"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.