More making, thinking

Last month’s post showed a number of clay hexagons. That sequence of investigation resulted in a “flexa-hexagon”, following the instructions of Fiona Abel-Smith (

Sorry there’s no video – some technical issues on my part – so check Fiona’s tutorial to get an idea of how it works.

The research brief I mentioned last month was heavily modified after discussion with Ruth Hadlow and the rest of my Creative Research group. We’re now in our third year of working together, and our monthly zoom sessions are exhilarating and exhausting. We’re a diverse group, and the familiarity we’ve developed with each participant’s individual interests leads to wonderful questions, insights, and challenges.

Here I’ll just give a brief view of work so far – on 19th century mourning conventions.

Cassells Household Guide (date around 1880s) ( acknowledges the grief, but moves briskly into the practicalities for “the afflicted widow, who, being now deprived of her own and her children’s support, besides being perhaps totally unfitted for business duties, is left among strangers, friendless and alone; and who, most likely, by incurring needless outlay in funeral expenses, deprives of their subsistence those who look to her – who is now their only friend – for food and shelter.” Details are important, for example: “The width of the hat-bands worn differs according to the degree of relationship. When worn by the husband for the wife they are usually at the present time about seven inches wide. Those worn by fathers for sons, and sons for fathers, are about five inches wide. For other degrees of relationship the width of the hat-band varies from two and a half inches to four inches.” So much focus on money, business, status.

Mourning day dress
c. 1897-99
FIDM Museum

That rich purple. I wonder if it was one one the new aniline dyes.

As well as clothing, jewellery was a major signifier. Mum inherited a number of pieces, including this locket showing Louise Eleanor Corfield – my grandmother’s great aunt.

In 2019 mum and I made a pilgrimage to the National Library of Australia, which now holds the photograph albums of John Chester Jervis. Louise’s image briefly joined that of her brother and sister.

A slightly earlier influence is this still life watercolour by Frances ‘Fanny’ Macleay, which was exhibited by her as an honorary exhibitor at the Royal Academy London in 1824.

Mum and I saw it (a reproduction?) when we visited Elizabeth Bay House in 2013.

Elements of these – the colours, the thread work and seed pearls in the locket, the flowers of the still-life – were brought into clay experiments.

First four individual flower canes.

These little bowls range between 5.5 to 6.5 cm diameter. The back one combines two canes.

Extra elements were added, forced into a triangle, which was then cut and re-formed to include “thread and pearl”.

I made little bowls in two of the three potential kaleidoscope combinations.

These are slightly bigger – 8.5 cm across.

Finally I used leftover clay in an extruder, and created a bowl with a more 20th century “mod” vibe.

Back to the smaller size, at just over 6 cm.

The intention is that as my research reading and writing continues, I’ll keep responding in clay – further expanding my collection of vessels.

The space between orange and turquoise

I’ve been using kato clay, a brand specifically encouraging colour mixing with 8 “spectral” colours and a detailed colour mixing page ( But that only circles the colour chart. I love the colours in between as well.

With my first packs I made colour chips of blends with white and black for each colour. It took a little longer, but I now have a set of samples for every pair of colours. For each pair three strips – 100% colour, adding in half as much white, and adding in the same amount of white.

28 pairs mixed with the same amount of white.

If I want green, I could start with the clay labelled green
or the olive green hidden between yellow and black
or yellow mixed with greens or blues

just the beginning of greens

or I can start being a bit more adventurous. In fact the “green” clay turns out to be a very exciting mixer.

some of the green mixes

Green and magenta looks pretty. For each of the light strips I have the same colour pairs with 50% and zero white.

green and magenta

They are a great head-start when trying for a particular colour.

The “Skinner method” (named after the woman who developed and shared it) is a core polymer clay technique. As well as making the colour reference chips I used some of my results when attempting some kaleidoscope cane building.

These are enormous fun, created in a very free and exploratory way. Each set shown above uses just a pair of colours plus white. These are based on videos from Fiona Abel-Smith and Teresa Pandora Salgado.

On an aside, the power of the reflection/mirroring of the kaleidoscope and the pattern-finding of the human eye is amazing. I gave my husband a little clay demo, talking and fairly randomly grabbing scraps on the worktable. The end result:

Yellow and violet were used in a tutorial from Alice Stroppel

Purple and violet
Blend in progress
cane pretty much done

Actually that colour mix was a blast from the past – some silk thread dyeing ten years ago (27-Jan-2011 and on, concluding with final gamp shawl 20-Feb-2011)

A lot of the experiments remain in cane form, with just a few slices taken to make the kaleidoscopes, however I did have some fun combining an earlier Alice Stroppel experiment with some basketry techniques. The central clay medallion was baked with wires already in place.

OK, full disclosure – some earrings appeared too.

Leftover clay from pair mixing blends was used to make a cover for my latest research notes.

The research is around poignant / evocative and objects / things / stuff / sculpture… so I found it amusing to make the folder/holder of readings and notes into an object in its own right. (obvious future making note is to consider shrinkage).

Back to colour exploration, I should have mentioned making a series of chips showing values from white to black.

samples ready for baking in the oven

For that I somewhat laboriously cut out multiple squares.

In most mixing I’ve used the cutter while developing a colour, but when replicating in bulk a mix that was 1 part Turquoise, 32 parts Orange, 48 parts White and 16 parts Yellow I baulked. Happily the graph paper under my glass allows for more efficient cutting of sheets of clay. A 4 x 12 cm rectangle of white takes a matter of moments to cut.

That mix recipe neatly segues to my title topic. The beautiful space between orange and turquoise. It’s dawn or sunset, not mud.

A raw patchwork clump

became a beautiful little dish, about 7 cm across.

There are plans and experiments for making it into some other things,

possibly in combination with a cane made of leftovers, based on Alice Stroppel’s signature method

But I got distracted by a Clay Zoo tutorial (making a tree leaf necklace) using colours in this space, but with some very clever techniques along the way. One is the use of 3 colours in the blending, which has the effect of emphasising the turquoise end and reducing the oranges. The second is creating a leaf cane with colours changing down through it, meaning thick slices cut give leaves of different colours in the final cane.

This meant I needed to revisit my blend samples to get more precise mix ratios for my start colours.

The numbers are drawn into the clay before baking, and index to my colour mixing note recipe book. Across the top is a controlled set of mixing steps, at the bottom, the colours I eventually used.

Yesterday’s end-of-day results

Materials focus – polymer clay

Building skills in polymer clay has become a major focus. I have a lot to learn! I first intended to use it to make forms to use in making silicon molds to use in casting resin. That’s on the backburner. Instead…

Previously seen (30-Apr-2021) – used as part of the amour bowl series.

That was fun. I was intrigued.

Much youtube watching and some more clay purchasing followed.

Mum’s breakfast plate and two versions of a cuff (baking mistake on the first). I’m using Kato clay, and am keen on mixing my own colours. Outside design based on tutorial from Clay Zoo

Another cuff, colour and pattern based on a pendant originally owned by my brother-in-law’s mother, then his sister, then mum, now me. The design a heavily modified version of another Clay Zoo pattern.

A jug that has been passed down from family provided colours and motifs for a bowl.

It’s a real plus that the clay stays usable until it’s baked. I often find myself trying out techniques I’ve seen, using up scraps at the end of the day.

The “sketch” above was a demonstration for my son during a visit (pre-lockdown of course). He joined in, and I later made some beads using his left-overs.

Clay leftovers from the bowl seen last post, based on mum’s skirt fabric, can be seen in a series of other work.

Beads and bangle

Leading to another bangle

Another plate of mum’s has led to a colour palette and experimentation with surface design methods, but it hasn’t come together in a finished object (yet?)

Both welcome and difficult, over time my experiments have become more materials focused, independent of my reflections on mum. This dish collects samples made during a zoom “making session” with my creative group. Very low-key, each of us working on our own projects, but a wonderful connection during Sydney’s lockdown. Not that all of us are in Sydney!

I really like this dish, which used a ripple blade makume gane technique from Sam of Jessama Tutorials. But I was unhappy with my blade skills.

The pattern emerging is that leftovers equal more beads.

A tutorial from Debbie Crothers showed a bead made by rolling from the inside. Could that be scaled up to make a bangle?

The initial attempt –

was yes – but more care needed right at the end to get a good shape.

Perhaps extend metal forms using paper or cardboard?

On the right above, the starting cylinder of clay was skirt left-overs. That went well and a pretty good circle form. The “draping” attempt at the left was a fail, breaking when I tried to put it on.

There are many, many, many interesting variations of the mokume gane technique out there. Wanting to give myself time and opportunities to improve my blade use, I thought of simplifying with a single but multi-coloured layer as the base (more skirt clay) and a layer of black on top.

I tried varying the thickness of the top layer.

Then wondered if I could use lino-cutting tools rather than the ripple blade.

Almost the last piece of skirt clay was covered top and bottom with purple and rolled from the inside.

Yet another supporting form was made, this time entirely from cardboard and sticky tape, giving ultimate flexibility in size and shape.

The outside was covered in more purple, then carved.

The design began from a little vessel souvenir of mum’s.

… heavily modified in the process

Feeling a bit scattered in all my experimentation, I decided to purchase a series of tutorials by Alice Stroppel

I was very happy with initial results. The triangular cane is approximated on a technique from Fiona Abel-Smith, but I did it from memory so let’s call it an adaptation.

Also from Alice Stroppel, although I don’t have an extruder device so improvised in parts.

Fiona Abel-Smith has a interesting use of cane leftovers

and having leftover left-overs, … I was back to beads.

