Coming Full Circle

It’s hard to believe nearly two months has passed since my solo exhibition. It was over all too soon. With the packing up and unpacking and sold works delivered, I turned my attention to completing work for the Stitching and Beyond Biennial Out of Hand exhibition.

Lightning Ridge

Lightning Ridge

Most of these new works I created for this exhibition reflect the outback. I’ve always been fascinated by the textures and colours of the bush, and the detritus that leaves its mark on the landscape. Back in the days when photography was my main creative pursuit, I often travelled through the outback for work, to places like Lightning Ridge. In the early morning light, aspects of the land looked like the opals being mined underground.

Landscape & bones

Landscape & bones

Clouds of cockatoos and budgerigars would rise in their thousands like a whirlwind, sometimes causing me to stop the car to avoid hitting them when the road was covered in birds. But it was rusted metal, wire and BONES that I really loved – bleached white and contrasting against the ochres. So it’s these reminders that have been incorporated into my new artworks.

Carriage graveyard

Carriage graveyard

Now the exhibition work is completed, I've revisited my art & travel photographs compiled over forty years. It's a daunting task cleaning several hundred slides and converting them to digital images, but, so far the results have been better than expected. Here are a few that have been rescued.

Ship painting

Ship painting

Sadly, the large cibachrome prints I had of these shots had been damaged by living in the tropics. Now I know the slides are in good condition I can reprint them and hopefully put together some books for posterity. Of course, one thing leads to another, but that's the way I like it.

Glebe back street in the eighties

Glebe back street in the eighties

As well as learning how to add effects to my photographs and incorporate these into my collage,  I’ll be trying some different techniques, including encaustic. I'm also keen to begin printing with a nifty little X-Press machine I purchased some months ago, but have been too busy to even unpack it from the box!

The Ultimate Athlete

The Ultimate Athlete

This weekend I'm facilitating a two-day workshop, but then the decks are cleared for several weeks.  So there’s lots of experimenting and fun to look forward to.

Nikki at Botany Bay

Nikki at Botany Bay

Meanwhile, back to cleaning all those slides.

finders keepers

Several of my Paris flea market finds have now made their way into new artworks.  Unique objects, like the ones I saw in Europe, are rare to find in Australia, but occasionally something with real potential catches my eye. One such item last week was a metal bed warmer which I’m itching to add wheels to. A couple of gorgeous old French tins, ideal as 'auto' bodies came in the mail; and a lovely aged laboratory vessel complete with funnel has arrived from the mainland. 

Vintage tins

Vintage tins

Vintage toys often sport great metal wheels but the prices are prohibitive, and wheels on their own can cost more to be shipped than they are worth. So, I’m looking to having wheels cast, or finding a source closer to home. I've found a source of glass cabachons in different shapes and sizes, perfect for creating ‘windows’ in my assemblages. Some of these are domed and reflect text and images beautifully.

I’m working towards a solo exhibition, with a wide and varied range of assemblage and collage works. I tend to focus for a week or two working in one medium, then move to the other when I need a new focus. Sometimes a particular object can set off a raft of ideas, but other times I need to come back again and again over weeks, or even months before something truely gels. 

Found objects

Found objects

I have a particular brass door plate that has been bent into shape to house a Victorian image and I'm keen to see finished. In my mind's eye I know how I'd like it to look, but the problem has been what to mount it on.  I've pored over Etsy & Ebay sites, searching for just the right object and hopefully I've now found it - a candle stick holder, the right shape and size to balance the door plate nicely. We'll see.

Lovely Russian text, cabachons & a door plate

Lovely Russian text, cabachons & a door plate

Images on websites can be deceptive and I've learned it's important to pay attention to the size. Even then, I've sometimes been caught out when the item arrives and find it looks wrong and doesn't  do justice to the main piece. Then it goes on the shelf for something else down the track.

When Ron and I visited Rijswyk in September for the Papier Biennale, I was thrilled to find a small market taking place in the town square, and there was a similar one the next day in Delft. A delightful vendor shared stories of her father’s collection of objects d’art which she was being forced to sell to make room in their tiny apartment. I know the feeling. Paper-making equipment, instruction books and anything surplus to requirements is now finding new homes as I make room for new-old objects. 

'Lady Sarah is Pressed for Time'

'Lady Sarah is Pressed for Time'

I came away from the market with a pair of antique ice skates, a wooden shuttle, cute tiny leather shoes and a brass iron. The iron has a flip-up door in the back where hot coals would have been inserted. Now it sports an ossuary, made from a small sardine can that has been decorated with metal adornments from a Javanese dancer’s costume. It's become one of my favourite pieces.

