Sunday, December 27, 2009

Mangroves- A love story

French knitted pneumataphores

Poor old mangroves are unfairly maligned and horribly threatened, even though they play an essential role in maintaining many food-fish stocks, and filtering out human pollution and sediment on its way to the sea. But they are neither as picturesque as we like our coastal landscapes to look, nor understood to be useful for the resource extraction model of capitalist economies. Yet I've long loved mangroves, since the summer of 96 when I was taken on a gentle tinnie* trip through some Coromandel wetlands: gliding calmly between these enigmatic trees at dusk felt romantic and soulful.

Blocking my mudflat (stretching while damp to dry flat)

A few years ago my intuitive appreciation was given intellectual reinforcement when I was asked to help give a talk to some school children about mangroves, prompting a crash course in mangrove ecology. Finding out about their extraordinary biology and essential ecological nurturing role turned me into an advocate for mangrove preservation and restoration.

And last year, in Queensland, I was aesthetically seduced by the other-worldly, diverse and abundant mangroves of the tropics: I often think about how, why and where I could represent their sinuous patterned tangle of buttresses, roots and snorkels. Mangroves and vines are the motivation for my burgeoning collection of french knitting spools, but I've been preoccupied with making other environments, so the mangroves had to wait for the right opportunity.

My newest, and favourite, french knitting dolly/spool

My motivation for finally making some mangroves now can't be revealed until next year. Suffice to say that for the past couple of weeks I've been french knitting Avicennia marina pneumataphores- the oxygen breathing snorkels that enable mangrove roots to survive in salt water- the only tree that can live in the sea. Avicennia marina are the only mangrove species in New Zealand, and their pneumataphores look like sticks poking up out of the mud at low tide. If you stand on one in your bare feet it hurts, which is enough to make some people want to get rid of mangroves from their local beaches. But I think mangrove snorkels are one of nature's wonders, and I want to make a piece to help people appreciate them as beautiful and remarkable.

Pneumataphores on the crocheted squares

Each french knitted snorkel is attached to a small crocheted square. All my yarn was acquired by chance; some left over from the coral, some gifted and some found in second hand shops. I am determined not to buy any new yarn for this project so luck determined the colours and textures I could choose from. Luckily I am delighted with the colours of my snorkels, and managed to find three odd sized balls (that had obviously been unravelled from some previous purpose before arriving at the Salvation Army store) of natural grey wool, the exact colour of mangrove swamp mud at low tide.

Today I finished stitching the squares into a small rectangle, and experienced the wonder of blocking: transformation from wonky and misshapen to flat and square just by wetting and stretching while it dries. My next step will be to wire each pheumataphore so it stands up straight and stiff, then to mount the whole thing for wall hanging. I'll show you the finished piece, and reveal its destination in a few weeks.


Sunday, December 20, 2009

A triumph of new old technology

Tracks in the snow

I won't say I'm not a hoarder by nature, as I suspect that if there had ever been any geographical stability in my life I would love to accumulate things. But I have moved too far, too often, and too recently, for to have much of anything thing stashed away for 'just in case'. I am most definitely a reluctant shopper, generally loathe to acquire anything without an immediate, certain purpose.

Right now though, I am in an acquisitional phase as I set about establishing a studio and living environment which will enable me to achieve all I want to. My latest purchase is proving entirely satisfactory in support of my goals. I have bought a wooden standing tapestry/embroidery frame. This old fashioned and hard-to-find piece of equipment makes me think of Victorian, or even Elizabethan, ladies sitting around doing needlework all day. Just like me, but in less comfortable clothing and with servants.

Standing embroidery frame

My lightweight, adjustable stand, won on a Trade Me auction for a song, allows me to sit up straight and comfortably, using both hands to manipulate the needle and thread instead of hunching over a small hoop braced between my forearm and torso.

The tension can only be adjusted in one direction, by turning the top and bottom dowels

As soon as I brought the stand home, I stopped all dithering about the Antarctic journey. Quickly basting the highest three contours of the ice dome onto the frame, I threaded my needle with the first length of white cotton (already purchased in bulk) and set off. I'm also incorporating a bit of needle felting into the process, to make the contours more curvaceous, but (after endless agonising over various alternatives) the stitching is just the same as Ross Island's.

Looking down from the highest point on the continent, over 4000m of ice.

