Thursday, May 27, 2010

Distances are deceptive in Antarctica

Many Antarctica observers remark how the extraordinarily clear dry atmosphere, white on white environment, and months of nonstop daylight, combine to make it very hard to judge distances. What appears to be a mountain range on the horizon turns out to be a crevasse a few steps later. The welcome sight of a tent or hut seeming only an hour's walk away, is in fact tomorrow's destination.

A couple of weeks ago I had a little frisson of almost finished anticipation. I was sure that by the weekend I would be attaching the white continent to its background blanket, and soon after that I'd be lacing the finished embroidery to its backing board. I purchased what I thought would be the final dozen skeins of DMC blanc. I rushed around to get the mounting materials in place.

and then

I remembered that the reason I work from the smallest, highest contour out towards the coastline, is because it's really tricky handstitching in the middle of unstretched fabric. And so I decided to delay attaching Antarctica to the Southern Ocean until the last possible stage of stitching.

and then

I noticed the extent of almost invisible basting done six months ago to mark the boundary between coast and shelf ice and remembered there are still nation-state-sized land-masses to cover in blanket stitch before I reach the sea.

and then

I worked out that not only am I not nearly finished, but I have to put aside Antarctica (where? how?) to complete some other work with deadlines looming, which I had thought I'd knock off once Snow Queen was out of the way.

You would think that here in Hamilton I would be safe from Antarctican distance delusions. But it seems that my total immersion in the Antarctica of my imagination and my creation has unanticipated verisimilitude with the real thing.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Volcanic steam vents in the snow

I did a final padding out of my Antarctic contours before stitching on the sea level blanket. I cut careful slits through the back layers and poked undyed wool roving inside and then needle felted it into place. This has created a much more pleasing (and geographically accurate) profile.

The cuts through many layers were beautiful and inspiring both with and without the roving. They reminded me of the iced up steam vents on Mt Erebus that I saw in Werner Hertzog's fabulous and crazy documentary about Antarctica called Encounters at the End of the World. Its a full length doco that you can watch for free online. Prizes for the first commenter who correctly identifies the two other images in the film that remind me of art work I've made in the past 12 months.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Ruby Anniversary

On May 12 1970 this baby-faced family boarded a plane from Winnipeg, Canada to Hamilton, New Zealand, and forty years later three of us are still here. Dad was taking up a position as English lecturer at an almost brand new Waikato University, and he will retire from there later this year. Mum optimistically thought New Zealand was New Caledonia and she could wear a bikini all year round; she's now a printmaker and community arts leader in Hamilton. Brother had turned two the day before immigrating, and now rides big motorcycles in New York City. I was, at three, a passionate consumer of books and if you read this blog you know all about my passionate productions here and now.

My parents had already emigrated once, from the United States to Canada just a few months before my birth. Then they were escaping Vietnam-era politics and the draft for my dad, who was working on his PhD about a medieval romance starring Princess Meliors (I know you've been wondering). After a few years in the snow, New Zealand sounded like a South Sea paradise, with progressive social policies.

We arrived with our North American accents and our fancy whiteware (a clothes drier! -unheard of luxury here). Hamilton in May 1970 was a dreary small town of damp, cold, little houses; the university was still more paddock than ivory tower. I think I adjusted most enthusiastically of the four of us to the culture (and climate) shock. I picked up the kiwi accent quickly (though I tried to hide it at home or be teased mercilessly for pronouncing egg 'ig'). I've always proudly and passionately identified as a New Zealander, a kiwi, a pakeha.

I'm incredibly grateful that my parents were brave enough to emigrate to the other side of the world, leaving behind their family, friends and culture. New Zealand was much further away back then: before there was internet; when long distance telephone was too expensive for more than an annual call; when airfares were too expensive for more than a seven-year sabbatical trip.

New Zealand is the home I love. But not so much for the picture postcard, tourism board reasons to love New Zealand. To be honest, the natural environment I am drawn to most is tropical rainforest. But I'm here and not there and that's because of the human environment. Our fresh young history. Our quirky inclusive political system. Our equitable health and welfare systems, that no matter how flawed are still better than most. The intimacy of a very small nation with barely a couple of degrees of separation between me and anyone else.

I love our our anti-nuclear and anti-whaling leadership. I love the journey towards each other that Maori and Pakeha have undertaken in my lifetime and that so much te reo is part of my daily life. I love that Auckland is the largest Polynesian city in the world. I love that I was exposed to more British popular culture than American when I was a kid. I appreciate the perspective provided by growing up in a small country on the edge of the planet, the outsider's and the underdog's point of view.

I've had a few tries at living in other countries, and every time I end up back here in New Zealand. It's always been the easiest place to make friends, in every new town I've moved to, at every stage of my life. No matter how likeable people are in other countries (and I do have some dear friends made overseas), I've never found such an easy abundance of close intimates as in New Zealand. Maybe it's because I'm an outsider in other countries, or maybe it's because kiwis really are exceptionally open, warm and relaxed. I don't know. But I count myself among the lucky few in the world who get to live in this beautiful, easy, caring, safe, temperate little land.

Filling my life with delight

Looking out to sea from behind the South Pole

My long search for an appropriate blanket to use as the background of the Southern Ocean is finally over. An old pale green woven double blanket appeared on Trade Me with a starting price close to what I would expect to pay in an op shop. I was the only bidder, overcoming my resistance to the unhelpful photo, and with postage it still cost less than any of the other suitable blankets on auction. It arrived as promised, stinking of smoke and with a prominent stain. Since my intention is a very hot wash to felt it up a bit, the stink doesn't matter, and the stain will hide perfectly under the Dismal Mountains of West Antarctica.

First glimpse was a relief, as the colour and texture are what I want

In order to spread the blanket out flat I had to move my furniture to create enough floor space. In The Time Traveller's Wife (the wonderful book, not the terrible movie) Clare's need to make big art while working in a small space comes out in the form of tiny maquettes and sketches of birds in cages. "Every day the ideas come more reluctantly, as though they know I will starve them and stunt their growth." Luckily her time travelling husband decides to win Lotto and buy her an enormous studio.

As Antarctica grows bigger and bigger, I gradually expand my thinking about what I can fit in my little place. There is no grand plan, and the solutions only occur to me as they are required. I do worry about how I'm going to store the finished work, but I don't worried that I won't be able to finish it. I went to bed last night with no idea of exactly how I'm going to fit the next stage of hugeness into my life. I woke up this morning with complete clarity about what to do next.

Where the open sea meets the shelf ice

Friday, May 07, 2010

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Snow Queen

Looking down from the polar plateau across the Ronne Ice Shelf to the Antarctica Peninsula.

My dear friend, Harmony, enquired today after my 'Snow Queen'. I can't think of a better name for this imposing and dangerous, beautiful and demanding, sensitive and sulky character that has taken over my life this year.

I am slowly fixing up the islands of the shelf ice, but I took some time out the other day to lay the finished high ground on the sea level contour, just to make sure its all going to fit. Which it is.

Laying out the last layer for the first look, and considering my background blanket options.