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Swimming Home by Judy Cotton review – a mosaic memoir of a creative life | Autobiography and memoir

When Australian-born artist Judy Cotton was struck down by Lyme disease in the 1990s — having been bitten by a tick at her country home in Lyme, Connecticut — she had to find a way to create art through the crippling pain. Turning away from large gestural paintings, she grouped small panels into expansive bursts of color for a series titled Swimmers.

Her memoir, swimming home, returns to the technique, telling her life story as a mosaic of fragmented memories. Cotton worked from notes collected in a drawer to craft a short, impressionistic book, the impact of which is both pungent and poignant. This is the partial portrait of an artist and a daughter shaped by family, country, and self-imposed exile, in a century of change, especially for women.

There’s something to be said for writing your first book at 80, with experience and no time to waste. Cotton’s style was honed by years in journalism, many as New York contributing editor for Vogue Australia. Her writing is confident and lean, mixed with an artist’s visual poetry and instinct for pattern.

Swimming Home falls into halves of different tone and direction. As a girl Cotton is angry, stubborn and rebellious, swimming away from home as hard as she can. Her mother is her main problem, and she portrays Eve Cotton as a vivid nemesis, wryly quoting Shirley Hazzard’s letter of condolence about “this beloved and delightful woman”.

Growing up in Broken Hill, Eve had her own obstacles – a drunk father and a “beautiful, easy” sister who overshadowed her. She gave up the piano to marry a handsome, charismatic local boy, Robert Cotton, who would become a Liberal senator and a diplomat. As a mother to two daughters and a son, Eve judged her girls as she had been judged, on looks, clothes and marriages – “and we both lost in the equation.” She sent them to boarding school when Cotton was four years old, to be near a hospital when her elder sister, Anne, needed eye surgery.

On their Oberon property at the frosty edge of the Blue Mountains, Eve was “one of the most successful sheep breeders in the Southern Hemisphere”, said her obituary. In Cotton’s view, she dedicated herself to being the wife of a public man, with the “fighting mindset of a determined perfectionist to be unhappy”.

As a child, Cotton was also determined to be unhappy, as she recalls with ruthless comic flair. Her early life is remembered as a series of near-death illnesses, accidents, assaults and “experiments”: making a bomb, smashing Anne’s doll with a hammer, throwing sticks at a bull, spitting beer on drinkers from a hotel roof, filling watering cans with cement, painting the clothed body of her adored brother, Robert, with the pleasure of “twirl[ing] the brush in the concave shell of his ear.”

She was wounded – “a crater that never healed” – by the death of her cousin Tony, while flying a helicopter in Vietnam. As she writes after a boy drowns, “Joy comes with teeth.”

So Cotton had to leave, first for the University of Sydney and night life-drawing classes. To Eve’s displeasure, both her daughters would become acclaimed visual artists, with Anne Ferguson working as a sculptor. (Anne’s daughter Jo Bertini also became a painter.) Some subconscious force pushed Cotton to derail her ambition by marrying a diplomat and living miserably in Seoul, before escaping with her son for a hard but satisfying life in Tokyo.

The Japanese aesthetic fed her blossoming art. Cotton mentions a Chinese legend in which a carp swims upstream, becomes a dragon and flies to heaven. In Japan she watches a carp-shaped kite, which looks “as if it were swimming in the air”. A metaphor, perhaps, for her new freedom.

By 1972 she was living in New York, where she found lasting happiness in marriage to an American art conservator, Yale Kneeland, and pursued her art career hungrily at the center of late 20th-century artistic innovation.

From this point, in the middle of the book, Cotton’s voice softens and becomes elegiac as the inevitable tide keeps pulling her home to the receding past. She visits her ageing parents at Palm Beach and Balmoral, two of Sydney’s beautiful beaches, seeing with the sharpness of absence.

“Australia is still my inner landscape that lets me in and shuts me out,” she writes, “so that returning to America I feel as if I’ve jammed the fingers of my emotions in a door.”

Some readers may be frustrated or tantalised by the deliberate gaps in this self-portrait. There’s a second memoir to be written, if Cotton chooses, about her creative life in New York’s art world, which surely let her in and shut her out with inverse force. After Swimming Home, I would certainly like to read more.

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