Saturday, April 12, 2014

A pretext for moving along

I think I've come to terms that this blog is over. It was a fantastic way to meet people and talk about my thoughts and processes, but I seem to be channeling that sort of thing in other directions now.

I've started a PhD at the University of Canberra, looking at poetry and print technologies and artists' books, which is a delightfully useless topic to be exploring in this particular political climate, when there is a hard push for everything to be vocational. Heh, I guess this stuff is my vocation, so all I can do is forge ahead.

[2023: this never actually happened, but I'm hoping to get something like it up sometime, will add the link here when it does] As part of my research, I've started a new website/blog thing called PRETEXT. It aims to be a one-stop resource of weblinks, reference materials, primary sources such as re-published catalogue texts that are out of print, and new writings by people who are at the coalface of book arts in Australia and New Zealand. I launched it in January, and it’s having a slow and steady start, but as the momentum builds I hope that people (YOU) start to interact with it: leave comments, start discussions, send me information, write words for it. It covers the whole spectrum of book making and processes that lead to books, like binding, papermaking and printmaking. I’m interested in all forms of book-making that step sideways from the mainstream publishing industry. They all need to be explored and supported and above all, discussed. I’m attempting to build up a proper living and pulsing picture of what is happening in Australia right now, and of what happened in the last 4 decades up  to now, so that when people want to know about our regional condition, as I do now, the information is freely there, to be worked and reworked to our mutual advantage.  

Pretext has a Facebook page, and has a Twitter feed (@pretextual), to advertise events and news, so if you want to be involved, that's also a good way. If you have any events or exhibitions you'd like me to spruik, please get in touch: caren at pretext dot com dot au. 

Thanks so much for reading me and talking to me over the years. I'm still putting stuff on (new website), mostly practice-related. I think I'm all talked out about my personal life, but you can never say never :)

I'll leave you with a photo of Padge, wearing his happy face. Remember to breathe x


Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Booking our travel

Yes, yes, busy busy busy. I haven't abandoned you totally, although it must feel like it -- sorry.

I've just had most of a week at the beach, so I'm feeling refreshed and only slightly daunted by the demands of the next few months. I booked the Depot Beach cottage (the same one where we were married) because I'm always completely exhausted and unable to talk to anyone after teaching at the Sturt Winter School, and so I decided to be exhausted and taciturn at the beach. It was a good call.

 This was the view from our bedroom (the beach is through the trees, and the trees were our wedding chapel). There's one bird, as you can see, but through the week we had many, many more, attracted by our bags of 'wild' bird seed. BB was hand-feeding kookaburras and butcherbirds mince as well. There was a lot of poop to clean up at the end, but worth it.

This was the weather, cool but sunny, perfect for long walks along our beach and around to the neighbouring beaches (this is Pretty Beach) and no pressure to go into the water. Winter beaches are the best! A certain member of my family who doesn't want to be blogged is here just starting one of the many large holes he likes to dig...

Anyhoo, let's talk about why I was tired. I like teaching at the Sturt Winter Schools: you spend a whole week with your students, living in at the Frensham School and eating the more than adequate catering. The classes run from 9 to 4, but it's rare that we finish on time, and so it's a lovely intensive week of making.

This year I thought, instead of just pitching a general book arts class, that I'd give people a theme, because most years the feedback is that people didn't really know what materials to bring. (They still made those noises this year, but only little noises, since they all responded to the theme.) Having just been to NZ myself at the end of last year (when I had to pitch the class), I thought of a travel theme, since everyone travels somewhere, even if it's just along the timeline of your life. So it was called Booking Your Travel, and it was such a success I think I'll run it again sometime. The class had eight participants: Avril, Putch, Pip, Elizabeth, Ros, Toni, Liz and Cindy (in order of their seats around the space!).

Here you can see (l-r) Ros, Elizabeth, Pip, Avril.

