Thursday, 10 April 2014

Woops, I got a bit distracted! …

Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons I learnt at university was how to understand my own creative process.  I learnt that, for me, trust in my intuition and allowing time for (subconscious and conscious) processing of ideas are the keys to making resolved work.  My process tends to consist of extended periods of researching, fleshing out thoughts, and testing of processes followed by a flurry of making that usually finishes spot-on my deadline.

Last week I had an idea for a work that I felt was appropriate to enter in a particular art prize.  However, the entries closed at the end of the week so I had less than a week to decide whether the idea was worth pursuing.  To make a work that would potentially end up in a significant exhibition when I’d only spent a couple of days thinking about the idea was a daunting prospect (not to mention that it was of a politically sensitive topic!)  If I hadn’t been doing this residency I don’t think I would have considered it, so perhaps it was the validation of myself as an artist that I have been feeling since being here that saw me plunge into a manic couple of days of making.  I was exhausted once finished, and I’ll admit to being concerned that I may have taken a step in a direction that I didn’t need to go, but it’s done so now I wait nervously for a response. 

As a result of all of that thinking and making I didn’t get around to explaining my teabags obsession as promised though, so I’ll give that a go now.

My Storm cups

Part of my arts practice, which I haven’t previously mentioned on this blog, involves the making of ceramic vessels for domestic use.  As a maker of such objects I have become interested in consumer culture, in particular how and why people choose, use and discard objects.  My research into consumer behavior has lead me to become more conscious of my own accumulation of personal possessions.  While my previous works on this topic have been focused on my understanding of consumer culture from my perspective as a maker of objects, I recognised this residency as an opportunity to explore the idea in a broader context. 

I’ve been interested to develop a work using teabags for some time, and the school environment provided me with an opportunity to collect a large amount of material in a short period of time.  Once the used teabags have been dried and emptied of their contents I am left with small rectangles of paper, each displaying unique colour and patterning.  In the context of this topic teabags have become, for me, a symbol of the proliferation of ‘things’ that surround us that we discard without thought for their value or beauty.  That’s not to say that we should value our used teabags any differently, they are simply a symbol and a material. 

I struggled for a while to decide what form to construct the teabags into as I searched for a suitable reference to consumer culture.  As often happens in my practice it was through experimentation with materials that a link became apparent to me.  I had brought my sewing machine into the studio and was experimenting with sewing teabags into larger sheets when I decided to try to make a small box, referencing the packaging we inevitably bring into our homes containing new possessions.  When pondering over whether or not the work could consist of lots of these, the words ‘little boxes’ began to ring a bell.  Typing ‘little boxes’ into Google I soon found a YouTube clip of a song with that title, recognizing it as the link to consumer culture I had been looking for.

Little Boxes was written in 1962 by Malvina Reynolds in response to what she saw as the homogenization of American consumer culture, in particular the houses built in the post-war era. Reynolds used the term ticky-tacky to describe the cheap materials used to produce masses of rows of homes in the suburbs, a term which entered common language to describe any cheap material.  Responding to the materialistic consumer behavior she was witnessing, Reynolds’ folk song identifies a behavior that continues today: the constant desire for ‘the new’.

So teabags became my ticky-tacky and I set about making lots of little boxes, representing my observations of current consumer culture just as Malvina Reynolds had done 50 years ago.  Like much of my arts practice I do this to aid my own understanding of the world and, if I’m successful in visually representing the idea, promote others to questioning their own understanding.  As I write I am surrounded by rows of completed boxes and small piles of teabag papers ready to be sewn.  The work will be hung in the Guilford Gallery next week, ready for me to do a floor talk on Thursday.  Everyone is welcome to attend, so please come along at 1pm if you would like to hear more and view the work.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Wow, what a busy week!

My normal schedule for this residency has been Wed-Fri, but this week it’s been a five-day affair.  The AIR program includes the provision of a mentor for the artists and on Monday I travelled to Hobart to spend some time with mine, Belinda Winkler.  We got lost in conversation for a number of hours and I left feeling tired but affirmed that my work and career are on a firm path.  Tuesday was spent back in my studio being filmed for a short clip being made about the AIR program.  The manager of the program, Wendy Morrow from arts@work, was present and it was great to be able to share my progress and processes with her and hear her responses. 

The activities of these first two days were well timed as on Wednesday I had to prepare for the talk I gave on Thursday at the university, with the discussions I’d had boosting my confidence in my ability to articulate my thoughts about my work. I spent much of Thursday morning with my group of students using clay to extend our exploration of line making, then I went off to the Uni to present the lunchtime forum along with my fellow AIR artist Alicia King, who has been working at Launceston Church Grammar School.

The forum was well attended, no one walked out halfway through and as far as I could tell everyone stayed awake, which I’ll take as confirmation that we did ok.  I had managed to avoid over-preparing, going in with just a collection of images, the URL of a YouTube clip and some handwritten notes.  I think I managed to present my jumble of thoughts in a cohesive package, and we finished within the allotted time slot.  There were even a number of questions for us afterwards, which is always a good sign.

As a result of all of this activity though I’m now feeling a bit drained.  So instead of writing the blog that I promised, explaining why on earth I’ve been collecting teabags, I’m going to spend the rest of the day ‘doing’ instead of ‘thinking’. 

For now though here are some images of the outcomes of some experimentation I did a couple of weeks ago with clay, which I have become re-inspired by now that I’ve fired them.

