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: