Saturday, December 2, 2017

A Chalk and Cheese Collaboration: behind the scenes of creating The Gentle Roller

When Philip set out to help me, I wasn’t particularly obliging – he even remarked that I probably hoped he’d fail. He would ask questions: ‘well what makes this wool felt, or shrink more than this one’ or ‘what makes you lay the fibres this way and not that way?’ ‘What does using this particular shampoo with a certain PH do?’ I would respond with either ‘I don’t know…’ or ‘that’s the way I’ve always done it,’ which made me appear as though I had the IQ of a gnat  or that I made felt on automatic, not really understanding what I was doing. ‘I do it intuitively!!’ as a response seemed inadequate. I wasn’t even embarrassed about my ignorance. 

Philip has a different mindset – he likes to know how stuff works, and what he can do to make it work better. Whereas, I’m more ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ type of personality (and my body was broken and still I thought I could carry on as usual). So, Philip did his own research – to see what made wool tend to felt more than other fibres; as well as enquired into what we could do to enhance that tendency towards matting/felting – did using a shampoo with a particularly PH make a difference to how fast the wool felted, for instance. There were umpteen questions he set for himself to answer. For the past ten years, he’s been thinking about all sorts of ways to ‘automate’ felt making and to help me work more efficiently. But I wouldn’t take him seriously. I waved him off with 'I like to use my hands', or 'you can’t make it felt any faster'. ‘That’s just the way it is.’ 

I can’t tell you the amount of times we locked heads because of my stubbornness to try something new, which if you really look at it is not at all ‘creative’. However, my body is broken (yes no longer in denial), and my recovery has been slow. Four years and I still suffer from numbness to both legs, and from night cramps that sometimes keep me up. Something had to give – and it was my attitude. 

Throwing my felt in the dryer was never an option – because I’m too much of a control freak.  I looked at the Snowy Creek felt roller but thought it too expensive, and I wasn’t convinced that it would help me roll my sort of felt – which is very fine. I like to use merino-silk blends, slippery carrier fabrics, such as old saris, as well as embellishments, such as velvets or gold threads and edges torn from saris – using up the ‘scraps’, which are all so resistant to felting.  My coats and jackets require several tens of thousands of rolls before I'm satisfied with the quality of the felt fabric. 
The Cooper sisters modelling Passion 
in the Square Coat (right), and (left)
the Summer Mosaic jacket

Philip worked closely with me – watching the way I made felt. We made samples – laying wool in different ways, using different surfactants in the felting solution, and over the months of testing and research, his prototype changed in shape and materials, as he was inspired to take his design to the next level. Now, that's a creative mind in overdrive... 

Philip, with one of the first protoypes.
When I made a large production run of scarves, I worked with an assistant, and Philip and the assistant monitored the roller – that’s how unrefined it was at the time. Now I can leave the GR and get on with other things. I don’t have to watch it, neither does anyone else. 

We’ve come a long way in two years, not least in the way we work together. It’s never been an easy collaboration, as we are chalk and cheese as human beings. And along the way I’ve come to admire and respect Philip’s skills and his determination to make things work, or to try something new – like make felt. I was prepared to give up and try something less back breaking – book-binding, consoling myself with the thought 'you love books'. Never mind that I really like making felt fabric too or that I'd be forsaking a passion. 

When Philip went to China last time round to finalize the ‘production version’ of the Gentle Roller, I prepared several scarves for him to test out, as I was unable to make the trip with him. We stabilized them with 1000 rolls or so, on a GR prototype, so the scarves could travel. While in China Philip felted the scarves using the roller and the fulling drum, with some instruction from me through Wechat ('How do I know the pre-felt is ready?'... 'I can't see the fibres coming through...' And from my end of the screen it was difficult to judge the pre-felt). The scarves weren’t perfectly done according to my finicky standards, but almost.

Gotta take off our felted hats to him for caring enough to take up the challenge of working with me despite all my moans, objections and hesitations, to make my felt-making, as well as every other felt-maker's, less dependent on tedious manual rolling…and for sticking with the project in spite of hiccups and hurdles along the way. Not least the one before us now of getting others to support us as we go forward into production ...

You can visit Kickstarter to pre-order The Gentle Roller.

Below is 'Blooper 5' from our Blooper selection - a window of insight into the Chalk and Cheese every day battle. 

Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Year of Downsizing

‘Downsizing’ - one of these post-modern words with undeniably horrible connotations, and which can include situations where people are given incentives to take early retirement. It usually happens to businesses – now it also seems to happen to ordinary folk living in large houses. But is this just another inevitable step along the trajectory towards death? I quipped considering the move, that it would be the last before the nursing home or the graveyard.

