Monday, November 23, 2015

The Artist’s Journey Workshop with Dawna Richardson-Hyde

What was my ‘want’ in signing up for the Artist’s Journey workshop, a workshop that explores what stops creatives from working creatively and authentically?

The main – was to get into the habit of working in a journal and one of the activities of the workshop was precisely to keep a journal to establish this habit or ritual. Dawna's promotional blurb read 'creating and using a visual journal to inform your work'. Tailor made you'd say.

But I know from experience that journaling can become like ‘the work’ as you get immersed in process, as it gains in significance or momentum.  One or two other workshop participants describe having shelves of journals and Dawna too certainly would have her own library of journals, as she begins one with each new trip taken or new project.  You don't have to fill all the pages, she suggests. I don't want to get too caught up in journaling that it eclipses everything else.

Journals are source materials for a writer or the visual artist.  I have made good use of them.  Last year I threw out 15-20 years of hand written journals because I didn’t want to have to keep them (for the large part unopened) on my shelves.  Someone suggested rather too late that I should have used them for garden compost, an idea which greatly appealed to me.  I have also written quite extensively about myself (created a couple of unpublishable manuscripts) – those self-to-self dialogues and approximations to meanings are forever evolving.  I decided to stop the conversation with myself.  There were a couple of public textile ‘creative syntheses’, namely the Battlecoat and the Story Cloth in particular, which brought the essences of my conversations somewhat to a full-stop, though they may actually be a comma or (…) a pause.  If truth be told, I had been keeping the journals because I have problems with memory and realized one day that keeper of my memory – my mother – won’t always be around to remind me.  Sometimes, it’s just healthy to forget… make the most of the ellipses in the brain…   

When I signed up for the Artist’s Journey workshop back in August I wasn’t exactly experiencing a creative block, though somewhat down-hearted.  I hadn’t been in the studio most of the winter.  We were undergoing renovations and I had been laid up with flu for several weeks, and was probably just tired, after the frenzy of the Open Studios preparations and the actual weekend itself.  I collapsed just prior to the weekend with another disk problem. Not much interested me.  I now had not one but two herniated disks, which cause numbness in both my legs.  Clearly some time out was required.  I read, I moped.  I did some very minor assisting with the renovation work, always conscious of my bad back. I have had moments of not been able to move at all, as well as, being in excruciating pain and I don’t like those moments. I was also searching to extend my repertoire so that I could ease up on my back and not have to make big felted pieces.

I had purchased a visual journal some 6-8 months before which remained ‘empty’. I knew I wanted to incorporate drawing – turned into expressive (rather than pretty) stitching – but how?  Buying and reading a book didn’t motivate, rather it made the task seem too hard to begin (so there was a block after all!)

I greatly admired Dawna’s use of stitching in her beautifully composed textile work.  I noticed that Dawna, who is a hills’ resident and lives not 15 minutes’ drive from me was running a workshop at the Ballarat Fibre Forum next year, but as with most of these workshops, I have the uncanny knack of finding out about them when they are already full.  Then fortuitously she came to offer the same workshop (with some modifications – it is not for instance, exclusively for the textile artist) at Burrinja Cultural Centre, only a 10-minute drive away. 
I have been attending the workshop 2 days a week for the past 2 weeks and the final two days wrap up this week.  In retrospect attending over 4-5-6 intensive days in a row away from home and its many distractions, obligations, and interruptions would have been far more fruitful for me. But you have to work with what you have…and now that the course is about to end I wish there were several more weeks of it ahead.
The workshop in a nutshell, is about shining a light on you as an artist – one of the activities is to find words to describe yourself from a brainstorming group session, looking at what stops you from getting down to the work in the studio, to identifying and managing the time you have for producing work.  The mornings have been focused on thinking, brainstorming in a group, reflecting and working on a series of questions, and discussion. Your journal accompanies you along the way.

The afternoons have been left for ‘playing’.  We’ve made mark making tools (to overcome the resistance if one has it that one can't draw), played with Dawna’s tools, mono-printed on paper and fabric; and last week we used our bits and pieces of ‘experimentals’ to create a ‘large’ work.  This was the most satisfying experience for me, when I could bring all elements of play and learning into a creative synthesis.

Dawna's amazing collection of hand-made tools
My modest collection which is of 'brush type' tools mainly

Rhonda and Sheryn focused on the tool making


Max looking excited to begin mark-making


My journal showing photocopies of some of the results of my mark-making


My mono-printing results 

A close up of some mono-print beauties

Up until last week my journal remained mainly ‘empty’.  One morning was given over to participants showing off their workings in their journals and I had to face not having done anything.  My life is fairly busy (I have been preparing for a Christmas Sale, and Philip and I run an AirBnB); and Dawna did say no homework (but then she sets homework tasks!).  Sheepishly, I had to show what I had not done and make up an excuse…but look deeply within to see what had prevented me from working in my journal.  I have used journals and collage to document the explorations of self during my training as an arts therapist (and maybe I just don’t want to go there again please let me reiterate) though someone did point out this kind of working in a journal is entirely different. Indeed, I know this.