Strata made with porcelain. 
Do you see the parallels between this and the line-drawings?

Various materials dipped in liquid porcelain, 
to see what would happen when the original material 
was burnt away during the firing (1200deg)

Cardstock dipped in liquid porcelain of various thicknesses.
Another method for making lines with clay.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Much going on this week ....

If you’ve read this blog from the beginning you may remember this image, which was the first I posted as it represents the idea I proposed to explore during this residency.  Though I’ve become distracted by other materials, particularly teabags, I haven’t completely forgotten this part of my project.  Over recent weeks I have continued to think about, and occasionally play with, clay and today I am firing the kiln for the first time. Next week the students I am working with are going to start expanding our line making exercise by exploring the lines they have made with clay.  Stay tuned for more images.

Next Thursday I will be joining one of my fellow AIR program artists, Alicia King, in presenting about our work at the regular Tasmanian College of the Arts lunchtime Arts Forum at the Inveresk campus.  Talking about your work is a skill that doesn’t come naturally to most artists, but we get a fair bit of practice at it while studying.  Once outside of the educational institution though the occasions on which you must do this become more formal and the audience less familiar, thus the task gets a bit more daunting.  I have a habit of over-preparing for such occasions, writing a script so finely crafted that I can’t bring myself to go ‘off script’ for fear that I will fail to find those exact words previously chosen to represent my idea.  So my plan is to limit the use of my computer in preparation to the compilation of images, only allowing myself to write notes about my ideas, not a whole essay!

And now I’ve made that declaration in public, I’m going to have to stick to it. 

The UTAS forums are public events, so come along to the lecture room in the main building of the Inveresk campus at 12.30 if you are interested.  I will also be presenting a public floor talk during the day on Thursday 17th April at St Patrick's College. More details about that when available.

I usually find that being forced to articulate my thoughts about my work helps me to better make the links and understand it myself.  Yesterday I had a chat with the filmmaker who is coming to film me next week as part of a short documentary about the AIR program and I found even just that short conversation beneficial.  Next week I plan to prepare a blog post that will attempt to explain this preoccupation I’ve been having with teabags.  For now though I will admit that I have moved on from books as previously alluded to, and offer up this clip as a hint of the path I am now firmly settled upon.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Milestone moment!

Working with teenagers as part of this residency has been an interesting challenge for me.  Even though, or perhaps particularly because, I am a parent of children the same age, I’ve had to work hard to figure out how best to interact with them.  The group I am working most closely with consists of 7 lovely girls ranging from grade 10 to 12, each with their own talents and levels of engagement within the Arts.

When choosing the particular activity they are completing with me I recognised a high level of potential that they might find it boring at times, given that I was asking them to do one simple task over and over again.  So I built in a couple of potential variants that allow them to express their individual style in their work, and set down some milestone activities to provide some perspective on the value of the collaborative approach we are undertaking.

At times I’ve been unsure as to whether or not they have been bored, but I’ve taken solace from the wonderful work they’ve been producing.  Today we had a milestone moment where we installed the work completed to date in the Guilford Gallery.  We started with a discussion and vote to decide where in the gallery the work should go, then one student chose a piece of work (not necessarily her own) and placed it on the chosen wall in a position of her choosing.  From there they each chose pieces of work and placed them on the wall as they liked, collaboratively building up an arrangement.  I was pleased to see that they even felt comfortable enough in the process to make and allow changes, quickly finding an arrangement they were all happy with.

It was clear from the way they went about this and their satisfaction with the outcome that the value of the process had become apparent, and when I asked them whether they were still committed to proceeding with the project I’m sure I detected an increase in enthusiasm J
I’m really looking forward to working with them again next week.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Tea time ....

So I’ve taken my dumpster diving to another level and enlisted the school staff in my pursuit of discarded materials, placing containers at tea-making facilities around the school late last week.  Despite my reservations that this request may be viewed as just a bit too odd (and potentially smelly and gross!) I was pleased to return from emptying the containers yesterday with a hearty and surprisingly fragrant-smelling stash.  Placing the teabags to dry in the sunny window of the classroom adjacent to my space has drawn only a few perplexed looks from students and, in fact, I’ve overhead a couple of comments concerning my creativity, which I’ll take as a compliment. 

And why am I collecting teabags?

I’ve chosen teabags as a symbol of the proliferation of ‘things’ around us that we overlook or discard as worthless.  There are lots of products that could serve this purpose (look in your rubbish bin, recycling bin and almost anywhere you store things for examples) but I happen to find the paper of a dried, used teabag rather beautiful and creativity inspiring. 

I have a bit of a thing for discarded paper, have you noticed?

When I’m not playing with paper my other chosen medium is porcelain clay, which I used to make functional vessels of various forms.  Doing this in a consumer environment of low cost, mass produced domestic ceramic wares brings me to question how objects are valued: what is the non-monetary currency that makes any one object more or less valuable than another like object? 

Books are also a good example of objects whose value is placed in question in the context of our contemporary environment, largely thanks to the Internet and other digital technologies.  In searching for discarded materials within the school environment I recognised a synergy (and irony) in the availability of discarded printed information in the form of newspapers from the library.   This caused me to question how and why we value any one form of printed information above another.  Also how, and at what point, is any object transformed from being of value to being discardable?

So the idea still needs more investigation and a lot more experimentation with processes, but within the form of a book and the use of discard paper products I think I’m onto something. 

Stay tuned, but for now here are a couple of my experiments.