We went from a McMansion in the West to a rambling house in the hills – and now a small bungalow in the more suburban part of the hills called Emerald, which has its special charms, among which is the Puffing Billy steam railway. 

The hardest thing was packing up my studio… No, that’s not entirely true, as the hardest thing was saying goodbye to Granddad tree, which included a ‘merging’ by shaman and body artist Orly Faya. This was a non-negotiable condition that I placed on moving, as I feel true kinship with this mountain eucalypt. It is like an ancestor that has taught me much about belonging.

The merge with Granddad Tree
Orly Faya painting Joni into a merge
 with Granddad Tree

On the last day, when I said goodbye to the house in Ferny Creek and noted aloud to it all the things which had required my time and energy – how I chose this paint colour, how I sewed these curtains, how Philip and I laid these floor boards…it was in thanksgiving. It was to say how much I loved living here and what time and effort had gone into making it a home, as well as with what sadness it was to leave.

I told Granddad tree to behave – ‘don’t go dropping limbs or you’ll find yourself severely maimed’. When I knew I would never return, I said my goodbye. It was raining heavily and it seemed while I stood there at its giant girth, that it was raining tears on me. (Apologies if I bring up clich├ęd images of sadness and rain, particularly in Bollywood films.)

We’ve gone from a house where we had 7 sofas (we weren’t counting but was alerted to the fact by a visitor) to a house where can barely fit two in the lounge room. But in the scheme of things sofas don’t count. I miss my studio. While I packed I had it in mind to re-create something much like I had at Ferny Creek but perhaps this will not be possible. I feel as this relocation has taken up the bulk of the year – you don’t just put your house on the market, you put your life on hold, as well. I’m still unable to unpack my studio and it doesn’t seem that the situation will right itself for some time.

Now getting used to the new surroundings. The chooks seem to like their ‘cubby house’, which is very spacious. Albeit I’ve noticed Maudie dog and Bud cat rather melancholic. Are they too missing the studio views onto the garden? Maudie hasn’t a door of her own to slip in and out as she wishes. Bud’s outdoor activities have been curtailed, as he’s not allowed to go out at all but must amuse himself as an indoor cat.

Philip quickly built a new pond for our goldfish; and we had tradies around to make modifications to the house, including putting in a new gas pipe to accommodate a hydronics heating system, and more recently I had a red kitchen installed to replace an inadequate nonfunctional one. I couldn’t seem to take any pan out of the narrow cupboards without a whole bunch of other stuff crashing to the floor - and the cussing that went along with it. Red I thought would cheer us all up…I drew inspiration from Matisse, who said: “…I find that all these things…only become what they are to me when I see them together with the colour red.”

A new geranium red kitchen, not quite finished
Our experience of things in the new house will become what they are to us, when we see them together with the colour red, because red is a colour that boldly announces to you that it is there. It warms and delights. 

I have been in love with the colour red since an infant, when my mother dressed me in blue, unaware that it produced a violent physiological reaction that made me feel cold. I longed for red, and when I was able to choose my own clothes, took pleasure in getting together a 'little red outfit', which consisted of red slacks and a red lambswool jumper. There I was, not quite little red riding hood, but little girl in her red outfit embarking along her own path...

Back at the new place, in the shed among other paint cans and turps, I came across some Annie Sloane chalk paint and sealing wax, which the previous owner kindly left behind.  I didn't pay attention at first, but one day I woke up and thought 'ah chalk paint, I must find out what that stuff is'.  Admittedly, such sad colours (hardly colour at all) such as ‘Paris Grey’ and ‘Old White’, but still colours which I can utilize to familiarize myself with a new hobby of painting furniture. Chalk paint doesn't require sanding or stripping back the old varnish or paint - you can just slap it on right over the old layer. Just my sort of paint.  The hard work of stripping back the varnish on the bench top in the kitchen at Ferny Creek to make it more appealing before the sale,  was enough to have put me off 'restoration' for life. And yet here I am with lights in my eyes, contemplating painting furniture. 

I have my eye on a green called exotically, ‘Antibes’, for an antique dining room cabinet, which will hold itself up very well next to the geranium red of the kitchen cabinets, even though Annie Sloane advises a more sedate olive to accommodate red, which should also be used quite sparingly.  Obviously she's never come across Matisse! So, these are the things to keep my hands and mind occupied.  While fumbling around trying to buy sand paper one Sunday morning, I gratefully received a quick lesson about sandpaper from a nice man in the local trades store – for that distressed look so in vogue upon furniture. Thus, I have not been idle without a studio...

And ordinary life stuff has happened in the meantime, too.  Maudie dog has been sick with a stomach bug and other allergies.  Funny as it sounds I've had to start giving her a 'toilette' … Colour, however, through these ups and downs, continues to rule, influence, delight and heal… 

How things can change over 12 months. This time last year Philip was recuperating from Deep Brain Stimulation surgery and I was his ‘elephant touch’ carer. During the time of recuperation we lived mainly in two rooms - the bedroom and the kitchen, so it was the beginning of the end, when we realized we could certainly make do with less ...

