Friday, September 6, 2013

A Devotional to Frida Kahlo

Laid up with excruciating sciatica pain, my mind started to meander towards Frida Kahlo’s experience, not that I could in any way compare my pain to hers. But the immobility and what she managed to do with it…I’ve shared the couch with Maudie the dog and found the most comfortable position to be flat on my back and with the affected leg raised.  Other than checking email, or Youtube for exercises to ease my pain and the restriction in my leg, I didn’t manage to do much.  The laundry basket piled up, the floors needed vacuuming and mopping; there was also a piece of felt that needed finishing and rinsing.  All went undone, until my mother suggested I get up off the couch and start moving my body.   So I dragged myself up and hobbling about started on the chores, retreating back to the couch when the pain screamed down my leg, which was every few minutes or so.

But Frida…she painted and drew a whole oeuvre, and quite a great deal of it on her back.  She managed through the pain to make herself into a work of art too, managing her ‘toilette’ so that she was always beautiful, with her hair piled up and twisted with flowers; whereas, my hair got quite feral and close to turning into dreadlocks, when all I could manage was to brush it off my face and hold it back with an elastic band.  As a woman I find Frida touches me on so many levels – the ordinariness of her work, drawing from her reality and the bold determination and often defiance, of her beautiful face.  She never ‘let herself go’ in the modern parlance.

Detail of Bout's painting 
 And those tears…it’s common knowledge that Frida was influenced by small Mexican votive paintings but there is also a tradition in Western painting of tears as devotion, tears not as painful but as pious. There’s a small medieval devotional painting by Dieric Bouts called Weeping Madonna that is a superb example of the devotional and it was meant to move the viewer, when meditating upon it, to tears.  Bouts' painting was produced to encourage the viewer to identify with the Madonna or the Christ (the picture has its companion piece) and to feel over time that their tears were your own. 

I can't help but relate Frida's focus on tears to this type of painting. It may be that Frida wanted us to be moved by her tears, to cry with her, for her, as well as ourselves. She stares out at us, for instance in Broken Column (1944) unlike a mediaeval saint that usually looks heavenward, strapped in her corset, the Doric column representing her broken vertebrae or centre, small nails or tacks dig into her flesh, as well as the fabric that wraps around her lower torso, the tears falling milky and intense. The tacks could be thorns. She doesn’t look to heaven for her salvation, but towards us, the viewer. As the Madonna in Bouts' painting will never stop crying, so too will Frida's tears be eternal. There's another Self Portrait (1940) in which Frida wears a necklace/crown of thorns, so the evocation and association of Christ to her suffering, as well as the linking of her pictures to religious icons is quite obvious and poignant. 

Painting undoubtedly saved her and reduced the monotony of all those hours when she was immobile. Her painting has also produced a contemporary cult following for anything Frida. I present below my devotional to Frida.

All manner of things Frida  

For more about Dieric Bouts' painting see James Elkins, 2004, Picture and Tears (Routledge), chapter 9.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Open Studios Tension Exhibition 2013 - "Ten Fabrics Gathering"

Tension Exhibition 2013 - "Ten Fabrics Gathering"

Last April (2013) I participated in the Open Studios in the Dandenong Ranges program where 35 artists’ studios opened for one weekend.  The artists also contribute to a group exhibition whose theme was ‘Tension’ punned around the fact that the program was in its tenth year.  Open Studios is co-sponsored by Yarra Ranges Council and Burrinja Gallery and all the artists' pieces were on exhibition for four weeks.  The visitor was encouraged to start their tour of the open studios from the gallery, take in the group exhibition, and enjoy a coffee at the cafĂ© while planning their route through the Dandenongs.

To coincide with the program I decided to ‘open’ my studio in the making of my ‘Tension’ piece, which naturally is executed in Nuno felt, by treating you to a series of six videos of its making. 

Part 1 is shown here and if you would like to see the full series you may do so by following the information below.  (Note: the videos are named "Nuno Felt Semi Circular Wrap as I didn't have the "Ten Fabrics Gathering" label when recording them.)

Access to Parts 2-5 Plus Video Extra

I love making my Nuno pieces and I have invested heavily in buying books, trying different processes and learning tips and techniques along the way. The video above is part 1 of a five part collection plus an additional helpful tip video.

