ECH PROJECT – EXHIBITION OPENING

This weekend is the official opening of the exhibition of my Emerald ‘Resilience: Stories in Cloth’ project. The exhibition, which opens on the 12th of April and continues until the 17th of April, is being held as part of Emerald’s annual PAVE Arts Festival. This will be the first public exhibition of the work I am making as part of my PhD research into ‘Craftivism and the Political Moment’. I’m very proud to announce that my good friend Bruce Esplin will be opening the exhibition, it’s worth coming just to hear that man talk about resilience and the Arts!

As well as the work I made during my residency at Emerald Community House the exhibition will also include two works by local community members who took part in the workshop series I facilitated at Emerald Community House. If you are in Melbourne or somewhere in nearby Victoria please come join us, there will be cheese and biscuits, plus lots more things to do around Emerald as part of the PAVE festival’s Fun Fest!

Here is the official invite, consider yourself invited!

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Update: here are some lovely words about the project from Emerald Community House coordinator and powerhouse extrodinare Mary Farrow 

  

ECH Stories of Resilience Cloth Art project – part 2

Following on from my residency at Emerald Community House (ECH) and in the lead up to this years annual PAVE festival I have begun stage two of the ‘Stories of Resilience in Cloth Art’ project – a workshop series where I invite locals to make their own cloth-artwork that tells a story about resilience and what it means to them.  

As I’ve mentioned previously ECH is an innovative neighbourhood centre that is highly conscious of the fact that they are in a disaster-at-risk area of the Victorian Dandenong ranges. ECH  takes proactive action through their programming to build local community resilience, for example: they run an award winning program that entails making attending a bushfire safety training workshop mandatory for all parents who place their children with the ECH childcare servie. When I first met with Mary and Non (ECH coordinators) they identified that there is a gap in the programing which they wanted to address. They wanted to develop a creative program that targeted  younger women who are new to the area and women who don’t have children (and therefore are not involved with ECH through its childcare services) and engaged them around the subject of resilience and disaster preparedness. So, it was around this mandate that I designed my ECH residency and workshop project which I am also using as a case study for my PhD research into how art cloth-art and the strategies of craftivism can enact agency.  

The idea is that each of us will create our own cloth wall hanging to be exhibited during the PAVE festival in the Emerald Community Hall which we are working out of, which everyone will then take home and keep at the end of the exhibition. Bruce Esplin, former Emergency Services Commissioner of Victoria and a friend and mentor of mine has kindly agreed to be at the opening of the exhibition and to say a few words about art and resilience based on his own experience as a photographer and a sculpture. Three local ladies (and one of their dogs, below) have signed on to be part of the project, and over the past couple of weeks we have been meeting on Thursdays to talk about ideas and start sewing.  Already I have had a really interesting conversations and positive responses from this engagement. 

When I asked the ladies (who I won’t identify by name) what resilience means to them and why they chose to live in Emerald as both were relatively new to the area (by rural standards at least – where you have to be second generation to consider yourself a ‘true local’) they all responded with comments about the importance of the landscape and the natural environment. This led to a conversation about the risks posed by the natural environment in their area and we spoke about those and what experiences each lady had with disasters and what plans they had in place in preparation for potential future disasters. Each women will be working to depicting images of the natural environment into their cloth hangings and in her own way working to symbolise in cloth her relationship to the local community. 



Alongside the importance of the natural world the women identified that their personal relationships and history are another critical factor for thier own resilience and well-being. Each woman will be in her own way incorporating figures into the landscapes of their hangings. Using old clothes and fabric given to them from their loved ones the women have started to constuct a picture of how they will represent their stories. We talked about how it is possible in this medium of cloth to tell a very personal story in a way that they feel safe having on public display because it is possible to tell it in such a subtle way, using signs that fully reveal their secrets only to the artist. For example, the artist might incorporate a piece of cloth that was once a dress that belonged to their grandmother and which they associate with a particular time, place and memory. In this way the artist will be able to read the work in a way that tells a very different story to what others might see. The hangings will therefore tell many stories – as each person who views them interprets them and projects their own thoughts, experiences and emotions onto the work.     



The conversation then  shifted to a focus on art making and craft practices. In our conversations we identified that having the time to make art is a luxury that many can not afford, and that many more do not allow themselves. The women identified a sense that this is somehow because taking the time to do something fun and creative feels selfish. This feeling of guilt for taking the time to do something for themselves is a feeling I’m sure many women experience – as women we are still expected by society and in turn we expect ourselves to focus on others, to be caretakers to be busy and selfless. Furthermore, the creative work women do is continues to be undervalued – seen as craft not art. Particularly when it comes to working in textiles. This is something that came up during my residency and during these workshops, it is something they I will continue to ponder and to research. Finally, we spoke about how the project had opened up time for them to reflect, think and make plans for the future and how valuable this is to them. This too is something I want to understand more clearly. I’ve asked everyone to keep a note of how they experience this project as it unfolds and to write a bit of a reflection about the journey at the end of the project – I’m looking forward to reading them. 

In closing, I feel that the fact that the three participants fit exactly into the target audience ECH identified is a testimony to the fact the project was designed and marketed successfully. However, In saying that it would have been nice to have more people involved and the fact the workshops are being held during the day on a Thursday has been indentified as a barrier to some who would have otherwise liked to participate. I’m considering delivering a one day master-class in order to engage more women in these conversations and hopefully get a few more involved in the making of cloth hangings for the PAVE festival. 

Oh p.s. there was a little story about the project in the local newspaper: 

Cheers 

Tal 



ECH Residency- Day 1

I just got home after day one of my Emerald Community House (ECH) residency in the Dandenong ranges.

The hall is a beautiful old church that has been lovingly restored by the community, its bright with white walls, high ceilings and wooden floors. A marvellous space to work out of. Especially on such a beautiful day.

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In the week leading up to this project I was growing nervous about going into the space without a pre-conceived idea of what I was going to make. However, that was a conscious decision because I wanted to create a piece that responds to the site and to my experience in it. As well as to create something that links thematically to the community workshop/research project I will be leading at ECH in the 8 weeks following my residency. Happily, this all came together today quite naturally…

As I was setting up Mary Farrow (ECH co-ordinator) and another community member who came along to see the project and get involved both brought me the same book to look at – “Baked Apples on the Tree” edited by Icia Molloy is a collection of first hand accounts, stories, poems, photos and artwork from the local community put together following Ash Wednesday. As well as this book Mary also had a folder for me to look through. It was the application ECH put forward to have the Cockatoo kindergarden listed as a site of significance (and in doing so spared demolition). The story goes that during the Ash Wednesday fire over 300 people sheltered in the kindergarden and were saved. Thankfully the application was successful and in a few months the kindergarden, long neglected, will be re-opening as a memorial to Ash Wednesday. Of course, this is an amazing and important story to commit to cloth and so I am going to spend the next two weeks making a cloth-art piece about this story. It will feature both the kindergarden and ECH on it in acknowledgment that ECH helped to save the kindergarden which saved so many lives. Mary suggested it could even end up in the new Cockatoo kindergarden – that would be something wouldn’t it?

The community member who joined me this morning (I won’t name her) was a local. She had built her house with her own two hands after purchasing the block at the age of 19. She said that she was there during Ash Wednesday – still living in a shed at the time and spoke a little of how frightening the event was. A few years ago she was in a terrible traffic incident and now lives with an acquired brain injury. We spoke a lot about how miraculous her recovery was and about how she is still struggling and unable to find suitable work. A reminder that fires are not the only thing we need to have resilience for and only one of the many hardships that we overcome.

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Above is a photo of the section of the cloth-artwork coming together – I started with the Cockatoo kindergarden. I will finish it tomorrow, complete with a protester standing on the roof – a nod to one of the locally famous images from the fight to save the building, (see below) and then start on the ECH hall. The theme of protest is an important one in my personal practice and once again, quite naturally I have been able to translate that to my site-specific work.

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The design of the cloth artwork I’m making is based roughly on a quilt my grandmother made which is in her book “Folk Art Appliqué Quilts” (1990). I have been in conversation with her over the past month (she’s 93 years old!) and we are going to start collaborate through the process of me remaking some of her cloth artwork as well as making new cloth artworks based on drawings she is sending me. Keeping in mind that I am learning how to quilt and appliqué on the fly – by remaking my grandmothers work and by working from her book I become her pupil, her assistant. In effect I am inhereting her practice and her style just as I have inherited her genes and have been imprinted on by her aesthetics. This process of remaking and reimagining is an important part of the auto-biographical aspect of my research and is part of the heuristic development of my practice. Like my grandmother before me I am exploring this medium through trial and error, developing my own aesthetic language as I go.

Emerald, like many of the disaster affected communities which I have visited in my role as coordinator for Volunteering Qld’s Natural Disaster Resilience Leadership project is full of stories of survival, overcoming great odds and of slow but meaningful recovery. Already, Mary is talking about other nearby disaster affected communities that I could take this ‘Cloth-art Stories of Resilience’ project to. It’s funny how my work in this field is bleeding into the work and research I am doing for my PhD at VCA. I am genuinely passionate about community resilience and I find myself intrigued about how this will all unfold going forward.

Until tomorrow,

Tal

ECH Residency

Today I start my residency at Emerald Community House (ECH) in the Dandenong Ranges, VIC. I will be spending the next two weeks working at the old church which has been converted into a community hall to create a textile wall hanging that speaks of this site and of the Emerald community.

I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land upon which I will be working the Bunurong people and the Woiworung people from the Kulin nation, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

I am leaving the doors open for anyone from the Emerald community to come in and check out what I’m doing and even get involved. If you are in the area pop in and say hi! If not, stay tuned here as I will be posting regularly with updates on my progress and on the experieance of this unique residency which I worked with ECH to design.

As you can see below, this residency will also involve an 8 week community workshop series where I will be working with local community members on a collaborative textile wall hanging project. All this is linked and a part of my PhD practice led research into Cloth-Art as a Socially Engaged Practice. So look forward to updates about that phase of the project also.

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Dinner with Ilka White

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On the 14/05/2014 I wrote a blog entry about the work of Melbourne artist Ilka White. Her website describes several Socially Engaged Art (SEA henceforth) projects which I was really interested in as they use textiles as the mode of engagement in a similar way to how I hope to engage people in my own practice. I really wanted to find out more about these project and Ilka’s work so, as promised, I made contact with her and she kindly agreed to share a meal with me and to discuss her work (the perks of living in Australia’s most creative city!). In this post I will share a bit of what Ilka and I talked about, including how she got into working with community and her insights into the sometimes challenging world of SEA.

Please note: I have italicised the parts where I am paraphrasing Ilka’s own words, and I had Ilka herself look over this text before posting it.

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Firstly however, lets recap:
As it says on her website: Ilka White is a visual artist who works in textiles and sculpture. She is also a socially engaged practitioner, who works with community groups and other artists to create work. Direct engagement with the natural world (and the forces at work therein) is central to Ilka’s making process. Her current work explores relationships between the mind, body, time and place, and questions the separation of these elements.

Ilka holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Monash University and an Associate Diploma in Studio Textiles from Melbourne Institute of Textiles (now RMIT). She taught Contemporary Art and Design, Weaving and Textile History at RMIT University for 12 years (1999-2011), and was teaching artist in residence at the ANU School of Art in 2012. She has exhibited internationally and her work is represented in the public collections of the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria, RMIT University and private collections in Australia, U.K. and U.S.A.

Ilka’s work appears in a variety of publications including Textiles: The Art of Mankind (Thames & Hudson, London. 2012), Art Textiles of the World – Australia Vol. 2 (Telos Art Publishing, U.K. 2007), The Melbourne Design Guide (Lab.3000, 2006) and Handmade in Melbourne (GSP Books, Melbourne 2006).

ilka white BoiteBannerSo how did it all start?
Ilka White talks about coming from a creative and musical family and growing up in a close-knit community where as a young person she regularly attended the Turramurra Music Camp. She spoke fondly of her time at these camps where her own creativity and creative aspirations were nurtured alongside a strong sense of community. After graduating from Monash and RMIT, Ilka’s first professional job was to create a banner for The Boite’s world music café concerts, not a SEA project but a piece made in consultation with/ for a specific community. She shared with me the old adage that ‘its all about who you know’ when you are looking to get work as an aritst, particularly when working in community. Reflecting on the fact that the networks and relationships she has build over time have really been the key to her SEA practice.

Another banner project followed the Boite commission. This time created with Cultivating Community, a not-for-profit organisation that promotes and supports the development of community garden projects. This banner, produced with community members at the Hoodle St Neighbourhood House, proved a formative experience and taught Ilka a great deal about trust in group process and informal skills exchange.

Ilka’s next SEA project came several years later and was a Cane and paper sculpture project called the ‘Turra Mahal’ which she facilitated at the very same Turramurra Music Camp Community which she attended as a teenager. As a long time member of the community the camp organisers were keen to get Ilka involved and share her skills with the community so they invited her to deliver a workshop as part of the two day camp. Often one of the challenges of being a SEA practitioner is that it takes time to build connections within a community, gain trust and come up with ideas that are sensitive and appropriate for that community. However when working within your own community these issues can be almost totally avoided and Ilka found that taking her practice into the context of the camp was a seamless progression outward from her personal practice. The sculpture project went really well and she has gone back to deliver workshops at the camp several times since that first project, doing something a little different each time and progressively collaborating more with the camp’s participants.

Since then she has worked on several SEA project including a “Ghostnets” shadow puppet performance on Moa Island in the Torres Strait with the local indigenous community, a community arts project called “The Four Seasons Wall Hanging” with multicultural ‘Loving Threads Sewing Circle’ who work together in the Factory, Belgium Avenue Neighbourhood House, a collaborative “Suzani “ embroidery project with the Fitzroy and Collingwood Afghani Women’s Group. Most recently she returned to the Loving Threads Sewing Circle to create a culturally sensitive burial shroud to be used by the local funeral home that services a population with a high number of culturally diverse people.

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Talk to me about Textiles:
Ilka needs no further promoting to talk about her love of textiles: “Working with community using textiles is absolutely fantastic!” Textiles as a medium isn’t caught up in the traditional art hierarchy but rather are seen as a vernacular craft. While this is a “bummer” in art world, it is really useful when working in a community context because it means textiles are more accessible. People don’t feel they need to be an ‘artist’ to work with textiles as they are familiar and all this means that you don’t need to build up people’s courage like you would if say you were using the mediums of painting or sculpture. Textiles have a long history in many different cultures which involve the process of people meeting and making together and many people already have excellent technical skills which they learnt from their parents, grandparents or someone within their community.

As a SEA practitioner I see my most important role is being a good facilitator and drawing out of people the skills and talent within them, providing them with an opportunity to shine. Depending on the project, the community you are working with and your agenda, it is then possible to really push people a little, move them out of their comfort zone and into the learning zone. However, I believe that pleasure and enjoyment are the most important outcomes of a SEA process and again I see that textiles lend themselves beautifully to this aim. Where people shy away from seemingly simple creative tasks like drawing when working in textiles there seems to be less hesitation and fear.

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What is it like to lead SEA projects?
Ilka’s SEA work blurs the lines between art, teaching and facilitation and she said that this balancing act can sometimes be very tricky. While she feels it is critical to focus on the facilitation of SEA projects in order to ensure they are successful and that people have a positive experience, Ilka is always conscious of her position and influence as the ‘artist’. While most often the focus of community art projects is that participants have a good experience and learn something or connect with others as a result of their involvement, with SEA project there is still the expectation of the project achieving artistically accomplished outcomes in the form of physical art objects. This fact can sometimes lead to conflicting agendas and ideas between stakeholders.

While none of the participants in the groups Ilka works with are being assessed on the quality of artistic outcomes, often the success of a project as determined by funders and the public does depend on its artistic outcomes. These outcomes in turn are then understood as a reflection of the artists capacity, vision and skill which can lead to challenging questions about authorship, ownership and decision making when collaborating with groups- not all of them comfortable. While Ilka finds the most exciting part of a SEA project to be the dynamics of the group and how they are developing and growing- as opposed to how beautiful work is, the public audience of a work as well as project coordinators and funders are often concerned with the finished project and their judgment affects your reputation. “I’ve learnt that you have to decide who you are trying please at the beginning of a project and make this clear to everyone at the outset. While your reputation is being assessed – success should be judged as much on the social outcomes of a project such as group dynamics then on material outcomes.”

Ilka shared with me a sense that there is a tendency amongst community workers to “bulldoze” artists who are interested in SEA with criticism about being naive and unaware of the complexities of what they are trying to do. However, she feels that artists are generally incredibly sensitive and actively listen and respond to what is happening in community in ways that not many other professional practitioners would take the time to do. Money is also an ongoing tension when working in community, with many people expecting artists to volunteer their time and services. In some cases the fact you are being paid (even if it is way less then you should be) brings up uneasy tension between the artist and the community they are collaborating with. Despite all this Ilka feels there is an understanding that artist’s help people achieve things they wouldn’t otherwise do/make/achieve and that paying artists to facilitate SEA projects is an important way to help artists sustain their professional practice and ensure that communities have greater access to participating in creative projects.

What do you get out of it?
bWhen I asked Ilka why SEA work is so meaningful to her personally, she answered that the crux for her is the same as what her participants describe as the real value of the work: gaining a sense of community and belonging; taking part in a process which brings me into contact with people I wouldn’t meet otherwise socially; seeing how much can be achieved within a short space of time when people work together – that is really exciting! As the facilitator/artist for me one of the most moving and humbling things about the leading SEA projects is how collaborative making inevitably builds a high level of respect for one another within a group of potentially very different people. For me if a project is done well it is always enjoyable. It flows often much more easily than my individual work does, and it’s a pleasure. I feel fortunate to be paid to do this type of work, particularly as the rest of my work is largely solo. While I do collaborate with other artists, it’s a very different experience. It’s more about negotiating your individuality and authorship than co-creating something as a group.

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Summing Up:
I really enjoyed having the opportunity to talk face-to-face with Ilka, it was really insightful to hear about her personal journey and to take heed of the warnings and lessons she gave me about the challenges of working in community. While it is only a small part of her practice, for me Ilka’s SEA work is some of her most interesting, not because of the artistic outcomes per say, but because they speak with a voice greater than any one person on their own could command. They really do show what people can achieve when they work together with a common goal and exemplify how the art of textiles can bring people great joy. So thank you Ilka for taking the time to meet with me, and thank you for your words of advice.