The next Alice Stroppel tutorial I want to do also uses an extruder as part of making dotted lines. I decided to give dots and stripes some attention, trying alternative methods. Starting small –

then going further, using colours developed from a cornish-ware bowl of mum’s.

A dish combining the attempts will I hope prove a useful memory jog, if not a thing of beauty in itself.

I’ve already mentioned end-of-day scrap experiments. A few more:

As well as scraps, this next one used an improvised cutting strip, made from a roll of thin metal that was lurking on the shelves.

A sheet of scraps went through the cutting part of the pasta machine, and then woven.

Fresh clay (!) went through the cutters, and was rolled, smeared, and generally mis-handled.

I keep trying to get an extruder-effect without buying an extruder, and while it’s all good experience I keep missing the mark.

Off-cuts from colour-mixing exercises became a spiral galaxy

All together it seems a fair bit – but there is so, so, so much more to learn.

Going to what attracts

Last month’s post had a rather cerebral, methodical, contemplative tone. I was faced with input, reading around it, developing responses. There was a similar, sedate follow-up post planed and partially written.

This morning I was overtaken by a kind of creative hunger. An overwhelming mad rush – try this, no try this, OK not good what about this, or this, or… And I ended with this:

It was important that this photo showed the bracelet on skin. My mini-photo booth was partially dismantled, one arm stuck through the side seam – but this is not an inert object. It demands warmth, insists upon its tactile nature.

I’m in the eerily quiet calm after the storm, trying to piece together what happened. Afterwards I walked through warm Sydney sunshine, held by my new bangle. My first use of memory wire, it gently presses the double-cone shaped beads into my skin, they roll against me – an embrace, holding me together. The swirl beads are polymer clay, made with leftovers from my latest project, baked in the oven this morning. No sanding or polishing, the simple matt finish left by the touch of my hands as I formed them. They feel warm against the skin. I have a sense of repletion, satisfaction, looking at the variations in scale and finish. The blue/green beads have a faint striation in them giving a glow, reflecting the striations of the cones.

I walked in warm winter sunshine, the air not quite still. Welcoming. Coffee sitting outside a local café, back to the sun, by my special request ceramic rather than takeaway cup. Today some of Sydney went into lockdown – both my sons, given where they work. At the moment I’m clear, but a friend who paused to chat as she was walking her dog went to her CBD office last week so will be in lockdown from midnight. Her husband is already in the mountains, on their planned weekend getaway.

I walked and sat and read and chatted and all the while felt the bangle. Felt a warm, active embrace – not exactly of mum, and not of memory of mum, but that new relationship or internal understanding or that kind of good hurt that isn’t tearing or scary but somehow a confirmation of being alive. I was thinking of mum, aware of missing her desperately, but also – well, at times I’ve felt a void, lost in emptiness, then more recently I read Gaston Bachelard: “The word vast, then, is a vocable of breath. It is placed on our breathing, which must be slowed and calm. And the fact is that always, in Baudelaire’s poetics, the word vast evokes calm, peace and serenity. It expresses a vital, intimate conviction. It transmits to our ears the echo of the secret recesses of our being. For this words bears the mark of gravity, it is the enemy of turmoil, opposed to the vocal exaggerations of declamation. In diction enslaved to strict measure, it would be shattered. The word vast must reign over the peaceful silence of being.” So I’ve been thinking – not of filling the void. Seeing instead my own internal vast. Inhabiting it. Making connections. Open to correspondence. Letting go a bit, so my relationship is strengthened, developed.

Let’s backtrack a bit on the making. The polymer clay beads were made from leftovers from this:

The making and baking completed yesterday. This morning off the glass bowl I used as a form. Still needs some sanding and buffing.

The design is based on fabric from one of mum’s skirts. Other variants were in my last post – a coiled vessel; a resined vessel; a resin bangle.

Just before sitting down to attempt to capture all this, I took a “family” photo.

This also shows some extra beads and a “backdrop” of some print-making play, but not all the notebook images exploring the fabric motifs and planning the various responses.

Back to the experience of today. The blue/green beads were from a double-stranded necklace that belonged to mum. I repurposed it as an arm wrap, but one of the strings broke so for the past couple of months it’s been sitting in a little box while I considered repair versus re-use possibilities. Today, in my flurry of activity, they called loudly. The little silver beads are stash – but for the sake of emotional completeness I’ve decided I got them when making earrings using family heirloom mother of pearl gaming chips from mum’s great-x uncle (July-2018). The memory wire is a recent purchase – but come on, it’s memory wire.

I wanted to finish with a photo of mum, wearing the same skirt and a shirt of similar colours to the blue/green beads. To be honest I don’t recall seeing her wear the necklace, nor any kind of bangle. Her standard was wedding ring, wristwatch, pendant. But that matching of the patterned, moving skirt with a shirt of that blue/green – classic mum. Perhaps that’s part of this morning’s frenzy – playing with materials and components, following emotion, going to what attracted. I wasn’t thinking, I was feeling.