Instead of moving everyone through a progression of binding styles, instead I let people play, and introduced techniques as they suggested themselves. The first day we still played with concertinas and concertina bindings, because it's a great way to loosen up, and works really well with scraps of things. It's also a great way to determine skill levels, and to ascertain everyone's sense of aesthetics. It's no use exhorting someone to let loose with trimmings if their preference is to be streamlined and spare with their designs. Each student is an individual, and their work should reflect that.

Avril's postcards, which fold out to make a big wall-hanging/poster of Hawaiian vintage cards backed onto momigami paper.

Cindy's cards, tickets and receipts, machine-stitched with orange thread using a sewing machine we sourced at the school. 

The best part about a class of women of a certain age is that everyone has experiences and various skills, and book arts is all about utilising any skills available. We had a professional graphic designer (Avril) who makes artists' books in a group with another class member (Cindy), so they had lots of ideas and skills. Plus we had Liz Jeneid, a very respected artist who makes books in her practice (that was a wee bit scary but Liz is GORGEOUS) and spent many years teaching art, so she was able to share a lot of ideas and show us some gorgeous work. But there were others who saw themselves as new and raw, but who had fabulous sewing skills: Elizabeth (whose family called her 'the mender' because of her sewing skills and her ability to fix things) Pip and Putch. Sewing skills are hard to come by in younger people, and I don't think these women should underestimate their abilities. Toni turned out to have a head for construction and Ros, who is a south coast artist, has an eye for colour and desire to flow things that permeated through her books.

Elizabeth's coptic-bound and fabric-covered book, complete with evidence of her mending skills...

 Putch used coptic sewing to make a spiral of her grandson's congratulations (on being born) cards...

Ros discovered that snakefolds can completely transform drawings.

Toni just made up the most excellent stuff.

They all bounced off each other beautifully, learning not just from me but from each other, and I learned from them, which for me is the perfect way to run a class. And they all got along swimmingly, which is very important when you spend all day together for a week! I would like to thank all of them for that.

One of the exciting books made was by Elizabeth, who brought along a bundle of pen and watercolour sketches of Venice, and we spent a bit of time looking at them and thinking what to do with them. They would have been perfectly pleasant sewn together as a book of some form, but what we ended up with, because Elizabeth was open and daring, was a spectacular tunnel-book that pushed those sketches into something magical. We all went crazy when she finished it, and Cindy made a video. Elizabeth even made teeny tiny strings of bunting for it, and used some glorious old maps of Venice to augment the drawings. Great effort.

I could feature all the books, but alas I haven't got enough time. I've put together a flickr set of the books, and I think you'll agree with me that everything is just amazing.

I made one resolved bookwork while I was there, as a present to Dale Dryen, who has been organising the School for years, and who is stepping back and taking a different role. I'm pleased to say she liked it :)

The covers are a vintage front cover cut in half then coptic-sewn, and I made a little slipcase for it.

Last piccie: the beautiful old tree that stands outside the Headmistress's office at Frensham, I love walking past it, and it always makes me think of the Aged Poet, who died around this time last year.

Stay tuned: new exhibitions coming up in August and September!

PS: I promised you cats: Padge, of course, wanted to come to Mittagong as my teacher's aide. Oh, I wish.

Friday, May 17, 2013

One of us: vale Kathreen Ricketson

Some of you might have heard of the tragic death of Kathreen Ricketson and her partner Rob Shugg in the news in the last day or so. The shock and disbelief that has resulted has been profound, not only for the absolute random horror of the event, and not only because there are now two beautiful children who have no parents, but because both people were brilliant, kind and energetic in the best possible way, and their lights have been snuffed out at a point where they had so much potential ahead of them. I didn't know Rob as much as Kathreen (but I now have a much better sense of him via my lovely Dr Sista Outlaw, as he turns out to have been her first boyfriend); she has always been a good person with whom to sit and drink a cuppa at my local coffee-shop and talk about how to perform this extraordinary juggling act that is life.