Monday, December 14, 2009


Ross Island is mounted now, after some abortive attempts to add rocks. There are many steep slopes that are mostly bare of ice and snow, showing up in photographs as black marks on the white sheet draped over the island. But my various approaches to stitching rocks onto the already complete summit of Mt Erebus were just awful, and unpicking left me with a fraying fluffy volcano. Finally I just cut off the mountain top and remade it from scratch as it had been originally.

I much prefer my imaginary version of Ross Island, a pale unblemished illusion, to my clumsy attempts at realistic representation. Mounted, between the dark open sea and the towering ice shelf, my imaginary Antarctic Island floats like a fantasy land, which it has always been for more people than can ever visit it.

So with that piece finished, I am tackling Antarctica itself. It's taken almost four whole blankets to cut out each 1000m contour. Here's my map pattern before I cut out the sea level and shelf ice contour. It's a little over a metre in diameter.

I only have the two highest contours of the ice dome at the centre of the continent left to cut, and that is where I will begin my embroidery, where the ice is over four kilometers thick, blanketing mountains that are taller than the Himalayas with a deceptively smooth surface. Meanwhile, I have been attaching isolated peaks and islands that stick out above the ice around the edges. See if you can spot a small peak pinned onto the blankets below.

As accompaniment, I'm reading Roland Huntford's controversial book, Scott and Amundsen. It puzzles me that in every single non-fiction book on Antarctica, the eulogising of Scott's tragic second place so utterly trumps Amundsen's efficient first. I have been desperate to find out more about Amundsen and his journey, and Huntford is providing all the detail I could want. I understand that Huntford's analysis of Scott cannot be taken at face value given the widespread and vehement opposition, but I have come across no criticism of his representation of Amundsen (who seems to be as unlikable a man as he was admirable in his systematic approach to polar exploration).

Monday, December 07, 2009

Sagittarian Retrospective and Giveaway

The year's turning begins for me at the start of December, with my own birthday that gives me a head start on a new year's retrospective annual assessment and goal setting. There's plenty to be pleased about looking back on 2009, and I am filled with anticipation for more progress in 2010.

Looking back over this year's blog posts, I see that in January I was getting 150-180 unique hits a week. These days there are more likely to be around 350. These numbers are no great shakes compared to many of the blogs I follow, but I have a sense of a loyal readership growing sustainably.

For those of you who are new to Bibliophilia, here are some of the highlights of my year that were documented here:
Making my first commissioned artist book edition, while moving between two towns and 4 studios!
Making a Hamilton park into a giant book of love poems
Developing a philosophy to teach book making
Sketchcrawling the Tron
You are an Agent of Change chosen as a Finalist in the National Contemporary Art Awards
Embroidering fossils and Mars gardens
Returning to the Daintree for a week of rainforest and coral reef
Another commissioned edition, this time in one place and collaborators
Spending three months as Writer/Artist in Residence at Hamilton Girls High School
My first live online cyberperformance
Hand stitching an island
Some public speaking

In appreciation of my new and long-term readers, I'm celebrating the end of the year, the end of the decade and my birthday (a prime number beginning with 4) with a special giveaway! December's prize is a bit bigger (and more expensive) than usual and there are more ways to win.

The prize is one of my early editioned artist's books, called Dislocation, still in stock in my Etsy shop.

You can enter as many times as you want in any of the following four ways. Entries will close on 15 and the randomly selected winner announced shortly after.

Ways to enter the Bibliophilia December Giveaway:
1. Comment on this post.
2. Link to any post on this blog on Facebook, Twitter or your own blog, and let me know (with a link) by commenting on this post (up to three entries per day).
3. Link to my Etsy shop on Facebook, Twitter or your own blog, and let me know (with a link) by commenting on this post (up to three entries per day).
4. Purchase something from my Etsy shop: every item purchased is another entry. It's a great place to do your gift shopping for mums, dads, crafty friends, philosophical acquaintances, economical budgets and extravagant spenders.. (NB NZ buyers can pay in NZ $ by bank transfer- select the 'other' payment option in Etsy's check out.)

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Living a creative life in Hamilton

Some of my lovely camp girls

As if I wasnt already in love with Girls High girls, my Hamilton Girls High School Residency finished with a three day 'junior camp' for Year 9 &10 (13-15 years old). Students are offered about 30 options ranging from windsurfing or a train trip to Wellington to stay-at-home day camps with an arts focus. I was offering one of the latter, and had ten of the loveliest girls sign on, along with 4 teachers (three part-time)- an enviable adult:student ratio for such a low risk activity!

