Wednesday, November 26, 2008

You're it

Ooooh, I've been tagged. Yep, Lady Duck, you got me. Actually I got myself, yesterday, bending down to put something in the washing machine and completely forgetting I'd left a piece of hardboard on top of it, in the "waiting-to-go-into-the-office/studio" freight area, so consequently I have a bruised cheek bone (to go with the stabbed-to-the-bone little finger that is the result of caving in to my darling daughter's demands to core her apple for her). Usually I'm very efficient/safe with my movements, but every now and again - usually when I've forgotten to take my HRT tablets for several days! - I get a bit wobbly and do stupid things. Goodness knows what I'll be like when they finally take the tablets away and I have to go through menopause... luckily that's another nine years of (relative) sanity left to me.

I'm digressing, I know, but I've remembered a hideous embarrassment from years ago. I was eighteen and had accompanied a drop-dead gorgeous friend from school to the local gym because she wanted to exercise prior to going on a skiing trip and was too chicken to brave the local blokes by herself. What happened was that she ran out after day one, I was hooked, and from then onwards I braved the local blokes by myself and got quite fit. Anyway, after a while my glasses would slip down my nose and I'd take them off... and on this one occasion I bent down and, yes, you've guessed it, clobbered myself on the cheekbone with the metal handle of a piece of weight-training equipment. Cue an enormous black eye the next day, and all the lads at work threatening to bash up my Dad for beating me until I confessed I'd done it to myself! Same eye, same cheek, but thankfully rather less bruising thanks to a swiftly-applied ice pack.

Where was I? Oh yes, back to the meme... so here you go, "Seven things about my Working Processes":

1 I am as tidy as I can be, but only because I can't bear the sense of panic that overtakes me when I realise I can't find something I need (car keys, daughter, you know the sort of thing). The inside of my head resonates with my mother's voice saying, "If you put things back where you found them you'll know where they are next time you need them", and the bother of it is that she was RIGHT. When I was learning something about making prints in Bristol a few years ago, my friend Emma Stibbon, who is a fantastic printmaker, commented that I was the tidiest printmaker she knew and it made me laugh because she always wore a boiler suit to ink up her (admittedly huge) woodcuts, but in a way I’m not sure if it’s a compliment. I don't know if being tidy is a marker for anything other than the fact that I need to have control over my working environment; I just know that not being tidy hurts my head and depresses me...

2 I, too, believe in the power of the hand in making things. I've never really been interested in things that come between me and the thing I'm making and I've always chosen to be painfully hand-made. I find myself tempted to take it to extremes sometimes, but as there aren't enough hours in the day to do all the things I'd like to do I have to compromise sometimes, which means that I buy the paper I use rather than make it. So what is the attraction of making things myself? I suppose its lots of things all rolled together. For me the act of ‘making’ is a kind of meditation; it is important for me to concentrate intently on what I do, and to maintain that concentration. I find that total immersion in what I’m doing produces a slow, rhythmic way of working that frees me. That sense of mindfulness is important to me and getting into that state of slightly detached mindfulness is the core of what I do. My mind goes off and chatters to itself, and I can sense currents of movements in my subconscious that develop into ideas and connections and understanding and which are the source of my creativity. I can’t focus on them with my mind’s eye; they are submerged, like deep currents of cold water in the ocean, and I only find out about them once they’ve risen towards the surface and become visible to my conscious mind.

I’m not a good practitioner of meditation, though: I’m not disciplined, and too often I slip into a dissociative state in which I am a separate observer in my life, rather than being truly ‘present’ in it.

3 Sometimes the materials come first and the idea comes second. I hoard lovely paper and bits of things, and if I’m lost for inspiration I do two things: look through my boxes of paper and bits, and look at my art books. I’ve never understood how anyone could be bored if they’ve got access to books! I spent a large part of my childhood leafing through my mother’s books about different art collections – the Prado in Madrid, the National Gallery in London and collections in St Petersburg, and it was like walking into another world. Art books – reproductions, surveys, art history or ‘how to...’ books – are a bit magical for me.

