Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Living in a Material World

Today is installation day for Material World, the show for which I've been preparing work. The exhibition is by a group of artists making site-specific installation works that explore environmentalism through the use of recycled and found materials. My work is using a mass of books donated to me by the Lifeline Book Fair, the books that they just can't sell to anyone despite their best efforts. As you would imagine, a lot of these are Readers Digests (many have never been opened and read) but many are by very famous and popular authors.

Here's a shot of the process of putting the books up into the central girder of the gallery. I was worried that the various things I've been playing with would get a bit lost so high up, but now that the work exists in entirety, I'm very happy. It has a few layers: there's the instant 'oh, books in a girder, that's cool' effect, and then there are lots of little things happening to amuse and interest people stopping to have a harder look.

The title of the work is 'Shelf Life'. The premise is a work about books that are unloved and left unnoticed and untouched for long periods of time. It's very whimsical and at one point a little bit creepy, which is something I love in other people's art, so I'm glad when I can make it happen too.

It's also such a rich idea that I've decided to use the books afterwards for a series of photos. I've taken some practice versions with my dodgy digicam, but I'll do them properly later.

Shelf Life (Practice)

Shelf Life (Crisis)

O wot fun.

The exhibition opens tomorrow (Wednesday 28 March) at 12pm, but the formal opening event is on Saturday at 6pm, in conjunction with Earth Hour. There will be artist's talks, food, music, fun. At 7.30pm they will switch off all the lights, and there will be candles and fires and more music and food. It should be wonderful, and you're ALL welcome.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Getting around to doing

Do you remember my open letter to Jemal Sharah, asking permission to print her poem, 'Revelation'? It took me ages to track her down and then I submitted my broadside idea to the Print Council of Australia's Commissioned Prints scheme. It wasn't selected, for various reasons, one of which I think is that letterpress isn't really considered printmaking, even though it's been printed in the same way that a print is. *sigh* No matter, no grudges, especially because since then I've become a member of the PCA's board, and they are all lovely, lovely people.

The broadside proof -- here it is

-- sat around for a while, and I'd look at it and think 'I have to get on to that'. Then I printed all the text, and shifted the colour, which was originally a deep blue-black to a colder blue-grey. I did that late last year, and then all I needed to do was the image circle on top of the embossed text.

But sometimes you don't feel like doing the thing that you have to do. Every few days I would freshen up my never-ending To-Do list and every time the list would be topped with 'Finish Revelation'. It would just sit there, staring at me accusingly.

On Sunday, I woke up and thought: today's the day. No particular reason, just a weird surge in confidence like someone had just handed me a Dumbo feather in my sleep. I got up, went down to the studio, and finished the print. My hands didn't tremble, my confidence didn't fail me. Here's a little photo-essay:

Oh, the relief. It's a weight off my mind, and of course once it was done I was mentally whipping myself for not having done it sooner. I mean, the colophon on the bottom says 2011. But... but, things that you do with your hands and your heart and your eye aren't always things that flow, and I honestly think that if I'd forced myself, I would have botched part of the edition. Tomorrow I will count the prints and check for mistakes and sign and emboss them with my chop, but I'm certain that there are very few dodgy ones. Yay.

Also, for those who are interested, my lovely son has started his own blog. I heart the URL, which he entered in frustration as Blogger rejected all of his earlier suggestions, and now he's stuck with it, LOL. I have to restrain myself from going in & correcting his spelling mistakes and grammar; it's a hard habit to break, but I know that this is a little snapshot of him at this age and therefore very precious.

Finally, Padge, looking vaguely peaceful in his new fez, bought from here. He actually hates wearing it, but that's no reason to stop putting it on his head.

Friday, March 16, 2012


I don't know if you have been following the kerfuffle over Doonesbury and the anti-abortion campaigning in Texas, but it's ramping up, daily.

Here's the link to the start of the Doonesbury strips. They're still in play, and of course a day behind us, so the last one (he usually works in weekly sequences) is yet to be released.

Here's a link to a bunch of photos that I keep turning to that helps me feel better, because young people are fighting back. It's good to know that even if they think feminism is a dirty, hairy word, many young women (and men) still want to fight the good fight in their own way, and all hail to them.

It doesn't matter which side of the fence you stand on with this issue, the crux of it is CHOICE. If you think someone should/will go to hell for their choice, that's your decision, but it's still their choice, so please let them make it.