It takes some time to plan, create and produce a video for your enjoyment and information. Originally, Parts 2-6 required purchase.  But I've recently decided to make them freely available on YouTube.  Thanks for your interest in my work. 

Happy viewing, Joni

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Looking back through mothers and my father - the handmade

When in her now famous lecture ‘A Room of one’s Own’, Virginia Woolf said ‘women tend to think back through their mothers’ she was of course referring to writing, but I have realized that I tend to think back through my mothers when it comes to everyday living, and the love of the handmade …

I was making a curry ‘from scratch’ a couple of weeks ago – roasting cumin and coriander seeds to grind in my mortar and pestle and realized that this was the way my mother used to do it, and probably her mother, and her mother’s mother.  Mama carried her grinding rock all the way to Australia when we emigrated – it was packed in a trunk, along with lots of other valuables that she couldn’t bear to leave behind. It was a big block of river stone with a smaller tubular stone for grinding. 
My mother's rock was similar but had a dent in the middle

My grandmother had gall stones and the doctor, when he extracted the stones– which were huge like miniature comets and subsequently left to float in some viscous liquid in a jar – said they were the result of eating food that had been ground on stone.  My mother looked at her river grinding rock and she had to admit that there was a ‘wearing’ dent in it from the years and years of grinding curry and spices, and that the fine particles of stone probably did end up in the food she prepared.  It had been ending up in our food for a couple of generations now.  When her mother passed away she put the stone away and later was glad to actually give it away. Mama started using packaged curry powder about 40 years ago and never looked back.  She had her preferences for particular brands, usually a dark roasted Ceylon powder.

I find it interesting that I keep looking back particularly to my grandmother’s generation – not only in the way that I grind curry but also in the ways that I have inherited the love of the handmade arts.  My grandmother along with her sisters, used to make paper flowers and sell – they were three sisters and each had a specialty for a particular flower.  My father who was a young boy at the time had the job of couriering them to their customers and he used to pray it wouldn’t rain, as he was making the deliveries – as he’d arrive with a wet bunch of drooping paper flowers.  

My father ended up training as a tailor so perhaps his aunts had a decided impact on his choice of metier. But a thought which suddenly occurs is that the handmade is also a wonderful thread of connection with my father too and I've tended to overlook my father or the fathers' influence though my father seems a special case - he has what Woolf called 'androgyny' and 'the spark of a woman' in him.  Not only can he sew (he makes the greatest hand made buttonholes I've ever seen, which I can't seem to duplicate regardless of how many times he's shown me), he also taught my mother to cook ... I grew up witnessing my mother’s various endeavours with knitting, crochet and embroidering – her hands were usually busy with some creative task – until she discovered TV soaps.   She had the skill but perhaps not the perseverance or will – and in this ‘post-modern’ age there are so many distractions. In any case my mother feels I waste my time and energy with making things by hand, whether it be felt, or a curry.  It was my father whom I used to run to if ever I got stuck on something to do with sewing.  It was his machine I used when I sewed as a young girl. 
Grinding spices for a Vindaloo 

In the work cited above – Virginia Woolf goes on to reflect on the nature of the creative mind and agrees with Coleridge that it is ‘androgynous’. (Anticipating Jung writing about the soul) Woolf suggests that there are two ‘sexes’ in the mind or two sides of the mind – one masculine and the other feminine and that what is sought is the harmony between the two…one must write with both sides of the mind and not only with the feminine side…  ‘It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly [...] Some collaboration has to take place in the mind between the woman and the man before the art of creation can be accomplished. Some marriage of opposites has to be consummated. The whole of the mind must lie wide open if we are to get the sense that the writer is communicating his experience with perfect fullness.’ 

Perhaps I need to look to my father's example and ignore 'sex' when thinking, being creative, or just being, indeed cultivate androgyny in the mind. It is his 87 birthday this week and I feel very blessed indeed to have his presence in my life. Writing, I find gives me these sorts of insights...