Then my father passed away and ... well, grief is hard to process and put into words and it doesn't seem to have spent itself...perhaps I've managed to pack it up somewhere with all my other studio stuff still at Fort Knox self storage, and rue the day when I come across it in some cardboard box and have to unpack it...

However, up on the horizon, is a secret project that has been humming in the background tone of things for almost two years, which I’ll tell you about very soon…

Thanks and gratitude to Danuta Ephemeralart for the support and photos taken during the Granddad merge. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

Finding Inspiration in Women's Work

Around New Year Philip sat down with me to work on a ‘business plan’ for my Merino-silk Apparel. As part of the process we looked at how many hours I wanted to devote to ‘the business’. We also looked at how many hours I actually had offset with my other chores, which included housework, as well as preparing the BnB for guests. My week is busy. Not considering what I did in the studio, my other chores already took up around 36-hours, almost a full time job. No wonder I can’t seem to make it to the studio for ‘other work’.

There are times when I find myself grumbling about chores that keep me from creative work, muttering under my breath, or sometimes aloud, ‘fuck, what a waste of time is ironing sheets!’ and it’s endless. There was one weekend, where I changed three lots of sheets (not to mention clean the bathroom) for three one-night stays in the BnB room. Something had to give; and that happened when I accidentally bumped into a little book on Amazon called The Quotidian Mysteries, Laundry, Liturgy and Women’s Work by Kathleen Norris (which formed part of a lecture that she gave towards the education and spiritual well-being of women). What gave was my attitude towards menial chores and women’s work. I think for most of my life I’ve resented doing what I associate with servile work. I have always done chores, from when I was a young girl, often before heading to school, more usually on the weekends. Of course, there is nothing wrong with ‘serving’ or being in the service to other people’s needs. However, it’s one of those ‘blocks’ for me, connected to being a woman of colour. Perhaps it’s an indication too, of how I have failed at intimate relationships – because they entail showing your love by ‘serving’, looking after the house, doing laundry, cooking, dishes – all part of caring for another, selfless work, which doesn’t suit the self-absorbed temperament of ‘the artist’ or just the self-absorbed period… 

The paradox is – however – that making felt often feels like doing laundry (rub a dub-dub on that rather large washboard of mine) and it comes with dish-pan hands. If I focus on the labouring aspect, and how hard it is to make, I could, in all honesty give up making felt.

Kathleen Norris was introduced by a boyfriend to the Catholic liturgy, and she found it ‘remarkable’ that in a fancy church, after all the pomp and ceremony, ‘homage was being paid to the lowly truth that we human beings must wash the dishes after we eat and drink’. She had no understandings of the rituals she had witnessed but here was something that she could understand. Norris found comfort in seeing the priest as ‘a daft housewife’. It gave experiencing the Catholic mass an unusual context of meaning, which was housework. Let’s face it the dishes must be done, the floors vacuumed and in my case also mopped, as well as the dirty laundry washed and ironed. As women grow in professional status they’ve usually passed on their chores to other women, who are grateful to have work.

Norris explores the chores, within the context of ‘liturgy’ or ritual/worship, not to view them as a drag, but to suggest that we can find ‘fulfilment, healing [even] ecstasy’, starting from our bodily needs, and in the everyday places. If you find the religious or theological associations discomfiting or irrelevant, you can choose to put them to one side. Unlike the Christian Monastics you don’t have to enjoy doing chores to feel closer to God. You can learn to enjoy doing chores as a devotional to yourself and the life/lot you’ve been given - a practice in gratitude. I feel that a lot of women do find the repetition of simple activities such as walking, baking bread, doing laundry, or the dishes, as inspirational (if you look at the etymology of inspiration – in Middle English, it meant to put the breath, life, spirit back into the body). 

Such mind-numbing work, can also paradoxically turn on the mind to more creative thoughts. And if nothing else, mopping the floor gives me an instant sense of gratification and happiness, even if that experience lasts for half an hour and is fleeting (before Maudie dog walks in with her wet muddy feet). I can look forward to experiencing it again the next time I mop. What a sad person you might exclaim! On the contrary, I choose to celebrate the ordinary business of my life – because let’s face sometimes this is as good as it gets – and I am so like my mother after all, in the sense of being tied to household chores, in spite of my education and a head full of ideas. Not unlike creative work, cleaning is about bringing order out of chaos. Perhaps it can bring me consolation (if consolation is needed) that this is a thought my mother would never have! Although I have heard her say ‘I have to put things in order’… Hmm… 

