Tag Archives: Victoria

Victorian makers follow a pattern

Humphrey Poland is a legendary Melbourne builder and designer. His approach to building draws heavily on a craft sensibility to  materials, particularly in the use of recycled timbers that have their own story to tell.

Poland was previously a founding partner in the Flying Trapeze Café theatre restaurant in the early 70’s and later worked with the Comedy Café. His current interests include photography and bee-keeping. Today his main workshop is in Moyhu, a small town in the King Valley near Wangaratta.

To coincide with the Great Victorian Bike Ride, Poland curated an exhibition titled Multiples which brought to Mohyu an established and upcoming generation of artists. Much of the work related to wooden patterns that were found in the nearby Valve Foundry.

Here are some words I put together for the opening:

I feel a bit of a fraud speaking to you to this evening. Growing up in the new suburbs of Perth, I had little experience of the industrial world, the remnants of which we see here. I took my world of dreams to Melbourne more than forty years ago, when I saw them realised in the fabled light show of Hugh McSpedden to the music of Spectrum. These dreams came to earth finally at the Meat Market Craft centre, where as writer in residence I felt a craft camaraderie, tapping out sentences alongside jewellers hammering out metal surfaces or woodworkers carving out flourishes.

Yesterday I found a word to describe writing about what you don’t do: ultracrepidarianism. It comes from the tale of Pliny, where a cobbler has the temerity to cast judgement on a painting by the artist Apelles. In anger, the artist declaims, ‘Sutor ne ultra crepidan – Cobbler stick to your last!’

Allow me to stick to this last for a minute. While we tend to think of craft skill as something that is internalised in our bodies, there are some trades where the tricks are embodied in unique templates, like the last for many a shoe. There are stories of cobblers who destroyed their lasts in a bonfire rather than leave them to strangers.

In the post-industrial age of robots and 3d printers, we find ourselves surrounded by the leftovers of the mechanical age. Some believe that these are precious keys to design that need to be preserved. The company Lasting Impressions in Davenport collected abandoned matrices from printing presses as a kind of typographic DNA that one day may need to be resuscitated, Jurassic style.

Others find a new use for these remnants as art, like the sculptor Nicholas Jones who carves abandoned books into unique forms with a surgeon’s scalpel.

What seems special about this exhibition Multiples, is that not only have some artists recovered old wooden patterns used in foundries, but they have taken the logic of production in the creating of work. There are John Comeadows’ fantastic sculptures making the most of the primary colours of the original patterns. Humphrey Poland’s cards use the classic outline of the Christmas tree to produce an unending series of scenes. And Hugh McSpedden’s lightshow casts these shapes into forms that cover the world. Colin Musto has re-framed his technical drawings as works of art. Bill Walker documents the following results in our world that have been shaped by the same pattern.

And it’s heartening to see them also shaping the next generation to follow too. Stuart Sinclair, Joshua Lewis, Malcolm Laurence.

This is a generation that have dedicated themselves to making our world a more livable place. They have left their stamp.

Let’s hope that when god produced them, she didn’t break the mould.

The forest comes to Ararat

Detail of the Floating Forest installation by Douglas Fuchs at Ararat Regional Art Gallery

Detail of the Floating Forest installation by Douglas Fuchs at Ararat Regional Art Gallery

I had the good fortune on Saturday to attend the Floating Forest symposium at Ararat Regional Art Gallery. Talks by curators and artists reflected a heartening story that connected not only generations of fibre artists but also indigenous and settler cultures.

The story begins in 1981, when Craft Australia had the foresight to bring out the US fibre artist Douglas Fuchs. At the time, the development of contemporary craft benefited immeasurably from these foreign visitors, bringing together the nascent communities of fibre, textile, metal, clay and glass artists.

Fuchs was a fibre artist particularly inspired by traditional basketry, such as native American traditions. He travelled widely through Australia, giving workshops and spending time in Maningrida learning the ways of traditional Yolngu fibre crafts. The tour eventuated in the exhibition titled Floating Forest, which launched at Adelaide, Festival Centre in 1981, then toured Sydney and Melbourne in 1982. The visit was quite critical for Australian craft.