After walking around in a bubble of shock and tears for 24 hours, I have managed to pinpoint what was nagging at the back of my brain. It's to do with the number of communities that Kathreen, especially, had built up and actively contributed to. You can get a sense of it on Twitter, where there are myriad expressions of shock and grief, and in the initial tributes to her, which of course will proliferate. She had so many skills: photographer, designer, crafter, writer, but the main skill was her way with people. She was kind, helpful and above all, inclusive. You can see it in the tributes, that all seem to say 'she was one of us, and leaves a hole'. I could never understand how she got so much done in her life, she was indefatigable.

For me, it is doubly tragic that she died now, in Canberra's centenary year, because so much of the focus of the year has been on celebrating great Canberrans, and drawing attention to our 'exports' like Patricia Piccanini. Kathreen was a truly great Canberran and she wasn't an export, because she was determined to make an international life for herself while leading the lifestyle she wanted in a city that she loved. She was an excellent communicator with an amazing eye for design; she achieved the dream of having an external life fully connected with the world while staying grounded locally and being able to immerse herself in her family and enjoy every moment of their time together -- and we all know how hard and rare that is.

Kathreen was an internal asset for Canberra. She proved that living here is not being stuck at the bottom of the ends of the Earth, and there are hundreds of people around the world mourning her today as a result. Not to mention those of us who were lucky enough to encounter her in the flesh. She was one of us, we Canberra folk.

There are many discussions brewing about how best to remember her, and how to help her children. I hope that something particularly Canberran can happen, and in this year, because she was one of our best ambassadors and she will be sorely missed.

UPDATE: Whip Up have organised a trust fund for the children. If you feel that you'd like to contribute, here's the place to go.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Moving right along

What a couple of weeks! The 100% Books exhibition is going fabulously well, looks superb and by all accounts is inspiring a new wave of artist book making in the region. Win win! It finishes this Sunday, so if you haven't been yet (and are capable of going), don't miss out. I'm working on a web presence for it on my 'working' site so that it can have an afterlife and will have downloadable bits for those who want to know more about it. I will be in the gallery on Saturday afternoon from 12 to 4, hosting the last of our three white-gloves sessions. Here's a peek at the gallery (there's more behind the camera scope too).

Another thing to share is the lovely Lady Duck, talking to the ABC about her spiritual home, the Bega Regional Museum. I keep watching it and smiling at the last 'imagine the scene' bit, which is very 'her' and gives you an idea of how I came to be me.

I have been working very hard on the initial thinking of my PhD study, and my main conclusion is that I don't have enough office space. We have a room in the house that used to be the last owner's sewing room. It has a desk that wraps around two sides of the room, long enough for all three of us to sit at with our laptops and work. We built floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on the other two sides of the room, all full now, of course. My corner is now piled with books and bits of paper that flow down onto the floor, creating a low wall across the floor to delineate my space. It's only going to get worse, and I am determined not to flow into my studio, which is full enough with bits of paper and books. Blimey, what to do? I'll have to gently force BB and B out and make them use their computers on their laps :)

Must get back to it...  *waves*

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Coming up, next week in fact: the opening of 100%: Books by Canberra Artists.
Opening Thursday 11 April, at 6pm with guest speaker Peter Haynes (art curator, writer).
Running from 11 to 28 April at the Watson Arts Centre, Watson ACT (Aspinall St) and the gallery is open Thurs - Sundays 10am - 4pm.

I'm the curator for the show, and I've asked 20 artists to give me 'early' and 'recent' work. (I'm using the quotes because sometimes 'recent' means a couple of years ago and sometimes the gap between 'early' and 'recent' isn't very long for an emerging artist).

The artists are: Antonia Aitken, GW Bot, byrd, Kirsten Farrell, Dianne Fogwell, UK Frederick, Shellaine Goldbold, Ingeborg Hansen, Nicci Haynes, Jan Hogan, Hanna Hoyne, Murray Kirkland, Maryann Mussared, Tanya Myshkin, Patsy Payne, Bernie Slater, Franki Sparke, Nick Stranks, Genevieve Swifte, Iona Walsh.