4 I work in layers: layers of ink, layers of paper, layers of meaning. I think this mirrors how I see the world, full of layers. People and events are never wholly one thing; we ascribe different meanings to everything and everyone and how I see something will not be the same as how you see it. Things that are essentially bad can also have good aspects to them, or at least this is the conclusion I’ve drawn from my life.

5 Following on from this, I’m interested in the distance between the work and the viewer and I’m very happy to allow it to exist, like silence in a conversation. I don’t want to be overt about the meaning in my work. I might do something for reasons of my own, but I might not want to share those reasons with you, and I don’t believe that any ensuing ‘lack of understanding’ about the piece is necessarily negative. Your conclusions about it and whatever meaning you might ascribe to it are as valid as my own; after all, once it’s made I hand it over to you in order for it to be viewed... from that point onwards the ‘meaning’ in it is out of my control!

6 Aaargh, still two more aspects of my working processes to reveal to you! I guess one of them is to let you into a secret, which is that I’m a dreadful procrastinator in my work. I spend AGES thinking about something before I can bring myself to start, and I think a lot of it is to do with an unwillingness to let go... I exercise a lot of control over myself and my environment, but in making things I have to release myself from some of that control and see what happens, and it’s hard. I am afraid of it, afraid of myself, afraid of the outcome, afraid of failure... But I have come to accept that this is itself an essential part of the creative process for me.

7 To compensate for the above insecurities I have a certain optimism, in that I believe I’ll be able to work out the techniques/problems/mess in the end. It’s very rare that I’ve found myself to be completely stumped as to what to do next (although I recall with a little shudder the sudden wave of fear that came over me while making a friend’s wedding dress a few years ago: the pattern – a pencil sketch – was fiendish and the material was unforgiving, and I got to a point at which I honestly thought I was going to fail... luckily, 24 hours later, I’d wiped away the tears of frustration and worked it out). It's not smugness or arrogance, honestly, but more like blind pig-headedness. I charge ahead, assuming that if I read the necessary pages in some of my books I’ll get there in the end. This is very relevant right now as I’m attempting to do my first ever case-bound book in time for my mother-in-law’s 70th birthday party on Saturday! Perhaps it says something about my belief in the power of books.

Now I have to tag some other people who might want to write about this meme. Who shall I tag? I know: In My Spare Time, Snippety Gibbet and Aine Scannell. Have fun!

Sunday, November 23, 2008


Little badges made from scraps for the school Christmas stall... now you know what I do in my "spare" time!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Lots of fun

Surprisingly I made it back from Sydney, despite inclement weather. I arrived at the airport to come home in plenty of time, only to find that my flight was already being called. It turned out that the thunder clouds were building over Sydney and they were packing people onto planes in anticipation of the departure schedule being thrown into disarray. It's funny how used I am now to the idea of hopping on a plane to go down there, but I do still feel a thrill at being in an airport - they are (non)places of such possibility!

Anyway, I had a fabulous time. It wasn't just the fact that I could spend hours in the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the MCA, or that I could wander the shops without a small person tugging at my hand asking for me to buy things, or that I could walk around the Botanic Gardens picking up interesting seedheads in the sunshine... what was loveliest of all was walking into the Australian Bookbinders artists' books exhibition at the Pine Street Gallery and seeing friends, meeting new people, talking about their work and my work, and having a wonderfully sociable evening which was rounded off by staying with Sue Anderson who, in addition to being a truly talented bookbinder and a very generous person is just lovely. So I've come away feeling inspired and energised and happy - and tired, if that makes sense.

I did have fun at the AGNSW. I'm a Country Member now (my Christmas present from M last year, and one that I have made good use of), which means discounts on entry to special exhibitions and access to the Members' Lounge on one of the lower floors, which has a library, comfy chairs and its own little cafe. It's a very civilised place to spend an hour, catching up on art magazines while sipping a coffee or a glass of wine. I'd forgotten that Wednesday is late opening, so I was able to make full use of the facilities, see both the 'Lost Buddhas' exhibition and the Monet exhibition, grab a coffee, have a general look around and use the very nice ladies' loo to get changed without the usual rush to see everything before 5pm.

