Tuesday, 30 January 2007


A rich harvest of thoughts, as usual Nalda. It's curious that soaking is a northern thing. It would be interesting to consider the 'soaking' crafts. Felting would be one of the main forms, wouldn't it.

I get the sense that one of the features of outdoor is the openness of influence. It is open to nature and people passing by, as well as the accidents of what trees might deposit and insects weave.

Interesting what you say about 'colonial nature'. This reminds me of Lorraine Connoley-Northey's work, which uses farm detritus rather than traditional fibre. This seems important because it connects you with the history of your people.

Five weeks seems a long time to be alone in the bush (though not perhaps compared to some of Daisy Bates' sojourns). Your description of making the stone basket is quite powerful. It sounds so cumbersome compared to your later work. But I guess it was grounding you.

The story of the Chinaman continues the theme of settler history, though here you managed to relate it to natural materials, not just colonial nature.

You say that when working with Aboriginal women that you start many objects but are then finished by others. I'm curious to know what happens. Do you get bored by it and put it aside, or do others express an interest in what you are making?

Yes language seems very important. One English word that has always intrigued me is 'thrum'. As far as I can tell, it means alternatively:

  • a company of people

  • a bundle of arrows

  • magnificence

  • the ends of warp threads left unwoven on the loom

  • a short piece of waste yarn, sometimes used for mops

  • odds, ends, scraps

  • a tuft of structures in a plant

  • a tuft, bundle, or fringe of any threadlike structures, as hairs on a leaf, fibres of a root, etc

  • a bundle of minute blood-vessels, a plexus.

  • brewing

  • someone meanly dressed

  • purring of a cat

  • the tones produced by 'thrumming' a guitar

This combination leads you to consider their possible logical connections. Do you encounter a 'thrum' in your work? Does it remind you of something else, like a loose mob of people or something in nature? The musical connection is particularly intriguing, like a synaesthetic relationship between the visual and auditory.

Sunday, 28 January 2007

sitting down in the bush.

First the word ret: that is an interesting northern hemisphere word. Probably in South Africa .South America, the Pacific Islands and certainly in much of Australia materials are not soaked. That would destroy them .
Various introduced plants are now soaked but traditionally native plants were either slightly dampened or used dry.
The exception would pandanus leaves that are boiled to free the single strand of fibre in each half leaf.
There is always the question"Shall I soak them". But it comes from non indigenous workshop participants.
It is the memory of cane, willow and rushes used traditionally in the northern hemisphere.
Some years ago I used pure spinnifex, (triodia,) I was in the Pilbara near Karratha and there was a finer Triodia there. Still very hard on the hands. So I did soak it, lo and behold the basket went green and started to grow.Such an opportunist is Triodia.
Basketry was used for so many utilities for centuries in the Northern hemisphere. Even in the first world war they were weaving huge baskets to drop supplies in from planes. Hot air balloons still prefer willow baskets.That is because they can move within their woven structure and stay intact when the big landing comes.
So there is a whole tradition of words associated with the manufacture of basketry objects and ret is one of them.

Fibre in plein air

These photographs show a group of ECU students at a textile camp sewing, the other is the recent workshop in Kings Park were we used fodder, also in the outdoors.
Right from the beggining I chose to for the most part to work outdoors. .Perhaps not being entangled in a group situation, also having a girlfriend who was a painter, so we encouraged each other to "go bush"
It was a matter of shaping weaving to fit a lifestyle, whereas often people have to shape their lifestyle around their practice.
At least in the beggining when structure was being laid down it set limitless boundaries in a strange way and continues to do so when I need it.
By the very nature of space, material, design in Australia to use the open air, the "bush" as a studio at least some of the time is important. It is liberating.
It means quite efficient organising but the rewards are great.
I would suggest that it must be one of lifes great pleasures freely available in this country.
That is to settle into a space where there is just the right amount of all one needs and to be able to pursue a creative desire.

Your question about making outside, in the bush, however one likes to describe it, at least being away from a domestic studio situation sent me back to when I did actually start working like that..

