The Yin Yang Effect that is Andrew Miller and Robyn Field by Nolan Stevens

Colour photograph of Robyn, on left of image. She has blonde hair and is laughing. Andrew is next to her. He is taller and has his arm around Robyn. He is also laughing. They are standing in front of trees. Photo taken by Maureen Miller

Contrary to popular belief the meaning behind the Yin Yang symbol is more about the balance between male and female energy than it is an illustration of the balance between good and evil. 

I recently caught up with two creative forces, who embody this unison of energy, for a chat on life, love and disability. On one side, Andrew Miller, a man who is a co-founder of the web-based gig-guide and happening bible, JHBLive.com, a writer, poet, journalist and editor, who lives a creative life with muscular atrophy. On the other side is his wife, Robyn Field, artist and former gallerist of Unity Gallery. We met in Robyn’s Johannesburg‘s downtown art studio. The plan was to get some insight into how a couple living on two sides of the disability coin manage to make it all work. 

NOLAN STEVENS: The first time we crossed paths was when I wrote for JHBLive. You were the editor. I must admit I never really thought of you as being disabled during that time. How did you manage then with JHBLive being so much about events, nightlife and the world of entertainment?

ANDREW MILLER: As muscular atrophy is a degenerative condition, I get progressively weaker. I started JHBLive with Mick, (Michael Balkind) many years ago, around 2000 and I was a lot more mobile then. It was still tough though, as you would know,  having to do interviews and club reviews. I always participated in the dance scene, but it was a weird environment because on the one hand I was enjoying club life, on the other hand I was just trying to stay upright. By the time I bumped into you, I knew everyone well enough that when Mic wanted me to work, I could go, okay these are the terms: Writers’ meetings happen at the Bus Factory. I don’t move from my office. I will guide your people remotely. That’s kind of the story of my life. But as an adult in my mid-thirties, it’s easier to lay down the terms. When I was younger it was a lot tougher because you don’t get to lay down any terms.

NOLAN: I was just saying to Robyn, before you came, that my relationship with my impairment and disability had always been a very negative one; I’d always shied away from it. It was something I was very ashamed of when I was at high school. When everyone else was worried about how they’re going to get dates, I was just trying not to fall while going from one class to the next, you know?

ANDREW: Big time! Shame is a very interesting idea; even in one’s internal landscape. What I find as I get older is that there may not be only one me inside, there may three or four of me, and there’s that shameful part or that aspect of you that’s buried really deep. But, as a functioning young adult you’re not going to get anywhere in the world if you carry this around with you. The consequence, I find, as I get older, is there’s a lot to unpack down there in that special box. Its always been an interesting idea for me of when and how one explores these things.

NOLAN: This for me has manifested in weird ways, I mean when I worked for the Sunday Independent the editor wanted me to work from the office. At The Star I was very antagonistic about that. I didn’t want them to know I was disabled and told them I could do the same job from home and didn’t see why I needed to come in.

ANDREW: I remember some time back I got invited to join the Daily Maverick, and I turned it down. The thought of having to go to writers’ meetings was too much.  I was just getting to the stage where I needed Robyn’s assistance. You know that’s not the kind of life I wanted, to be in an environment where I would be limited and need my helper with me. It felt like I’d be at the back end of whatever the equation would be.  So, I turned it down. Ultimately, I think it was the right decision for me as a creative. It was interesting to quietly observe myself and say nah, I’m not doing that. On the flip side it feels like opportunities are drifting past because I’m declining them for that deep reason. It’s tough to place mentally.

NOLAN: How did you navigate that? Where you in the same space I was in where you were antagonistic about things?

ANDREW: Most of the time I said no and just brushed it off.

NOLAN: I was worried a lot of editors may have had a perspective of me being angry or difficult to work with.

ANDREW: Yeah, it’s difficult. I think that’s always the fear, especially as a career person, you’re very conscious of how the world works. What you don’t want to be is difficult and then a lot of the time you’ll bale out of things completely so you don’t make a ripple in the pond. I mean I’ll make a ripple with my work but to be the ripple is a deeply shameful kind of thing and something that I’ve tried to avoid.

NOLAN: How has your writing or poetry performance been affected by disability? Does it affect you creatively; the content or style of your work?

ANDREW: It’s a very complex thing that. Initially no, not at all, but then I started writing about it because I started to hit a new phase of weakness. I was not the person I had been ten years earlier; it’s always a moving target this condition. So, I started to write a bit about it, and some of it was quite edgy. I think once I was well into the poetry stuff and getting paid quite nicely for performing and it was part of my career, I started to venture into more discussions for myself on what this thing is. Then I found I was losing people completely. On the one hand, when you start with it, people are really drawn to the kind of redemptive narrative of ‘I used to have paradise, I lost it and this is what I learnt’, or ‘I’m blind in one eye now I’ve got a magnificent super other eye’. People love that shit. So, initially I started creating very powerful responses. The problem is, I quickly found myself becoming a caricature. I mean I knew it would happen, but I didn’t expect it to happen in like three weeks. I pushed past that redemptive narrative, doing quite a lot around mythology of self. How that mythology of self manifests in our lives politically, while using my own mythology of self, which has always been a complex thing. This didn’t really work for the audience, so I left it. Even though I felt like it was an interesting journey for me intellectually and creatively and I had discovered a lot, I felt I didn’t need to venture further.