I'd been looking forward to the Monet, but you know, this time I was disappointed. One reason is that having lived in the UK for 40 years, travelled in Europe and visited the Museum of Fine Art in Boston I've actually seen most of Monet's work, and that of his fellow Impressionists, in the flesh before now, and so my overwhelming feeling about the exhibition was to do with the lack of good Impressionist paintings. So I probably come across as a bit of a cultural snob here when I say that it is fantastic that so many paintings came to Australia, but very sad that the most spectacular pictures such as Monet's huge 'waterlilly' series didn't make it. The inclusion of one of the larger, later, more colourful and famous Monet waterlilly paintings would have made the show. Instead I came away with the feeling that I'd seen a survey exhibition of paintings that showed the development of Impressionism and how it both sprang from and differed from earlier themes and traditions in (mainly) French art. Where were Cezanne and Degas? Sadly only one early piece from each, and intriguing hints about their personal relationships with fellow Impressionists and the divisions and unravelling that happened. I thought that could have been expanded upon, but perhaps that is really another show.

What I did like were two quotes, the first from Monet:

"I am not a great painter, neither am I a great poet. I only know that I do what I can to convey my experience before nature and, most often, to succeed in conveying what I feel I totally forget the most elementary rules of painting - if they exist, that is"

The other quote I liked was from James M Millar, the rather enlightened CEO of Ernst & Young Australia, who were the exhibition's main sponsors. He summed up rather beautifully the value of art in the modern world:

"Art feeds the soul. It uplifts, inspires and enlightens us. And in this fast-paced life, it offers us moments of stillness and reflection". Exactly.

Ho hum.

The exhibition of The Lost Buddhas was, to my mind, much more inspiring. In brief, Chinese workmen were levelling a school playing field in Shandong Province in 1996 when they came across a pit full of 6th century statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas that had been buried for some unknown reason in the 12th century. The whole thing is shrouded in mystery: where are the statues from? What happened to them between their making and their burial? Why were they buried? And how on earth did they survive so beautifully...? The statues are amazing: carved from limestone, in the main, they have retained the delicate sketch marks incised on the stone to show the painters where to paint, and they are exquisitely colourful. Traces of deep reds and gold leaf adorn the statues' carved robes and jewels. I have to say that part of the enjoyment of the exhibition comes from the air of tranquillity in the gallery, achieved largely by the wonderful lighting. It is dark, but somehow not gloomy, in there, and the statues loom gracefully out of the blackness, which softens the stonework. Delicate shadows outline the planes of their faces and the fall of their robes. Such peace! Such serenity! Such uncharitably smug expressions in the shadows! I loved it, and sat there drawing for half an hour or so, oblivious to everything.

After my last visit I was careful to make sure I went to look at what was on display in the "Collections Focus Room", and this time it was a print by Frank Hodgkinson called Inside the Landscape, an etching/aquatint/drypoint from 1971. Just my sort of thing: an asymmetric image of a hillside, deeply bitten and irregularly textured in a way that suggested the use of open biting on the plate, which I love. And there was ambiguity in the image too: the fissures and cracks and texture in the image could have been leaves/roots/growing things as much as they could have depicted a cross-section of the hillside, as is perhaps suggested by the title.

This isn't the print I saw, but one from the same series and it's part of the National Gallery of Australia's collection in Canberra. In fact, when looking for the image on-line I came across the NGA's website page on Frank Hodgkinson and now I understand why I like him! Of course... he met people who had been to Atelier 17 in Paris, learned about viscosity printing and started making prints in series! A man after my own heart.