Unstructured studio time

My idea for the camp, called 'Living a Creative Life in Hamilton' was to give the girls a taste of life as an artist/writer in residence; and to counter the persistant image of Hamilton as a dull, stifling environment that people should escape in order to fully develop their creative selves*.

The first morning was an intensive workshop to make a blank labyrinth style journal to use for the rest of the camp. Everyone completed their books in time to take them along on our afternoon crawl around four exhibitions. Most students said their favourite of the afternoon was the Wintec 3rd year painting students, I think because the show was varied and vibrant, with work produced mostly by people only a few years older than my students and thus similar cultural perspectives.

Jessica inking up her comic, a long term project, nearly completed

On the second and third mornings we had unstructured studio time, which was when it really became clear that this group of girls had picked the right programme for themselves. I provided a variety of tools and simple materials for journalling and other paper crafts, made a few suggestions and let them do what they want. It was possibly the quietest and most productive three hours a group of teenagers has ever spent together. Beautiful, creative journalling emerged with many girls delighting in drawing cards from Keri Smith's 100 ideas** and using them to spark all sorts of wonderful pages.

A spread from Codie's journal

A couple of girls mostly just wanted to read novels and I couldn't see the point of trying to make them do anything else. When I was that age, novel reading was my preferred activity in almost every situation- if I had been offered a reading camp, that's the one I would have chosen! Novel reading continues to be one of the most significant external influence on my creative work, so I think reading fit right into the theme and purpose of the camp.

morning in the camp studio

Our quiet, self directed time in the morning was a good grounding for our afternoons of going out into the town. On Tuesday we participated in an arts event for World AIDS Day in Garden Place. My Fairly radical Crafty group and Hamilton Pride had prepared handpainted red lasercut hearts of card attached to bamboo stakes and provided a couple of tables of crafty supplies. People could decorate or write on the heats and then we installed them on the lawn in a loose heart shape. The camp girls took to this project with great enthusiasm, not only decorating hearts but recruiting heart-decorating passers-by, and collecting funds while giving out red ribbons. It was great experience of sharing one's creativity with community for a good cause.

making hearts and sheltering from the rain

I believe living a creative life must include some cafe sitting and book browsing, so after our efforts with the hearts I rewarded the girls with huge bowls of hot chocolate at Metropolis, followed by a leisurely look around Browsers Second Hand Bookshop. The latter was named as a camp highlight by some, and I think was an eye-opening pleasure for others who hadn't been anywhere like that before.

heart art for World AIDS Day

All week the spring weather has been grey and drizzly at best, and rainy and muggy at worst, so I cancelled my plans for our final afternoon of picnicking and ephemeral environmental art making by the lake. Instead, we had an indoor picnic feast and then went across the road to tour ArtMakers Trust, a training establishment for creative young people. Sylvie welcomed us warmly, the work of ArtMakers is interesting and meaningful, and the trainees are kindred spirits to my camp girls, so I won't be surprised if some return to ArtMakers in a few years.

While I was out getting our indoor picnic food, the girls made a thankyou mural on the white board

*If you've been following my blog this year, you can probably tell that nothing is further from the truth. Hamilton is alight with all sorts of creative opportunities for producers and audiences to enjoy and be challenged by.
** I printed out the pdf onto coloured card and cut them into little squares to be drawn from a bag. I've tried to get adult friends to use these cards for inspiration, but until the camp no-one had really liked them. I've done just a few cards myself, but I haven't yet been short of my own ideas and creative tasks since I've made Keri's cards, so I'm saving them for a dry time, which will eventually come. I'm also looking forward to kicking my butt out of some future slough of self-pity with Keri's Artist's Survival Kit.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Living my dreams, living your dreams

It is good to have an end to journey towards, but it is the journey that matters, in the end. - Ursula K LeGuin

It's almost the end of my term as the Sunrise Waikato RotaryWriter in Residence at Hamilton Girls High School, although the Principal is letting me stay in the studio through the summer holidays. When she offered I almost cried with relief as I've been increasingly concerned about how I was going to squeeze my studio back into my bedroom and somehow carry on with the large-scale works-in-progress I started, but didn't finish, during the Residency.

I choose to rent a bedroom in a shared flat rather than fulfil my dream of living in my own house for much the same reasons that I choose not to own a car. Partly I'm trying to minimise my ecological footprint, but more selfishly I'm minimising my expenses so I can devote most of my energy to my creative work rather than toiling full time in the well-paying career I drifted away from a few years ago. Sometimes my creative work is financially rewarding (for example this Residency came with a stipend) but being paid for art or writing has been the exception in my experience so far.