Coiling my way through colonialism.

Almost as soon as I became competent and excited with these basketry skills then as I have always been in my life, eager for the next stage, then I went "bush" , not to wild nature. Rather to colonial nature, old mine sites, deserted campsites where miners had lived. Of course I was walking in my fathers footsteps, that had been his stories, it was a map I knew.

Along with Linda my life long friend who is a painter, we set off in my small new yellow mini van. Off to the Goldfields picking up all sorts of old metal, boots, mining belts, Linda wanted still life objects, she was teaching Art at Midland Technical college at that time.
So here were two women roaming aound Navoria, Marvel Loch,Bullfinch , Southern Cross. It was lull time in goldmining so the places where largely deserted or occupied by eccentrics scratching for their payload. We ventured down into old open cuts, up poppet heads, into tunnels and inspected amunition mounds.
Now the sites are all major mining operations and there is no access for the likes of artists.

However it was those collected objects, and there were many of them that I started to incorporate into coiling using ropes and wools, and strings, commercial threads which I could manipulate to create these quite unique "colonial vessels.'
Teaching myself as I went I was absolutely focused on development .
Then there was a point where I decided to go and actually site myself in the bush and make baskets, not thinking so much that I would use the bush as a material source but that I would take my materials with me and sit there making using the space and my familiarity of it as an adjunt to making..
Big plans… I received a grant from the Australia. Council to develop new work, (David Williams had vision and he encouraged me to apply for it).
I have found the diary I kept for the next year when I did go and "work " in the "bush'.
It took qite a lot of planning and I even took designs I had drawn for what I wanted to make.
Initially I went for 3 days to test myself, no mean feat for a woman to go camping alone with intent to practice a craft. In those three days I kept stitching as a colonialist. Using brown wools and ropes but I did make the shape reflect granite boulders which are dominate at that site. That was a major step.
Then came the big plan, 5 weeks, same site, winter time. The small mini van with a tiny trailer, the dog and myself.
This was the shift from colonialism (using bits of left over debris) to looking at "nature " and finding a way into it.
That's where mallee bark and grass coiled openly with hand made string I had purchased from a Aboriginal art gallery in Perth came in .
That act shows where I was moving.. Although the string had been quite expensive I did not see it as something static, not to be used. Nor did I see any reason why it was inappropriate to use it. Not just the colour and texture of it as such but there was such harmony between the mallee bark, grass and bush string.
Lights were coming on.
Along with the string, bark and grass I went seeking small flat stones and actually made up a kind of bush brew of silt and adhesive, then I coiled the bark directly onto the stones using that adhesive.
I remember being very troubled by what I was doing, in terms of design (the strong critical influence of Eileen Keys)
But then I justified it by saying that the very first ""baskets" in many "primitive" cultures did have a stone base, a kind of a pestle and mortar arrangment.
Of course it was a way of starting at the very beginning in the land for me. I was doing exactly what came naturally.
At the site where I was camped there was a creek, a small catchment area and a series of massive grantite rocks. Someone had told me that in the early days an old chinaman had a vegie garden at the far end of the rocks and he would take his veggies by horse and cart into town and supply the miners.
This would have been 60 or 70 years back. Sitting alone, I would think of that man,and somehow it would give me a sense of company. Mostly it was it was satisfactory, I established a routine, collect firewood early in the day, collect bark hanging from the trees while it was damp from dew , move around while it was cold and then settle into sewing when the sun was overhead
At night, I took to polishing fragments of dead wood with wet and dry sandpaper. Some of them became basketry handles. If the days and nights were fine I was in the open constantly and became very aware of the sky , the weather, reading the clouds and the wind.
If it rained , and it did sometimes for 3 days in a row I just kept my fire going and took refuge in the van, it was large enough for the dog and myself to sleep in.
And so it went on, over the next few years I did this quite often with friends and alone.
But it was always fraught with the "woman alone in the bush" idea.
I wasn't walking around looking for birds etc, I was in a very "domestic" situation, food, bed, dog, books, art, and sititng quietly sewing, the absolute opposite of being in a state of preparedness.
That's quite a thing when I look back on it.
Then I was invited to do art camps, first with high school students, (1986 -92) and ECU camps 1987-2005)
I had been through this process of initiation through camping alone, and I was confident and responsible enough to understand that it was something that could be shared.
I still had not met up with any Aboriginal women.
When I finally did we all recognized a familiarity in each other I think.
I would suggest it would be very unusual to meet an Aboriginal woman alone in the land involved in making. Collecting bush tucker means sometimes moving quite far apart but always within cooeee
I think all of this is what has given me this unique position, a kind of straddling of place, space, time.
There is such a buzz of energy when a group of Aboriginal women are working that I find it very difficult to concentrate on my own making, but I have made many begginings which others pick up and take off with. I quite like that, it's a collaboration. As Thisbe will tell you a wonderful; sharing and involvment. The image included here is a echidna, tjilkamarta, made by myself and young girl at Blackstone 2004.
Learning Ngaatjatarra language was like passing through a glass wall, the tree was still there but no longer tree, it became warta.pilpira, kulin kulinypa. walku, ngaalta and on and on. Knowing the name one recognises the tree in amongst many others. Each tree for instance has a whole body of information built around it, and this means seeing one all this information comes to mind. It becomes part of the map of country.
So not only do the meanings of plants carry their colonial information but also their original inforamtion. And somehow it is combing these libraries of knowledge which gives a double sided interpretation to much of my making..
I started to name artworks using Ngaatjatjarra language in 1996, for instance a dress covered with xanthorrheoa bracts was also kartu kultu (xanthorrheoa) warntu (warntu= skin = dress) which felt more natural, more pertinent.