NOLAN: How did those responses manifest? Was it in book form or in a different form?

ANDREW: No, I did talks. I go through phases. I’m not in a talkie phase at the moment. I have been through phases of lots of talking, which is good for business and earns a bit of money. Compared to other talks I’ve done, there’s definitely a much more compelling engagement with audiences if you’re talking about urban culture. Once you start to talk about your own personal thing I think it freaks people out a little bit.

NOLAN: In my third year of Fine Art at university, I decided to take sculpture as my major, in part to piss the lecturers off and in part to engage in the physicality of my disability which was going to be my theme for that year. I discovered a lot of stuff about this new part of myself that I previously didn’t have to deal with before I got hurt. All the art I was creating then was very depressing, so much so that the lectures were really pushing me to find some form of positivity in my experience of disability. Eventually I did, but after that year I really didn’t want to deal with it anymore and it was only when I started my Unlimited placement in the UK this year that disability came back into the way I speak about myself.

ANDREW: How old are you now?

NOLAN: I’m thirty-four.

ANDREW: That makes perfect sense to me. I’m forty-four and over the last ten years I’ve started talking again about disability. It felt like I was in a better position to deal with it emotionally, intellectually and in terms of creativity. Unearthing my feelings and making decisions on how much of my identity disability was going to be. I guess each time I feel like I’ve gone through it, that’s just an illusion because its going to come back again, and it’s quite an exhaustive process the identity thing. Also, because I’m a creative, there’s a lot of senses at play. The fear of being bound to impairment in terms of identity would be the worst thing in the world for me, but you can’t deny it either because that’s not going to help you as a creative or a human being. As I get older, I find the dance a lot more nuanced, but I think that’s just age. I have more reference points now. I have a longer story to refer to. When I was younger I was much more of a blunt object and I guess you have to be if you want to get out there in the world.

 

At this point I tore Robyn away from her latest creation and asked her to join in the conversation.

 

NOLAN: I guess we should get to the core of this conversation. I want to know how the two of you work together, bump off each other and maintain the life together that you have.

ANDREW: I mean we’re both full time creatives as well so there are layers to this.

ROBYN FIELD: It’s funny because I did just say to Andy three days ago that it’s not just your muscle disease. It’s my muscle disease too.

NOLAN: For me that’s been a strange arena because I had chosen not to be in relationships for the longest time, in both high school and varsity I didn’t get into relationships because I thought I was somehow less than others, like no one was going to want to be with someone like me. So, that was my thing; being this super romantic, unrequited-love martyr was my identity. Two years ago, I met someone who was completely different to anyone I had encountered before. For the first time there was this woman who just seemed to get me and all my disabled stuff. I thought that was totally amazing. Especially after experiencing the complete opposite, negative end of the dating spectrum. With all of this in mind, I thought, you guys have been a couple for a long time and this would be a good opportunity to hear how you got through the complexities of dating and a relationship.

ANDREW: I mean it’s much more of a thing now than say twenty years ago. Where I was much more able physically to get around. It wasn’t as much of a foregrounded thing as it is for me now.

ROBYN: I’m not sure if it’s foregrounded all the time though. Its just at the moment we’re talking about and looking at it again, you know.

ANDREW: I guess, looking back at my life now geez, if Robyn wasn’t in my life who would I be? I have no answers to that on any level.

ROBYN: Ditto.

ANDREW: I edited this book by Andrew Marshall who has a severe, degenerative muscle disease. It is very raw but the section on girls and teenage life is just brutal. It mirrors a weird experience I had as a youngster. I wasn’t visibly disabled, broad shoulders and all the rest. What would always happen when going out is I’d get eye contact and then I’d see that person realise there was something wrong with me. I would see their eyes shut down which was a really weird experience. When I read Andrew‘s book, I realised that’s the reality for someone like him. He never got past that. He never got the kiss. He never got the girl. Not even once because his condition at that stage of his life was so severe.  There’s a brutal genetic mating-game truth, especially for younger people.

NOLAN: Andy, was there any of that uncertainty around your disability with Robyn?

ROBYN: Our friends and siblings were more worried than we were at that stage. We both got sat down separately by Andy’s sister and another friend, who said to each of us that we’re all friends here what are your intentions? We were both like we’re just going to see where this ends up. I think we were both quite clear on the fact that this felt nice and we were just going to do it for a while. It wasn’t too stressful.