Fuch’s statement in the exhibition reflects the mystery that he seeks in fibre art:

Psychologically the forest symbol represents the unknown in each person’s being — a beckoning desire to get lost, or discovering aspects of life that may be more challenging and difficult than already comprehended… My concept of a ‘Floating Forest’ environment was an attempt to construct and symbolise this state of feeling, this symbol that has become central in my imagination. Many other people have done it in different ways. I happen to be a person who makes objects in basketry techniques and materials.

A particularly moving part of the symposium was delivered by Wendy Golden, who read out Virginia Kaiser’s reflections on the experience. Kaiser had been unable to attend herself due to ill health, but the sound of her words vocalised by an equally dedicated and innovative basketmaker was quite powerful. Before Fuchs’ visit, Kaiser had been studying weaving. His workshop had the effect of connecting her with a world of twining and coiling. The exhibition itself was a revelation. The theatrical display of sculptural vessels, figurative pieces and floating structures demonstrated the expressive potential of fibre as an art form.

Installation shot of Floating Forest by Douglas Fuchs at Ararat Regional Art Gallery

Installation shot of Floating Forest by Douglas Fuchs at Ararat Regional Art Gallery

Thankfully, the exhibition as a whole was acquired by the Powerhouse Museum. And fortunately for us, Anthony Camm at the Ararat Regional Gallery had the vision to restage the exhibition 30 years later, reflecting the gallery’s specialisation in fibre arts. The installation was combined with works from the collection and new works made to honour Douglas Fuchs.

Three decades later, a symposium about Floating Forest was an opportunity not only to acknowledge the enduring influence of an exhibition, but also to recognise the revival of indigenous basketry that had occurred in the meantime. In recent years, there has been a wave of fibre exhibitions touring around Australia, such as Recoil, Woven Forms, Tayenebe, Floating Life, and Louise Hamby’s Art on a String and now touring Clever Hands. Increasingly these reflect the resilience and innovation of fibre work in Indigenous communities. More than any other material, fibre connects with the land.

The symposium featured some fascinating reflections on southeastern indigenous fibre. Museum Victoria’s Antoinette Smith gave some fascinating insights into traditional use of baskets, sometimes reaching a massive size to reflect the status of its owner. Marilyne Nicholls reflected on her monumental works using open coil technique. And Brownyn Razem reflected on a wide variety of southeastern fibre arts, such as the revival of possum skin cloaks.

Given the connection to land, there’s a temptation to think then that fibre is an exclusively indigenous art form. An very interesting text panel in the exhibition quoted from a review of the Australian basketry exhibition by Anna Griffiths in Craft Victoria (1992) which downgraded the value of non-functional and conceptual works. But a number of presentations in the symposium showed how it was a continuing form of experimentation for settler artists. As a Victorian basketmakers, Maree Brown showed some very fresh work using a wide variety of materials, from plastics to jigsaw pieces. Lucy Irvine took this further with her phenomenological abstract forms using nylon and cable ties.

Adrienne Kneebone, one of the fibre artists presenting at the symposium

Adrienne Kneebone, one of the fibre artists presenting at the symposium

So do the settler and indigenous fibre traditions meet? Adrienne Kneebone, mentored by Nalda Searles, presented a paper about her Pandanus Project, involving a dialogue around the Northern Territory town Katherine. This featured some quite haunting indigenous fibre work, including the mysterious mukuy forms. But this isn’t the only influence on Kneebone. Talking with Adrienne in the gallery, she told me how moved she was to see Floating Forest. ‘Virginia Kaiser has been such an influence on me. And here is the exhibition that so inspired her.’

Congratulations to Ararat Regional Art Gallery. Floating Forest helped remind us of the power of craft to both connect people and express deep emotions. It’s a lead that others should follow.