Five things: Q&A with Liana Ashenden

Mar 2024 | Flash, Small craft

Mad About Roosters

Liana Ashenden

Picasso sketched a rooster like it was going to expire from choking. He sketched with charcoal, outlining thickly, and rubbed out with an eraser. The page was smudged above the rooster’s tail, which curved up and over like horsehair. The tongue protruded from a gaping beak, the eyes were wide and alarmed, and the bird’s tiny wings pointed to the sides with the violence of its crowing.

The moment I saw Picasso’s drawing, I was desperate to sketch one.

‘I have roosters,’ a woman messaged in response to my social media request. ‘Come any time.’ I wore my gumboots and jacket and trekked through the mud of her farm. A barking collie threw itself against a mesh cage. ‘My husband does all our home-kill over there,’ she said, pointing to black-painted sheds where the dirt road ended and fields began. The chicken enclosure was off to the side, attached to a smaller, derelict shed of faded green corrugated iron. Scores of chickens and three large turkeys milled over the ground and came and went through the shed’s slanting wooden door. Not a leaf of grass grew in the mulch or mud, not even by the pond. When the woman dropped scraps of broccoli over the fence, hens came running, but the two roosters stayed back, turning their heads to stare from one eye, then the other.

The farmer and I stood at the fence, warmed by the sun. The fields reflected puddles of shining rainwater. Beyond the farm, the tide was turning, and the Port Hills massed jagged and grey against the winter sky. I took off my jacket and sat still on an overturned bucket. I did not see the farmer leave. I was lost in the smell of dirt, the sound of water running down a channel, the texture of bird feathers and strange horny feet, their orange eyes and puckered pink combs. I tried and failed to capture their jerks and wobbles on the page.

After a while the hens relaxed, clucking and murmuring to each other and grooming themselves. They strutted up to the wire fence and eyed me. I told them they were pretty and admired the decisive, muscular grace of their dancing. Step forward, scratch, step back. Peck and repeat. Several hens lay down against the hot corrugated metal of the shed and stretched their wings. One rolled over, exposing her fluffy white under feathers to the sun. A rooster came within three feet of me, but no closer. A hen pecked at the bald spot on his neck as he and I stared at each other.

These were no fierce protectors, no territorial strutters. As far as I could tell, the roosters came last in the flock’s pecking order. Although disappointed not to see a wild-throated display, I painted my rooster as he appeared to me. Colourful, handsome and watchful, in the pause before a step.


Five things: Q&A with Liana Ashenden

You are a writer and a painter. Can you say a bit about how one artform influences the other?

Despite childhood passions for both writing and art, it has taken half a lifetime to understand how connected they are and that my creative practice suffers if I focus on one without the other. Writing and visual art stimulate the brain in different ways, but they share intense observation. I find it easier to achieve flow states when drawing and painting.

Colours and shapes often feature in my writing as a result of my art practice. It fascinates me that these disparate fields share crafting words, yet with altered meaning and application – for example, lines, tone, spacing, scene, composition, illustration and abstraction.

Recently, I have found it satisfying to respond directly to one artform using the other, through ekphrasis (creative writing about a piece of art) and visual responses to flash stories. It’s a mimetic, interpretive spiral that deepens my understanding of both forms.

This piece feels like it holds onto expectations, and then examines them: expectations of nature, of behaviour, even of ourselves. In writing creative nonfiction, does the impulse to explore an idea come first, or the view of something real – the thing in front of your eyes – or something else entirely?

For me, it comes from observation or an experience first. An idea emerges afterwards, from the act of examining and questioning the experience. I think of this process as the creative subconscious appearing between thoughts in the way light filters through leaves.

If you can say in one word what this piece is ‘about’, what would it be? And why? And is the ‘about’ different for you and your reader, do you think?

Intentionality. How do you share intention – mine or another’s, or that moment between thought and action – without losing its defining, intangible characteristic? I also gesture towards the intentionality gap between artist/writer, subject, and representation.

I imagine that the ‘about’ is different for my reader. I hope it is. It is exciting that words take new shape and meaning in the reader’s mind.

The last sentence holds that moment – the capture of a movement, or perhaps a stillness.  Can you talk a bit about your desire to ‘capture’ a fleeting thing, in both visual art and writing?

In visual art, I have become more interested in expressing a feeling, an energy, or a response, no matter how imperfectly it captures the thing itself. My writing is less mature in that regard because I feel a strong impulse to represent human phenomenological experience on the page. There’s an element of ego at work – to say, I was here, and when the reader reads my words, we both exist. In ‘Mad About Roosters’, I have tried to focus outwards and away from my own interiority. I hope that what comes across is a sense of otherness, the mystery of consciousness contained in other beings (and perhaps the universe) that we can only infer.

What’s different, for you, about writing fiction and creative nonfiction?

Writing fiction is more difficult and more rewarding. Paradoxically, writing creative nonfiction is a freer act for me because of its ‘factual’ constraints. It’s akin to how restricting myself to one medium, one paper size, and a limited colour palette focuses my painting practice on expression and mark making in a liberating way.

Thank you, Liana!


Liana Ashenden is a writer and artist living in the ancient volcanoes of Te Pātaka-o-Rākaihautū / Banks Peninsula. With a PhD in English Literature and a BSC in Physiology, her writing blends the esoteric and domestic. As an expressionist artist, Liana works in watercolour, acrylic, charcoal and clay. You can find her in Flash Frontier and Flash Frog and on Instagram @swampmoa.

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