Norris writes: ‘When confronting a sinkful of dirty dishes—something I do regularly, as my husband is the cook in our house and I am the dishwasher—I admit that I generally lose sight of the fact that God is inviting me to play. But I recall that as a college student I sometimes worked as a teacher’s aide in a kindergarten and was interested to note that one of the most popular play areas for both boys and girls was a sink in a corner of the room. After painting, the children washed their brushes there, but at other times, for the sheer joy of it—the tickle of water on the skin and God knows what else—a few children at a time would be allowed what the teacher termed “water play.” The children delighted in filling, emptying and refilling plastic bowls, cups and glasses, watching bubbles form as they pressed objects deeper into the sink or tried to get others to stay afloat. It is difficult for adults to be so at play with daily tasks in the world.’ 

How can the ordinariness of chores be inspirational and spiritually refreshing? 

Norris offers several situations outside the monastery, to do with children and their sense of wonder, and these are – play, repetition, as well as the intense relation with the present moment. I suppose we can all look back to when we were children and recall moments where we wanted to be included in the accomplishment of household chores. For me, when I was very small my maternal grandmother would keep all the hankies for last, so that under her supervision I could do some ironing. So indeed there was a time when in the context of ‘play’, I found ironing fun, even powerful, in the sense of feeling like a grown up. 

‘The comfortable lies we tell ourselves regarding these ‘little things’ that they don’t matter, and that daily chores are of no significance to us spiritually – are exposed as falsehoods when we consider that reluctance to care for the body is one of the first symptoms of extreme melancholia. Shampooing the hair, washing the body, brushing the teeth, drinking enough water, taking a daily vitamin, going for a walk, as simple as they seem, are acts of self-respect. They enhance one’s ability to take pleasure in oneself and in the world…’  An interesting aside is that when training as a therapist I was encouraged to 'ground' myself in the ordinary things such as sweeping, when working with depressives.

This is what I choose – to take pleasure in myself and my surroundings, rather than grumble – because I am one of the privileged to have a roof over my head (and in such fabulous surroundings), my ‘daily bread’, and the numerous chores associated with running a household. It will become a daily practice of mindfulness – or you can call it spirituality – to feel gratitude for chores. 

One Friday night after the dinner party guests had left, I was left to clean up the dirty dishes, the crystal glasses and the pans (I am the cook and the dishwasher). No one offers to help, and even if they do, like my mother I usually refuse the help. (This has a lot to do with the control freak in us both.) I don’t put it off for the next morning because I don’t want to wake up to last night’s dishes. Bad enough to wake up to a hangover. So after midnight I set about cleaning up and I wasn’t grumbling, rather I looked forward to finishing and surveying a clean and tidy kitchen and the satisfaction it would give, before going up to bed. Though I wasn’t singing, or praising and feeling closer to God, I did do it with a light heart and before I knew it – it was done, and I was rejoicing in a cup of tea before turning in. Perhaps that’s what is meant by the adage ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’.

Next time, when confronted by a sinkful of dishes or an overflowing laundry basket, I’ll simply recall Norris’ statement that God is inviting me to play here, as much as I would in the studio.  And if I start to feel as the launderer in the studio  …

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Reusing Old Silks

Scarves from the 2016 Winter collection

I love breathing life and durability to these threadbare saris that arrive with India’s dust, and sometimes mould. These old silks get washed in the making and wedding to superfine merino or a luxurious blend of merino, alpaca and silk.
Unpacking a shipment of old saris

For the last couple of years, I’ve focused upon using these old silks in my merino-silk apparel wear, and perfecting my technique in achieving a lovely wedded fabric. Not only is the silk fabric much cheaper to buy by the yard, but they also produce more interesting ruching, particularly when used in combinations.

It certainly feels most satisfying to take what someone has thrown away and remake it into something beautiful.

The three different styles from my scarf collection

My scarves can be purchased direct or through select boutiques - contact me for details.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Paying it forward – the kindness of strangers

Years ago when I was travelling overseas I got myself into trouble and had to rely on the kindness of a stranger – a friend of my father’s, who didn’t know me but took me into his home because of the strength of his friendship with my dad. When I went back to the same place, it was in his home that I stayed again. I’ll never forget, that when I was down, showing me what he was growing in his garden gave me such a lift. Perhaps he reminded me of my own dad who has such green thumbs and has always enjoyed giving life to plants in a garden. I was always welcomed like a daughter by my father's friend, and to this day I remember his whole family with fondness, though I never write or even call. Occasionally I may catch up with him or his wife when I happen to be at my father’s house and they call. I bring this up because I’ve been thinking about how I am now paying his kindness forward. Granted, in hosting Workawayers we are exchanging their labour for accommodation and meals. But not all working and living conditions or hosts are the same. We tend to show a spirit of generosity and hospitality towards these young travellers.

