Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Spoils at

Stuart Shepherd's ice penguin (foreground) and Dispersant (background)
There is still at least a week left to see my work in the Spoils exhibition at in Hamilton. My two large textile installations share the gallery spaces with Stuart Shepherd's sculptures, conducting a lively conversation about oil and mining, asset sales and climate change.

Dispersant has been hung for this Hamilton audience, looking just as lovely though quite different than in a tight space against a blue background as it was installed in 2012.

Dispersant detail

Looking through Dispersant to Alexandra Street and Creative Waikato opposite
 Occasional flashes of sunshine through the window and a breeze from the door add movement and shadows unique to this space.  Those moments are quite magical, all the more for their rarity.

Catching shadows and a breeze
The show is in two galleries, facing off on opposite sides of the street.  So, across the road from Dispersant, I've installed Memorial (Pike River) which almost perfectly matches the grey carpet in that gallery.  It is the first time I've ever been able to spread the 29 pieces out in a suitable space and finally realise my original vision. I played around with different ways of arranging the stitched blanket mounds and eventually settled on the little groupings randomly spaced because it reminded me of the family, friendship and workmate relationships between the men who died two years ago, and still lie underground.

Memorial (Pike River)
 Also in this much larger space Stuart has installed paintings, prints and sculptures.

Stuart and Philippa installing his wallpaper, printed off a carved wooden table which forms part of his installation.
Our opening last Thursday was good fun. I made all our food myself, and everyone said we had the best nibbles of the three openings that evening on Alexandra Street.

 After we packed up, I put the posies I'd made from my garden for the food table down into the installation, as flowers seemed appropriate for a Memorial.

Memorial with flowers from the opening

Friday, August 30, 2013

Parental Discretion Advised


Frugal with the Brueghel, my altered book collaboration with Bethwyn Littler has been reinvigorated this winter. Bethwyn has quit her job and now has lots of time for creative practice, which is lucky because we committed to participating in a group show at the Hamilton Fringe Festival, opening next month.  We are installing a little reading corner with nine of the altered books that we've worked on over our four years of collaboration.

We are frugal with both Brueghel the Elder and Brueghel the Younger.

We started altering books together (or frugalling as we like to call it) when I was writer in residence at Hamilton Girls High School in 2009 and have kept it going through all sorts of life changes since then. Our first books were pretty random but we soon began to impose themes or restrictions on each book project. We often use a children's board book at the base and then collage wacky additions from all sorts of other source books. The board books are usually relatively quick to finish in three or four mornings together.  The most recent of these is Origami Flowers: The Ballet of Today.

Bethwyn putting the finishing touches of Peepshow: Books and Competitors
Other books are based on cloth-bound adult non-fiction, and with so many more pages to fill, they may never be finished.  Three of these 'works in progress' will be included in our exhibition.  We started Handsome Man Maintenance and Am I Woman or Lady: Pages of Fun way back during the residency (when they were known as the Man Book and the Woman Book) and The New Book of Kitchen Sex (aka The Courtship book) a couple of years later.  Although there are still plenty of pages left to add to, there is also plenty of altered content to enjoy. Together the three books address the rich complexities and confusions of gender, sexuality and relationships.

At the Fringe Classic exhibition at Hamilton's Riverbank Mall we are providing gloves and comfy seating so visitors can sit down and have a leisurely leaf through the pages.  There is nothing deep or meaningful to look at in our books, but we hope they make other people laugh out loud the way we do when we look at what we've done.  Most of the humour comes from the juxtapositions we create, but some of it is intrinsic to the books we are cutting up: Men's Hairdressing (1972) is a perplexing favourite; and also our deeply mined copy of Photo Love Annual 1980- a treasure trove of banal speech bubbles and headshots almost as gruesome as Men's Hairdressing.

Some of the content of our books is a bit risque, though nothing more perverse than most music videos.  In fact, despite feeling naughty while we do it, our making children's books a bit sexy seems quite tame compared to the mainstream media's widespread co-option of pornographic tropes. However, the title of our reading corner installation, 'Parental Discretion Advised', is so that parents aren't (we hope) deceived by the children's book element of our work.  I wouldn't have been comfortable for my preschooler to look at some of the sexual references made in our work, and I assume most parents would like to exercise their own discretion.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Beginning a Plastic-Free July

Oh the irony that on this, the first day of the Plastic Free July Challenge I've signed up for, I find myself in desperate need of some plastic bottles.  I don't regularly buy products in plastic bottles but they do come in handy around the garden. Last spring I went raiding my neighbour's recycling bins on rubbish day to collect enough to use as cloches for seedlings, and seep irrigation in my potplants.  This winter I am regularly draining liquid fertiliser out of my worm farm and storing it in large plastic bottles.  Today saw me scrabbling desperately for enough bottles and coming up short, with half a bucket of worm wee left unbottled.  Luckily tomorrow is rubbish day and I will be able to cruise the street collecting my neighbours' cast offs.

