Friday, May 27, 2011

Illusions of edibility

I'm working on another mining industry pun piece, but this time the visual puns seem to be foodie. The stacks of gold coins above look suspiciously like macaroons. And the collection of yellow and gold threads I'm using to make them keep catching my eye as though I've left a mandarin peel on my work table (even though there's never any food on my work table, a rule I am foolishly more lax with around the computer keyboard)

Another element of Spoil, the mining installation I am working on (showing in Melbourne in August), is a big pile of toxic waste: the photo above is a peek at its peak. However, I am adding height to my layers of gloomy grey blanket with hidden lashings of fluffy cream roving, and every time I walk past the yet to be stitched pile with its layer of white wool on dark blanket my mind nags at a vague memory of making cream-filled layer cakes. It seems more like a remembered cook book illustration than an actual cake memory but I just can't pin it down.

Despite my temptingly tasty hallucinations I have no inclination to start making actual representations of food from textiles. So many crafters already do that so well; of whom the most admirable is Gretel Parker. The fabulous real and pretend cupcakes at her book launch are second only to the story of the wonderful party which moved me to tears.


Sunday, May 22, 2011

A beautiful break up

This week my iceberg-making has shifted from a close-up full-length 3-D model berg to an aerial view, looking down on the break up of an ice sheet.

Unless you've been hiding your head under a rock (like most politicians apparently), you surely know that if, or more likely, when one of the really great ice sheets at either pole begins breaking up, that's the tipping point at which sea levels are expected to rise dramatically and sea temperatures to shift decisively enough to oh, I don't know, reverse the Gulf Stream or something and then we'll really see climate change, oh boy.

It's not something to look forward to, my beloved Antarctica breaking up and melting away. But we'll no doubt watch it on Google Earth and You Tube and it will be breathtakingly beautiful as well as a terrifying portent of doom.

What I particularly enjoy about making this piece is that I carry around the individual bergs in a little bag and can stitch on them anywhere, any time. And now that I am starting to attach the finished bergs to the background and stitch in a cold, deep ocean between, there are many happy hours of nice and easy flat blanket stitch. After wrestling with two major sculptural pieces, this one feels like a breeze.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Iceberg Baby

Coochie coo: dandling the upside down iceberg on my knee

People keep asking me what I'll be working on next, now the island is finished. The question seems strangely irrelevant, though I appreciate the interest expressed. Truth is I started working on the next thing the next day and that's almost finished now plus I've got another major project half finished, a third one just beginning and a clamouring sketchbook full of pieces that I intend to chew through as fast as I can this winter.

The big iceberg that I started making in January, then put aside for a couple months of single minded island making, will be done with stitching by bedtime tonight. There's still a whole problem to solve about mounting it, but there will be no more needle pulling thread through the soft fat layers and that is what signals 'finished' to me. Because now I have turn to some other bit of blanket to get my embroidery fix.

Every major piece I work on feels like my 'baby' especially when the end of making is hoving into view. But this big iceberg is more babylike than anything I've made since my daughter was tiny! It's about the size, shape and density of a swaddled infant. Resting on my lap as I stitch, it's not as heavy as a baby, but the maternal feelings are resonant with their object nonetheless.

More like a swaddled husky pub in correct orientation , or maybe an albino piglet?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The tortoise speeds up

Followers of this blog will know that the slowness of my making practice is a key meaning of my work. Slowness means intentionality and slowness sets my art apart from slick and machine made things.

And yet, slowness is a rod for my own back. To put it bluntly, the price of savouring slowness is a limit on the quantity of pieces I can complete. The growing backlog of projects I want to work on stretches out for years. Slowness limits my opportunities to collaborate, to pursue commissions, to exhibit more and even to sell my work because there just isn't very much of it being produced. It makes it difficult to price my work appropriately and so what does sell pays only a couple of dollars per hour.

But deliberate slowness has been a protective mechanism. Psychologically, if not physically, I am still recovering from the six years when my dexterity and creativity was severely compromised by OOS, even though the symptoms have been minimal to non-existent for at least eight years.

I always worry that I'll 'get in trouble' for spending so much time on handcrafts, that my body will betray me again and I will find myself once more helpless, dependent and frustrated at my inability to express myself. So a commitment to slowness helps ensure that I pay attention to my body, keep it relaxed as I work, take time to stretch and alternate stitching with other activities, and balance work with rest and play.

In this context, my decision in mid-March to finish No Mine is an Island in time for a 4 May deadline felt dangerous and scary. I had been meandering along with the island at my usual relaxed pace for a month or so when the deadline was announced. Suddenly I was forced to assess how much was left to do and decide whether to try finish the piece in time, or just to give up on it for that purpose.

I estimated 36 days in which I could do substantial work, and at least 38 days of work required. Yikes! But, I really wanted the island to meet the deadline and there must be a margin of error for my rough estimation. So if I put aside all my other stitching projects (iceberg and ice floes) not to mention most other non-stitching, non-survival, activities and nothing went wrong, I might just make the deadline.

Immediately I put the island project into high gear, and everything else out of my mind. But for most of those six weeks I wasn't confident that I would succeed. The deadline was inflexible, my commitment to making high-quality handcrafted art could not be compromised and so the speed of my making had to change but without risking my health and ongoing capacity to work.

At about two weeks out from the deadline I started to feel confident I would make it, and in fact I had a couple of days to spare at the end as well as some relaxed social time-out in the last week. But for most of those 36 days I wasn't sure either about making the deadline or maintaining my body's health. The fact that I managed both, and that the piece is as strong and beautiful as I hoped, taught me a lot.

I learned that processed foods are not always the work of the devil, and that I can live with more mess and dirt that I thought. I learned I can satisfy my need to read without stopping my stitching, and the loudspeaker is my favourite function on my phone. I remembered that I can push myself through boredom and tiredness to keep working. I found out that I can replace some of my sleeping hours with minutes of hard exercise, for a similarly refreshing result. I learned I can trust myself to work hard and fast. I can trust myself to look after my health. And in the past few days I've learned to reward myself for hard work with extended joyful celebrations with friends.

Finally, as I return to the big iceberg and ice floe projects I put aside to pursue the island and its deadline, I realise that I have new, more efficient, work habits that mean everything I make can be produced more quickly now. As long as my preferred medium is hand-embroidery and needle felted blankets I'll always be one of the slowest artists on the block, but now I'm a little faster than I used to be.

Monday, May 02, 2011

No Mine is an Island

The artist's statement for No Mine is an Island

"Look across the surface and down a mine that bleeds toxic tailings into the sea. Look within, beyond the obvious, behind the scenes. There is a complicated story underlying every thing we buy and all that we reject. The consequences of our consumption extend far, and sustain long, beyond our individual use.

We cannot fence off ourselves from each other, or from the air, the earth, the waters of our world. Whether careless or deliberate in our choices, whether in denial or awareness, we do not stand alone.

Let there be no mistaking: each imperfect stitch of cotton thread was made by hand, every layer slowly needle-felted from recycled blankets and un-spun wool. My materials are plants and animals but my finger tips became calloused from hundreds of hours pushing needles of steel, tempered from iron, mined from an earth left as scarred as my skin. "

No Mine is an Island includes a pallisade of 36 embroidery needles that I've bent or broken in the past 18 months of blanket stitching blanket sculptures. The needles are almost invisible unless you peer really closely at the rim of the mine at the centre of the island. My callouses are invisible too, but much treasured. Stitching is so much easier and less painful now that I have hard leathery fingertips.