Most of the artists aren't what you'd call a 'book artist'. In fact, until quite recently there wasn't such a thing as a book artist. There were artists who made a book occasionally or frequently as part of their [insert field here] practice. In this show I have included printmakers, painters, sculptors... and many who don't like to be defined. There are objects in the show that aren't even book-like, like Ingeborg Hansen's screenprint of a book. But it's there (or will be, next week) because that's what she's doing at the moment, having made many very good books in the past, some of which will be in the room with the print. She's still thinking about the Book, and no doubt she will continue to make them, but at the moment she's in love with screenprints, and having a large-scale four-colour dot-screened image of a book in the show will look amazing, especially near Nick Stranks' bronze-cast books.

There will be altered books, installed books, huge books, small books, fine press books and zine-style books.  It's a microcosm of the artist's book macrocosm.

Can you feel how much fun this show will be? I'm 100% excited. The title is a weird progression from trying to tie the show in with the Canberra centenary celebrations; we started with C% as a play on the centenary but it all got shifted around at some point and ended up a bit off-centre, but I can happily rationalise that each of these artists puts 100% into their work, and this space will be 100% devoted to book thoughts by artists in the Canberra locality. So there.

We're also having a fun afternoon on the 20th of April with artist's talks and a zine fair (12 to 4pm) so pencil that in please... and we're also in the midst of organising some workshops for kids and adults, will let you know more soon.

I hope you can make the show if you're in the region. I'm hoping to put together (in the next few days) a downloadable room guide with annotations so that if you can't make it, you can at least read about it and see the work.

Also, if you'd like to see some of MY book work, I'm in a show at the Canberra Museum and Gallery that opens this Friday: Intensity of Purpose: 21 years of ANCA. They have one of my Book Art Object books, with an accompanying iPad to allow you to look through the book. Fun!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The gift of Jill

I've just got home from one of those ceremonies that gives thanks for a person's life after they've died. Not a funeral, she was cremated last week, not a memorial, but a real giving of thanks that that person was in our lives. She wasn't in my life much, but even the small amount I've experienced, and the peripheral encounters along my way with her friends and especially her artwork, will resonate with me for the rest of my life.

The biggest point of personal resonance is that she was my age, give or take a few months. 46 is not a good innings. She died of cancer, a horrible way to go, but apparently she never complained. It wasn't her style: everyone agreed today that she lived every bit of what she had well, which is a good thing to be able to say.

Jill Wolf made a conscious choice to follow the heart at every fork in the road. I knew her briefly at art school, where I was starting as she was finishing in the Graphic Investigations Workshop (headed by Petr Herel). My main point of connection is with the work she made and left in the GIW archive that is held by the ANU Library Special Collections unit. At least once a year I take my students to see artists' books from the archive, pulling out works that I think will interest them or that fit the themes I've wanted to address, and without fail, Jill's work is on my list.

Here is my latest batch of students, looking at that session's selection of GIW books. In the foreground on the right is Jill's Excerpts from the Book of Memory. It is large and unbound, in actuality a pile of drawings on tissue paper housed in a (found?) cover of rope-edged canvas to resemble a loose codex. The fact that it isn't bound doesn't make it less of a book, and in GIW many books were deliberately unbound (as are most of Petr Herel's own artist's books). The first page always fools the reader; it looks like nothing in particular -- just a faded photocopy-transfer image -- until they actually pick it up to turn the sheet, and the text, hand-written in white pencil on the white tissue, suddenly appears... and then disappears again when the sheet is turned over and laid down, so you really have to hold it to engage with it.