We had the privilege of welcoming and hosting a young couple from Montreal on a Workaway stint a couple of weeks ago – coinciding with the Easter weekend. At first I was hesitant when Philip read their email to me. We’d had such a great time with our older Workaway guest that I didn’t think younger travellers could measure up. I'm happy to say I was wrong. I feel travelling particularly when you’re young is character forming. You certainly find out who you are when not among your own kin.

Myriam and Olivier had been in New Zealand when they contacted us, hoping to spend some time in the Dandenongs. Philip was impressed because they’d actually taken the time to read our profile and directed their enquiry to specifics. We get so many general enquiries that have been sent to so many other hosts. We agreed to the stay – the timing was right as we had no paying guests booked in the BnB. They were to catch the Skybus from the airport and Philip would meet them at Southern Cross station. They arrived late one night and we made our introductions over a cuppa and a glass of milk.

Both employed on the bloody big hole

A cleaning task

Olivier proved a steady worker

Making sucre de la creme - a more crumbly fudge, which is a Quebecois specialty

Slowly, as we got to know them, we learned that their Workaway place in New Zealand hadn’t quite gone according to plan. There were working with a dozen others at a self-sufficient ‘rustic’ farm – self-sufficient they told us meant that there was no electricity, and the little internet data bought by the family was not shared with Workawayers. Disappointed, they had left their accommodation, and slept in a van with another friend. I was appalled that a young woman had slept in a van. Putting myself in Myriam’s shoes, I would not have liked the experience at all. Cold and cramped in a van, with no toilet. A long time ago, I did happen to spend one night sleeping (or trying to) in a World War II bunker on an uninhabited island, where there were no amenities; where in the morning sucking on a Fisherman’s Friend (a throat lozenge) sufficed for brushing my teeth. But that was one night cramped with a group of many strangers in a bunker…

I asked Myriam whether travelling together had put a strain on their relationship. On the contrary she replied, it had strengthened it because they were spending so much time together – something they didn’t experience back home. While Myriam had completed her course of study, Olivier had decided to change his field. They were going to be enjoying one long summer, for by the time they returned home for either study or work, the Northern hemisphere would be in Summer.

Enjoying some of that crumbly fudge - of course with a glass of milk

A surrogate family

As Myriam and Olivier settled in, they fell in with the rhythm of our ordinary days. They would usually help themselves to breakfast, while I prepared lunches and dinners. (I love feeding people but sometimes it takes up too much of my day.) They cleaned and tidied after themselves, contributing to household chores such as loading and unloading the dishwasher, even without being asked. I felt rather spoiled…In between their chores for Philip, they had time to visit the sights of the neighbourhood, and one evening we took them to see a French film (as the French Film Festival was in town) and treated them to dinner afterwards at a family restaurant. To our surprise they expressed enjoyment in spending time ‘en famille’. Philip also made time to take them to see the native animals at Healesville Sanctuary (every foreigner wants to see a kangaroo); and as well, Olivier accompanied him to watch his local football team play at AAMI stadium, while Myriam and I were happy to hang together, not-together, at home.

I’ve taken the attitude (and I know Philip shares it) that had they been my kids overseas I’d want them safe and happy, enjoying themselves among strangers. We’re not strange to each other now. But it is the differences, the ‘strange’ that help us to bond in the beginning, as we talk about how you live compared to what you are experiencing now. Or even as you try and master the nuances of language in translation. These bright young adults are bi-lingual in French and English, and so down to earth. It may sound trite but they are such good upstanding young adults. Any parent would be proud. I feel so full of optimism and enthusiasm having had the pleasure of their company for those few days.

Myriam and Olivier have moved on and at the moment we’re hosting two young men who were born in Germany and live in a little village outside Frankfurt. Sharif’s ancestors are from Palestine, while Tariq’s originate from Turkey. They have been close friends since the fifth grade and tell me there’s another friend whose parents are from Afghanistan, who will join them later during the year on their big adventure around Australia.

Doesn’t the world contract to hear about these three friends? You don’t need Facebook – migration brings different communities together and they are held by a language and customs foreign to their ancestors. The boys consider themselves as in-between cultures (neither German nor Middle Eastern). Much like me - I'm also in the liminal. Over meals we become better acquainted. I had an interesting first hand account of Ramadan over lunch one day. It makes you think deeply about the person growing his spirituality, rather than being confronted by a foreign incomprehensible religion.

Sharif and Tariq will travel north, working when they can, and by next New Year’s eve plan to be in Sydney – because after all that is where it all happens New Year’s Eve. They have only been in Melbourne for a few days – are at the very beginning of their journey, which they are documenting on video, so family members can enjoy vicariously, but also as a kind of memoir to look back on when they’re older.