It’s a different skirt. But you get the idea.

The Red Exercise Book

Found in an anonymous pile
behind the hanging files
of the two drawer cabinet
underneath the dressing table
of the large spare bedroom
of my mothers apartment.

A Red Exercise book
Begun in March 1939

A father’s pride in his daughter
(he was a school headmaster)

A girl on the cusp of leaving childhood
becoming a young woman

There are newspaper clippings, a congratulatory telegram

Never late and never absent
A family summer holiday
Relaxing and celebrating a job well done
a future beckoning
The final page used.
101 blank pages follow.

Look again at that last page. The dates.

As a reward the precious young scholar has an extended holiday. Two weeks later she travels home alone. In a country newly at war. Her family “glad to see her”.

I don’t recall ever seeing this exercise book before. There are plenty of family stories of what came next. In the end the start of high school was delayed by six months. Bomb shelters needed to be built, and the older girls were given priority to finish their education. Later the school bomb shelter was flattened – on a holiday Monday, so it was empty of students.

There were months of broken nights in the coal cellar. The first air-raid alarm was bombers flying over to industrial targets in cities to the west. The dangerous time was the second alarm as the bombers returned, dropping unused bombs wherever they could. School started late the next day If the second alarm was after midnight.

Grandpa built bunks in the coal cellar, chipped the mortar from the bricks separating them from next door – a way out if only one house was hit. There was a celebratory Opening Ceremony of song and poetry.

The very specific timing of that last page of that exercise book feels like a publicity blurb – a girl on the cusp of becoming a young woman; a country on the cusp of war…

And her “first long distance journey alone”. She bought a suitcase with her first pay as a teacher, and came to Australia alone by boat aged 24. In part it was to meet her war-time penfriend, and the family who sent them food parcels through the war. We have the albums of her travels – in Perth, then by land across the continent to Adelaide and then Sydney…

How can I, as a daughter and as an artist, respond to this?

Over time
Without confusing the objects with my mother, our relationship, my grief
Nothing Monumental or Memorial.
Responding. Perhaps a series of small gestures. Oblique.
Interleaved with other projects. I want to respond, not be taken over.

So far one focus is administrative – scanning and documenting whatever speaks to me while working with my siblings to clear the flat. And as my concentration continues to improve, reading around the terrain.

  • Kate Zambreno Appendix Project. The ongoing, always provisional. project of writing about her mother
  • Greg Dening No single, stable history. No zero point. My construct of her world. Represent | Re-present | Re-present (make it now)
  • Jonathan Safran Foer Everything is illuminated. The self-interest, the individual needs, the deceit, the unstable past looking for family history
  • Kate Briggs This Little Art Looking at translation, the suspension of disbelief. Translation across time rather than language?
  • Anne Carson Nox Building a tentative and partial picture from fragments
  • The weight, the demands of the archive. Walter Benjamin; Kate Zambreno
  • Eula Biss “How motherhood radicalised Adrienne Rich”. The anger and frustration
  • Margo Neale & Lynne Kelly Songlines. The third archive.
  • Jane Rendell “The Welsh Dresser” in Site-Writing: The Architecture of Art Criticism. Unpacking a container of the past
  • Lydia Davis “Happy memories” in Collected Stories. Had me thinking about the different types of memories
  • Adrienne Rich “Six meditations in place of a lecture” in What is found there. Writes of Eduard Glisant’s work: “Relation is turbulence, exposure, an identity not of roots but of meeting places; not a lingua franca but a multiplicity of languages, articulations, messages.”

Possible future reading

  • Referenced by Zambreno
    • WG Sebald Austerlitz
    • Bhanu Kapil Ban en Banlieue and Schizophrene
    • Theresa Hak Kyung Cha Dictee
    • Roland Barthes The preparation of the novel
  • Kim Mahood Position Doubtful: Mapping Landscapes and Memories The burden of history?
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Notes on Grief
  • Max Porter Grief is the thing with feathers
  • Krissy Kneen The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen

I’m sure there’s more, but that’s already daunting. In any case, I want making to be a (the?) primary tactic in thinking through this. Containers and the circular – which enclose, embrace, trap, exclude and so much more have already been seen in resin, fabric, coiling (30-Apr-2021).

I’ve made early attempts using polymer clay. The idea is to spend some time with some of the objects in mum’s apartment. Focus on and respond to colour, pattern, line. The materiality. Create some time and space and quiet in my mind to reflect on all I continue to learn about the person.

The container that is the Red Exercise Book. The embossed red cover. The shape of the inked letters in Grandpa’s hand. The ripples and reflections of the sea, that summer in Weymouth. I want to create my own new memories with them.

And only just now, as I’m about to hit Publish, I notice the scroll and “Volume 2” on the cover. What???

April making

April has been a quiet month of slow and gentle rebuilding, with more making than thinking.

Last post (22-Mar-2021) I showed examples of 3D writing, resin bangles, and coiled vessels using fabrics worn by my mother. This month’s variations:

WIP coiling completed, and embellished with a “family heirloom” hatpin. 19 cm diameter
A small, chipped jug, gifted by mum as material for re-making a few years ago, was broken up…
The base was repurposed in a tiny nest – around 7 cm diameter
Another fragment formed the centre of a shallow, saucer-like form (slightly over 16 cm diameter).
More fragments remain in the “to be considered” queue. I’d like to use every skerrick of the jug eventually

Feeling that some of the character of the prints was lost in the wrapping and coiling process, I experimented with embedding swatches in resin. All of this series so far start with a circle of fabric around 19 cm diameter.

First attempt – the resin+fabric, supported on a silicon sheet, was draped over a form too soon.
Attempt 2 – still too soon.
A free-form bangle while I considered my next move
Getting better, but this was with waiting 8 or so hours before draping. Brushing silver-coloured pigment over part of the resin before draping is effective. This shows the patterning of the fabric used in the top photo – the bowl with a hatpin.
The bangle has a few wraps of the same fabric in it.
Drips under control! I didn’t want to move to a different resin if I could avoid it, but Sydney temperatures in my unheated, single brick garage are a bit marginal. This time I followed the manufacturer’s suggestion of pre-warming the resin bottles in a water bath, plus put the setting resin on a warming tray repurposed from mum’s flat.
The vessel had gold coloured pigment brushed over the back. The same fabric is in the bangle, plus the broken-jug vessels above.
Thinking I had the resin-curing more under control, I tried pre-cutting slits in the fabric, wanting to spread it out like a lattice pastry top as the resin was setting.
It was a nasty, sticky battle and a disappointing result. Not sure if this is worth pursuing.
The bangles top and bottom in the photo are repeats already shown above.
The centre one had two new ideas, aiming to display more of the original fabric pattern – silver-coloured pigment brushed on the inner side of the mould before adding resin, and the fabric a single bias-cut strip (left over from making its matching vessel). This sample is a bit scruffy, but I think there’s good potential here.
This bangle uses some of the 3D writing of Anne Carson’s text seen in my last post.
The text had a tendency to float up in the curing resin. I quite like the effect of it almost escaping at the top, so only sanded the edge the minimum needed to remove sharp edges.
Very happy with this, and lots of possibilities to take it further.

In March I did an evening class in making silicon moulds (yay Sydney Community College!). The plan is to make my own bangle designs that better showcase fabrics. The tutor suggested I make my initial form in polymer clay, use it to create a silicon mould, so I can then cast the resin.

I haven’t got to that yet. Instead I wondered if I could use polymer clay elements to neaten up the beginning and ending of a coiled vessel.

My very first attempt at using polymer clay. 9 cm diameter.
The great thing about first attempts is you can look forward to improvement.


Following the “making reading” shown previously (22-Dec-2020) I wanted to take it further. Anne Carson’s work “Wildly Constant” in Float felt a good subject.

I slowly wrote the entire text.

Then I played with my new object(s).

As well as rearranging the text objects, I attempted a series of digital transformations – scanning the objects then optical character recognition (OCR); scanning the printed page and OCR (very accurate and boring); recording voice then automated transcription… Basically trying every relevant app on my fairly new tablet and seeing what distortions or misinterpretations I could generate.

Nothing very exciting emerged, plus priorities changed. My mother was diagnosed with a terminal illness, my father was seriously unwell at the same time, and then my husband (his not life-threatening). Five months, three patients, a total of nine hospital admissions to four different hospitals. My normally quiet, reflective life was turned upside down. One of five siblings, I took lead for mum with the various health professionals, while my sister took charge with dad. We were fortunate to be in Australia – Covid complicated things, but it was always possible for at least one us to visit and provide support. Mum’s hopes at diagnosis were for a final summer with family and friends, then to die at home. The five of us, together with a lot of professional support, were able to achieve that for her.

Life, creative practice, was restructured to new necessity. Not too mentally demanding, fitting into small fragments of time, supporting and nurturing me so that I could support and care for others. Reading changed – Kyo Maclear Birds Art Life Death was a great standby. There was a lot of reflective writing. Making – well I came up with a new project, as I explained to some friends who were e-discussing earrings:

I got my ears pierced in 1977 – went travelling after school, was living in York (UK), and it was a low-key assertion of adulthood. Lots of my earrings contain memories – of travels, or gifts, or connected to an exhibition, or that I made myself or bought from friends. Selecting them each day was part of checking in with myself – how do I feel? what am I doing? what message do I want to send? But over the years I’ve come to like dangley and for me they just don’t work with masks.

During mum’s illness I started wearing bracelets and bangles. Partly that same checking in, planning for the day. More important was as personal armour. One link is once knowing a child with behaviour problems, who wore an elastic band to snap if they were feeling stressed. Another from some sci-fi show where they wore wrist-lets that could produce a personal force-field. I rub them to centre and slow my thoughts and reactions – echoes of rosary beads, or maybe worry beads.

Extra fun – you get to “curate” collections of arm ornaments in different combinations. Plus I only had a couple of “proper” bracelets so I started improvising, wrapping chains and neck-pieces around my arms – stuff I haven’t worn for decades or maybe never (weight makes neck sore). I even dragged out some wire and beads to make a few bits, and in the last couple of days have played a little with resin. All very minor demands on time and focus and energy, when I don’t have much of those. It’s felt like my one reliable piece of self expression as everything else creative fell by the wayside.

What does that look like?

More experimentation with resin is planned – perhaps combined with 3D text in some way. With luck this will be a low-key project that recurs over time.

Since mum’s death I’ve begun another small increments, potentially recurring project. She used to love wearing brightly patterned cotton skirts – often Liberty prints. With the permission of the siblings I’ve been using the skirts to make small coiled bowls. Stitching them is quiet and meditative, or I listen to podcasts or an audio book. I’m on my third, and it feels a gentle expression of love.


Today, for the first time in almost eleven months, I went to the Art Gallery of NSW. It was both familiar and changed. A lot has happened in that time. It was a brief roam, testing myself.

Under the Stars: “Taking a transhistorical approach, Under the Stars presents stargazing and mapping by Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists, highlighting the commonalities and connections in our shared attempts to understand the night sky and our place in relation to it.”

The tilted, framing grid of Gail Mabo suggested I may be able to take stock, find myself, in the shifting world.

Gail Mabo

The halting, fragmented music of Katie Paterson, forcing awareness of gaps and absences, pursued me around the gallery, conscious of what is lost.

Katie Paterson
Earth-Moon-Earth: Moonlight Sonata reflected from the surface of the moon

The furious energy of Roger Kemp’s etching. exploding from containment, quickened my breathing.

Roger Kemp

Next to it, a rubbing from a stele engraved in the Song dynasty suggested contemplative, intelligent order, a continuity in the world and heavens.

Unknown artist
Ink rubbing of an ancient Chinese astronomy chart

Real worlds: Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial 2020

Jack Stahel’s drawing installation confounded me. The objects, together with the information signage provided, fascinated, but also showed me how out of condition my mind is. I couldn’t engage as I wanted to. I couldn’t hold a thought.

Jack Stahel
Unified theory of itself

Margel Hinder: Modern in Motion

I’ve shown Hinder’s work a few times in the past. Today it was the small and intricate pieces that caught me. Playing with ideas, experimenting, provisional. A lightness and movement.

Lunch in the cafe was solitary and filled with love and memories.

A salad my mother would have enjoyed – cauliflower, lentils, pomegranate. Her little wickedness, a treat of chardonnay at lunch time. She would have turned up her nose at my sensible glass of water.

Mum was my frequent companion on visits to the gallery – among so much more. Today I tested – proved – my belief that she is with me still.

As I left I heard Ngaiire’s haunting voice, evoking love, change, departure. Her repeated refrain “when I count to three, let go”.

I listened, shook my head, and we walked on together.

Still from video

Making reading

I continue to be absorbed in the intersection of language, sound, image, text, and ways to transform and mix between different modes. 29-Aug-2020 showed some related work.

In The Poetics of Space Gaston Bachelard writes of “‘… galleries of words’. which describes extremely well this fibered space traversed by the simple impetus of words that have been experienced.” This set me playing with writing in space – plastic filament text using a 3D pen, quotes from recent reading, and the mobile form to emphasise space.

I like the shadows and movement of this. The text is still quite flat and linear.

I wanted to work with text and ideas very literally, but not illustrating. Emphasising the thingness of text. Perhaps bring in other crafts – basketry is a good fit for creating space. A Tower of Bable or a Trajan Tower of text? The plastic text is quite brittle. Perhaps writing on insect mesh would give stability and flexibility.

Initial tests were promising. A form from 2016 suggested itself.

I tried other bases and forms to write around, other ways of presentation. The text below comes from Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy.

Looking for another transformation – filtered, distorted and merged photos in gimp.

I was less happy with a sideways step in materiality. This next sample’s text is from The Botticellian Trees by William Carlos Williams ( A very appropriate text. I’d really like to work more with this poem, but this wasn’t the right application.

At this point I returned to the earlier idea around flyscreen. This time I wrote out the full text of Part for the Whole by Robert Francis ( I think the idea of fragments, distortion, reflection, reconstruction sits very well with this treatment.

The weaving was awkward. The initial idea was to plain weave the text strips and support them with twining in a thin yarn – similar to the 2016 sample. Given the poem is about views of a sunset I was thinking of painting yarn in an appropriate colour progression – the light being overtaken by the dark mesh of night.

However in 2016 I used aluminium screen that responded well to shaping. This fibreglass mesh was obstreperous. I used pins at each crossing of strips to keep it together as I worked. The outcome was lumpen.

It went onto my “thinking table” – a place where I display items of inspiration, work that is part of an ongoing investigation, in this instance a work in progress where the next step is unclear. All together, a chance for a conversation. I can see it all from my work table and often find myself looking in an abstracted muse.

I started seeing this

and this

The vessel fell on what I thought was its side, and the text became more legible, the form less inert. The shadows became more interesting. How would it look with a different background?

This is an unedited photo, and I like the series of transformations involved. A poem made into a physical object – mesh and plastic filament. Then made into an even more dimensional form using basketry. A sunset some years ago in Canberra was photographed, printed out, carefully positioned behind the woven form; together they were lit and photographed. In and out of different modes of being. I’m happy with this result.

Just starting

So it occurred to me

I’ve decided to try typing. Just start. Not looking sideways at the overwhelming, suffocating mass of things I could maybe include. It’s paralysing. The possibilities. The variations. Jump in.

It reminds me of our childhood backyard pool. I’d try easing myself in, getting used to the cold slowly, but the others would laugh or splash me. It was better to dive, swim a couple of laps, then call up to those still hesitating. “Come on in, the water’s lovely!”

Complex. Those shifting childhood rivalries and pacts. The patterns of shadows criss-crossing ripples  as we played in the water. The lacework of the jacaranda above us, always dropping something – blossoms, twigs, leaves. The endless summers.

Complex is not the same as complicated. Things like jumbo jets are what Paul Cilliers calls “merely complicated”. There’s an enormous number of parts – but you can list them, group them in component systems, analyse the workings and understand the whole. In a complex  system there are shifting connections between the parts, between the system and its environment, feedback loops, non-linear interactions. There are no clear beginnings or endings, no single or repeating paths.

Now I’m reminded of Jane Hirshfield in Ten Windows: “Two plus two will always equal four. A sonnet or string quartet is infinite in its reaching through us.” Hirshfield quotes physicist Niels Bohr: “The difference between ‘fact’ and ‘truth’ is that a fact must be either true or false, while two opposing truths can be equally right, resonant, and informing.”

And suddenly we’re tiptoeing around because it would be easy to go down paths of different orders of infinity or the inability to prove all truths in axiomatic systems of maths. Which is exactly where I don’t want to be. Let me point at that shiny and attractive object over there…

… and we’re back to just typing. Going back to Cilliers and his chapter Approaching complexity.

Since we are in the midst of this process of change, a clear description of what is happening is not easy, but the heart of the matter is that our technologies have become more powerful than our theories. We are capable of doing things that we do not understand.

Change. Earlier I quoted from Jane Hirshfield’s chapter Poetry, Transformation, and the Column of Tears. Which doesn’t sound entirely enticing, but then we find:

We look to particular works of art, and to art in general, to renew and change our lives.


poems offer [a] transforming intimacy, one that collapses all distance entirely. This intimacy lies in the basic condition of comprehension we bring to the realm of art: in art’s transparent rhetoric, whatever enters awareness is experienced as part of, as continuous with, the self. The most recalcitrant object or fact, placed in a poem, is no longer fixed in the outer. It is alloyed with the reader’s or writer’s experiencing self – inside the body and memory, inside felt expectation, the murmur of music, the lifting or slowing of pulse and breathing.

which to me suggests the importance not only of transformation, but of welcoming the complexity of ourselves and our world, of being aware of and open to that multitude of paths and possibilities. That sometimes so overwhelm me, even in something so simple as trying to tie down some of what I’ve been reading and thinking about lately.

Circling back to Cilliers, not far below my last  quote from him we find

The power of technology has opened new possibilities for science. One of the most important scientific tools has always been the analytical method. If something is too complex to be grasped as a whole, it is divided into manageable units which can be analysed separately and then put together again. However, the study of complex dynamic systems has uncovered a fundamental flaw in the analytical method. A complex system is not constituted merely by the sum of its components, but also by the intricate relationships between these components. In ‘cutting up’ a system, the analytical method destroys what it seeks to understand.


We have to deal with what we do not understand, and that demands new ways of thinking.

Which leads to another connection. The changes, the new ways of thinking, demanded by an earlier once-new technology – writing. I’ve only read a bit of Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy, and viewing through the lens of a highly literate person in a highly literate society the idea of an oral culture is near-impossible to comprehend without distortion. Still, I’m going to cherry-pick a bit:

abstractly sequential, classificatory, explanatory examination of phenomena or of stated truths is impossible without writing and reading. Human beings in primary oral cultures, those untouched by writing in any form, learn a good deal and possess and practice great wisdom, but they do not ‘study’.