I know this looks like an American fight, but government intervention in issues of the body happens all the time in Australia, in many ways. There are often one or two people outside the ACT Health Dept picketing against abortion. It seems to be members of one family. It's sad, the woman always looks so grim. I wonder what her story is, but I'm too scared to approach, which is My Bad.

Anyhoo, have a nice day y'all.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Dawn, in full glory

I just received an e-newsletter from the National Library of Australia which among other things announced that they now have a full archive of the Dawn newspaper digitised and freely accessible. You can even download it as PDF files. Slightly after International Women's day, but in the same month, so HUZZAR!

I have a casual interest in Dawn, mainly because of its printing history. It was the first Australian paper written totally for women, by women, established by Louisa Lawson, who also happened to be Henry Lawson's mother (and so much more than that).

If you want a really good read about Louisa, find a copy of Pat Clarke's Pen Portraits (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1988). It's well out of print, but I'm sure there are secondhand copies to be found, and good libraries should have it. There are chapters on all sorts of women of the pen, and a very good chapter on Louisa.

Here's my favorite part:

The production of the paper was a saga in itself. Years later Louisa Lawson described how she got a printing machine* and some type and with her female employees started to print a paper:

"How did we learn to set type and lock up formes**? Goodness knows! Just worked at it till we puzzled it out! And how the men used to come and patronise us, and try to get something out of us! I remember one day a man from the CHRISTIAN WORLD came around to borrow a block -- a picture. I wouldn't lend it to him; I said we had paid a pound for it, and couldn't afford to go and buy blocks for other papers. Then he stood by the stone*** and sneered at the girls locking up the formes. We were just going to press, and you know how locking up isn't always an easy matter -- particularly for new chums like we were.
Well, he stood there and said nasty things, and poor Miss Greig -- she's my forewoman -- and the girls, they got as white as chalk; the tears were in their eyes. I asked him three times to go, and he wouldn't, so I took a watering pot full of water that we had for sweeping the floor, and I let him have it."****

Two weeks after founding the Dawn, she decided that there was nothing peculiarly masculine about the skill involved in typesetting so she sacked her two male employees and employed girls for this work also. [p. 164]

Of course, the trade unions balked at this, and there were campaigns mounted to boycott the paper and its advertisers. Louisa Lawson fought back as hard as she could, but the fact that she wholeheartedly supported trade unionism made it a tricky process. She exhorted her readers to support unionism and also to support her advertisers so that they wouldn't stop supporting the paper. BOOYA! In Pat Clarke's words, "All this provided the Dawn with great copy" and the paper lasted seventeen years.

One of my academic friends, Paul Eggert, once showed me one of Louisa's side projects, a volume of Henry's poetry printed very early in his -- and her -- career. It was dreadfully printed, with the quality of the printing varying from too heavy to so light that lots of letters were missing. Paul asked my opinion as a printer, and what I could remember of my readings about Louisa seemed to bear out in this physical evidence: that when she started her press, she went around to other printers and asked them for contributions of type and other bits & pieces. They obviously gave her their oldest and most worn typefaces, not taking her seriously.

She showed them, didn't she?

* I guess she means 'a press'
** Not a big stone, but a metal-slab-topped table that was used as the place to put your type as you lock it up. Also called a 'printer's stone'.
*** The forme is the complete type set-up blocked into a chase (metal frame) with metal or wooden furniture and locked up with quoins, ready to put on the press to print.
**** Good for her.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Time and concentration in Melbourne

Phew, it took me three full days to start feeling 'normal' again after my Melbourne trip. So tired! And a weird fuzziness like I'd had a migraine, without the migraine. Maybe I do have something lurking in my system, or maybe I'm getting old and just pushed myself too hard after the gastro. Either way, ageing sucks, doesn't it?

Anyway, I spent those three days submerged in Lev Grossman's The Magicians and The Magician King (not finished that one yet). AWESOME! Hipsters with magic using heavy and playful references to Narnia, Potter, Earthsea, LOTR, and other fantasy novels. Fabulous way to flop around.

So: Melbourne. I'm off the tram (obviously), had a lovely time. I always wish I could split myself into parts when I'm travelling on public transport in Melbourne, so that I could jump off at different spots and do all the things I see, and then meet up that evening and compare notes. It didn't help that it was Moomba weekend, lots going on between Carlton and St Kilda on that particular trip.