Saturday, 27 January 2007

Making in the open air

It's always interesting to read about the beginnings of your method. You write about 'a woman sitting under a tree sewing'. That's obviously outdoors. From the bush camp and other activities, it seems clear that you often make in the open air. I'm curious to know more about working outdoors. What is important for you?

  • Encounters with strangers

  • Proximity to nature

  • Openness to contact, particularly from Aboriginal women

  • Fresh air

Of course, there would be problems also, to do with the weather and access to materials. But what outweighs these problems?

You also write about learning the Ngaatatjarra language, and that 'the map of my mind was completely renamed'. Do you have an example of this? Is there a case where the Ngaatatjarra word has directly influenced your work?

And as this dialogue is called Fodder, I thought I'd through a word in a food for thinking about materiality and making with fibre:

ret (ret) verb tr.
To soak or expose to moisture (flax, hemp, etc.) to remove fiber from softened wood.
[From Middle English reten, perhaps from Middle Dutch.] Example: "Deep in the city's culture memory is the experience of the linen trade. As Robert Johnstone writes, 'The fibres came to the hacklers retted, dried and scutched, like long, flaxen hair which would comb through metal brushes.'" Tom Paulin, Saturday Review: The Vernacular City, The Guardian (London), Feb 23, 2002.


And here's an image of Kantjupaye Benson and fellow Western Desert artists sitting around Thisbie Purich's backyard in Alice Springs. You and I were talking with them about the idea of a touring exhibition. This is when the idea of Seven Sisters came to life.

Friday, 26 January 2007

Opportunity / information / fodder

The familiarity of working with plant materials straight from the earth certainly makes one more observant of states of growing and decay.
The photographs of leaf litter, grass and manure tells me that this would be ideal material to make something from. And if I combined it with the farmers words of concern it could lead me to intersting corners of the paddock.Particularly when the grass is slightly dampened with rain. Its a perfect opportunity.
This leads to that idea of linking the two cultures of the West as you name it. Colonial and Indigenous.
There are points of contact which have helped me to develop this way of seeing. First of course is my childhood development in rural West Australia , the make do concept of which my father was a great proponent.
Then when I began making fibre baskets (1979 age 34) It was as the exploration of plant materials actually sited in the bush. I went to where plants where growing and sat there sewing.This was far afield, the Goldfields, the Pilbara, the wheatbelt, a woman sitting under a tree sewing, now how much thinking time does that constitute. (The first picture here is a basket made in 1983 from mallee bark rolled around grass in a continuous length and stitched with linen thread whilst sitting in Goldfields landscape.)
Then doing academic studies at Curtin University gave me an intellectual framework and developed drawing and painting skills.
In 1991 I was invited to become invovled with Indigenous women through the Healthways project in Kalgoorlie.
This is really an important time because I started to learn Ngaanyatjarra language from Pantjiti Mary Mclean a Ngaatatjarra woman. Mary is one of those people walked from the Western Desert to Mount Margaret Mission in the early 50's.
We have a very close friendship and to this day she speaks in language to me most of the time.
Though she resides in Kalgoorlie, my birthplace, her people live in the Western Desert, Warburton Ranges, Blackstone, Jamison , Docker River and Mtutijulu.
As with many older people removed from their land she does not openly reference cultural practices however the very act of us spending so much time together and connecting with all her relations meant so much has rubbed off on me in other ways.
It is very complex. At this point indescribable. (The second image is Mary and I at Curtin University 2001)
However coming to understand so much more about naming, words,practices, responsibilities, inequities and opportunism certainly slowly showed me a what I had the skills and werewithal to pursue.
And that is still only part of it, probably the knockabout life I have lead is mostly responsible for the at least the way I think deductively.
Understanding Ngaatatjarra language (in a very modest way) has been like the map of my mind was completely renamed.
It is both liberating (cant get lost), confronting (where do I belong) and a privilege (responsibility of being privy to words).

You can see I was a dead ringer to be a maker of ideas with all this lot inside my head.
Though materials have been the major language of my work, whatever is at hand (lifestyle) is fair game for me, moving from native plant material, (an enviromental issue) to fodder ( a colonial issue) is an exciting step for me.
There are other materials which are used repeatedly, for instance, seeds, bracts, leaves and it is the meaning intepreted through these that can be read. All of these things combined with used clothing and fabrics comes close to expressing what I think needs to be stated.

With regard to workshops, there are broadly speaking two strands of reasons women are drawn to participate in them.
First is the desire for opportunity and second is the desire for information, with an intemediate strand containing portions of both.
I have found that Aboriginal women are enthusiastic to be given the opportunity to make baskets etc,
Thisbe found this also in her early days of getting basketry going with the Western Desert women. You have been to the grass event at Alice Springs where it was this amazing nest of women, grass and coloured raffia. Even though there were many non Aboriginal women there , they were learning simply by sitting observing what the Minymas (women) were doing. (The third photo is Mrs Benson with women at the workshop)
Whereas if I do a workshop with non indigenous women then it is a mixture of history, techniques, materials, and potential outcomes. It is expected to be like that and it seems to be highly liberating for many.
When FORM did the Cultural Strands workshop in Kings Park last year, 100 women came and we had bales of fodder opened in the centre of it all, all these women, hopped into it with only very basic information. Their forms came naturally, so perhaps as much as anything it is the many different materials which it make it difficult to understand in regular workshops. This points to our desire for diversity. Where as the Aboriginal women from the remote communities have to be satisfied with grass and colour, sometimes feathers, wigs etc.But always grass.
I am curently stitching the red lining I remvoed from the red dress. It is a flimsy worn garment. I am stitching ininti beans across the top of it. Dreaming of dance. its an appropriate follow onto the way its outer covering was used. The outer and the inner.

Wednesday, 24 January 2007

The ground we stand on

Just as a diversion, I spent last week in Victoria's Western District, just below the Grampians. The drought is as severe in the west as it is elsewhere in Victoria. We were staying in a sheep farm and they were down to hand feeding the sheep. I walked along the paddocks quite a lot.

We were braced for hot dry weather, but inexplicably it rained steadily for three days. You can see the contrast on the ground from the days before and after just one day of rain. It's amazing how quickly the grass came up.

Unfortunately, this could prove a real problem for the farmer. He told me that if the rain is not followed up, then the grass is likely to get burnt off by the sun. And this means all their clover seed will have been wasted as it will have sprouted too early.

This showed me how complicated the relationship between the land and our existence on it has become.

Chewing it over

There's a lot to work through in your post Nalda. This is a little like a cow with two stomachs, isn't it? You ruminate first and then I take over. From fodder to dairy.

You write about a liking for found objects and mention the work that came from a doona found on the side of the road. You say that stitching grass onto it goes some to making a West Australian myth. I like the way you work combines the two cultures of the west, colonial and indigenous. It's the strangeness of their juxtaposition that your work seems to express so well (writing as someone who grew up in the state).

I was interested to read about the technical challenges in using grass. The bale of grass from Tom Price seemed a boon. This bounty reminds me of other stories from furniture makers in Victoria who have struck it lucky with timber finds. Many of these depend on the generosity and skill of others, such as millers and farmers.

You say that for many years you didn't include anything foreign into your fibre mix. I'm curious what made you change that and introduce other elements. Can you remember when it happened?

Interesting how you reflect on the freedom that fodder gives you. And how you describe it as more like drawing than painting. I know that the discipline of drawing is being approached quite broadly these days. I'd like to see how they look at your work.

Working with indigenous women is a large part of your practice. You have conducted countless workshops with both indigenous and non-indigenous artists. What impressions do you have of how they both approach making?

Tuesday, 16 January 2007

Fodder. nalda searles response.

Thank you Kevin, Close to my mind immediately is the photograph you choose to open our dialogue. Kalgoorlie, the place of my birth and where I have visited many times in the past 15 years has a major problem with domestic lawns. Flocks of pink and grey galahs delight in snipping off the succulent base of the green grass leaf. Kalgoorlie Boulder sports playing fields are another of their favourite picnic spots. Along with a sprinkling of corellas the galahs are amazing to watch as they play while nibbling, turning somersaults etc. In another country the birds may be seen as sacred visitors and even encouraged but lawn rules in Australian towns and cockies are a curse. The ngaatjatjarra word for pink and grey galahs is kinturrka, for corellas its kakalala and for grass, tjanpi. I am hoping this writing exchange will be an opportunity to be able to see ideas which more or less develop hand in hand with the making and yet can finish up silent as the crafted object then tends to stand alone. No voice to support it and it slips into the realm of being static. If I would choose a few words to explain why the things I make lean towards a reading of the peculiarity of being here it would be that space and time are also my major tools. Even though I have traveled extensively in my life I now find myself retracing over and over the lines of my early years, now thinking with a different sort of mind, I can roll around all sorts of mental inventions as a way of understanding. And even more as a maker I am driven to solving the problem of how will I make that idea. Then my mind roams around what my environment has to hand. Sometimes I find the answer right on the side of the road. For instance a doona, lying of the road between Kalgoorlie and Southern Cross very early in the morning. A snow-white clean doona. When I stitched hundreds of blades of grass onto its white surface it became an amazing pelt. Long yellow grass, Guildford grass. A grass doona, an introduced grass in this case. So out of that simple act come many meanings both for myself and for others. Sometimes with objects I make there is a real effort to contribute to an Australian myth or at least a West Australian myth. To me it seems an important path to follow. It is a very serious path. I have the luxury of my life to keep churning up as fodder with all its vagaries and offer it for contemplation. Grass, fibre, twigs, and many other found and recycled objects kind of move around me when I am thinking, and there is this joining of the idea and that certain material that fit together, sometimes fleeting, at other times it hits the mark. But always the vocabulary I have developed is built around trying to make sense of life.
Using fibre, specifically grass, to make objects is such a basic act. It does require skill, as much in using a needle and thread as anything,if it is to be stitched. There is an irony in our culture, grass is fodder, grass is weeds, grass grows to be clipped down one way or another. To see a patch of nice long grass suitable for stitching is a joy, to recognise it as such is a skill. Basketry which includes eveything from thatching to hats to shoes, capes, and of course baskets keeps us aware of its uses but how to do it tends to be a mystery.A maze literally. The eye finds it hard to follow. It was several years before I attempted making baskets from grass. Once started I never returned to commercial materials.
In the mid 80s I met a seed collector from Tom Price, his task was to seed the mine dumps with cimbopogon ambiguous, one of the heavenly lemon scented grasses. Each year he harvested the stalks and seed heads, hung them to dry and collected the seed , then discarded the stalks. I purchased a wool bale full of the stalks and leaves he discarded and that set me up and still some remains. Having such an abundance I was able to use it as a foundation for baskets. Mixed with native shrubs, leaves,barks and flowers each basket became a kind of mandala for what it contained. It was doing these that gave me the ability to read grasses and plants. For many years I would never include a single leaf of anything not native except cloth or hair and the linen stitching threads. Anything else I felt would contaminate, take away the spirit of the vessel.
So many journeys in the bush to certain places, even that would be part of the spirit that went into the stitching.
However as an awareness of meanings developed so I spread my range of materials. However I never let go of a certain vocabularly which the native plants came to represent. For instance, the 'Whiteboy Blazer' (collection Wollongong City Art gallery) where xanthorrheoa spathes are stitched onto a West Australian schoolboys blazer remains true to it.
So one could say that those first years of making fibre objects was my training ground as much for developing a way of thinking as it was learning skills.
This fodder that we are talking about is a relatively new material for me, not only did I have to let go of the notion of spirit contained within the native plants but also using a material which is very basic and roughly treated. A major shift but it has given me a freedom that basketry with native plants cannot. A playfulness and directness, more like drawing than painting.

Wednesday, 10 January 2007

Welcome to Fodder

Here's an image of lawn in Kalgoorlie, which I took during the tour of Water Medicine. Reading Geoffrey Blainey's book about C.Y.O'Connor, it seemed that the main use of the pipeline that supplied water from Perth to Kalgoorlie was to support the domestic gardens in the city. For me, these images of the 'registered lawns' have been a telling sign of the disconnection that comes from particular gardening practices in Australia.

Welcome to fodder, which is a 'dia-blog' between myself and Nalda Searles, the West Australian fibre artist. We have been working together for a number of years -- I as curator/writer and Nalda as curator/writer/maker. We have been corresponding much in recent times, and would like this to contribute to future possibilities for fibre-based work.

We thought it would be timely to introduce a third party to this conversation by putting it on the web. Whether or not anyone visits, it provides us with a stage on which we can test our thoughts to the implied objective eye.

For me, Nalda's work has a special personal meaning. Having grown up in Perth, I have a deep attachment to its environs -- the bleached light, glossy eucalypt leaves against an infinite blue sky, red earth and ferrous rock. Built on this is a deep respect for her as a maker, as someone who has given herself to the task of becoming friends with the land. This has been of significant influence to a number makers, which I found interviewing emerging artists in Craft Unbound: Make the Common Precious.

What do I hope this conversation will achieve? It seems part of our phenomenological equipment that we distinguish between thinking and making -- what we mean and how we express it. And it is our cultural inheritance (thanks Plato), that thinking is perceived as prior to making. Making is something that we can take for granted (this is something we are exploring in more depth in the What's in the Making). When it comes to colonising a country like Australia, this attitude leads to a kind of blindness to the new land. The ideas come from the European enlightenment, and their realisation in Terra Australis will be a mirror to its rationality. There was little expectation of dialogue with the land, or its people.

It seems critical to the continuing journey of a country like Australia that we learn the language not only of its spiritual custodians, but also the land that they own traditionally. For me, Nalda is a pioneer working on a frontier that it has taken Balanda more than 200 years to encounter. She is learning the language of grass, and applying that language to other materials in our world, including found fibres. I'm interested to learn from Nalda more about how she goes about this. I am hoping that there might be something from this can could be applied to other domains -- that we can move from making to thinking, to be fabercentric rather than logocentric.

But that's enough playing to the stalls. Let's get started. Now to you, Nalda, what do you hope to achieve from this dialogue?