My schedule for this trip was: arrive in Sydney; march quickly up Pitt Street stopping only to buy 600 Williamson & Magor Earl Grey tea bags in the David Jones Food Hall for Michael, the Christmas stocking chocolates from Haigh's in the Strand Arcade, and a belt for me (by the way, have you noticed that I haven't mentioned visiting any of the MANY clothes shops I like to look at in Sydney, ALL of which had super sales on? Dedication to the cause, say I!) before ditching everything in the AGNSW cloakroom; see the various special exhibitions described above; grab a coffee in the members' lounge; change; grab taxi to Chippendale to attend the artists' books show opening; stay with Sue Anderson in Mosman; visit MCA on Circular Quay; return to Coffs Harbour; collapse.

While at the MCA I was able to go and see two shows: Primavera '08 and Yinka Shonibare MBE, the largest show of his work to date. Fascinating, both of them. I went to Primavera '07 last year (surprisingly enough), and enjoyed it but wasn't bowled over by anything in particular. This year there was one artists whose work I really liked, namely Mark Hilton. He showed several double-sided lightboxes which hung down from the ceiling on wires. I couldn't see any electrical connections so I presume the lights in the boxes were battery-powered. On either side of the box were large lambda duratrans prints, depicting what were clearly interpretations of real, contemporary events in styles that referenced Indian miniature painting or Chinese tomb carvings. I didn't 'get' the references to the Melbourne 'Salt Nightclub Massacre' or the 2004 St. Kilda football club sex-scandal, but I did 'get' the use of imagery to examine how we stereotype cultural groups. The imagery in the indian-miniature-style pictures was exquisitely executed - and I presume the methods used were digital manipulations of Mughal patterns and the like, but placed together with digitised images of Hilton's own painting techniques which added the contemporary references of footballers' faces, modern gestures and athletic/club logos.

I read on a wall inscription that "in the series Collective Autonomy Mark Hilton critiques the activities of group behaviour - particularly sporting and peer groups - and the way in which society and the media respond to tragedies perpetrated by these groups". I enjoyed the deliberate and self-knowing appropriation of a received way of painting to say something new, but I also found myself asking whether this critique could happen anywhere other than Australia, with its cultural dependence on sport? Whatever the answer, the results were both aesthetically beautiful and culturally intelligent and I spent a long time looking, which is always the mark of a good show, for me. You can read an on-line article about Mark Hilton in Art & Australia, HERE.

What else? Not much, really. I need to follow-up some contacts I made (more to the point, I need to find the business cards I squirreled away and haven't yet located!), thank Sue profusely for her hospitality, and get on with a load of stuff at home. The programme for this weekend? Making cup cakes, biscuits and Christmas presents with Ella, taking Ella ice-skating, finishing off some felt we made the other week (it's a bit wrinkly and needs some more fulling, I think), making some more felt on Sunday with friends and... oh yes, making the family Christmas cards for this year! Whoops - I'd better get on with it all.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Off on a trip

OK, I'm only going to Sydney, but it's very exciting nonetheless. My 'bridge book' is in the inaugural artists' book show organised by Australian Bookbinders Inc, opening at the Pine Street Gallery in Chippendale on Wednesday. I could have stayed at home, but I wanted to go, partly because the show is being co-curated by my friend Sue Anderson, and partly because it's just fun to go to Sydney. Dianne Fogwell - a printmaker whose work I admire - is opening the exhibition and I'll be going to the after-show dinner because I'm staying with Sue and if she's going, I'm going!

I fly there on Wednesday morning, I have the luxury of visits to the Museum of Contemporary Art AND the Impressionists exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (members' room here I come...), then the opening and dinner afterwards and staying with Sue, and as if that wasn't enough I can do some shopping on Thursday morning before I fly home. Bliss! The only slight downer is that I haven't really got enough money to shop on a grand scale, but who cares? Just catching a glimpse of the sort of thing one can't get in Coffs Harbour will be fun. I am an expert window-shopper.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Don't panic

I've had a certain amount of fun telling people my snake story, and you'll be relieved to hear that no-one has ever found a snake in their house. In the garage, yes; in the loft, yes; in the paddock, definitely yes; but in the house? No! Which suggests to me that it isn't very common and that you're unlikely to see one if you come and visit!