Bottles of worm wee 

What is the Plastic-Free July challenge? "Simply to attempt to consume no single-use plastic during July." The website offers two levels of challenge: to avoid all single-use plastic or the TOP 4 challenge (straws, plastic bags, plastic bottles and coffee cup lids).  A couple of my friends have also signed up for the full challenge, because like me they already rarely consume the TOP 4. We talked about the challenge a lot on the weekend- debating where do we draw the line with single use, what does 'consume' mean? If we intend to reuse a yoghurt container multiple times after the product is consumed is it still considered single use? Does consume mean just not buying, or not using up products already purchased in their single use plastic?

We decided that the point is to make us (and others) aware, and it's a challenge, not a competition, so there need be no shame in our dilemmas.  So far my dilemmas are mostly personal care ones. I buy my natural soap direct from a maker in a paper bag. I wash my hair with baking soda and condition it with diluted apple cider vinegar. I use  home sewn cloth menstrual pads. I have handcream and lip balm packaged in metal. Yet there are still some challenges for me go completely plastic-free.

I have a stockpile of toilet paper that came wrapped in plastic- should I go out and buy paper wrapped TP for this month and wait to use up my stock pile in August? That seems silly, so I guess the plastic wrapping is the first addition to my dilemma bag.

Homemade toothpaste (coconut oil, baking soda, salt and peppermint essence)
My toothpaste comes in a plastic tube that seems impossible to repurpose, but since I have all the ingredients to make some homemade toothpaste, I whipped some up which tastes pretty bad so it will be a real test of my commitment.

I used home made moisturiser* on my face all through the summer, but in winter my mixture is chilled solid in the bathroom cabinet and impossible to spread, so I'd reverted to something from a plastic bottle. Today I've brought my homemade cream in to sit near the fire and it seems to be softening up nicely, so I just have to remember to change my routine to involve moisturising in the living room instead of the bathroom.

Finally, in refilling an old plastic bottle of deodorant spray with diluted cider vinegar I emptied out a plastic bottle of vinegar- hooray, something else to put worm wee into!

*My home made moisturiser recipe
1 Tablespoon coconut oil
3 capsules of evening primrose oil
2 drops of lavender oil (or I'd use rose oil if I had any)
Heat the coconut oil just enough to melt it then cool down. While still liquid squeeze out the contents of the capsules and stir in , then stir in the essential oil. Pour into a small container and apply to clean skin.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Creating Pathways

A new little pathway (with Jaq the three legged chihauhau back by the worm farm)
I  continue to be preoccupied in the garden, making new raised beds for planting, and putting in access paths. Both tasks are hard physical labour that leaves me exhausted if I go at it for more than a couple of hours at a time. But the results are very pleasing, so I'm trying to learn to pace myself better when carrying concrete slabs or digging.

I'm also trying to avoid unnecessary expenses in the garden so both my raised beds and paths are made with things I've found for free or very cheap: odd paving stones, old bricks, broken concrete, a material that usually ends up in landfill but when reused  is sometimes called 'urbanite'.  There was a lot of broken concrete lying around the property when I arrived but I've used it all up and now have to go out and collect it from other people's places- more heavy lifting.

My two most recent path projects are short and sweet.  Inside our front gate is a dark damp little wedge which I'm trying to make lighter and more attractive.  This is what it looked like a year ago, just before I moved in:
That nasty spiky plant positioned to poke everyone in the eye as they entered was the first to go.  
Weeded, with a few pavers and bricks arranged at the bottom of the steps
Cleared for action, with a bunch of tiny baby succulents newly planted and almost invisible on the right. 
I cleared away all the weeds, moved the pebbles around a bit, and planted up succulents against the house. Access to the front door is up the steps but to get around to the back garden and the cottage where my flatmate lives involved crunching over more pebbles- particularly troublesome for pushing a bicycle or wheelbarrow, but it stayed like that for nearly a year. I kept waiting for someone who might help me make a proper path.
looking down on the new path from the deck
Then last month I finally just went ahead and made a new little side path, using only materials I already had and laying them onto bare earth. I've researched enough about making paths to know I haven't done it properly, but it looks all right and so far it hasn't tripped anybody up.  I still need to rearrange the pebbles some more, and once the planting takes off come Spring it should be a much more welcoming entrance area.  Even at this stage of work in progress I still get a little thrill every time I come home and open the gate.
An improved entrance- look how well my succulent garden is coming along.
The other recent path project was to fill in a soggy gap between the wooden boardwalk and the steps to Shirley's cottage behind the house.  A few overgrown bits of broken concrete dotted a low lying lawn which collected rainwater, making winter access very muddy.  Having gained some path making confidence with the entrance above, Autumn's rains prompted me to finally have a crack at the cottage pathway.