When I work, if it is a major project I will have done some research if needed, preliminary drawing (really just doodles), writing down ideas (intention), made a pattern or template (usually after consultation with Philip as he’s great at maths and blowing a pattern up for me and most of the time he tends to make my templates), and I would have considered colours, but the work really comes into being when I start to play with materials in a colour field on my tables.  So I tend to allow the work its own impetus – feeling my way mostly, not knowing where it is I’m going.  'Allow it to be what it wants to be', repeating the directive of a painting teacher I once knew.

I find that when I start to do the exercises given for homework I’m treating them too much like ‘homework’ or an assignment I don’t want to get wrong (mind you the one I did manage to do, I interpreted the instructions incorrectly).  I suppose it’s good to notice these things. I’m often scared to get it wrong but I can plunge in and see what happens regardless.  With a large piece, for instance The Turncoat, I had one chance to get it right and if it was wrong, there was no time to make it right for the DROS exhibition, or indeed make a practice piece.  I gambled on the risk of just doing it and getting it right.

Over the last couple of days I have managed to scribble a few observations into my journal, choosing to use a large felt tip pen (to fill up the pages more quickly) but also to allow my writing a large scribbling presence.  Often I write too small. And I have pasted some photocopies of the results of my ‘playing’…  I will pause here, as I’ve gone on too long really…

Enjoy the photos…the workshop is a great buzz and I would encourage anyone who is thinking of taking it to do so, whatever be your reasons.  Dawna Richardson-Hyde thoroughly enjoys teaching and her methodology and presentation do her great credit. She offers a deep well of knowledge and inspiration. For more about Dawna you can view her website
All Untitled No 2 in the background

my Untitled No 3, made by marks, layers and collage

Untitled No 2 in a different phase background.
Foreground Max is adding stitch

Untitled No 2 'finished' I think (but I could keep adding layers).
This wasn't supposed to be 'the work' but it could be

Untitled No 1 starting with rubbings made while on the floor (the brief was to work on the floor)

Dawna giving herself permission to play alongside us

Christina's piece focuses around a large 'A'

Sandy chose to work outside

The next three photos show Rhonda working according to the directive we were given, make a mark, step back, look, make another mark, look again


Monday, April 27, 2015

On the Brink, the Tensity of Change Exhibition Label

Turncoat: Conversation Piece: Nature’s gift of regeneration, 2015, wedded sari silk
Materials, merino and silk fibres, silk rods, mulberry bark, wool yarn, recycled silk saris, and other donated recycled miscellany, donated polyurethane cast fox bones, silk and rayon embroidery threads

My piece for the exhibition derives from a conversation among several local women & one bloke, regarding living in the Dandenongs, and the changes experienced sometimes over a thirty year period.  I lived in Kalorama myself over twenty years ago but then left to re-establish myself overseas.  I realized that I spent my whole time here (almost 7 years) living in fear.  I found the forest dark and foreboding but really there was no rational explanation for my fear. You can’t live with ‘tensity’ in an environment because you don’t feel at home. Eventually for peace of mind, you need to move away. To live in the Dandenongs you need to mitigate your love for the environment with fears against trees falling on your house and you, the place being razed by fire, the wind roaring like a steam engine buffeting and causing falling debris to bash your house.  And if you chop down or ring bark the trees, you’ll have land slippage with which to deal and find that may cause an entire tree to fall on your house.  I saw it happen up the road and the tree fell uphill. People have been living with these concerns since the time the Dandenongs was settled.  I also needed to fit the theme within the overall objectives of my work, and I’ve wanted to do a wearable piece based on Fred Williams’ paintings for some time now.  Williams lived in Upwey during 1968 when the Dandenongs were ablaze.  The Dandenongs show a pattern of going up in flames every ten years or so.  Fortuitously, Williams’ experience has also informed the conversation.
Allusion to a Fred Williams' painting of Upwey ablaze (fibres soft)

