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.