Because of my low-cost lifestyle I enjoy a great deal of freedom and some aspects of my life make other people envious. I am my own boss and control my own time, in which I write poetry, make art, learn new things and am free to follow my intuition. I'm aware and grateful that I am living (at least part) of a collective dream life.

One of the reasons that I can arrange my life this way in my 40s, is because when I was young I chose a path not usually associated with fulfilling one's dreams: I was a teenage single mother. That experience taught me to be frugal, to be decisive, to overcome obstacles and to accept help when I need it. Most of all, it set me free to explore in my late 30s, when many of my peers are immersed in child raising and mortgage servicing; and look back at the freedom of their childless 20s with nostalgia.

It's no coincidence that my practice and my identity as an artist emerged at exactly the same time as my daughter was launching herself into adult independence. I had spent most of her childhood pursuing my youthfully idealistic dream of saving the world through public policy. Two degrees, a couple of government departments and councils, and something like a nervous breakdown later, I was ready to be completely selfish for the first time in my adult life. So when I discovered artist's books and that I was quite good at them, I gradually extracted myself from the public service to became a full time artist.

Of course, the reality is that fledgling artists have as much chance of making a living from their art as winning the lotto. When I eventually used up the savings that could have been a house deposit in the 1970s, I figured out a frugal lifestyle of part-time paid work and full time art work. This was so successful that at the same time as preparing my first solo show I managed to save up something that could have been a house deposit in the 1960s.

But then two years ago I impulsively decided to pursue my idiosyncratic 2o year dream of living in a treehouse in the Daintree Rainforest. I'm still making sense of how important it was for me to spend 7 months at Cape Tribulation, even though at the time it seemed like I was spinning my wheels at the end of the road. When my savings ran out and the extreme and isolated environment proved inimical with the rest of my dreams I returned to Hamilton where I knew it would be easiest to get traction towards the life I want.

Fulfilling such a long held yet whimsical dream is something that most people seem to assign to their 'if I win lotto' wish list. But to do so undervalues and undermines our dreams with really bad odds instead of intention, planning, effort and sacrifice or even trust, any of which will do more to fulfil your dreams than buying lotto tickets every week. Dreams that are worth fulfilling are worth better than lottery odds.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a long distance truck driver when I grew up. Unfortunately, it turns out that I don't actually like driving and I abandoned that dream without a backward glance. Dreams change over time, but it's not the specifics of your dreams that matter, it's the essence of them.

As a child I thought that being a truck driver would allow me the same kind of headspace that I enjoyed on our family's long road trips when nothing was expected of me in the back seat except to sit still, be quiet, and not fight with my brother. I could just look out the window, let my mind wander and daydream.

I came out of the trees exactly one year ago with no idea what I wanted to do next. I didn't have a plan, I didn't even have a specific dream as remotely compelling as the one I had just fulfilled. In retrospect, what I did have was a renewed commitment to the essence of my childhood dream of maintaining the head space to observe the world, explore ideas and imagine alternate realities. As an adult I have set up my life so that this essential freedom of thought is manifest in creative expression: making books, stitching images and sculptures. My youthful idealism continues to be manifested in the critical environmental themes I research and interpret, and in my participation in a community of activist artists and crafters.

As my birthday, the end of the year and the decade all approach, it seems appropriate to review my dreams, achievements and plans. I originally wrote this piece for the School of Education's Professional Development Department. They had me present it on a moving bus as it travelled through the Waikato countryside. I broke up my personal story by getting them each to talk to their seatmates about their 'lotto wish list', their childhood dreams and how the essence of their dreams can be manifest in their lives now.

All photos taken by me on the Daintree Coast, July 2009

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Winning Gifts

Hooray, we have a winner for the November giveaway and it's only a few days late this month! Aneta's name was the one pulled out of the freshly washed cottage cheese container yesterday. Aneta found my blog after hearing me speak at her department's professional development day last Friday.

I talked about following and fulfilling your dreams and integrating their essence into your daily life. Even though I had to present for 45 minutes on a moving bus, I didn't get motion sickness and everyone seemed pretty happy with my offerings. Thanks Aneta for taking the time to let me know you enjoyed my talk, and congratulations on winning a couple of tiny experimental books.