The old path, last Spring
I decided to try and make the path flush between the top of the boardwalk and the bottom-most step, which meant raising the path quite high up from the lawn. I bought a $17 of pit sand for the purpose- the only cash spent on both paths.
A Summer view showing the boardwalk which comes to an abrupt end halfway to the cottage.
 I dug out the grass first and then put in little trenches on each side of the path to try and help with drainage.  Shirley and I put in wooden boards on each side and then filled the trenches and centre with sand, trying to make it as compressed and level as we could without specialised tools.

More-or-less finished path, raised up from the lawn to be level with the boardwalk and bottom step.
We made the path on a Saturday morning, trying to beat rain forecast for late morning so I had started very early preparing the foundations. Just as I'd laid the first few pavers, friends arrived with a truck load of free firewood which I had to help unload, and by the time I'd done that I could hardly move. Luckily Shirley did a great job to finish laying the path, so it was truly a collaborative effort.

High and dry crazy paving. The feet came with the cottage.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Huhu Grubs and the Hugelkulture Influence

Wood on newspaper

I've been given a lot of rotten wood to use in my garden, as a layer in the raised beds I'm developing in the front yard. First I put down a layer of carpet or cardboard or newspaper to suppress the weeds, then I pile up rotten wood, then  dollop on home made compost followed by a layer of soil on top to plant seeds and seedling directly into, then finally mulch. I'm inspired by a permaculture technique called Hugelkulture which combines carbon sequestration with soil enrichment. It's a big project and I'm progressing slowly but steadily.

A huhu grub pokes it head out of its hole, perhaps surprised to breath fresh air?

The advantage of building up a raised bed with rotten wood is two-fold.  The wood will act as a sponge, soaking up rain during the wet winters and releasing it slowing into the soil as it dries out over summer. I shouldn't need to water these beds much, if at all, the next time there's a drought like the one we've just come out of.  Rotten wood doesn't just release moisture though, its chock full of microorganisms busy converting wood into compost which makes for a rich  fertile growing medium. I expect these beds to grow abundant, healthy, productive plants.

Another huhu grub reaches across the newly divided log, looking for its fellow grubs?

Some of the organisms doing this important work are not so micro.  Inside one log, a family of huhu grubs, each the size of my little finger, had turned the wood to mush. They seemed quite startled to have there mushy home split in half by my axe.  After photo time, I pushed the halves of the log back together to let them get back to their carbon sequestering activities.

A third huhu grub landed on the ground letting me have a good look at its pallid, plump, caterpillar-like body. 

On meeting my huhu grubs, I did consider the United Nations' recent recommendation to eat more insects as a valuable and sustainable source of protein.  But... I feel I'm pretty well supplied with more palatable sources of protein just at the moment. Frankly, the wood-composting contribution of the grubs to my future diet of home grown fruit and vegetables seems more valuable than a mouthful of "buttery chicken" flavoured larvae (according to wikipedia).

Huhu in motion

My first hugelkulture bed, half finished.  

I just  reread the hugelkulture article, and remembered there's a lot more advantages to rotten wood in your raised beds than I mentioned above.  They  are 

"loaded with organic material, nutrients, air pockets for the roots of what you plant, etc. As the years pass, the deep soil of your raised garden bed becomes incredibly rich and loaded with soil life. As the wood shrinks, it makes more tiny air pockets - so your hugelkultur becomes sort of self tilling. The first few years, the composting process will slightly warm your soil giving you a slightly longer growing season. The woody matter helps to keep nutrient excess from passing into the ground water - and then refeeding that to your garden plants later."

Friday, May 10, 2013

Origami Ballet

Bethwyn and I continue our irregular but highly satisfying Frugal with the Bruegel project. This is our latest collaborative altered book-in-progress.

The base book is a bizarre origami how-to board book with ugly photos of paper flowers.  The additions come mainly from half a dozen 1970's ballet annuals. The traditional ballet and modern dance images in these books both suit the origami backdrop very well. We also use snippets from a Japanese novel (at least we think it's a novel) and a beginner's musical score.

 This limited palette seem to make something much better than the sum of its parts.

We are just over halfway finished, which at our current rate of productivity, should see it completed by next summer.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Incidental harvest

 Going outside to tidy up summer vegetable beds and prepare for winter crops resulted in a basket full of goodies.  The last of the tomatoes, a second crop of potatoes, some forgotton carrots, radishes and beets joined the usual haul of parsley and feijoa.