Mashing that up, the incredible technology of writing supported the abstract analytical scientific method, and now the incredible technology of modern computers can support moving beyond simplifications of the analytical method to approach complex systems.

Which is not to dump the analytical method, which can remain a useful tool – but now in a different context. And I finally get to a connection I wanted, to Johanna Drucker and a boom-bang knock you out series of quotes (because I have them in my notebook blog and it’s all gold)

“dislodging the centrism of Western epistemologies, in particular those grounded in the administrative sensibility with its peverse attachment to control through standardization and normalization.”

“The differential algebra of the humanistic world always has a factor of experience in it, a recognition that knowing is situated in lived lives, human beings, whose individual experience is always in process, always interpretative. Will we think differently because of the ways interpretation takes shape across networked contingencies?”

 “We may yet awaken the cognitive potential of our interpretative condition of being, as constructs that express themselves in forms, contingently only to be remade again, across the distributed condition of knowing.”

“Our responsibility is to infuse the engineering capability with an imaginative sensibility.”

Drucker asks

“How can we create fragmented and correlated points of view that connect one mode of analysis and display to another in a way that makes their connections legible?”

and how to enable

“framing, enframing, entanglement, hierarchy, listing, and other schematic strategies of composition? These involve the production of multilinear discourse as well as non-linear modes (even though the alphanumeric sequence will persist, visual, audio, tactile, and simulacral modes will increase.”


“The social futures of activities and effects, concepts and practices, exist in an unbounded and often unframed and non-delimitable tissue of associated links and trails.”


Let’s take a step back from Drucker’s exciting, emboldening, and very difficult, challenge to take the charts and statistics and data visualisations of science and analysis, and to modify them to enable a humanistic version of knowledge production through visual forms. Forms that reveal and allow one to explore the complexities of our lives rather than putting society into a straight-jacket of pre-aggregated types and life stages and goals.

It all sounds very theoretical, very abstract. But this year we’ve all been living very directly with computer models and statistics that drive where we can go, inform how we behave, who we can interact with, all with life-changing, potentially life-ending, outcomes. The complexity, the connections, the stakes … what can I say that doesn’t  seem trite and beside the point?

This year I’ve appreciated news reports that make the effort to remind us that statistics are actually individuals, their lives and families.


I return yet again to just typing. What are the options?

With an uncomfortable lurch, I turn to consider an essay by Ross Gibson which has provoked me. Has led me on this difficult chase. To this particular path of links and dead-ends and minor revelations.

To summarise and paraphrase in a very unreasonable way, Gibson seems to suggest that in our complex world, facing crises that demand transformation in our lives, we need to contain the infinities and windows opened by art, reduce them, limit and explain them, to make them acceptable to government actuaries. To committees. To scientists. To academics and scholars.

Rather than opening possibilities and minds, he wants to keep them safe and cozy. No, no, don’t worry about the myriad possibilities we face. Don’t worry about all that nasty complexity, that ambiguity, here’s a nice little formula that converts it back into the analytical methods we all know and love. Knowledge, certainty, progress – all are still possible and meaningful. Just check my numbers and this handy-dandy chart.

Provocation. Charlotte Wood writes about “the grit of discomfort and disorder”, of taking the time to look at what annoys and unsettles us, that has the capacity to make us feel bad – ashamed, lonely, angry, fearful, confused, disgusted…

Wood contends that to attempt to understand the unknowable and uncomfortable, to put in the hard work without necessarily any epiphany or resolution, to struggle, has its own reward. “In their radical otherness they have forced me to think, and that is suddenly more transcendent and precious than beauty.”

Provocation. To work from a position of provocation is exhausting. I know, because I have a long history of getting annoyed by something, making sweeping declarations of disapproval, then putting in time and effort and proving myself wrong. Wrestling with grit gives me focus, purpose, calls forth energy. But it’s often a negative, draining energy.

To the extent there are beginnings, this piece of research, of writing, was provoked by reading Ross Gibson. I’ve tried to narrate a path through complexity – his writing, some of his references, other recent reading – that I have taken to reach the provisional conclusion that I still disagree with Gibson’s analysis. In lots of ways and for lots of reasons that I haven’t covered here. But that’s one of the things about a path through a complex system – you can never narrate it all. And why would you seek to? I’m with Robert Francis who seeks “the old obliquity of art” which “proves  / Part may be more than whole, least may be best.”


Paul Cilliers, Complexity and postmodernism

Johanna Drucker, Graphesis: Visual forms of knowledge production

Robert Francis, Part for the Whole

Ross Gibson, The known world

Jane Hirshfield, Ten windows: How great poems transform the world

Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy

Charlotte Wood, Reading isn’t shopping


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October 2021

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