Adventure and Art was a fantastic afternoon, organised by the Baillieu Library's Susan Millard and her team. The exhibition lingers until May, so do go and have a look if you're hanging around the Uni of Melbourne. You won't see any of my work in the exhibition; in fact the only woman in the show is (rightfully, if there had to only be one) Carolyn Fraser of Idlewild Press. A shame, but there you go. As compensation, I suspect, I was given a whole half an hour to talk about myself, how I got into printing, and how the fine press book fits into all of my other activities, such as teaching book arts, etc.

I managed to fill the time easily, talking about my Summer School class and the various reasons why people, in my experience, want to play with letterpress these days. I also talked about my journey into printing, which gave me the chance to sing the praises of Alec Bolton (Brindabella Press) and Petr Herel (Graphic Investigations Workshop, Canberra School of Art) and talk about the way one was a fine printer who focused on Australian art & writing and the other was an artist who taught fine printing in his curriculum. Alec, unfortunately, is dead, but Petr is very much alive and was in the audience and was very happy to be remembered.

As far as the last bit goes, I unpacked the 'etc' a bit and bluntly stated that for most people (including me for the last few years) the fine press book doesn't fit into their activities, because fine printing in book form takes time and concentration, which is a luxury in a working life, and this is why I've been printing broadsides and making less intense books. While I was saying these things, though, I walked them through the pages of the one fine press book I've made that I really, really love (because it was totally mine to design and produce, without outside pressures): Transmigration.

It seemed to go down well. Peter Vangioni from the Kowhai Press in Christchurch was the only other speaker with 30 minutes up his sleeve, and he said wonderful things and tragic things about being a printer, and being a printer and gallery curator in an earthquake zone.

There was also a panel made up of Carolyn Fraser, Andrew Schuller and Alan Loney. I'd been to visit Carolyn and her studio that morning, and we'd had a fantastic catch-up, talking about life, the universe and letterpress. When she stood up and gave her ten minute's worth of opinion, it was sharp and pointy and dense with things that I hope the audience took away to mull over and digest, including the notion that Melbourne needs a public access printing space, based on the model of the NY Centre for the book. Not like the Melbourne Museum of Printing, where the facilities are barely held together with string and chewing gum, but a solid, well-organised, supported space where people can do courses to gain competency and then can use the space on a time-share basis to produce their own work. Come to think of it, we have a role model in Australia already : Megalo, here in Canberra. So let's get that thought in action: Melbourne Centre for Printing & the Book (or something like). Pity the Wheeler Centre missed the ball in that respect.

Andrew, an ex-Oxford University Press man, discussed the blurred margins of fine press printing: that it's hard to distinguish is something is finely printed as a fine press book or as an artist's book, but it's easy to tell when something isn't. And perhaps that's the only distinction that should be made? Why do we need lines drawn in sand? The artists in the room nodded.

Alan is the curator of the show, a master printer in his own right, and one who is unashamed of drawing those lines, even though many of his own poems have been finely printed as artists' books by other people. He spoke eloquently about his passion for the craft and his hopes for its future.

Afterwards there was time to look at the books, complete with nibbles and drinks before the next batch of words, speeches by Andrew and Alan again (but not repetitive, which was lovely). I got the chance to talk to many, many people about many, many things, and I'm sure a lot of it will return to me in time.

After that those who spoke or organised had dinner together at University House in an amazing room:

Surrounded by faces like these in the wall panels:

Aren't they beautiful? Apparently some man skinned his room in Paris & brought it all over to Australia, where it now resides in this room. Amazing. I should be able give you more details, we were all talking about it, but by that part of the day I wasn't really able to hold any more information. I do know that Peter V and I were sitting with our backs to a Breughel painting, which blew him away. He kept turning around and exclaiming. I was watching the faces, there were a lot of them.

Other things I did during my stay: I spent just under 3 hours with the work of William Kentridge, which was stupendous. I was there on the first morning of the exhibition, so I was maybe the 50th person in? I know that I was never in any room with more than 4 people, and most-times I was by myself in a space, and I know that will never happen again in the run of the exhibition.

I also, on the way to the airport on Saturday, spent time in the State Library's new show, Love & Devotion: From Persia and Beyond, an exhibition of Persian illuminated books and Persian-influenced books sourced from the Bodleian Library and the SLV. It is stunning, absolutely sumptuous.