On another sunny autumn morning I dug up my first experimental kumara (sweet potato). Not an enormous yeild, but several meals worth for me, and I love purple skinned kumara the best.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Falling for the Hobbiton Aesthetic

Bag end, home of Bilbo and Frodo (with nasturtium and comfrey)
It may be unpatriotic to admit this, but I am not a fan of the Lord of the Rings, or Hobbit, films. I enjoyed reading the Hobbit as a child but found Tolkien's LoTR to be a slog. I have watched all the films, to see what the fuss is about, but had trouble staying awake through them. My favourite bits were always in the Hobbit home village.

Child size chair and a stack of firewood
I do feel a connection with the stay-at-home hobbits that Frodo and Bilbo left behind, with their cosy underground houses, well-stocked pantries and second breakfasts.  So when my cousin from America, who is a serious LoTR film fan, came to Hamilton last week I was happy to have an excuse to visit the nearby film set of Hobbiton, now a Waikato tourist attraction.

Community garden with birdhouse

I was quite charmed by Hobbiton, not so much by the round doors, but by the consistent attention to quaint detail. It feels like a cross between an historical village and a permaculture farm, all scaled down to child size.  Hobbit extras were required to be 5 foot tall, just my height, so being on their the film set was a rare experience of not feeling too short for the world. Even the furniture and tools were to my scale, with practical little ladders scattered everywhere. It was also a welcome oasis of lush green abundance after a long drought.

Little ladders come in handy for hobbit-sized folk

There are no obvious anachronisms once the bus drops you off at the entrance to Hobbiton. In this version of Tolkien's pre-industrial arcadia everything  is made by hand of natural materials (or appears to be); from the thatched roofs,  fancy iron work, carved wooden facades, lead-light windows to the lush green turf and pretty pumpkins piled around.

Punpkins in the Green Dragon 

Hobbit hole facade with doorstep cottage garden 
The original temporary film set has been rebuilt in permanent materials for the popular tourist attraction, now more than 10 years old and entertaining thousands of people every day (70 people every 15-30 minutes all day long every day of the year).  It is all make believe, from the empty spaces behind every hobbit hole facade to the painted lichen on the picket fences. Among all the genuine trees in the village there is one (on top of Bag End) which was built from scratch for the first film, at a cost of one million dollars.

Million dollar fake tree on top of the hill, real trees in the foreground:  pear grafted onto quince  and apple both laden with unpicked fruit
I was especially delighted and inspired by the gardens which (the guide advised) are kept looking in just this state of tidy fecundity year round by a team of 30 gardeners, who must finish their work before the first visitors arrive at 9am every morning.  The gardens in front of the hobbit holes are refreshed with flats, troughs and pots of plants, changed out regularly for year round blooms. Yet this seems entirely appropriate, for the containers are all weathered wood or faded pottery so they look like what Hobbits would use.

These tiny cottage gardens (which could be replicated in a tiny balcony or courtyard) are complemented by larger community gardens which really reminded me of favourite permaculture gardens I have known. They look like a pretty jumble of plants in polycultures, with great a diversity of not only edible but beneficial insect attracting flowers. These larger gardens are not renewed with pots and flats, but I could see succession planting evident everywhere.  Patches of plants abutted in various stages of growth from seedlings to ready to harvest.

The lush green abundance of the whole set is maintained by more irrigation than anyone in town has been using during this recent drought.  It was a welcome rest for eyes seared by my sad dry garden at home. I was also glad my cousins got to see the unique lurid green grass of home that is more usual for the Waikato.

Hobbit swing
Fake as it all is, I still got inspiration, or at least aesthetic affirmation, for my own garden design aspirations: all curves, no hard straight smooth lines or surfaces.  Lots of edges, lots of bee friendly planting.  Flowers, herbs, vegetables and fruit all together filling every niche.

bee and butterfly sharing pollen

Mill with row boat and fishing rod

We got an hour or so to wander through Hobbiton, either at our own pace or following Aiden, our well informed guide. The tour finished at the Green Dragon pub, across a charming stone arch bridge next to the thatched and half timbered mill with working water wheel.  There we supped a free cider served in beautiful hand thrown pottery mugs. Sitting by the (real) fire, we looked out across the mill pond, back to Hobbiton.

Hobbiton across the mill pond
The Hobbiton experience is expensive ($70 adult, $10 child) but I think its good value, even for a non-fan like me. I was utterly charmed and delighted at every turn. After an hour and a half I didn't want to leave.  My Lord of the Rings-fan cousin was satisfied on even more levels.