As I look out of the window now I can see a flock of wood ducks by the fence, and a couple of wallabies nibbling the grass about 20 metres away. Bucolic bliss; not a snake in sight.

Monday, November 03, 2008

A Hallowe'en visitor

I blogged about this on our house-building blog (, but thought you might be amused to read it here.... M has been away for a week at a techie conference in LA, and P was out at a party on Friday night, leaving Grub and me to celebrate Hallowe'en by ourselves. Since she was tired and I was tired and we were on our own this just consisted of dinner followed by Scooby Doo cartoons on the box, although we did manage to make a pumpkin lantern! It had been a hot day and was still hot in the evening which is part of the reason why I went to bed really late. The other reason was that I stayed up to finish Grub's recorder case (for those not acquainted with Steiner education, children play the recorder and weave a case for it, but as she needed hers quickly I was asked to do most of it in order to get it finished...). There are only so many evenings one can face watching recorded episodes of Rebus and weaving.

Anyway, at 2:30am Grub came into my room and asked if she could come into bed with me, and I told her to get her pillow, so she went out into the corridor and... trod on something and squealed. Thinking it must be a cockroach I got up, told her to get into my bed, and said I'd clean up and get her pillow, but when I turned on the light in the corridor I saw a.... snake! And I really did have to look twice in order to believe what I was seeing, because it was so unexpected! Luckily Grub hadn't been bitten...

The thing is, what do you do? I'm British - British people don't have much experience of snakes. Yes, there is one poisonous British snake, the adder, but I don't think it does much damage and it's pretty rare - I've seen one once, and only because I was walking on the South Downs, which is a common habitat. Coffs Harbour of course is full of the damned things, including very dangerous ones, and because we live 'on acres', as the phrase goes, it is to be expected that we would eventually see one, but outside, not in the house!

So there I was, in my T shirt, wondering what the hell to do, when said snake decided to make a right-turn into Grub's bedroom, which doesn't have a convenient 'way out for snakes'. I went and put on my knee-length Ugg boots (thick sheepskin, so I didn't think any fangs would get through them and I've read somewhere that most people are bitten on the ankles!) and followed the snake. Now at this point you are probably thinking I'm a complete fool, but what does one do? The worst possible scenario, as far as I could see, was 'losing' the snake because I'd never be settled in the house again... and I couldn't put Grub back in her room with the thought of a snake on the loose. So I followed the snake until it went under her bed and looked as if it was going to attack me (i.e. reared up, folded its neck into an 'S' shape and looked a bit scary!), and we eyeballed each other for about 15 minutes or so until finally it relaxed a bit and I was able to dash out and grab the phone and the phonebook, and get Grub's pillow, book and teddy so that she could curl up on my bed.

Luckily I'd read about the Australian animal rescue organisation, WIRES, and found their number. It didn't say it was 24 hours, but a lovely lady called Donna answered the phone and said she'd get a reptile person to call me back, so I waited for another 15 minutes or so until Tom rang. He's at Nana Glen, which is about 25 kms from here and he was understandably reluctant to come out at what was by then 3:30am, but when I told him about the shape of the snake's neck when it looked as if it was about to bite me he said a very rude word and announced he was on his way and that I should take up position in the corridor and monitor the snake's movements. And that's where my stepson found me when he got in from his party; I advised him to go and wash off his 'zombie army officer' make up before Tom arrived!

When Tom did arrive it was all over pretty quickly. The snake had sloped off to a comfortable place wrapped around the bottom of Grub's basketball, behind a storage box (hmmm, what was that ball doing behind the box rather than in the box??), and he was able to catch it with a stick and a pillow case and take it away. It turned out to be a brown tree snake, which is venemous but not madly so, rather than the feared Eastern Brown snake, and apparently it is quite unusual for one to come into the house, especially when we've got so many juicy lizards OUTSIDE!

The excitement was all over by 4:30am, and we rang M, who was sitting in the departure lounge at Los Angeles airport, to tell him all about it. Unfortunately my hopes of catching up on sleep were somewhat vain as the phone started ringing at 7:30am and didn't stop until I finally got up!


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