So now it's (slowly) back to the grind, getting Material World together and making some books. Time and concentration, that's what it's all about.

Saturday, March 10, 2012


I am sitting on a tram in Melbourne, going from Carlton to St Kilda, about to stuff as much as I can into today before flying back to Canberra tonight.

I've been here since Thursday -- I almost didn't make it thanks to an intense and horrible bout of gastro that hit me on Monday night. Luckily my system is pretty robust, and it was the 24-hour variety, but I'm still not totally well, probably because I've been pushing my body to get here & participate fully.

I'm here for Adventure & Art, which is not a fist-pumping resolution but an exhibition of fine press books at Melbourne Uni's Ballieu Library, whose opening last night was accompanied by a half-day symposium at which I spoke.

It was fantastic. There was a room packed with the most amazing people: artists, printers, binders, academics, poets, collectors, librarians, and more, and most of them combined many of those roles.

I will write more about it when I am not rocking around on the tram; I am almost at my destination!

Hope you are all well!
(*waves at Tanya*)

Friday, March 02, 2012

altering attitudes about (e)books

I am participating in a group exhibition of site-specific work at the end of this month. It's called Material World, and we've all chosen a part of the ANCA gallery to play with.

I chose one of the girders in the ceiling, partly because I like the thought of making people look up away from the 'normal' eyeline of hung art and partly because they've always made me think of bookshelves. You can never have enough bookshelves in a space.

So I'm making an installation of altered books, literally altered to fit the space. I haven't planned all the details of the installation yet, because it's evolving as the date gets closer and I collect the materials.

This is the exciting thing about site-specific work for me. It's made, as the genre suggests, to fit that space only, and that space has very specific needs. For example, there are three girders in the main space, and they are all different lengths thanks to the shape of the gallery. They all have a lighting rack intersecting them about one metre in from each side. So what I put in one girder wouldn't fit in either of the other girders unless I change the work.

Today I drove (through the rain) to the Lifeline Book Fair Depot to meet up with Cedric Bear (best name ever!!!), a very nice man who is also a member of the Canberra Bookbinders. I had previously flagged with him the possibility of my needing over five metres of hardbacks that I could cut up, and he was happy to donate them, especially if they were books that they just can't shift at the twice-yearly fairs.

This is what I ended up with:

Boxes and boxes of hardback books by writers like Bryce Courtenay, Wilbur Smith, John Grisham, Stephen King, and myriad Reader's Digest volumes, both old and new.

Cedric didn't have to rummage around to find these particular boxes, and the volunteers packing my car offered me more, and said that I could go back & get more if I find I need them. What I took didn't make a dent in the depot's store of these books, and I've seen their shrink-wrapped pallets of the same hardbacks, in multiples of multiples.


It's not that the writers are {ahem} bad, it's that people will buy themselves these huge, badly-produced, cheap-papered volumes, read them once, maybe lend them to a friend, and then throw them away. Or in this case, donate them to Lifeline. Who have gazillions of them. Go into any secondhand bookshop, they have shelves of the buggers. Who wants them? No-one, they've already read them. And these kinds of readers want them to be new/fresh/free of germs/whatever.

If this is a description of your nana/pop/dad/aunt/uncle/friend, BUY THEM A KINDLE. All these books are available as e-texts, and e-readers can be made into large print books. Think of the number of trees we will save!

I've always thought that e-books will not kill books in general, they will just winnow through the chaff and allow good books to be produced well and collected by those who love the form. These crappy books are not loveable, they are the equivalent of Happy Meals with Toys. Don't buy them.

I'm going to have fun with these books. I won't know what I'll do until I go through them and talk to them and think about what they want to, and how they will interact with each other.

So thank you, Lifeline peoples. You rock. I'll make sure you get an invitation to the opening and an acknowledgement for your donation to my work. I'm looking forward to everything about the exhibition except the bit where I have to climb a ladder to install my work. I hate climbing ladders!

Thursday, March 01, 2012

A taste of today

The universe decreed that it was my day for Minding Other People's Children. I did a morning stint of emergency babysitting of sick children, and an evening stint of babysitting some non-sick children at very short notice for a very good reason. I was very proud of myself for the way I got the latter children to bed with only a few gales of tears on their part. It's much easier when they aren't your kids.

In between stints, I planned a small book and did some test prints on the paper I want to use.

Looking at that picture, I can go to bed happy.