Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Historic Houses Trust and the Caroline Simpson Library

This morning on the way in to the Mitchell Library (I was somehow reluctant to have an early coffee in the Library cafe!) I dropped into the Historic Houses Trust for a look round, and by chance saw a notice advertising the 'Caroline Simpson Library and Research Collection'. I can't explain it any better than the Trust's own brochure, so here's an extract:

'The Historic Houses Trust (HHT) has approximately 48,000 objects in its collection, distributed across all its properties. The collection’s strength lies in its reflection of 19th and 20th century domestic interiors in New South Wales. This derives from the relationship between the house museums where many of the objects are displayed and the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection which the HHT has developed to support research into building conservation and the history of Australian houses, their interiors and gardens. The Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection covers a variety of formats: – 19th and 20th century architectural pattern books, design drawings, trade ephemera, photograph albums, manufacturers' trade catalogues, wallpaper sample books, paint colour charts, furniture pattern books, gardening and domestic manuals and decorators' personal papers. There are also wallcoverings and floorcoverings, soft furnishings, garden ornaments and architectural fragments, mostly provenanced to house in New South Wales. It is the only specialist collection of this type in Australia.'

So out of nowhere I have found another resource for my research, and if I had my druthers I'd probably camp in there for weeks at a time... As it is, having been made very welcome by Matt Stephens, their Reference Librarian, I shall spend a happy holiday looking through their on-line catalogue. Interestingly the building - about which I know virtually nothing - is, Matt Tells me, prefabricated...

A close shave...

I've spent the last couple of days in the Mitchell Library at the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney. It's part of an historical sandstone building with a steel-and-glass annexe, and between the two of them is a courtyard cafe, enclosed by buildings on three and a half sides. Yesterday I went there for a coffee and an early lunch and nearly didn't come back!There I was, peacefully drinking my latte and eating an early sandwich underneath a large 'cafe umbrella' before burying myself in the archives, when there was a huge gust of wind that twisted through the gap between the buildings surrounding the cafe. I wasn't paying any attention until suddenly all five cafe umbrellas were jerked upwards, their poles dangling, by the wind. The umbrellas lifted vertically out of their bases until they were about ten feet off the ground and then the poles started waving around - and, as the only customer sitting outside in the sunshine, I was underneath! I was cowering in my seat as these bloody great poles waved around me, and then they came crashing down. The umbrella under which I had been sitting descended six inches away from my head, with an almighty BANG as it hit the ground, and I'm very glad it didn't land on me. I felt a bit shaky after that...

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Ideas #1

I wonder what would happen if I buried some of my copper plates on the beach at Korora and 'weathered' them? The tidal action in Korora Bay is very strong... I might do that when I get back there!

Mitchell Library #2

Hallelujah, I'm in the library again! I have three precious days on my own in Sydney, staying with friends, and free to spend as much time in the archives as I please between their opening and closing hours of 9am to 7pm. And what a joy it is! Mind you, I've set myself relatively easy tasks simply because I wasn't sure what I would be able to achieve in my time here, given my unfamiliarity with the collection. I outlined my aims to Michael on Sunday evening: to upgrade my membership category from the ordinary 'blue card' to the slightly more specialised 'gold card' (which allows me to look at the rare books and manuscripts collection); to find a book about women's decorative arts edited by Ann Toy that I'd failed to obtain in Coffs Harbour through the inter-library loans scheme because the only copy is in the Mitchell collection; and to familiarise myself with the card indices and catalogues here. So far I've achieved two out of those three aims, and managed to do some shopping in Sydney as well!

What is interesting me - apart from the act of doing the research itself - is how feminist my subject seems to be: blindingly obvious to some, I have no doubt, but obscured to me. As I look through bibliographies and lists of source materials, I come up against the notion of homemaking as a woman's occupation - part of the 'right order of things', and the activities described - embroidery, decoration, feminisation of the home environment - are all 'women's work', perceived as part of the Puritan desire to employ women's hands so that they couldn't make mischief. Women embroidered, tatted, knitted, crocheted, painted, decorated not exclusively for their own pleasure or as an expression of an inner compulsion to 'make art'; they did these things mainly because the social order in which they lived expected them to do so as a way of keeping them in their place, cementing their position in the social hierarchy, and expressing their commitment to their male relatives and their families.

Some of my inept description can no doubt be argued with, but I think it is basically true that as women could not/should not earn a wage for their work, they were only allowed to become gifted amateurs at their occupations. Their artistic output was usually for the private audience of family and friends, or was distributed as gifts with no inherent value apart from sentiment. A few women made a decent living from their skills, such as the botanical illustrators the Scott sisters, but they were a rarity and described themselves as amateurs. And this isn't a historical tendency: I do it myself. How often have I downplayed my skills? Given things away rather than charged money for them? Referred to my own art practice as a hobby rather than as a passion? Only now, at the rather late age of 40, am I beginning to reinterpret my own behaviour and reassess the world around me - thank you, Jules, for three years of conversation that have subtly opened my eyes!