The boys ended up spending 9 days and 10 nights with us and probably worked for about three full days and a couple of half days. On their 'off' days they were left to their own distractions. Tariq tells me that he applied to come to Ferny Creek because of the lush verdure of our garden, and for someone who lives in a flat it's been a welcome change. The work has been tough on both. They had never used garden tools, or dug a hole. They have also marveled at Philip's ingenuity. According to Sharif he has a solution for all the problems that come along, whereas kids of his generation rely on Google.(Older people too rely on Google these days, I piped in.) I'm uncertain what they will take away, destined as they are for white collar work. They may decide on account of their stay with us that garden work, particularly digging holes, is not something they want to make a habit - even while on holiday. 

The hole keeps getting bigger

Sharif and Tariq enjoying some of the familiar tastes of home, such as hummus and a favourite, olive oil

Sharif recording on his Go-Pro

Ingenuity to get the digger on a higher ground - and congratulating themselves that the two planks worked

Papa bear on his lonesome contemplating the work ahead without his Workawayers

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Sharing our home with a not so weary traveller

Putting our ‘guest’ room on AirBnB seemed like a good idea last year – to meet the rising costs of Philip’s medical bills.  We had offered the bedroom to my ageing parents who had declined with ‘when one of us goes’, as well as a resounding, ‘it’s not the same when you give up your independence.’ 

We pfaffed about and it took us almost five months to get the room ready; then we had Bayview Ferny Creek listed for a month before renovations in the ensuite bathroom forced us to deactivate the listing, as we needed the bed and bathroom for ourselves.  The room was back on-line by September last year and we’ve had a steady stream of guests since – even expanding the guest space to include sharing our living room downstairs. What Philip hadn’t expected was that he would enjoy being a cordial, even charming ‘host’. 

Philip hadn’t broke even getting the room ‘just right’ and the gardening and house maintenance seemed like a Sisyphean battle, which challenged us both because of our health issues, when I recalled seeing a post on Facebook regarding HelpX.  I posted in the Hills and The Dandenongs Group to clarify details and discovered another source of ‘volunteer’ labour for free board and meals.  This was Workaway. 

Philip created profiles on both sites and got some interest from young European travellers (three French couples within the space of a couple of days – all landing in Melbourne on the day, or next, and all available without prior notice). Somehow these youthful travellers never came to stay after initial enquires.  We soon formed the impression that they must contact hundreds of ‘hosts’ in the hope of some reply and inevitably had their pick, probably choosing closer to the city where young people may prefer the experiences of the clubs and pubs; and Philip had written quite extensively regarding the ‘help’ he required. Maybe they just didn’t want to ‘work’ for their board and meals.  

Just before Christmas when Philip had reached the stage of wanting to cancel his profile on these sites as it was so time consuming responding to enquiries when they never fructified, he was contacted by Lieve originally from Belgium, who was at the time unhappily at a Workaway connection on French Island. We were sitting next to each other on the sofa and Philip read out her profile description and her email to me.  She was a more mature traveller, like us heading towards the Autumn rather than the Spring of life.  What did I think, he asked?  Why not! I responded.

It was serendipitous, as we had a window of no bookings starting just before the New Year and we agreed that she could stay for 7 nights, then she’d have to leave as we had a paying guest due.  Philip was feeling rather in the Christmas spirit and magnanimous, ‘she can stay for free and have a holiday’, he announced.  Much to his surprise Lieve wrote back that she preferred to have her days busy. She wanted to work.

Philip picked Lieve up from Upper Ferntree Gully station one afternoon after a paying guest checked out and she stayed with us, weeding the ‘jungle’ garden out the back and helping Philip with his woodpile, and any other chores he needed doing (he had drawn up a rather considerable list of 50 possible projects and at the end of Lieve’s stay I think he’d crossed off 7).

Lieve had the pattern of early to bed with a book, and waking early, ‘clocking’ on even before Philip and I were out of bed. She would usually work until lunch, then spend the afternoon to her own devices.  

Lieve surveying her great work in our fern garden

Over the week, we also managed to sneak in several walks around William Ricketts Sanctuary, the Rhododendron Gardens and Alfred Nichols Gardens. On the day of her departure Lieve was planning a trip on Puffing Billy, even though it was a very ‘tourist’ thing to do.

We had been invited up the Lane for New Year’s Eve and Lieve also went with us, along with her 'contribution' of Chandon, and got to experience a laid back hot Aussie NYE on the verandah, replete with Aerogard, sipping champers and eating cheese - including one incredibly soft melt on your tongue unusual cheddar.  Nothing terribly exciting occurred.  We were without fireworks as there was a total fire ban due to severe weather conditions, though if you switched the telly on there were pyrotechnics galore.  However, the conversations were more than amiable and stimulating, particularly when one had had one glass too many of champers. I missed the new year gong, as I was in the bathroom, which was quite large, offered magazines and the vibes were so good, I lingered.