I was honoured when a Belgian friend recently gifted me her father’s identity papers and wartime documents. I hope I can do these justice in my collage as they tell a very personal story. Creating artworks from my own family's documents for the Personal Histories touring exhibition in 2015 gave me great pleasure and provided a connection to my past in a very tangible way.

Personal Histories

Personal Histories

I'm often asked how I feel about tearing pages out of vintage books or removing covers. What's not to love about the sense of history that old papers, text and images hold, but the magic for me comes in weaving a new story into them.

Most of my finds are things people sell because they’re no longer wanted, so I feel privileged to be able to bring them back to life. Otherwise, they might have ended up totally forgotten, or even worse, destroyed forever. I do have one or two books I haven't  felt able to tamper with, but in general, I’m happy to put whatever I find, whether it be documents or found objects into my work, and continue to have it live on and admired, just in a different way.

 

'Fishing for Answers'

'Fishing for Answers'

Flea Markets - From Puces to Rastros

There's some great finds to be had in Madrid’s El Rastro flea market, but they're not immediately obvious to the newcomer. When I saw stalls selling the usual market wares, predominantly clothing and faux designer bags lining the street leading down to Plaza de Cascorra, I was doubtful I was going to find anything worthwhile. That is, until we spied the side streets. To my delight these cobbled laneways contained the treasures I had come in search of.

Spread out on the ground and stacked in doorways of antique shops were all manner of interesting objects d’art. Antique books, locks, irons and large ornate picture frames were everywhere. A wonderful old Underwood typewriter and several book presses caught my eye. Sadly, there was no way any of these items could fit in my luggage. Several beautifully worn shoe lasts that were going for a song would have, until I remembered the restrictions on bringing wood into Australia, so reluctantly I had to leave them behind.

A beautiful penned manuscript at a hundred euros may have been out of my price range, but when I picked up a bundle of engravings and the seller said "Twenty euros," my heart skipped a beat. I offered fifteen and he replied that if I bought several he'd drop the price to fifteen EACH!! He and I obviously weren't on the same page. 

I loved listening to vendors and buyers haggling over the ‘precios’. Just hearing the local language no matter where one is, makes the whole experience more enjoyable. Bargaining is expected and when one or two vendors dropped the price from twenty euros to ten immediately I began walking away, I was suspicious as to whether the item was the real deal. But at the end of the day it didn’t matter. I’ve learned from experience that there is nothing worse than regretting not buying something when you get the opportunity - you're likely to never see it again.

After three hours I came away with a few treasures, including a tiny silver mesh purse, some large keys, rubber ink stamps, chandelier faceted glass, and an 1840 French book. It’s heavy but the cover and end papers and text are divine.

Arriving early at the market was definitely the way to go, because by lunchtime when the crowds had swelled and the sun was high we'd had enough. While locals sipped their beer and ate tapas we opted for an expresso before returning to our apartment to drool over our finds.

Next weekend we’ll be in Granada for more bargain hunting; with Valencia, Barcelona and then Paris to follow. Give me a flea market over a designer shoe store any day!

 

Gardens, Art & Travel

Recently, when I saw "The Modern Gardens: Monet to Matisse" documentary, it brought home to me just how stunning gardens can be. Claude Monet was not just an incredible artist; he was also an avid horticulturist. And it was Monet’s garden that was mainly featured in this lovely film. The music too was entrancing. I visited Giverny many years ago, and on my return to Paris next month I’ll be visiting the Orangerie to see Monet’s stunning triptych of his Water Lillies. I can’t wait.

I can imagine how Claude felt when he looked out his window each day and saw his garden in full bloom. My morning view here in Southern Tasmania is very different than that of Giverny, but it’s one that continues to thrill and inspire me. A heavy fog often wends its way through the valley, suspended above the Huon. I love how it constantly changes, sending little puffs like smoke up into the range, or drifting away from the river and blanketing everything in its path. Then when the sun’s rays warm the air, the fog lifts and disappears for another day. 

At this time of year dew sparkles on the silver birch trees; the birdbath is thick with ice; robins and wrens visit regularly & honeyeaters dance about the shrubbery, feasting on the proteas and other flowering plants in our garden. By the time I return from overseas, I expect the daffodils will be popping their heads up and the chill of winter will be over.

One of the drawbacks of travelling to Paris mid-summer – apart from it being full-on tourist season – is that the light will not be as magical as it is in Spring and Autumn. Still, there'll be plenty to keep me entranced: cycling through Versaille, motor scootering through the Loire Valley, strolling through the beautiful gardens at Vallandry, and of course, exploring the flea markets of Paris & Madrid for interesting assemblage finds.

