Saturday, 26 April 2014

From the Sea to Harvard

maggie and milly and molly and may

maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach(to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn't remember her troubles,and

milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;

and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and

may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)

it's always ourselves we find in the sea

It's well known that the Aussie culture is based around sun and sand. We live on an island, gigantic as it is but isolated from the rest of the world. We spend much of our time standing on our shores looking outward for signs of life. It has some bearing on our way of thinking. Sadly in recent years as we have become more self satisfied we gaze outward with fixed stares looking for those who might  come and steal our luck from us and cruelly turn away those who have no other refuge.

I have heard simple analysis of American politics that describes the land locked states as Republican and hell bent on preserving the American way of life and the coastal outward looking states as Democratic, more forward thinking and malleable of thought.

Whatever the final analysis, the magnetic draw to the liminality of the shoreline always throws me into deep thought. I am lucky to have frequent access to a place which has me looking at my city from the other side of the bay. 
Distance is very good for the creative process and for problem solving. It diffuses anxiety and creates a telescopic world view . The fresh air is always welcome but the wider view of a tiny vulnerable city under a gigantic and moving sky full of smog, and sometimes tumultuous weather conditions engenders a fondness for the little city on the horizon.

And in the vastness between I always hope to glimpse a sign of life like a leaping pod of dolphins to assure me that the sea is ok. I go to the water’s edge to read the signs like some shaman reading chicken entrails. In the case of our little coast line this liminal corridor is only 4-10 metres wide depending on the tides. It is bordered by a thin line of scrubby vegetation and some seasonal marshy wetlands. A strange scrap of space to become so attached to but without fail it draws me in every time.

The human eye is magnetically attracted to signs of other human life. On a beach of pebbles and crushed shells tumbled with seaweed a man made straight edge immediately stands out as alien. Fragments of ceramics from a time in the misty distance wash up, waiting to be collected and their stories to be divined.  

.  Broken glass is softened and blurred to romantic fragments . These are the treasures I don’t mind finding. They have possibility for a new life, made new and interesting by the sea and full of history. Old bones are exciting to find and wonder about.

 I really must brush up on my anatomy because I could be romanticising about an ancient whale or dolphin death, when in fact I should be calling police to analyse criminal evidence! So many stories write themselves for the briefest time. 

Seasonal changes can be read in the detritus that washes ashore. The empty Port Jackson shark eggs wash up around April. Strange sculptural spirals that harden irreversibly like dried kelp and when first held conjure up torturous images of birth until you understand the marvel of the original soft spiral. I picked one up some months ago thinking it was out of season and quite heavy. It gave a wobble in my hand and I realised it still held a live youngster that I could rescue by returning it to the water.
The moon snails come out around full moon to lay their giant jelly sausage  egg sacs on the beach to then be washed out with the next tide a mystery that baffled me all my childhood.

 The sea grasses used to be habitat for millions of sea urchins but dredging of the shoreline by commercial fishermen has removed most of the sea grass and the remaining urchins are quickly demolishing what remains of the grass. That beautiful crystal clear water we are so attracted to is a dying coastline. Sand and more sand with nothing to give shelter to small fish and crustaceans which in turn become food for bigger sealife.
One of my sea inspired tea strainers amidst the remaining fragments of sea grass and dead urchin shells.

The pelicans which were so numerous several years ago have mostly moved on to better feeding grounds and only 5 or 6 regularly scavenge this part of the coast. Seagulls are better fed up in the town and around the pier so are not in obvious hordes. Migratory birds arrive in scanty little groups of fewer than a dozen and I know I am looking at remnants of the natural history of the area which saddens and frightens me.
My mussel spoons. Photo credit Screaming Pixels

I love this liminal edge. It is where I wait for the sea to reveal itself to me. Unlike my partner who loves to sail and my son who is an underwater photographer I have feet of clay and am clearly a landlubber. The sea’s influence makes it way into much of my work as a sort of alter ego of my city work and garden inspired work. As I sit here typing, one of my sea inspired pieces is making its way across the world to Harvard University in Boston Massachussets for an exhibition called Object Spoon (organised by Vipoo Srivilasa) at Ceramic Top 40 in the new ceramics department to be shown 17 May to 27 May before heading back to Canberra for the Ceramics Trienniale.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Drawing No Conclusions

Recently I sold one of my watercolours at the Warranwood Art Show. I had a ceramic piece in the exhibition as well but Avis Gardner had a much more intriguing little treasure and deservedly scooped the ceramic award.
I love drawing and painting and years ago went through a crisis of confidence when I decided no one was buying 2d art so I stopped doing it. I felt that ceramics were more useful and functional and of course there would be a market for them. There is somewhere.

But I miss drawing and painting and it is a heck of a lot easier to store. I received a book on egg tempera many decades ago and fell in love with the images but felt the discipline of it was too daunting for a flibbertigibbet like me. Recently I came across a beautiful blog  by an egg tempera painter who also loves his garden and the food he can produce from it. I still felt overwhelmed reading through the instructions on egg tempera but there was one brief mention about milk tempera.

 I didn’t wait to find details but raced off to play in the studio and experiment.

 I think what appeals to me about it was that there was nothing to lose. I always feel a greater sense of achievement in producing something from nothing by just adding effort. Like the production of this grass basket from a grass that grows at my back door and delightfully sheds shafts with seed heads in autumn.

  A tablespoon or two full of milk and a sprinkle of 3 different food dyes will last for hours and every layer is exciting to develop. So this week I have had fun and feel inspired to keep going and experimenting.

The first experiment was just on good quality recycled printer paper and was just to see if it was possible to do. The paper warped and bubbled but a lovely sheen built up very quickly. The milk dries quickly between layers and subsequent layers can be built up without disturbing the underlying layers too much.

 Milk has fat in it which combines with the pigment to form a suspension. It also has casein in it which is an early ingredient in plastics. We have all seen milk drips spilt on tabletops dry to a sheen. What you end up with is a sort of primitive acrylic watercolour surface.

 With egg tempera it is important to have a stable surface on which to paint so wood panels have traditionally been used and gessoed with a toothy surface for the paint  to hold onto. Gesso is a mixture of whiting and a binder. Traditionally rabbit glue was used but that all started sounded complicated until I read that you could use gelatin as the binder. Gelatine, milk, whiting, pigments (especially earth) were all within my spheres of knowledge and interest. I haven’t got to the stage of gesso but that is on the agenda. I have made one experiment with clay and milk and will be on the lookout for different coloured soils to use as pigments from now on.

I have also done a preliminary test on some bisqued work to see if it has a similar effect to terra sigillata, something that I have done for some time now with my work. Terra sigillata is an application of the finest particles of clay which are applied in several thin layers. The tiny particles fill in the minute pits on the clay surface and develop a refractive sheen. I will try this on an unfired piece(greenware) and see if it is effective.

I have been happy with just experimenting on thicker quality cartridge to prevent the warping problem but will progress to gesso on Masonite for a more formal painting when I understand more of the qualities of the paint.

There is a dreamy 60s picture book texture to the images.

And my paintings are tiny. I found some old A7 sample paper pads that I bought in an art shop a few years ago and since I no longer remember the price of the bundle they have lost their overwhelming preciousness which always daunts me in experimenting.