Lieve's normal culinary activities back in Belgium, included baking bread. So on the Sunday morning she showed me how to make olive and rosemary bread, and semidried tomato bread (dried in my oven the previous Summer and rather too gooey with oil but it didn't seem to faze Lieve).  Then we sat down after they were baked and enjoyed these lovely breads with cheese, cold meats and salad.  But my favourite way of eating in particular the olive and rosemary bread is drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled generously with salt and pepper – just as Lieve showed me. 

olive & rosemary bread

a slice drizzled with  olive oil and sprinkled 
with a generous amount of salt & pepper

This cultural exchange was mainly quiet, laid back just like hills life when not on severe or extreme weather alert, but there were lots of hearty conversations over meals accompanied by a glass of wine. We talked about books we'd read, as well as the idea of travel (I dropped in Bruce Chatwin though out-dated, as a favourite writer on travel, whereas Philip nominated Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel). I’m at the stage where I’m happy being in the armchair listening to a good yarn on travelling or reading about travel, rather like the character Xavier de Mestre whom de Botton mentions, who took a journey around his bedroom - then had the audacity to write about the journey. Philip still has his hankerings and plans for overseas travel.  More than likely I will be staying at home with our dog Maudie when he takes off.  Lieve had taken a sabbatical from her regular job and had been travelling for the past 12 months; and had plans to go onto Tasmania (for a Workaway stint in a ‘resort’), then onto Borneo.

I thought Lieve brave, not only for pursuing her passion for travel, often subsidizing it through Workaway periods but for not allowing age to be a barrier to her dreams. Lieve proved to be the perfect first Workaway guest albeit she could very well be the last, unless they are of the same calibre as Lieve, as she has set the bar so high with her great work ethic and her company.  Lieve, however, would always be welcomed back. 

I was missing her presence the other morning, so decided to bake some olive and rosemary bread to enjoy the scent and flavour that she had brought with her visit to our home. I'm enjoying it just as Lieve showed me, with drizzled olive oil and a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper.  Bon Appetit to cultural exchange. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Artist’s Journey Workshop with Dawna Richardson-Hyde

What was my ‘want’ in signing up for the Artist’s Journey workshop, a workshop that explores what stops creatives from working creatively and authentically?

The main – was to get into the habit of working in a journal and one of the activities of the workshop was precisely to keep a journal to establish this habit or ritual. Dawna's promotional blurb read 'creating and using a visual journal to inform your work'. Tailor made you'd say.

But I know from experience that journaling can become like ‘the work’ as you get immersed in process, as it gains in significance or momentum.  One or two other workshop participants describe having shelves of journals and Dawna too certainly would have her own library of journals, as she begins one with each new trip taken or new project.  You don't have to fill all the pages, she suggests. I don't want to get too caught up in journaling that it eclipses everything else.

Journals are source materials for a writer or the visual artist.  I have made good use of them.  Last year I threw out 15-20 years of hand written journals because I didn’t want to have to keep them (for the large part unopened) on my shelves.  Someone suggested rather too late that I should have used them for garden compost, an idea which greatly appealed to me.  I have also written quite extensively about myself (created a couple of unpublishable manuscripts) – those self-to-self dialogues and approximations to meanings are forever evolving.  I decided to stop the conversation with myself.  There were a couple of public textile ‘creative syntheses’, namely the Battlecoat and the Story Cloth in particular, which brought the essences of my conversations somewhat to a full-stop, though they may actually be a comma or (…) a pause.  If truth be told, I had been keeping the journals because I have problems with memory and realized one day that keeper of my memory – my mother – won’t always be around to remind me.  Sometimes, it’s just healthy to forget… make the most of the ellipses in the brain…   

When I signed up for the Artist’s Journey workshop back in August I wasn’t exactly experiencing a creative block, though somewhat down-hearted.  I hadn’t been in the studio most of the winter.  We were undergoing renovations and I had been laid up with flu for several weeks, and was probably just tired, after the frenzy of the Open Studios preparations and the actual weekend itself.  I collapsed just prior to the weekend with another disk problem. Not much interested me.  I now had not one but two herniated disks, which cause numbness in both my legs.  Clearly some time out was required.  I read, I moped.  I did some very minor assisting with the renovation work, always conscious of my bad back. I have had moments of not been able to move at all, as well as, being in excruciating pain and I don’t like those moments. I was also searching to extend my repertoire so that I could ease up on my back and not have to make big felted pieces.