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Home Scarf: the body as country

I’m growing rather tired of the ‘themed’ scarf festivals held at the Geelong Wool Museum  …this year it is ‘home’ – what home means to us…Perhaps it will be my last contribution to the festival…and perhaps I may not even enter my contribution(s ), as I’m not happy with them.

How to sum up this ‘subject’ of home in a scarf representation when it has taken most of my adult life of exploring to discover what home is, and where it is…I started where I left off with this inquiring into home and belonging.  A woman with roots in air like the banyan…deracinated…my roots never seemed to have taken in the new country where we were called ‘New Australians’.  Sometimes the customs of your adopted country can move you in unexpected ways. For the Australian Aborigine the land is not separate from the soul and to gaze upon country is like beholding the self.  But the person needs to travel through it, naming it, constantly making new stories.   Yes, I have ‘appropriated’ this belief of the Songline – with a twist – seeing the body as landscape, as geography, in which to settle. After traveling back and forth between the new and old country, gathering and writing stories about my kin and those not of my kin became a way to gaze upon my-self and behold my country.  Now middle aged, I’m settled in the skin I’m in.
Scarf I, I added a tree using sari fabric scraps which bled into the white ground of the felt
Not quite a banyan tree but a flame tree, with aerial roots exposed

So how to ‘represent’ ... as writing and stories are significant I decided I would tell this little story about ‘home’, what it’s taken to realize where home is.  Also I like to trace the roots of words (etymology), and words seem to have formed my roots to things, as indeed have stories. There are lines from a Talking Heads song ‘This must be the place’, yes I’m already there; as well as words from John O’Donohue’s book Eternal Echoes, which has as its theme our hunger to belong.  I also wanted to incorporate some fabric from that dressing gown that my mother wore while she awaited my coming into the world, and which was made by my grandmother.  I have already used the fabric in my ‘story cloth’; later I incorporated most of the skirt in an upcycled dress, but I thought to send some of the threads and shreds of the fabric on its own journey into the world, even if they end up in some landfill, somewhere, rather than hanging onto it as ‘precious’…torn bits were used as roots, but also to evoke my ‘songline’, stretching back to ancestors and creating my story.  They also remind me of ‘veins’, arteries of the body, and arterial roads in a landscape …the ‘red on white’ – filled not unlike the pages of a notepad.  I was told, most likely by my mother that it was bad manners to write in red ink and I so dislike teachers who scribble in red ink all over the pages of their students’ work – their ‘corrections’.  I suppose I decided on red thread because of its association with blood, earth and passion and because it is ‘impolite’ (I admit to a rebellious streak) – and when the red from the dressing gown fabric bled into the white wool I wasn’t concerned about the stains (though surprised as the fabric is so old).  Those crimson sari fabric scraps from which I formed a tree, also bled...interesting how you can 'know' but still intuition prompts you to use them regardless. These scarves had a becoming of their own. I’d intended to euca dye them but found on ‘writing’ upon them that they were already ‘full’ and busy – ‘finished’.  With the first scarf, as I was learning to write in poly thread with my darning foot, the writing became rather like my own handwriting, which can start off large but then gets smaller the longer I write. The writing is continuous without a comma or full stop, as Cesaire, poet of Negritude showed me – language running away with itself like the marrons (runaway slaves).  I’m sure for the ‘civilised’ the writing on the scarves will seem like babble.
Rayon embroidery thread used in this one, which made a difference as it seemed to grab the felt much more

Scarf II the writing is much more even

Perhaps a dyed euca leaf or two wouldn't go astray?

They’re not the most beautiful scarves and perhaps these ‘themed’ exhibitions end up with lots of works that are meaningful, intrinsically personal, but not necessarily beautiful or sale-able ‘products’. 

I’m home – despite not looking and sounding ‘right’ but New Australian - in this Creole body that I’m in – this not quite white skin that stretches and forms my country…All the searching and questioning for naught, when I was already there... 

Words from a book, 'the body is a home which shelters you', John O'Donohue, 2000, Eternal Echoes, (HarperCollins, Paperback) 
For a quick review of Songline and a more in-depth understanding see, Barry Hill, 2002, Broken Song, T G H Strehlow and Aboriginal Possession (Knopf)
For Aime Cesaire
Words from a song...this must be the place...yes I'm already there...