I’m looking forward to revisiting Spain and showing Ron the Museo del Prado in Madrid. When I was there last I stood for hours in front of the magnificent paintings, in awe of the artists who created them. This time we also plan to visit Granada, Barcelona and Valencia and spend a few days in Porto, across the border in Portugal.

I’ve made notes of the best paper, cheese, pastry and chocolate shops, the best tapas bars, the best picnic spots and the best art galleries in each city, so despite the crowds in Europe, and the summer heat, it will be worth it. 

My studio might be quiet for a few weeks, but I’ve no doubt I’ll return inspired to get started on something new and exciting in September - Bon Voyage.

Finding Inspiration

"Where do you get your ideas?" I'm sometimes asked. 

It's not a surprising question given many of my works can be quirky and often a little dark. Some concepts are completely random, while others percolate away in the back of my mind for ages before they ever see the light of day.

On mornings, like today for instance, I can’t wait to get into my studio, especially when I've had a light bulb moment. One such idea had been simmering for a while. I had a cage that was similar in shape to the Crystal Palace - the magnificent building used in 1851 to house exhibits from all over the world. Sadly, in 1936 the Crystal Palace was burnt to the ground. Whether it was the work of arsonists has never been known.

I was envisaging recreating a facsimile of the Great Exhibition Hall and filling the structure with tiny handmade books... which I’d set fire to. But I’ve been hesitant to take the work to the next step – maybe because there’d be no turning back once I lit the match. My studio usually has one or two such works in various stages of completion, and they'll stay that way until, like this morning, a resolution becomes obvious.

So why the Crystal Palace? A few years ago I bought a small Victorian photo album online. Although it was in poor shape, I thought the album had potential as an altered book. It contained a few photographs: a woman, a gentleman and a mansion, and there was a dedication inside the cover.

My curiosity was piqued, and I researched the name of Robert Lucas Chance, to whom the dedication referred. It appears that he was the man instrumental in manufacturing the glass for the Crystal Palace – all 900,000 square feet of it. He also designed huge glass lenses for lighthouses, including many of those in Australia. Although the name of the Crystal Palace was familiar, up until then I knew little of its history or the Great Exhibition.

I was fascinated to read what each country had sent to England to be displayed. Even Tasmania, (known then as Van Diemen’s Land), shipped an interesting array of items. Along with a wide variety of timber, bundles of whalebone and a case of Tasmanian insects, the list including the following:

One pair of carriage wheels

A ladies riding whip

Two bushels of coal

A bundle of curled horse hair

Knitted woollen socks, gloves, stockings and shawls from Queens Orphans School…and, Mrs W Adcock of Elizabeth St, Hobart Town sent two cannisters of preserved meat.

So, back to the birdcage and my idea. I have amongst my vast collection of objects, an assortment of parts that came from a doll collector's attic. I’ve used a few individual heads and arms in recent works, but I’ve been wanting to create a piece that included multiple parts. Suddenly I knew that the dolls' heads and the cage were destined to meet, and the scene was set for a completely new story to be told.

So now the Crystal Palace idea has been relegated to the back-burner for another time, and, in another form. What I love is the feeling of unexpectedly finding a new direction for a piece that I've been stuck on for ages. 

Being an artist provides me the freedom to just play when I choose, unless I have an exhibition or commission in-hand. Then, I'm working to a deadline and with a specific focus. I could be on making artist books, curiosity boxes, collage or assemblage. If I'm working on collage there's bound to be heaps of torn papers spread across my work bench. I'll move them around constantly until one or two pieces say, "Pick me, pick me". Once I fix down the first piece of paper I can begin to relax and let the process take me where it will.

Maybe something like an old envelope with a Casablanca postmark will catch my eye and the challenge then is to find other pieces to complement it. At times, it’s almost like the artwork is creating itself and I’m just along for the ride.

Then there are days when the well is empty. Instead of trying to force things to happen, I’ll set to and clean my studio. This is usually the case when I find I'm limited to working in a foot square space because my huge tabletop has completely disappeared.

Having the freedom to work when the urge takes me is a luxury I’ve only had in recent years. When I’m on a roll, I can shut myself in the studio and not come out for a week. And when I'm satiated I might be tempted to begin looking for new objects.

Gone are the days when we could scavenge through rubbish at the local tip. Today, flea markets, tip shops, e-bay and etsy make good substitutes, even though prices are often over-inflated. My best discovery ever was found in a roadside refuse collection. With minimal input (just the addition of paper) I had myself an artwork.  That's inspiration for you.

Against the Grain