Fibres felted, with fox bones cast in polyurethane by Elaine Pullum

As a way into the conversation I asked invitees to bring along a piece of fabric or garment with associations to change and also something or remnant of, they’d be willing to part with to be incorporated into the felt.  Because most of the participants were women I was shown and given items such as a tea cosy, doilies, fabric used in women’s rituals, and to make baby slings.  I felt that they were very feminine items and most ordinary – the very special ones brought to show and tell by Sue were too special to part with.  To be given things associated with women’s work, handiwork, with how women pass the time (or did so in the past) or collected for their hope chests were both technically and conceptually challenging.  However, working with these as my raw materials I not only came to a renewed appreciation of the handiwork, but it also illuminated the reasons that I’m drawn to fibre and wearables.  For the very reasons that it is in general woman’s domain, women’s work (well unless you consider that some men are also fashion divas and my father made clothes), because my hand or touch, even my body, is intrinsically part of its making. Not to be overlooked is that these sorts of textiles, including my own work, are generally located outside the mainstream.
Donated materials which included a tea cosy and natting

Pre-felt was made with the donated materials

Seedlings cut from pre-felt

Observations, experiences, memories that came out of the conversation are written in the work.  I do like to incorporate stories and words into my textiles and find this quite a challenge to do with felt, as it’s so resistant to most ink and paint.  So I’ve taught myself to write with my sewing machine and with each piece my skill increases, though it remains imperfect – as imperfect as my handwriting. Since I have difficulty marking the felt fabric, I usually write freestyle using the machine needle.  In my laziness (and to experiment with effect), I have also had words printed onto fabric that I have felted in.  But the ruching that occurs in the felting tends to ruin the ‘neatness’ of the text.  It in fact distorts the text, which I don’t mind, as even memory can distort how something was actually experienced. In this instance too, because the fabric upon which the text was printed is polyester, it’s tended not to ruche as usual, though felted in.  Stitching as Rozsita Parker shows us in her brilliant anthropological study The Subversive Stitch, has since the 17th century, often been used by women in their samplers to subvert, express dissent, and their individuality.  Stitching/embroidery are feminine but also feminist.  Like those earlier samplers you may need your magnifying glass to read and decipher some of the words I’ve written on the Turncoat.

It’s interesting to notice what draws you to a particular medium. What makes me work with textiles and in particular fibre? What makes me single out wearables?  I suppose here the answer is that it feels so good (there’s a feeling of well-being) to wrap yourself in a felted garment and it’s also more intimate.  How unique to also be able to wear your story and memoir, like second skin.  I could just have easily done a piece to stretch over canvas and viewed as a picture but you’d be less likely to want to touch it and it would confine it to the gallery wall, or any other sort of wall.  Felt usually begs to want to be touched, tried on and that’s part of its aesthetic.

Conceptually, because of the narratives shared during the conversation my piece subverts the theme of the exhibition.  It is not about tension, tensity, or of living on the brink.  But about accepting the gift that can come about through change. It is about women building community, how community was built around a conversation about change – but it could have been any topic. The garment has three sections – innocence (hood); experience (the arms or shawl); revaluation (back). Innocence, encapsulates the reasons for moving to the Dandenongs, my favourite being ‘I swapped the system’s slave for art’, or ‘I moved for the trees and forest’, 'to find community'… Experience is about discovering your beautiful sanctuary can also be menacing; and revaluation/regeneration, considers that there are positives to extract from the ashes. For me living in the Dandenongs the second time around, it is about feeling at home, releasing the tension.

The sole man who attended the conversation (I did invite a couple) had been raised by his mother and was comfortable among women.  He added a different dimension, not only in the X-Rays shared digitally, which I had printed onto fabric but as well, in the moral of his story regarding change (X-Rays of his broken hip.).    He spoke about the gift of a broken hip, not derived from motorbikes or his other daredevilry activities, but ironically, through falling off a stool - a gift that began a journey of spiritual awakening. Having survived bush fire, Fred Williams was taken by the regeneration after the fire.  In his paintings he showed the visible scars but also new life rising from the ashes. 

What about those bones you may ask? – I’m fascinated with bones excavated on TV shows like Time Team and History Cold Case and the harking back regardless of the centuries of change and because of change in technology we can have such brilliant insight into the past. There are there in Williams' evocation of a devastated landscape.  The dead and bare anatomy of trees that at most times regenerate with dazzling and eerily colourful foliage. The dead have a way of coming back to life to touch us, to inform us. 

Bones tell of our mortality and they are a great leveler.  Also these could be the bones of contention.  I’m not denying climate change, but I/we who participated in the conversation also point out earth’s resilience.  We may kill ourselves off, or we may through our intelligence, and coming together for conversation discover ways to save ourselves.  The planet will recover – in different form and perhaps with different life forms.

Postscript. Only 100 words are permitted for the exhibition label at Burrinja to provide a context for viewing.  Some of the artists find it too much, whereas I find it difficult to say in under 100 words what my piece is about - because there are so many layers. Feel free to inform me what you think this garment is about.  Special thanks to Lyn Forrest who donated the tea cosy, that became the seed pods, and who also suggested the title 'turncoat'.      