Friday, December 08, 2006

Lawn mowing, anyone?

Good News

Two great things have happened, on successive Fridays, so I wonder what will happen next week? First my print Rusty Wharf, Murano got into the Focus group show in Coffs Harbour, at the Bunker Gallery. Then it was purchased! How lovely it was to walk into the gallery at the private view and see a red 'sold' sticker on the label... As a result of that sale I hope I will be able to explore the possibility of a show at the Regional Art Gallery in early 2008, AND I've made contact with someone who might be able to help out with studio space.

Then today I've been talking to Tim at Southern Cross University about the possibility of a residency in January 2007. The timing couldn't be better: just before I go back to the UK. So it's been a good week!

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Mitchell Library

I've had a fun-packed afternoon wandering round the archives at the State Library of New South Wales, and I now have a basic reader ticket, but I'll have to come back with a different form of ID in order to get the 'gold' card which will enable me to use some subscription databases and also to handle rare materials in the reading room.

It was interesting to note some of the subtle differences between the Mitchell Library and the British Library, although they aren't attempting to do exactly the same thing: in the British Library you have to sit in designated seats in order to use a laptop and woe betide you if you aren't in the right place (as I have previously found out to my cost...). In the Mitchell Library you simply have to locate a seat with a plug and if you can't find one then you can - with the Librarian's permission - go and sit in the otherwise exclusive 'rare books' section. And I haven't yet found a British Librarian who is prepared to come out from behind their desk to show you the catalogues. On the other hand, the British Library's catalogue is much better and you don't have to search in three places to find things.

Anyway, I guess the overwhelming impression I was left with was that I've got a lot of work to do in order to find a 'hook' that will enable me to start searching in the collection, because right now I haven't got a clue where to start.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Where am I?

I don't know why I thought I would feel any different on the aeroplane as opposed to anywhere else, except in so far as I'm travelling First Class for the first time! So I've been lying here, trying to sleep on my fully-reclinig seat, examining my thoughts and feelings and failing either to sleep or to discover anything very deep going on...

The only slightly odd thing relates to Marc Auge's theories about place/non-place - something I'll have to read up about. I started reading one of his texts, as recommended by Iain, but got sidetracked by a necessary investigation of the meaning of the word chthonic on page 2, which made me realise that a primary problem for me in starting this PhD is that I don't 'speak the language of scholars' on the subject, and that I have a pressing need for a dictionary section in this website (see the right hand side bar!). I also have to overcome a certain amount of prejudice in that we (Michael and I!) commonly refer to the more scholarly/circular/incomprehensible pieces of text that we find as art bollocks - an entertaining phrase that I may have to ditch in favour of achieving something closer to an open mind...

Anyway, back to the subject: where am I? There are all sorts of answers: I am in the forward section of an Airbus 340 (I think), in seat 2A - or 3A, depending on Ella's caprice. I'm one of a group of over two hundred people elevated 33,000 feet in the air in a moving vehicle which happens to have wings. I'm approximately above the surface of the Indian Ocean to the north-west of Australia's Northern Territories. And there are doubtless plenty of other ways in which I could describe where I am.

There are also a few practical problems with these statements. For a start, I'm moving so I'm nowhere specific for more than a nano-second. So you can't pinpoint my position on a map now, you can only say with a reasonable degree of accuracy (I assume that we are being tracked by radar and/or satellite) where I have been. You can't map me, you can only plot my trajectory.

Also, in this placeless place, I am not anywhere. I am flying through international and national air spaces, but I wonder under what jurisdictions the space within this aircraft comes? Are we subject to the rules of the United Arab Emirates whence we departed; the Civil Aviation Authority; or perhaps Australia, where we're headed? Or are we bound - as our luggage compensation claims are - by some convention, such as the Hague, Warsaw or Geneva?

Or does it really matter? At the moment we're a disparate group, with certain familial or friendship ties, but with most in common through the shared experience of being moved through space on the same vehicle. Perhaps the issues of place only really come into play when something happens: an accident or a catastrophe, when core human characteristics such as selfishness or a desire to help come to the fore. Perhaps one of the defining characteristics of this placeless place is that it is also somewhere (nowhere?) where nothing happens - as soon as something does happen, such as an air crash, then the incident also marks out a place: the aircraft came down in the Siberian tundra, close to...

There is another interesting facet of this flying experience, and that is the process by which we make our immediate surroundings 'home'. I am very far from home and few of my things are here, but I have undertaken actions of familiarisation that are themselves so familiar as to have become invisible rituals. I have read information cards, looked in drawers and cubby holes, tried out all the buttons to do with moving parts of my chair and the TV. I have raised and lowered the window blinds, adjusted the lights and make myself comfortable both by familiarising myself with the unfamiliar and by personalising it, if only in the sense of disposing a limited number of possessions on surfaces.