All the marks in the book, image and text, do this movement of focusing in and out, appearing and disappearing, performing a dance of trace and erasure as the tissue layers are moved. There is grey pencil, white pencil, gesso, image transfers, and various other media. The effect is subtle and moving, both physically and emotionally. Unfortunately I don't have any page photos, only the cover:


She travelled to Bosnia in the 1990s right in the midst of their troubles, and this piece, made in her graduation year, (along with a number of paintings, drawings and smaller books) reflects her feelings and observations about what she saw, heard and learned there. She had a very distinct aesthetic (quite Cy Twombly-inspired) and a personal iconography that she used in her formal artworks, her less formal pieces (usually presents for people) and in her daily interactions with the world, all of which blur together to make an artistic lived life.


This square cross (sent to me in the mail last year as packaging for a print) was included in much of her work, and I'll never be able to see one again without thinking of her. Lately she'd been focusing on hearts (especially knitted). Today at the service, many of these symbols, in the form of drawings, knitted works, ceramics and scraps of letters and cards, were arranged on a table. In her hospice room, when I visited her late last year with some other classmates, she had a beautifully-arranged gallery of artwork and objects, positioned deliberately to bring her pleasure wherever she turned her eyes from her bed.

Jillie was fun-loving, food-loving, music-loving, speed-loving (there were many chuckles in the room today as friends recalled her love of doing hand-brake skids on country dirt roads, and how she drove her electric wheelchair so fast around Lake Burley Griffin that her friends started wearing jogging shoes or bringing their bikes for their 'walks') and only ever worked a job long enough to make enough money to travel. She traveled a lot. She studied many things, including creative writing. At art school she changed her surname from Smith to Wolf (inspired by our feisty Technical Officer whom we were only allowed to call Wolf), and I was thinking today that it was her way of making a marriage-like commitment to art and life.

Her brother and sister and friends spoke today about what a fantastic person she was, at the same time managing to let us know lovingly that she wasn't perfect, because really, who is? But it was her mother's speech that really went to my heart. Of course she spoke about their love for Jill, how funny and clever and loving Jill herself was, but she also talked about the choices Jill had made, how impetuous and rash they could be, how worrying it was for her parents that she never seemed to settle down and that some of the situations she put herself in were dangerous (like Bosnia) -- but that her enthusiasm for life and her wonderful, articulate feedback (in the form of letters, postcards, phone-calls etc) about the places she'd been and the things that she'd seen made all the worry worthwhile. And that whenever Jill needed to move home, as she did a few times, she was an absolute pleasure to have around because she was just so engaged with everything, so grateful to be alive.When she became so ill, no-one had any doubts about giving her the care she needed.

I have had occasion to think over the last year or so about the pathways that we expect for ourselves and our children. I don't know about you, but many of my family members, both blood and by marriage, seem to expect the Straight Line: school, university, a good job, a relationship and children. Any step sideways from this is expected to be temporary: a Gap Year, a Breakdown, a Grieving Period, always defined, always something to Come Back From. These expectations are hard to fight and it's easy to capitulate, to earn that feeling of approval for Getting Back on Track. For many, the only way to break away or fight the pressure is to give yourself less responsibility, like taking drugs or harming yourself so that you can't function within the bounds of Normality.

Jill's parents gave her a huge gift: the freedom to make her own choices, even if they didn't feel comfortable with them. Of course, they are fortunate that she didn't have a drug addiction or a similar self-harming habit; there are plenty of points at which they could, or probably did try to intervene, but Jill seemed to have a cheerful determination to just do her thing at her own pace, and the support structure of good family and friends certainly helped to give her the confidence to be herself. She would have been the most marvellous old lady.

It was a wonderful morning. Laughs, stories and songs. We all quietly sobbed through this one (damn, Youtube not working, but here's the link). It's George Harrison's All things must pass.

It finished with everyone trying hard to choke out 'All you need is love' together. The best bit about The Beatles is that even if the lump in your throat is making the verses hard to sing, there's never any problem with the choruses.

And then I went home, and hugged my beautiful son, over and over until he told me I was weird. Why yes, I hope I am. I hope I can let myself let him be free in his own way.

Goodbye Jill, you're in my book of memories, and I'm going to try to live, or to keep living with a bit of your free spirit to inspire me.