I had purchased a visual journal some 6-8 months before which remained ‘empty’. I knew I wanted to incorporate drawing – turned into expressive (rather than pretty) stitching – but how?  Buying and reading a book didn’t motivate, rather it made the task seem too hard to begin (so there was a block after all!)

I greatly admired Dawna’s use of stitching in her beautifully composed textile work.  I noticed that Dawna, who is a hills’ resident and lives not 15 minutes’ drive from me was running a workshop at the Ballarat Fibre Forum next year, but as with most of these workshops, I have the uncanny knack of finding out about them when they are already full.  Then fortuitously she came to offer the same workshop (with some modifications – it is not for instance, exclusively for the textile artist) at Burrinja Cultural Centre, only a 10-minute drive away. 
I have been attending the workshop 2 days a week for the past 2 weeks and the final two days wrap up this week.  In retrospect attending over 4-5-6 intensive days in a row away from home and its many distractions, obligations, and interruptions would have been far more fruitful for me. But you have to work with what you have…and now that the course is about to end I wish there were several more weeks of it ahead.
The workshop in a nutshell, is about shining a light on you as an artist – one of the activities is to find words to describe yourself from a brainstorming group session, looking at what stops you from getting down to the work in the studio, to identifying and managing the time you have for producing work.  The mornings have been focused on thinking, brainstorming in a group, reflecting and working on a series of questions, and discussion. Your journal accompanies you along the way.

The afternoons have been left for ‘playing’.  We’ve made mark making tools (to overcome the resistance if one has it that one can't draw), played with Dawna’s tools, mono-printed on paper and fabric; and last week we used our bits and pieces of ‘experimentals’ to create a ‘large’ work.  This was the most satisfying experience for me, when I could bring all elements of play and learning into a creative synthesis.

Dawna's amazing collection of hand-made tools
My modest collection which is of 'brush type' tools mainly

Rhonda and Sheryn focused on the tool making


Max looking excited to begin mark-making


My journal showing photocopies of some of the results of my mark-making


My mono-printing results 

A close up of some mono-print beauties

Up until last week my journal remained mainly ‘empty’.  One morning was given over to participants showing off their workings in their journals and I had to face not having done anything.  My life is fairly busy (I have been preparing for a Christmas Sale, and Philip and I run an AirBnB); and Dawna did say no homework (but then she sets homework tasks!).  Sheepishly, I had to show what I had not done and make up an excuse…but look deeply within to see what had prevented me from working in my journal.  I have used journals and collage to document the explorations of self during my training as an arts therapist (and maybe I just don’t want to go there again please let me reiterate) though someone did point out this kind of working in a journal is entirely different. Indeed, I know this.

When I work, if it is a major project I will have done some research if needed, preliminary drawing (really just doodles), writing down ideas (intention), made a pattern or template (usually after consultation with Philip as he’s great at maths and blowing a pattern up for me and most of the time he tends to make my templates), and I would have considered colours, but the work really comes into being when I start to play with materials in a colour field on my tables.  So I tend to allow the work its own impetus – feeling my way mostly, not knowing where it is I’m going.  'Allow it to be what it wants to be', repeating the directive of a painting teacher I once knew.

I find that when I start to do the exercises given for homework I’m treating them too much like ‘homework’ or an assignment I don’t want to get wrong (mind you the one I did manage to do, I interpreted the instructions incorrectly).  I suppose it’s good to notice these things. I’m often scared to get it wrong but I can plunge in and see what happens regardless.  With a large piece, for instance The Turncoat, I had one chance to get it right and if it was wrong, there was no time to make it right for the DROS exhibition, or indeed make a practice piece.  I gambled on the risk of just doing it and getting it right.

Over the last couple of days I have managed to scribble a few observations into my journal, choosing to use a large felt tip pen (to fill up the pages more quickly) but also to allow my writing a large scribbling presence.  Often I write too small. And I have pasted some photocopies of the results of my ‘playing’…  I will pause here, as I’ve gone on too long really…

Enjoy the photos…the workshop is a great buzz and I would encourage anyone who is thinking of taking it to do so, whatever be your reasons.  Dawna Richardson-Hyde thoroughly enjoys teaching and her methodology and presentation do her great credit. She offers a deep well of knowledge and inspiration. For more about Dawna you can view her website
All Untitled No 2 in the background

my Untitled No 3, made by marks, layers and collage

Untitled No 2 in a different phase background.
Foreground Max is adding stitch

Untitled No 2 'finished' I think (but I could keep adding layers).
This wasn't supposed to be 'the work' but it could be

Untitled No 1 starting with rubbings made while on the floor (the brief was to work on the floor)

Dawna giving herself permission to play alongside us

Christina's piece focuses around a large 'A'

Sandy chose to work outside

The next three photos show Rhonda working according to the directive we were given, make a mark, step back, look, make another mark, look again