will be about our memories of the first five years in our new lands.

Estonian backpackers who have recently arrived are enthusiastic and passionate about their travels to the other side of the world. However, such sentiments are not felt for those post war arrivals. Do you think this is due to the traumatic experience of war?


 Australian Estonians of the WW II cohort had a difficult beginning. In the culture of the time of our arrival, assimilation appeared to be defined as losing who one was and becoming another rather than respecting one another. Many of us lived as chameleons out of respect for the country that adopted us. Times have now changed, as my book shares: Today Australia treasures the diversity of culture that the arrival of our cohort pioneered. The time now is ripe to explore that powerful journey which our people have traversed. Some may see it as wallowing but to me it symbolises the recapitulation of a journey which may give courage to other refugees who will travel in our shoes.

Much has been written about emotional trauma: perhaps it has been somewhat skewed. It is difficult to know how this happens. Perhaps the most important assets anyone can have are human warmth, and a sense of belonging and relevance. Perhaps we dig too deep into the ghoulish dungeons and forget that the trauma may be in the present and not in the past. Sharing of reminiscences is a privilege of increasing age. Many of our folk are remote from each other and thus deprived of the privilege of sharing accounts of the time when they met their greatest challenges.

Elective immigration and travel are vastly different to flight from terror and distress. For the former there is a preconceived notion of new worlds to be met and experienced: There is time to plan and select the itinerary be it for months or a lifetime. There is the choice of saying goodbye or at least ‘auf wiedersehen’ to Estonia. They have the secure choice of staying in contact with their families in Estonia. And let us not forget there is in Oz an existing network of their forefathers from the WW II cohort to point them in the right direction.

Our people had no opportunity to say goodbye and many have not have had the opportunity to return and say hello. They were cast to wander into the wilderness not knowing whether there would be a home or if they would even be alive to need one. They forfeited many loved ones and lost many on the trek. Time heals and helps people reconcile but at times one lifetime is not enough to achieve this mammoth task.

What other projects are you currently involved in?


 I am very much involved with the War Child Studies project in UK. Currently I am focussing on the long term outcomes of childhood refugees.

To ensure some balance of perception of life I am working on a book in a similar vein to the “Soul of Melbourne”. It will be about the Australian Outback: Perhaps with some focus on how the Kooris have become lost in their own wilderness.

How do you find time?


 A seventy two hour day would definitely help!


By Kristi Barrow

Loves all things Estonian. Especially Crafters Elderflower gin. Aussie born.

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