Sunday, February 27, 2011

Rapid Response

What a week! Even at this safe distance, the emotional turmoil of bearing witness to Christchurch's earthquake and aftermath is draining. I can't imagine the exhaustion and trauma that my friends, and other quake survivors are going through- whether they have stayed or fled the city. My heart is full of aroha for everyone, especially those who have lost family or friends or home or possessions. Every news report brings tears to the surface, and I keep casting around for something useful I can do besides give money, and let my loved ones know they are in my thoughts.

Today Bethwyn and I met up for a Frugal with the Bruegel session of collaborative altered book making, our first in many weeks. We spontaneously decided to devote our session to working together on a single book, responding to the Christchurch earthquake. Without any particular preparation or planning, we began making a book which may turn out to be our most coherent narrative yet. Drawing only on our collection of old (mostly) children's books, which includes nothing specific to Christchurch, yet the result feels to us very evocative of our emotional response witnessing the earthquake from a distance.

Making this book feels cathartic and healing: a compulsion to channel survivors' guilt, grief and helplessness into creativity. Working with focus and synchronicity we got about half way through the project this afternoon and hope to have it finished in our next session, ready to auction off as a fundraiser for a Christchurch earthquake response fund. Here's a sneak preview showing some details from the spreads we've completed so far.

New Zealand is a small country, and everyone knows somebody that knows somebody. My prayers are daily with friends and acquaintances as well as the people who's faces or stories I know only through the media coverage. There's one of my oldest friends, a nurse at Christchurch hospital who lost their Kaiapoi home after the September earthquake; and her extended family which includes several other nurses. A young librarian I've known all her life, who's had to leave behind everything in her red-stickered home within the cordon. Her parents who are sheltering her and her only possessions - cellphone and purse- in the one-room country cottage where they live and work. Old friends posting facebook updates to let us know they are alive, who are shovelling silt and trying to keep their spirits up with intermittent electricity and no running water. The USAR workers from all over the world (how grateful am I to the international community?) including the father of a Hamilton friend who kept us updated with messages balancing the desolation of recovering only dead bodies from the ruins, with wry humour about consequences of the lack of showers.

Like many NZers outside of Christchurch, I have developed a profound sense of appreciation for my flushing toilet, hot shower, endless drinking water, electric power, cosy bed, smooth streets, sweet fresh air, fully serviced city and most of all, the solid ground beneath my feet. It may be a while before everyone in Christchurch can enjoy such amenities again. Bethwyn and I hope that our book can provide some small contribution towards Christchurch's recovery.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Imperfect Iceberg

I can normally go for days, even weeks, without paying any attention to the news, but all too often lately a disaster which touches my world turns me into a news junkie. Today I am teary and shakey with fear and grief as I listen compulsively to the stories of survival and loss coming from Christchurch. I can't concentrate on anything, I keep jumping from one activity to another, all the time with my attention turned to radio and internet news.

A tragedy on this scale puts one's personal neurotic little dramas in perspective. At least today I have a day off from work to indulge my news addiction, and work has been the source of my neurotic drama recently. I've been on a full time training course every day; instead of my usual part-time evening routine which allows me plenty of time to manage my art work while staying relaxed, healthy and rested most of the time.

Full time intensive learning quickly exhausted me and I didn't have the resiliance to get through it without becoming very unhappy. I did manage to survive without getting physically ill, but only by withdrawing from almost all non-work activities including some that had been planned (and eagerly anticipated) months in advance. And that only made me feel worse. Yesterday was our final day of the training, and we spent the afternoon completely distracted by the earthquake news as it broke, increasingly more devastatingly.

The one saving grace of the past two weeks was my stitching. I managed to do a little bit of my big iceberg most evenings while watching junk tv shows so that its about half finished now. Stitching helped me relax, restored a little self esteem and positivity, but last night I couldn't manage more than a few stitches on the iceberg, because my hands were shaking as I flicked between Facebook, Twitter, the news video streaming websites.

Aside from the awful news from Christchurch city, the earthquake also managed to have a beautiful iceberg connection. The incredible blue of this newly exposed ice from Tasman Glacier is caused by its formation over hundreds of years as layers of snow are compressed and more and more oxygen is squeezed out of the ice (the blue faded to white within an hour or so of being exposed to the air). These layers of ancient ice hold the history of the earth's atmosphere with minute particles of volcanic ash, pollen and other traces that settled on the snows surface between one fall and the next.

Like a real iceberg, my stitched sculpture tells a story in its layers, tracing my emotional state of the last couple of months. The first few week's stitching is very even and tidy across the deepest teal shades of the graduated colours. I was stitching through a relaxed happy summer with plenty of rest and fun between each layer. This part of the iceberg showed the culmulative improvement in my skills in this technique since I started making layered blanket sculptures.

In contrast, the lighter aqua layers that I stitched in recent evenings and weekends around my full time training are relatively sloppy, uneven and careless. They show the traces of exhaustion, irritibility, anxiety, sorrow and shame. In the middle of all this I decided to restitch part of my early 'good' work because the colour change was too abrupt, so now there's a few layers of crude stitching through the centre of my earlier tidy happy work.

Fortunately, at about the same moment that I stepped back from the iceberg enough to notice the contrast between the stitching of my different emotional states, I was reaquainting myself with Brene Brown who's work on authenticity has been a great solace to me lately. So instead of getting even more upset and ripping out many hours of work, I decided to leave it in place to show the environmental reality of its creation.

Of course, I realise that the difference between my 'good' stitching and my 'sloppy' stitching isn't very noticable to anyone except another stitcher, or super critical viewer. After all my 'good' stitching isn't as perfect as I would like. You may not think it matters, but I always notice, and the uneven stitching will be what I see first and foremost whenever I look at this iceberg.

But when so many lives are devastated, not only in Christchurch, but in Libya, in Queensland, in so many parts of the world, it seems to me that to elide imperfection is to disrespect their suffering.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Jane Ussher's Still Life

Still Life: Inside the Antarctic Huts of Scott and Shackleton is a magnificent book of haunting photographs by Jane Ussher. Not since Ponting have these buildings been so beautifully photographed. Jane's images of the huts deserted for 100 years and yet almost undecayed are strong enough to sit comfortably alongside the now iconic contemporary images of Scott and Shackleton's occupation. And as a book object, this heavy, cloth bound volume, with wide format photos in gatefolds at the centre of every black stitched section, is covetable.

Jane Ussher's slide show from the book.

One of my Antarctica projects involves some text which I have cut out of blankets. I always like to have a portable stitching project so I can work on it away from home. Icebergs and coal mining tunnels are bulky and awkward, but I can pull these letters out of my handbag anywhere, anytime and blanket stitch the edges while I talk or wait. I can even look at photos and stitch at the same time! Which gave me this idea...

"t" with cross next to Shackleton's hut

I'm stitching what is probably the most famous and poignant quote in Antarctica's short history. Captain Oates' final words as recorded by Captain Scott: "I'm just going outside and I may be some time". In the Huntsford-led campaign to undermine Scott's heroic legacy, this quote has been disputed, but I agree with Fiennes that the words were in character for Oates.

Anyway, I'm stitching each letter in random order so there's nothing much that makes sense from the letters completed so far, except this: