Finding beauty

Maybe I embody that instinct in Europeans that caused the great flurry of japanoiserie in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century – an innate recognition of aesthetic values relating to nature, and not necessarily evident in one’s immediate surroundings. Whatever, I have always loved Japanese style, from childhood through art school and beyond.

After a successful solo exhibition in February this year, I returned to a blank studio and settled down with a few books, one of which related to a kimono collection, and through a series of strange and serendipitous events that followed I found myself last month in Tokyo.

The exhibition Simple Forms: Contemplating Beauty at the Mori Art Museum was a timely reminder that all that is simple and beautiful isn’t necessarily Japanese. Co-organised with Centre Pompidou-Metz, this show was a breathtaking collection of objects old and new, natural and human made, indigenous and otherwise, that effectively demonstrated a “tranquil and lyrical, universal beauty” (Nanjo Fumio, Mori Art Museum Director).

From Tokyo I went to the mountains near the small town of Fujino to attend a ten-day workshop on Japanese textiles and the art of indigo dyeing.

Occasionally it happens that an experience gives everything you had hoped for and more. Eight of us had signed up, from the US, Canada, Switzerland, France and Australia (all women) and we were joined by one young Englishman who had come to an earlier workshop and wasn’t quite ready to leave.

Workshop leader Bryan was a deeply knowledgeable, generous and gifted teacher. Hiro provided us with delicious and nourishing food, beautifully presented, and gave us joy through his ikebana.

To try to describe our journey together would not do it justice, but maybe some photos will give an indication.

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near Fujino

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lunch

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rinsing in the river

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reeling silk

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Ogata-san makes udon noodles

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indigo vats

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indigo dyed fabric

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tea fields

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hung out to dry

From Fujino to Kyoto, where I rejoined Neil who had been on a guided walk following Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Pilgrim sees a holy shrine.

Elsewhere a woman

Stains her fingers blue.

(Although, haiku never sound quite right in English).

We were met by our eldest daughter, who has a personal history of her own with Japan. Five days more of extraordinarily wonderful experiences followed.

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little shrine down from our ryokan

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mossy hillside above the Silver Pavilion

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foyer, Miho Museum

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dandelion on the Philosopher’s Walk

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home of potter Kawai Kanjiro (now a museum)

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his kiln

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kiln wall

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above the desk: “I want to see a new self. I work”

Colour persists

The arts reflect the influence we humans exert upon the world of which we are a part. For me the role of the arts is to nourish and replenish, to sustain our inner life and to affirm our ability to respond in a sentient way to what we observe around us. Through the arts, we colour our existence.

The arts gather together our visions of who we are, where we have come from and what we will become. Through music and movement, through poetry and literature, through story and song, through the imaginative construction of image, we assert our ability to shape our lives, our world, our future.

Colour is a characteristic of life. Living things lose their colour when they die.

In these paintings, colour stands for all that is living and hopeful, vital and transcendent.

Colour persists.

East wind

1 East wind

acrylic on canvas
45 x 45 cm

The colours of this painting suggest central mainland Australia, yet there is something indefinably Japanese about it. I have always found Japanese art and design very beautiful. For me, growing up on mainland Australia, there was always a metaphoric wind blowing from the East.

Approaching zero 1

2 Approaching zero 1
acrylic on canvas
45 x 45 cm

Approaching zero 2

3 Approaching zero 2
acrylic on canvas
45 x 45 cm

In mathematics, zero is the point from which all reckoning proceeds, the neutral value between positive and negative, the point of intersection of the axes on a graph. It might be thought of as nothing, or as the point of perfect balance.

Family Lines

4 Family lines
acrylic on canvas
175 x 175 cm

This painting contemplates the curious blend of individual colours and characteristics that go to make up every family. Crochet is a skill passed on to me by my paternal grandmother, who used to make huge scarves for us all. Often she wove coloured strands between the crocheted stitches, producing garments that were known throughout the family as “Nanna’s horse blankets”: warm and comforting, and slightly scratchy and inflexible, but always lovingly made… a fair metaphor for family life in general.

Colour persists

5 Colour persists 2
acrylic on canvas
108 x 130 cm

Colour persisits sketch

6 Colour persists (sketch)
acrylic on canvas
45 x 45 cm

Living things lose their colour when they die.

Colour persists in all that is living and therefore hopeful.

Chant

7 Chant
acrylic on canvas
45 x 45 cm

The repeated “crochet” motif with five lines “woven” through it vaguely resembles a musical score, but with only one continuous low note.

Tim Winton: “In the south, which boils with gothic clouds, the sky’s commotion can render you so feverish your thoughts are closer to music than language.”

From the deep

8 From the deep
acrylic on canvas
(diptych) 2 panels each 90 x 70cm

The ocean is sometimes used as a metaphor for the subconscious mind. After storms, fishing nets draw up fragments of seaweed broken by the sea’s turbulence. Similarly, thoughts rise to consciousness from the depths of the psyche, sometimes to be captured in works of art. The right hand side of this painting contains lines of text relating to the sea, taken from many sources, from Pete Hay to Virginia Wolff.

First rain

9 First rain
acrylic on canvas
110 x 130 cm

Hobart’s climate is surprisingly dry. Having lived in many parts of Australia including the tropics, I miss the heavy summer rains. The first few drops of a good fall bring the senses alert with anticipation… and then comes the deluge and the sudden flush of green growth that follows. There is nothing like the smell of rain on dry ground.

Red red rose

10 Red, red rose
acrylic on canvas
45 x 45 cm

I enjoy exploring the boundaries of image and text. This painting is based on the words of Robert Burns.

“My love is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June:
My love is like a melody
That’s sweetly played in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in love am I:
And I will love thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.”

The place where waters meet

11 The place where waters meet
acrylic on canvas
45 x 45 cm

In India, near Allahabad, there is a place considered holy by Hindus, called Sangam, where the rivers Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswat meet. It is said that the colours of each river can be seen as they combine at Sangam.

The words in this painting are taken from the poem Where Water Comes Together with Other Water by Raymond Carver:

“I love creeks and the music they make.
And rills, in glades and meadows, before
they have a chance to become creeks.
I may even love them best of all
for their secrecy….
…And the places streams flow into rivers.
The open mouths of rivers where they join the sea….
It pleases me, loving rivers.
Loving them all the way back
to their source.
Loving everything that increases me.”

The Door

12 The Door
acrylic on canvas
45 x 45 cm

A poem by Charles Tomlinson was the starting point for this painting, and set me searching for other references to doors.

“Too little
has been said
of the door, its one
face turned to the night’s
downpour and its other
to the shift and glisten of the firelight….

…too little
has been said
of our coming through and leaving by them.”

Cropped field

13 Cropped Field
acrylic on canvas
45 x 45 cm

A little field painting; a little painting of a field. Cropped. After harvest.

Untitled

14 The River
acrylic on canvas
110 x 130 cm

The river flows by, bearing on its surface small, bright leaves and the reflection of all that stands beside it. The river flows on, deeply, darkly, but we only see the surface. If we focus differently, we can sometimes see what lies beneath.

Australian parrots, Latin names

15 Australian parrots, Latin names

acrylic on canvas
110 x 130 cm

Rainbow lorikeet: Triglossus haematodus.
Pale-headed rosella: Platycercus adscitus.
Parrots.

Bright feathers. Clustered in trees, or flashing by.

Regardless of any name we give it, a parrot is simply itself.

Score for frogs and rain

16 Score for frogs and rain
acrylic on canvas
45 x 45 cm

In Australia’s tropical north there are times when rain falls heavily after dark, in great curtains, parallel strands, drumming where it lands, its sound broken only by frog song. It’s the noisiest kind of peace I know.

Time and space

17 Time and space
acrylic on canvas
110 x 180 cm

There are many grid-like diagrams representing time and space, drawn to demonstrate the physical “laws” that govern them. However, we don’t really experience time and space that way. Places that seemed huge to us as children are surprisingly small when we revisit them. The time it takes to reach a destination always seems longer than the trip home.

For me, time and space swoop and fold like a blowing curtain as I make forays into the landscape, and into memory.

History

18 History
acrylic on canvas
175 x 175 cm

An interaction occurs. It is documented. Later, the documentation is reinterpreted from different points of view. Patterns are sought, lines of logic drawn. Detail is emphasised, and obliterated, as the process continues over time.

History is written and rewritten, and in the end the interpretation obscures the event.

These are the processes of history, regardless of the scale of the event. The original interaction might have been of national or personal importance; the process is the same.

This painting began with a series of overlapping panels. The rest is history.

Piecework of recall-1

19 Piecework of recall
acrylic on canvas
110 x 130 cm

Not long before I began this painting I met a friend I had not seen for decades and we reminisced about our early lives. Each of us remembered things the other had not; each of us was able to shed light for the other on the events of long ago.

We piece together our memories so that they make sense to us, finding order where we can. But there are always pieces floating outside the pattern, sometimes in the memories of others, which must be allowed to find their place in the whole.

Butterfly

20 A butterfly flaps its wings in China… somewhere a love affair begins
acrylic on canvas
Diptych: 2 panels each 45 x 45cm

“The butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.” (Wikipedia)

The idea of a small occurrence influencing later events is more appealing to me than “fate” or “destiny”. It demonstrates the inter-connectedness of all things, while reserving judgment as to the likely outcome.

These paintings are from my solo exhibition Colour persists at Handmark, Hobart, January 2015

My grateful thanks to:

• Allanah Dopson and the wonderful staff at Handmark for looking after me and my work so well

• Scott Turnbull at Turnbull Family Funerals for generously providing me with studio space

Andrew Veivers for enliving the opening of the exhibition with his splendid music

• My family, especially Neil, for their patience, and even enthusiasm, for my work

Aspiring to the condition of music

Back in June I wrote a post called About Writing About Art. I had just heard an interview with the resident conductor of WASO, Asher Fisch. The last sentence of that post was “And remind me to play some music at the opening of my next exhibition.”

I’m delighted to announce that composer/guitarist Andrew Veivers is going to play at the opening of my next exhibition, in Hobart on 16th January. If you are not familiar with Andrew’s music, have a listen on his website, http://www.andrewveivers.com

As one reviewer wrote, “This guy must eat Gypsy hearts for breakfast…” How lucky am I that he will still be in Hobart following performances at the Cygnet Folk Festival!

Music has been very important to me during the last two years, while preparing the work for this exhibition. My painting method is slow and exacting. I find that if I play music while I work, I do not tire. The mark making, which involves a lot of repetition, becomes meditative. Time passes without my noticing. My best source of music is ABC Classic FM, because it saves me having to choose. I like surprises.

Sometimes, I can see the music in the work, the rhythm of it, the arc of the melody.

Favourite composer to paint by? J.S. Bach, no contest. But to celebrate the culmination of two years in the studio – Andrew Veivers, for sure.

It was English writer Walter Pater (1839 – 94) who wrote, “All art aspires to the condition of music.” I tend to agree. For my paintings to demonstrate structure and harmony and to evoke associations and emotions through abstraction, as music does, strikes me as a worthy aspiration.

There’s a lot going on in Hobart (festival capital of the known universe at this time of year), but for me the best gig in town will be at Handmark in Salamanca Place, 6 pm, 16th of January 2015. All welcome: see you there!

Mexico

Last month I was in Mexico. Our visit coincided with the Day of the Dead (not by accident – my husband Neil has made a study of celebrations worldwide.)

Unlike the Celtic-based tradition on which Halloween is based, in which lingering souls are discouraged from hanging about, the Mexicans prepare elaborate altars laden with offerings to welcome their dead loved ones when they return.

Altar_2

There was a lot of dressing up in death masks and plenty of dancing, fabulous music and fireworks in the lead up to the day of the Dead as well.

Dancers

On the night of October 31st we visited cemeteries around Oaxaca and saw families encamped for the night, having picnics around graves decorated with marigolds and candles, playing music, holding vigil.



As a civil celebrant I officiate at many funerals and memorial services. We tend to speak now of a “celebration of life” in preference to concentrating on the sorrow of death; this seems like a step in the right direction (away from Victorian solemnity towards something more personally relevant), but we could take some lessons from the Mexican people about how to imbue our ceremonies with colour and personal significance. I was very touched that people seemed not to mind us being there to share an occasion that was simultaneously private (a family matter) and public (in a graveyard).

Of course I made the pilgrimage to the Blue House, where Frida Kahlo lived, but I must admit I was saddened by the thought that the suffering she had so skilfully concealed from public view during her life was laid bare for all to see; and the best paintings were touring elsewhere, which was a disappointment. I retreated quite quickly to the garden, where the atmosphere was peaceful and beautiful.

Other Mexican highlights:
The Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City

The Museo Amparo in Puebla, a great collection housed in a fine new building. Photos were not permitted in the current contemporary exhibition but here’s the view from the rooftop café

The Biblioteca Palifoxiana in Puebla, the oldest library in the Americas, an absolute treasure

Diego Rivera’s murals at the Palacio de Justicia in Mexico City. Although they are fading where they have been subjected to strong light, the colours are mostly still vivid and vibrant. Because the murals are essentially political I had not thought I would l would be so impressed, but they are truly masterful. I am so glad I saw them after seeing something of Mexico, to better understand the content. Here’s a detail…

We then moved north into New Mexico, around Santa Fe.
Here for me the great highlight was the Harwood Museum in Taos, which contains a gallery specially built to house seven works by Agnes Martin. These works are impossible to photograph; they are pale and subtle, and mesmeric. To be in a room full of them is something like being inside a 3-D after image. If you ever have a chance to be with Agnes Martin’s work, don’t miss it. I also discovered that Agnes’ ashes are buried out the back of the Harwood, so I was able to pay my respects to one of the artists whose work I have most admired.

As well at the Harwood was an exhibition described as “nuevo lowbrow” that was adventurous, risky, contained some really wonderfully painted and rather confronting images and was really interesting and enjoyable.

Other highlights around Santa Fe:
“Earthships”, a community of very wild sustainable housing outside Taos

The Academy for the Love of Learning, where Neil gave a presentation. An amazing facility, started by Aaron Stern (who still runs it) and his mentor Leonard Bernstein and privately funded.

The New Mexico landscape itself was also inspiring

And so were the strange plants.
As you get older, one of life’s great pleasures is to see something totally new to you.

Suffer little children

Occasionally it happens that a painting insists upon coming into existence. So it is with this one. I had set out to paint something else, but once the deep purple/black ground was down I couldn’t look at it without thinking of polished mahogany furniture and crocheted tablecloths. The painting formed in my mind and I couldn’t get around it; the only way to get it out of the way and move on to something else was to paint it.

The verses are scraps of prayers and hymns remembered from my schooldays. The drawings are taken from the Little Golden Book of Prayers for Children, which I still have, lovingly inscribed as a gift from my parents for my first birthday.

In the illustrations in the little prayer book, children say grace over tea parties with their dollies, walk about protected by angels, and kneel together in prayer surrounded, like St Francis of Assisi, by birds and small fluffy animals. I can vaguely remember feeling that if one was a good girl, this is how it would be.

The year I turned four I was sent to an Anglican grammar school, and I continued there until the end of my secondary schooling, aged seventeen. “Junior School”, the years from Prep to Grade 3, I remember as a happy time of making and doing, singing and skipping, reading and writing, playing and learning. In Years 4 to 10 we were given a pretty standard education for the time, delivered mainly by ageing ladies some of whom were pretty whacky. In the last two years things went downhill fast, but that’s another story.

And, as a backdrop to the standard curricular proceedings, there was the religious education. It was presented cheerfully enough, with the usual stories of saints and angels, the daily hymns and rituals. It was not until many years later that I began to see the possible consequences of inculcating children with the doctrine of original sin that underlay it all. No wonder, when we entered the wider world in the late 1960’s, so many of us failed to achieve, made poor partnership choices and needed assertiveness training when we had told ourselves, in our own voices, through liturgy and song on a daily basis during all those growing years, that we were worthless.

I called this painting “Suffer little children” and added the scrap of canvas held on by a black feather to take into account the advice of family, friends and colleagues who felt that if I had left the painting in its first state, without the additions to the image and the rather obvious title, it might be thought by the viewer that I was actually promoting the doctrine. I wanted to present the work as something quite aesthetically appealing, something lovingly created but bearing a message that must surely have a negative impact on a developing child. The message is: no matter how hard I try, no matter how many prayers I say, despite the fact that angels guard my way, I am personally responsible for the death of Christ through my intrinsically flawed nature. I am worth nothing.

The potency of these words is demonstrated by the fact that after many decades I can recall them with such ease. The word “suffer” has of course changed in meaning. It used to mean “put up with”. The rest of the quote was “Suffer the little children to come unto Me and forbid them not; for such is the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.”

I hope the Blake Society will find this painting suitable to hang in their Art Prize, because I can’t imagine who else would want it.

About writing about art

In an interview on ABC Classic FM today (14/6/14) the newly appointed conductor of the WASO, Asher Fisch, was asked whether he was hopeful or worried for the future of “serious” music. He replied that he was worried by the time gap between the music people can generally relate to and the present – a gap that is steadily increasing. The same is of course true of visual art; most people relate far better to paintings produced in 1890 than to those being created now.

Asher Fisch remarked that he was hopeful for the future of opera above concert music because it provided a narrative to which people could relate, and he commented that people are accustomed to hearing quite abstract film scores, although they don’t really listen to the music. We have been told often enough that we live in a visual age – yet without the music the film would not have the same emotional power. 

He also said that he enjoys talking to audiences to tell them something about the music. It was great to hear him say that. For a long time I have felt that in contemporary Fine Arts of any form it is arrogant to expect audiences and to just “get it”. True, there are academic languages that can be applied within the arts. However, I suspect that what most of us in the business bring to bear on contemporary work is intuition as well as thought. We have given ourselves permission to feel as well as think, to look for resonances rather than resemblances, to look for an individual, internal reality. We ask ourselves how the work fits with contemporary practice, and we also ask: how does it work for me? We know that the response is highly subjective. No one in the arts asks themselves the question: what is it meant to be? Yet that is the question a general audience will always ask, as if there was a correct answer.

It seems that for a general audience, right now, a combination of two art forms works better than one. Films are given emotional impact by music: music is better accepted when it has a narrative to go with it. Concert goers are more engaged by the music if the conductor speaks about it; otherwise the music they enjoy most is the music about which they already know something, even if it’s only something about the life of the composer.

At my last exhibition in Hobart I provided brief notes on each painting. I made it clear in the exhibition statement that I hoped people would bring their own perceptions and associations to the work; there is no right way to look at a painting. Some people chose not to look at the notes – no problem. But some did, and I hope it added something to their experience of the exhibition.

There is a widely held assumption that artists are no good at talking about their own work; if they could say it or write it, they wouldn’t have to paint it. For me, painting is like visual poetry. It gives clues without proscribing meaning, it says more than one thing at a time. Works of art open up thoughts and feelings within oneself. Meaning unfolds. I paint because meaning is fluid. But I am happy to try and catch some of my own thoughts and put them to paper to give people a way of engaging with the work.

And next time I have an exhibition, remind me to play some music.

In Alice

CAMERON Faridah_History_acrylic on canvas_175 x 175cm copy

One of my paintings was shortlisted in the Alice Prize this year.

It’s a long time since I’ve been in Alice. The first few times I went, in the early 90s, I was working on community theatre projects: River of Dreams in the Todd River bed, then Seeds of Fire on the clay pans out near the gap. For this second project we were based at Araluen Art Centre and the Alice Prize was on show while we were there. As so often in the NT, the work was vibrant, and I loved the mix of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal art.

In the intervening years, memories of Alice have turned up in my paintings from time to time.

This painting, entitled History, just felt like it belonged there. The unpackers and hangers must have seen something in it too, because they gave it their award.

I haven’t been in Alice for many years, but at least my painting has. And the desert still calls me. Maybe I’ll get back there soon.