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Conversation Piece - the gift

On a warm January morning we came together at Mon’s place, under the trees and blue sky and to the tune of bird songs, for a conversation about change. The intention was for me to create a textile piece from intersubjectivity – what is shared between people, for this year's Dandenong Ranges Open Studio (DROS) exhibition, whose theme is 'On the brink: the tensity of change'.  I’d sent out invitations to over a dozen hills people, along with the suggestion that they could pass on the invitation to others who may be interested.  I’d made cupcakes, cucumber sandwiches, and brought peach tea cordial, in exchange for invitees’ intelligence and experience.  A plunger and coffee was procured; biscuits appeared, as well as a bowl of cherries.  I hadn’t prepared questions albeit I’d asked everyone to bring along a remnant of fabric or garment with associations to change, as entry onto experience, perhaps with a view too that they’d be willing to part with a fragment for my textile piece.
About a decade earlier I’d come across the work of Theodore Zeldin on conversation…to do it well, one had to set aside one’s competitiveness, and be open to changing in the process of listening and exchanging ideas.  A satisfying conversation is one in which we say what we have never said before. (I recalled this much later – did people there that morning say what had never been said before?  Well, I’ll have to round them up again and follow that one up.)  There was thus, another layer to the theme of change I hadn’t intended – the change or gentle shift that can be brought about when people get together (maybe for a cuppa, maybe not) to talk and listen.

Over the course of the morning as the sun moved across the sky, we also moved around the garden to shadier spots.  Prompted by the fabrics, we talked about what had brought us to the hills, the changes experienced, in some instances over a twenty or thirty year expanse and some of the challenges that came with living here, particularly when your beautiful sanctuary can also become menacing.  We come to live among the trees, and because most of us gathered were women, talk became focused on the community house where women exchanged skills that was once at Burrinja, which had also undergone changes.  Lyn mentioned her experience of ‘recycled people’ – those people you tend to bump into over the years (you come to know them in one context – then you meet them years later in another -  I thought to myself, she's referring to us but perhaps there were others in her social circle like that).  There is an aspect of the ‘fabric’ of the hills that is interconnection spreading and sustaining, like the roots of a tree, and that reflects all sorts of qualities of threads and colours. We are not Stepford women, someone said. There was only one man among us, who had been brought up by his mother (and was thus extremely comfortable in the company of women), who talked about how a broken hip had been a gift that sorted out priorities … There is the potential gift that comes with every negative change in fortune or circumstance.

As each one brought out her fabric and entered her story it made me consider that each story was also a gift.  I was surprised by the sincerity and generosity of spirit in which these stories were shared.  But perhaps I shouldn’t have been.  I don’t have many friends – apart from a close friend, those gathered were all acquaintances met through volunteering at the Arties. But I was left with the feeling that what was shared had been positive, insightful and had brought a sense of community (although that had not been my intention). When Sue wanted to pick another theme and do it all over again - what a thumbs up to the process that was. 

Did I change that morning? 

Yes…tentatively… in my attitude towards the ‘theme’.  I went to the conversation thinking change is banal and uninspiring (there is the ongoing slow change over a life and the rapid inevitable change that may come through unforseen illness, accident or catastrophe, as well as the cauterizing change brought by fire that we all fear living in the Dandenongs). When Lyn produced her mother's moth eaten beanie and said moths are amazing agents of change (alluding also to the butterfly effect of chaos theory), I got more than a frisson - because for a textile artist moths can be as devastating as bush fire. I take pains to prevent moths from eating through my textiles. Albeit, to what use? If there was a fire tomorrow all of it would get left behind to the mercy of Nature. That question or thought came up for most of us - what would I or you grab - child, chicken, dog, cat, after all the human, furry, feathered loved ones were safe, what other loved ones would we want to save... (What makes us so attached to material things? It's complicated when it's connected to work, or one's identity.) When there were fires in Upwey during the summer of 1968 the painter Fred Williams threw some of his paintings into an orchard to save them; yet the irony is that he lost much more in an urban fire years later when the Barrett Malt factory where he had paintings and gouaches stored went up in flames. It can seem dangerous to live in the Dandenongs ... always there is the mitigation of one's fears, when a strong gust of wind whips about the house and you hear the creaking of the great boughs of the eucalypt above; when a siren sounds in the middle of a hot January night...

So, I'm feeling somewhat inspired, and as well, I do feel an obligation to make through my piece for DROS, the gift of my resonation to the company gathered and stories heard that morning in January.   

Using a fabric remnant as entry onto experience

A collection of fabrics & other odd things collected from the conversation

(Photo credits from the conversation to Barbara Oehring). 
For more of Barbara's wonderful work see her blog: