Thursday, 26 January 2017

The Ocean Helps Me Remember

Another short piece of my writing has just been published on Writers in the Mist, this time springing from the prompt: The ocean helps me remember.

In this instance two things came to mind: 

Firstly, what Jay Griffiths wrote in Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time (1999), a book I highly recommend, about the ocean being linked with time:

The sea, clock of ages, is full of time. In the tide’s ebb and flow the sense of the moment is critical, but it is the coasts which are affected by tides, not the ocean depths, so while the sea, at its shoreline, represents the now of events, yet the paradox of the ocean is that in its depths it is the symbol of eternity … The everlasting consolation of the sea is not all will be well, but all will endure. To Western scientists, the sea is the source of life. In Taoist thought, similarly, the ocean is equated with the Tao, the primordial and inexhaustible source, ‘informing at creation without being exhausted’. Jainist thought of the sixth century BCE describes an ‘ocean of years’ being one hundred million times one hundred million palyas. Each palya is a period of countless years. Otis Redding picked the right place, ‘sittin’ at the dock of the bay, wastin’ ti-ai-ai-ime’, for the sea is creator of endless hours of time. And this is why polluted dead seas are so shocking, for it suggests the poisoning of both the actual sea and the conceptual source of time itself. (p. 9)

And if the ocean is the source of time, I then imagined it as the source of memory too.

Secondly, I thought of a short interview with mythologist Dr Martin Shaw I had recently watched, called 'Trailing the Gods Back Home', in which he spoke of the idea of ‘bone memory’. You can find the video here.

Please do head over to Writers in the Mist to read my short piece by clicking here.


Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Intaglio Etching Workshop

It was a very hot day, and after an unbearably hot night of little sleep, I made my way to the Norman Lindsay Gallery & Museum to take part in an etching workshop run by the artist, Liz Perfect. As it was to be held in the etching studio, where the great Lindsay himself created most of his etching plates, I was looking forward to a day of creativity and coolness in an air-conditioned building. Alas, the air-conditioning was not working, so it was an uncomfortable, sweaty day. And yet, I finished with three good prints from my plate. Hurrah!

Two weeks before the workshop, I had caused myself much stress and anxiety (in my silly way) by trying to come up with a drawing to use on the day. I wanted to do something mythic and strange, somewhat different from my usual work. For some reason I thought that I could draw something amazing, because this was to be an etching, not a drawing, despite the fact that good drawing skills are the very basis of the etching process. In the end I decided I was being too ambitious, and should focus on my usual subject: trees—and, above all, keep it simple. This was a one-day workshop, after all. Time was limited.

I chose to create a drawing based on a photograph I took last year, which I call Old Man Tree (not just because it seemed a venerable old being, but also because, moments after I took the photo, I met an old man, and we chatted briefly before walking on, in different directions). I reversed the image—so that the resulting print would be the right way round—and applied a noir filter, which increased the shadows and definition.

I did a simple line drawing of the tree in preparation for the workshop, to the correct dimensions (15 x 20 cm), and used carbon paper to trace this onto my plate, which had been degreased and covered with the bitumen ground. Unfortunately, the carbon did not transfer well, so all I had were some very faint lines to work with. Yet this was enough for me to draw the basic form, and I improvised the rest.
The etched plate
My drawing on the plate

The drawing itself was difficult. The pointed tool would slip easily over some areas, and catch on others, so it was very easy for my line to go awry. It was also quite difficult to see my marks, perhaps due to the light being directly overhead. I frequently had to look at my plate from an angle to make out what I had done. (Smoking the plate over a candle to make it black would have helped in this instance, increasing the contrast.) The easiest, and most enjoyable part, was doing the rough bark on the tree, for there I could scribble freely. 

By lunchtime, feeling a little trembly from all the concentration and physical tension of drawing small details, my plate was complete. After lunch I put it into the ferric chloride solution for fifteen minutes, for the etching itself to take place, and after it was washed and the ground was cleaned off, I was ready to print.

I should have made a proof to begin with, but as time was running out, I took a risk and went straight to the ‘good’ paper. It was quite a privilege to use the press that Rose, Lindsay’s wife, used to print all of his etchings. Being so large, four plates at a time could be rolled through.

Of the three prints I made, I think the first is my favourite. It is the darkest, the moodiest, but unfortunately, there is a slight smudge in the centre. The second print is not bad, though the lines in the top left are a little too pale (perhaps I removed too much ink when I cleaned the plate). So my last print, on the extra special paper, is my best, the cleanest and clearest (though I was evidently no good at cleaning the ink off the edges for any of them). Of course, I still have the copper plate, so if I had access to a press and materials, I could make more.

