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

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Exhibition at Hamilton Girls High School

Artist's books on exhibit at Hamilton Girls High School
(NB click on any photo to see enlarged details)

Although I've never curated before (other than my own work), I'm always up for the steep learning curve, so I offered to curate an exhibition of artist's books at Girls High towards the end of my Residency. With the help of my #1 Open Studio girls we got the show up today, and looking pretty good, if I might say so myself.

Human Rights themed books from Year 10 Art students

The exhibition consists of some of my work and many books created by students during my time at school. My contributions include Deep Time Writer's Residency, a tunnel book that I made to fulfil the school's commission as part of the Residency. I'm also showing various works in progress as photographs or as actual books such as my Residency journal and some 277 million years of painted scrolls.

Deep Time Writer's Residency, a tunnel book (more about this one in a future post)

The largest work in the exhibition is a collaboration between me and the students who've been coming along to my Open Studio sessions. We've made a lantern book with an abridged version of my favourite poem that I've written during the Residency, If Jellyfish Wrote History.

Jellyfish Lantern Book

The girls and I have spent several weeks folding 100 paper lanterns, some with the words of the poem, and some decorated to represent jellyfish. It's been a fantastic project and a dozen or more girls have contributed at least one or two lanterns, with a stalwart crew putting in many lunch hours of origami with me.

Isabel, Deahna and Aleisha have been loyal Open Studio participants since I arrived at school, and helped install the exhibition.

Other Open Studio regulars have their own book projects included in the exhibition. Of special note is Cheri's Tale by Jessica Imswary and Aimee McGregor who have worked very hard to complete their lengthy manga comic. Their good-humoured collaboration and mutual commitment to meeting the exhibition deadline has been outstanding.

Jessica and Aimee spending yet another lunch hour making their comic in my studio.

A spread from Cheri's Tale by Jessica and Aimee

Almost half of the student contributions have come from several Year 10 art classes taught by Jennifer Fernyhough and Nellie Ward Wallace. These classes made artist's books as their major project last term, using previous social studies research into human rights as their content. The intense subject matter (the Holocaust, Apartheid, slavery etc) and the devotion of many classroom hours has produced some very powerful and moving artist's books.

Jews in the Holocaust

Most of the other student books on show were created in Year 9 &10 English classes that I worked with for just 1-3 sessions. Hundreds of girls have made little books with me over the past 3 months and it was certainly difficult to choose just a few to include in the show. Almost all the books have original content: poetry or stories and illustrations which provide a light, playful contrast to the intensity of the human rights books.

Lots of little books from junior English classes and Open Studios

The school's senior students have been immersed in end of year assessments for most of my tenure, but I did get to work with one Year 13 extension English class. They made some wonderful books, represented in the exhibition by Baily Stewart's stunning 'A film guide to Psycho'. As with the best artist's books it is impossible for a photograph to do Baily's work justice: it harmoniously combines a variety of structural elements with a limited colour palette to powerfully convey her analysis of the classic film.

A film guide to Psycho by Baily Stewart, Year 13

The exhibition is up until 24 November and members of the public can view it during school hours. If you are in Hamilton please come to the Atrium in the Administration Block (the big glass building accessed from Ward Street). I'm sure you will be impressed.

Isabel Brooker made this scroll as an independent project

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Live Action Artist in Residence

Jo Belgrave at Hamilton Girls High School made a little video about my residency to show at the school's end of year cultural evening. It's all filmed inside the wonderful spacious studio and shows me working on and talking about some of my works in progress as well as a few things that the girls and I have made during the residency.

And while you are in the mood to watch videos, check out these great little videos showing big handmade book projects in action.

Pictorial Webster's: Inspiration to Completion from John Carrera on Vimeo.

And for contrast you can watch these two videos about machine book production, one about 60 plus years old and one showing print on demand machinery in action.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Work in Progress - November Giveaway

In some ways an artist’s book can be more like a performance than like an ordinary book, both for the artist and the audience. For a start, they are often encountered in public settings and are rarely read in bed. More importantly though, artist's books can be multi-dimensional, sensual, time-based. Designing an artist's book is therefore a complicated process, taking into account at least seven inter-related decisions.

Click to enlarge this diagram

I think my best book designs are those that begin with the content, but sometimes a structural experiment or an inspiring piece of paper will launch a design which can hold its own.

The decision making process is iterative as each consideration has to be checked against the others. Design decision making require balancing conceptual expression against the demands of the materials, the requirements of different structures, the needs of an imagined audience and the limitations of my production capacities.

For me, designing a book to make as multiples for an edition has many more limitations and demands than designing a unique, one off, book. A unique book can be more elaborate and time consuming to make, it can use expensive rare materials, its content can be created by hand rather than printed or it can be very big. My unique books can be, and often are, experimental.

My editioned books on the other hand, should be relatively economical in both the materials and effort required to make them.
Right now I’m in the process of developing an edition that was conceived when some very small images and some small pieces of paper were occupying my attention for different reasons.

My search for images of fossils to embroider exposed me to some beautiful electron microscope photographs of microfossils, and I decided to make sketches of some microfossils on small loose pages made from the creamy offcut strips left over from the history book edition.

As my stack of sketches of radiolaria and other microfossils gradually expanded, I began to experiment with miniature book bindings, reteaching myself neglected skills, since for many years I have favoured contemporary folded and adhesive structures over sewn ones. So far I have made seven miniature case bound books, each slightly different, as I experiment with variations and try to perfect my skills (and get quicker, since production speed is important to the economics of editioning).

Meanwhile I am trying to figure out the most economical way to reproduce the images, which I think may be to print them onto a single sided A3 sheet. That requirement in turn influenced the book structure which now involves sewing accordion folded signatures inside a hard cover. Single sided printing generally leads to more folding than cutting and the resulting folded foredges lends a pleasing thickness to the text block, giving more substance to the tiny book.

I will continue reassessing every aspect of the project until all the elements are in harmony, so nothing is final including the content.
Happily I have no immediate deadline, so I can continue toying with the design until it is just right.

In the meantime, I thought I might share some of the bounty of my mini book binding experiments. Bibliophilia’s November giveaway is a pair of miniature blank books: two of the series I have made as practice. They won't be perfect, but they are cute! If you would like a chance to win a pair of tiny blank books, comment on this post before 18 November. I will randomly select a winner and make an announcement soon after.