ANDREW: There’s that and then there’s the longer term. Eventually someone is going to see when you can’t control all the elements of the veneer. For me that was the only concern, and that was based on all the other relationships I’d had. When someone sees how the condition really affects you. I’d think, Yep, here we go. But, that just never happened in my experience with Robyn. When she did see me, it didn’t bother her.

ROBYN: Or I just loved him more.

ANDREW: That only has to happen once or twice, then it flips the whole thing around and you feel like you’ve got someone who actually sees you. Which is a beautiful thing. A lot of what I had been carrying just dissipated but it can come back again when changes happen to my body.

ROBYN: I very deeply believe that Andy wouldn’t be who he is if he didn’t have his muscle disease, and I think he’s perfect. Obviously, I think it would be nice if he was a little stronger, but I really don’t believe we would be who we are or where we are and as happy as we are if Andy wasn’t who he is.

NOLAN: How has being with Andy affected your creative side or art practice Robyn?

ROBYN: Its funny because I’m busy with a series that I’m using to try and paint faster, because I paint very slowly. I’ve started using x-rays because my dad died two years ago, he had cancer and had a lot of x-rays. But Andy also gets a lot of x-rays. So, I decided I was going to use them by painting abstract paintings, still using my map aesthetic but using x-rays as a starting point. So, they are maps; kind of emotional maps, but the idea is taken from the notion that you can’t fix a problem until you know what it is.  A fall for Andy is always a really bad thing. A good fall is when he doesn’t break anything. I do kind of like that there’s a point after a terrible event where you can go forward. I guess it affects my art in different ways. I do do a lot of painting based on emotion. Also, I think for me, dealing with Andy’s condition creatively is a single story that I will deal with when I’m battling, or happy, or sad, or whatever the case. I may decide to express that in a painting, but I would never do a body of work about that one thing. My life is so full of other things.

ANDREW: Our experiences are filtered through so many different aspects of living before they end up as art. Disability is filtered through our cultural life, social life, and our intellectual pursuits, and so it definitely affects and influences our art but is first defused into the broader landscape of who we are.

 

Published 22 July 2018

ANDREW MILLER is a Johannesburg-based freelance writer. He has worked extensively in the city arts scene over the last decade, and has helped a wide range of emerging artists to develop their careers. Andrew is also a public speaker and performance poet, and has appeared on many stages across Gauteng, from business schools to the Daily Maverick Gatherings, where he discusses ideas such as urban culture, disability, death and the challenges of being South African.  

ROBYN FIELD is an artist known for her innovative use of recycled materials. Her waste and collaborative signature pieces hang at the Jo’burg Development Agency, Golder and Associates and T systems, among other private and corporate collections. Her more recent work follows a meditative approach, utilising layers of paint, ink and charcoal on canvas. Robyn was an independent curator and arts administrator, establishing and running Unity Gallery from 2002 – 2013. The Gallery provided a developmental creative space which offered resources to emerging urban artists. 

A colour photograph of Nolan Stevens standing near a wall covered in street art. He is wearing a light-blue peak cap and pointing to the wall.NOLAN STEVENS was born in exile in Swaziland but has lived the better part of his life in inner-city Johannesburg. He is the fourth and youngest member of an artistic family. His mother, Stella May Ntsihlele wrote children’s books, short stories and plays. He attributes his love of writing to her. His eldest brother is a sound engineer and his middle brother is in the film industry.

Nolan is a visual artist who works with ideas of Blackness in an Afro-urban context. He explores various aspects of black identity in his art making, arts writing and curatorial projects. He started curating by partnering with American, Anne Gordon, and organising exhibitions at the Bataki Kollective.  He is inspired by conversations on representation with artists from various art studio spaces within the Johannesburg inner city area. Under the banner of “A Funky Mad Hatter Joint” he curated The Pink Light District; an all-female exhibition which grappled with ideas of how women feel they have been prostituted by traditional African culture, the media and society as a whole. The second show was Deck Society; a collaboration with an international education and skateboarding organisation called SKATEISTAN. This exhibition asked artists to think about issues facing South African youth and to create Afrocentric Pop Art works on skateboard decks provided by SKATEISTAN. Sounds and the City was his last exhibition which fused music and visual art.  

He was chosen as UK Unlimited’s 2018 international placement and is finding that experience is shifting his perspective in a wide variety of ways not only in terms of how he views disability but how he sees himself as a creative person with disability contributing to understanding disability arts as a community.

Nolan feels that barriers faced by people with disability in South Africa are difficult to overcome, both in terms of infrastructure as well as public education. He was the only disabled artist at art school, university and in his immediate artist environment. He did not want to be pitied and tried to fit into the ‘norm.’ He has always had to make do and try to work within the structures that are already in place. He is only now beginning to seek out others in the disability arts community.

Further Information :

Interview with Andrew Miller – The Voices On South African Social Media