I often don't notice myself doing it, and yet it's obviously important and I am aware that I also feel the need to do it for Ella. I pre-emptively packed things in our hand luggage that would make her feel 'at home', such as cuddly toys and activities. A clear part of the rationale for doing so is to remove fear: what I want to avoid, both for her and for me, is the experience of her fearing the space she is in for such a long time because she doesn't like it or want to be in it. And let's face it, she doesn't have much choice about coming along with me for the ride!

I have very ill-informed notions about what our so-called primitive ancestors did in their caves, but I imagine that what I have done in my First Class cabin is not much different to what I would have done thousands of years ago in my cave: arranging dry bedding and furs, cooking utensils or tools, or perhaps painting something on a cave wall.

Friday, October 13, 2006


I think I shed my skin somewhere over Belgium
a brittle undercarriage falling from 30,000 feet.
I felt the tearing on my belly as it dropped away,
new scars over old scars.

Eye pits sense only light and dark,
fill with tears.
Pink flesh, not hardened yet, flinching from new light
warmed and blinded at the same time.

Forty years of webs, practicing. Sorrow sometimes
hung like dewdrops, cold beads, a weighty necklace on
winter mornings.

Now I take my children with me, free falling, only
a thin silk line
to cast out as we drift and hope we catch in something

Dawn is warmer here. One leg delicately stepping onto
the grass. One hand cuts open the box and takes out the loom.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Early Stages

I am at the very early stages of thinking about my PhD, a fact that was pointed out to me by a professor at the University of Melbourne when I corresponded with him about my research area! He's right - and I may find that I have to change horses in a little while, to take account of the 'state' of my research area as I read more and more about it.

In a nutshell, I am interested in how the experience of dislocation is expressed by a person in acts of creation. This interest is sparked by two things: firstly, I found an obscure reference to a Victorian man called Charles Frederick Bielefeld in a book on papier mache, with a comment that Bielefeld (who was known for his architectural ornamentation) had made a 'portable village' of cottages and a single villa out of papier mache for a client called Seymour who was emigrating to Australia. What a mad idea! How can you make durable buildings out of papier mache? The second spark relates to my own imminent experience of emigrating to Australia and my interest in what that will do to my work. I have my suspicions that the physicality of the buildings in which we live affects us deeply, and I wonder, what must it have been like for the early Australian settlers to have lived in often temporary, often crude accommodation? Many of them moved from cramped inner-city slum housing (or not much better) to the wide open spaces of what is now New South Wales and a distinct lack of infrastructure or satisfactory housing, at least in the colony's early years, via three months at sea. What did that do to them? And how was it expressed?

I put together a research proposal as part of my MA, and it was pounced upon as likely PhD material. But interestingly, I find that I may have to adjust my ideas somewhat. Professor Lewis - the expert on portable housing in Australia and on C F Bielefeld - points out that papier mache housing was of no more interest to its occupants than any other sort of temporary housing and that so little information survives about Bielefeld's (and others') structures that it may be impossible to draw any sensible conclusions. I have another suspicion, too, which is that the early colonists may have been too preoccupied to care, and that no supporting material will be there to find... Early art in the colony - unless I have completely missed the point with my reading so far - was largely the preserve of Navy officers, whose topographical skills were in great demand for defining coastlines and countryside, and entrepreneurial sketchers whose work described a 'paradise' of natural beauty in order to encourage further settlement. There may not have been many early settlers looking around them at the landscape and their own habitation and drawing philosophical conclusions expressed as art that survives today!

I have a friend who completed a PhD several years ago in the field of English Literature. She was kind enough to say to me that most of her fellow post-graduates changed tack several times in the early stages of their studies, and that really did make me feel better about the idea! Thank you, Helen.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

What, why, where

I'm aware of the conflict about having a journal of any kind - you want someone to read it/you want it to stay private, you want to be interesting to others/you don't want to be judged, you want to express yourself freely/you're afraid of what people might think, you pray for anonymity/you secretly hope for a publishing deal. I'm afraid of what people might think - I'm not good at being criticised - I tend to curl up into a ball in pain and then do nothing for ages... not the best reaction, I think, so in some ways this will be like aversion therapy. If enough people tell me I'm talking rubbish I might get used to the criticism! Whether it will stop me from talking rubbish is another matter entirely.

Having a blog can be a very self-serving thing. Ooh, wow, look at me and my wonderful taste, my perfect aesthetic vision, my canny critical eye when I review other people's work, my incisive mind! I must be really fascinating! Even better, look at all the fancy HTML in my code! Actually that's not why I'm doing this, although I daresay I will be very proud of achieving anything at all in the way of tailoring the blog template I've used. The main reason I've set this up is because I need to conquer some of the lonesomeness of doing a PhD, especially as I shall be spending a lot of time half-way around the world from my usual support network and my university...

So this blog is likely to be a combination of all sorts of things: rants, complaints, moaning, excitement, research, discovery, lists of things, text from assignments, pictures of my work, comments about what I'm doing, links to interesting things... a cross between a scrapbook, a journal, a photo album and a sketch book I guess.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Double Elephant paper measures 27 x 40 inches. A single elephant is 28 x 23 inches!


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