Thursday, March 25, 2010

My Antarctica

It's only taken me ten days to stitch the 1500m contour. Sooner than I expected, I find myself at the edge of the plateau and the way off is steep and treacherous. I'll be adding the final countours even faster I think; a downhill race if all goes well; or a bum-shredding slide if things get twitchy.

My poor health of the past week has helped the acceleration by excusing me from almost every activity except work and Antarctica. My normally passionate relationship with food has been betrayed, so that I have a more visceral response than usual to reading about starving Heroic Age explorers.* As Shackleton, Wild, et al march to the 89th parallel on half rations (1909), I am drifting through my days on mint tea and honey and not much more. They were glad for a sparse meal of old horse-blood gravy after months of half rations. I may be fantasizing about chocolate gateau but I nervously approach even miso soup.

I'd miss food more if I was so sick I couldn't stitch, but fortunately embroidery is one of the few activities that doesn't make me feel worse. As it is, less time spent shopping, cooking and eating means more time for stitching. Hurrah!

But looking down the steep, slick, icy slope towards my destination, I have mixed feelings.

I don't want to finish my Antarctica, because then it will be over. I'm in love and never want this stitching to end.

I do want to finish my Antarctica because I am looking forward to getting to work on other (related) projects.

I don't want to finish my Antarctica because when I'm done stitching, I'll have to deal with hanging, photographing, packing, storing, shipping, pricing, naming and showing a really big, unconvential, artwork that from a distance will look like a pale blob.

I do want to finish my Antarctica because will be a big, bold, meaningful piece and I want it to have an impact on the people who see it.

I don't want to finish my Antarctica because I always love my own art most while I am making it, and least as soon as I have finished it. My love affair will be over and I fear for a broken heart.

*Currently engrossed in a somewhat irritating account of Shackleton's 1907-09 British Antarctic Expedition.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


I worry that if I harp on too much about Antarctica the internet will get bored with me and go away. But I have nothing else to say really. It's an obsession but one that I monitor carefully to ensure I can continue to maintain sufficient internal and external resources to safely indulge it.

Update: I have added another contour now, and at 1500m the piece is now too big and too stiff to fit on the tapestry frame. I alternate between working with it spread out on the table or draped across my lap. This contour means I've crossed the halfway mark now, with only three more layers left to add. Out at the edges of the continent it's mostly very steep, so my stitching follows longer lines and fills in narrower widths.

Although still months away, I feel like the end is almost in sight as progress seems swifter, probably because the rest of my life has been streamlined simply to support several hours a day of stitching. There are a great many other things I could (and sometimes should) be doing, but all I care about is filling in the great white ice fields, stitch by stitch, step by step.

A potential bottle neck appears as I start running short of DMC blanc embroidery thread. I am going through two or three skeins most days. To get the quantities I need I have to place a special order at the Bernina shop in town, but there was a misunderstanding last month and my order never came through. I've reordered but I'm down to my last couple of skeins, not knowing when the two boxes on order will come through. And I'm not entirely sure whether two boxes will last me until the next time I can order. The thread is the most expensive material for this project and unfortunately I can't afford to stockpile.

A quiet thought sometimes occurs that if I do run out of thread for a few days I might catch up on the writing, accounting, cleaning and other mundane obligations that are not yet urgent demands, but will become so eventually if I continue stitching so obsessively. As a great sacrifice I have not touched a needle this morning, instead rearranging my little studio home for winter. Somehow, sorting out everything else I live with has left the great roll of loose contours adrift. It's a long white sheet-shrouded sausage which is now sitting forlornly across most of my table, not a convenient place since the table really needs to be clear for other purposes, such as stitching.

Even when I put Antarctica to one side for a few hours, it still dominates.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Afternoon Tea at the Hospice

Martha Simms with Dudley Cleland (painter of this picture)

It was an attractive opportunity- the once-only chance to see a collection of work by some of the Waikato's finest artists. But when it came time to get on my bike and on my way there, the real incentive to leave behind the thrilling, demanding, compelling, satisfying challenge of adding the 1500m contour onto my Antarctica, was the promise of my mother's superlative home baking.

South Pole (detail of just completed 2000m contour)

The event was the Waikato Society of Arts (WSA) tour of the brand spanking new, soon-to-be-opened community hospice filled with a fine collection of art donated by WSA members. As soon as the Hospice opens, the space becomes private of course, and even if you were dying, or visiting someone dying there, you'd never see the pictures in other people's rooms. So it really was a special once in a lifetime opportunity to see the all art and have a nosey around the hospice.

Mary de Lisle prints by a bed

The hospice is the fruit of many years of community fundraising, a converted motel in an excellent location (though hair-raising to access by bicycle- but I guess cyclists aren't assumed to be the primary users). It looks brand new and purpose-built: all contemporary design; light and airy and peaceful. I feel quite proud to live in a community that has created such a sensitive facility.

The WSA-donated art looks great. There's several pieces in each of the private rooms, and other works distributed through the lounges, halls, library etc. The curating is very sympathetic, and it made a nice change to see an art collection in a setting that bridges the public/private divide usually staked out between art galleries and homes.

Lola Badman's landscape in the Visitor's Lounge

My mother not only baked the delicious cookies for the afternoon tea to thank the WSA art-donors, but as President of the WSA she was the driving force for collecting the art for the Hospice. In many cases she visited artist's homes and delighted in the chance to see private collections of art produced over careers spanning many decades.

Studies have shown that abstract art is less calming for sick people, so the emphasis was on more realistic work for the Hospice. This could have turned out very naff, but didn't. As I looked through the rooms I imagined what it would be like to gaze at the pictures from my death bed, and liked that most of them offered windows into attractive and/or realistic landscapes. Other than the faces of my loved ones, I think I'd like the last thing ever I see to be a beautiful place.

I always get a small secret thrill when I see flower arrangements with miniature pineapples, as they are grown by friends of mine in the Far North.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Snapshots of my life in Antarctica

This photograph represents my attention (when I am not at the paid-job of course). At least 90% is filled with the repetitive white on white of remaking my imaginary Antarctica, laced with stories from the Heroic age, YouTube videos of Emperor Penguins, mild anxiety about technical problems and daydreams for the future of this big ol' blanket when its done. No more than 10% of my attention is taken up with the rest of my life, my Etsy shop (which has had a rockin' week!), my bicycle problems, making my new home nice(r), community activities and other stuff like food and hygiene.

What my eyes are focused on for hours a day. I do take plenty of breaks, generally involving an email and Facebook check-in, food or exercise, and/or reluctantly, some necessary task on the list that rolls over day after day of 'stitch Ant' getting most of my time and energy.

Self-portrait while stitching. The shadowy image in the background on the right is my pencil map of Antarctica's contours; the big picture contextualising my inside-out, top down, contour by contour, stitch by stitch, process.