Though I had done an etching once before, at school many years ago, doing this workshop has given me a greater insight into the work that Norman Lindsay did, and even more appreciation for his etchings. I knew the process was difficult, but now I know just how difficult. His etchings are immaculate, and I am in awe of how he achieved such detail and depth in consummate drawings with absolutely nothing out of place (in contrast to my wobbly lines). I also appreciate the work that Rose did. Printing a plate is a time-consuming business, and one that requires great skill and care. As you can see, all three of my prints are visibly different, yet Rose managed to print all of Norman’s etchings to an incredible standard of perfection. She developed a level of mastery, I, for one, could never achieve.

Overall, though the day was hot, and hectic, and exhausting, I am pleased with what I have created. Pleased I chose to do a rendition of Old Man Tree, and to keep it simple. I would certainly be keen to do it again, for there is something about prints, particularly etchings, that attracts me, more so than ordinary drawings. Something about the fineness of the lines, the blackness of the ink, the indentation in the paper caused by the plate; a kind of tactile, graphic quality that I love. And now that I am more familiar with the process, I am sure I could improve on what I did.

This is my first proper piece of art so far this year. I hope it is the first of many.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Blessings From the Birds

While illness does colour my life, I did not want this blog to be a place where I dwelt on it. Lately, though, I haven’t had much choice in the matter. I have often had to put aside creativity, story-writing, and my aspirations for growth and change, just so I can concentrate on getting through each day without being dragged down into a dark place of hopelessness.

The past few months have given me many bad days. Yet even those bad days are made up of smaller moments, some bad, but some most definitely good. It is these little moments of magic that I try to hold on to, to remind me that everything is okay … Or will be. 

Though my family no longer bothers with Christmas presents, my parents did give me two books: Birds of the Blue Mountains and Native Plants of the Blue Mountains. The bird book is not comprehensive, containing only 56 of the more commonly seen species, from an impressive total of over 180 recorded species, but it will be useful. The plant book is far more comprehensive, listing species from all the various landscapes that exist in this part of the world, from open-forest to swamps. So, learning more about the birds and plants of my home landscape will be one of my focuses this year. 

I find that paying attention to the natural world can be greatly comforting in difficult times. And often, it is the beautiful and prolific birds who I have to thank for the good moments that help to sustain me. There have been encounters with Eastern Spinebills—one of my favourite little birds—as well as two tiny birds who frolicked about on the footpath in front of me as I went for a walk. Their adorable antics made me laugh. I wish I had photos of them, but they were much to fast for me. And perhaps that kind of tiny, fluttering magic is too precious to be captured anyway. 

Every day I hear the cries of Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos, and when I do catch sight of them, I see it as a blessing. I love their slow, graceful flight. They never hurry.

Going for a walk recently, I was hoping to come across some black cockatoos (who I have never been able to photograph satisfactorily), when I heard a low growl coming from the bush. To my surprise, and delight, it was a Gang-gang Cockatoo, a species who is rarely seen these days (their  conservation status is ‘vulnerable’ in NSW). His mate was nearby. I could hear her munching on seeds, but only saw her when she flew off towards a distant tree. He, on the other hand, sat on a branch, watching me sleepily, and I took a few good photos. This was a rare treat indeed.

I also saw a Crimson Rosella feeding her young one, who was fully fledged, but still noisily begging for food. A sweet, intimate moment.

As for the elusive black cockatoos, yesterday I struck it lucky, coming across a family of three. I only managed to photograph one, but that was more than enough. They were magnificent.

But perhaps best of all was my sighting of what I suspect was a Wedge-tailed Eagle, soaring across the overcast sky. There are other birds of prey that live in the Blue Mountains, but the height at which this bird was flying, and its size, leads me to believe that it was an eagle. It is what I want to believe, anyhow. Seeing this soaring silhouette gliding across the glare of the clouds, was powerful magic indeed.

All of these small blessings, these gifts, have kept me going, have reminded me that there is still beauty in the world, even in the most difficult times. For that I am grateful. 

Wing feather from a Crimson Rosella

Monday, 2 January 2017

Always Beginning

I have written before about my discomfort with New Year’s Eve celebrations, so I moved through the recent calendrical transition quietly, thinking of what I was happy (and sad) to be leaving behind in the year that was, and what paths I wish to take and how I need to grow in this year that is.

I sometimes reflect a little on what I need to change about myself, but I do not make resolutions. Such promises to the self are too simplistic, and often too easily broken. Mostly, real change takes time. It is an ongoing process, with many layers and shadows, not an immediate fix. Besides, every single day is a new beginning. The world turns, the sun rises, the birds sing (at ridiculously early hours on these long summer days), and we begin again … and again … and again …

Any day at all is a fitting day for change, to strive to do and be better.

I intend to remember this, this year. To try to make every day count.

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