Tiny book

Some of you have been wondering if I'm going to sell the embossed fossils I've been making so prolifically. The main project is towards an exhibition next winter, but I decided they were too lovely keep only behind glass. I've printed an open edition onto a thick creamy stock and packaged them up in a handmade faux museum portfolio with a poem I've written called Punctuated Equilibrium.

Although in reality you can just click through to the Bibliophilia Etsy store and make a swift and sanitary purchase, followed promptly by delivery to your mailbox; I have imagined an alternative scenario while making this edition...

You are riding a bus between distant cities, and when it stops for 15 minutes in a tiny country town you disembark gratefully, gulp down an icy drink and then wander nextdoor to a dim and dusty secondhand store. Rummaging in a bin of old leaflets you find a manilla porfolio. Through the foxing on its typewritten label you read 'Five Fossils' and intrigued, you unwrap the red thread closure. Inside are an ammonite, star fish, sea urchin, trilobite and Ediacaran jellyfish. You finger the dry and delicate texture of the paper fossils, and then realise there is a coffee-stained typed page tucked behind them. But outside you hear the rumble of the bus engine starting, there's no time to read the text. The old man muttering to himself behind the cluttered counter sells you the portfolio and you scramble back on the bus feeling that you've just scored a mysterious bargain that will transform the rest of your dull coach trip.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Antarctica - A progress report

Mt Terror, foreground, and Mt Erebus

I recently achieved a major milestone in my project to stitch a scale model of Antartica. The idea was to start with Ross Island, and see how it worked, felt and looked before deciding whether to tackle the big continent. Following historical precedent I have used Ross Island as my base from which to assess the task ahead, to prepare for my assault on the South Pole itself.

Ross Island, unmounted, (approx 26cm diameter)

Ross Island was easier to make than I expected, and I'm pretty pleased with it so far. I have stitched the whole island with its four volcanoes. I have yet to mount it, but I thought I would show you some what it looks like just floating, before I embed it in the pack ice and shelf ice of the Ross Sea.

blanket stitch detail

It's got a very dreamy quality in these photos, which matches the island of my imagination. I know that in real life Scott Base and MacMurdo Base are ugly industrial villages blotting the pristine white snow black rock of Scott Point, but I felt no need to mark their presence on my island.

There are a few faint blood stains in the snow, though blotted so thoroughly that not even I could find them again. Towards the end of my stitching I repeatedly stabbed myself with the needle, my blood falling onto the cotton and wool like watermelon snow, a pink algae that grows on snow and ice in the polar summers . Antarctica is not kind to those who love her; even an interpretation from afar is dangerous.

Mt Terror (foreground) Mt Bird (right)

But despite the inherent dangers and difficulties I am as compelled as any scientist or explorer who has been drawn so far South. I am almost ready to launch my attempt on continental Antarctica: I have my pattern pieces and I'm felting another wool blanket for the big base contours (my Kaiapoi blanket will furnish the highest altitudes). I anticipate many months of stitching through our Southern summer, months in which I can immerse myself in an imaginary Antarctic journey: hauling my needle by hand across the great white wastelands, climbing glaciers, traversing crevasses. I'll keep you posted.

Mt Erebus

Monday, November 16, 2009

Deep Time Writer’s Residency

Entrance to HGHS Artist in Residence studio, Malins Block basement

Days are divided into shallow gasps of quick time

by bells appointing high sided nests of focus

but I climb determinedly into tree time,

measuring my term in million year

increments of painted paper.

Majestic and inspiring trio of Redwoods as seen from the studio's northeast facing windows

In classrooms I tell the story of a rare visit

from an elusively generous muse;

how she punctuates the equilibrium of

my persistent plodding productivity

with the mysterious appearance of a poem

that enables flight, indeed, requires it.

Mysterious, aquarium like view from the studio's western window

I offer out a rainbow of papers

and share the magic of folding

never tiring of the irresistible transformation

from plain sheet to turning pages;

we harness that pleasure into poetry and

race to fill their books before the bell.

Deep Time Writer's Residency tunnel book, detail

In the studio at lunchtime

it’s all the sweet raucous intensity

of a dawn chorus in spring:

girls creating wild beauty, breaking

all the book making rules to

evolve new structures that

give me fresh courage to adapt myself.

Tunnel book (2/3 view)

In this dim green-windowed cave

under the science block

I study deep time,

grasping at immensity,

painting eternity purple.

Outside the school blossoms

with little coloured books;

we are swept by a virus of paper folding,

and poetry fading under our footsteps.

Deep Time Writer's Residency, unique book commissioned by HGHS