14 January 2011

New uses for bark cloth

It is time to make some more jewellery again. I felt tempted to use bark cloth. As part of the research for my studies, I had come across a German-Ugandan company that produces and sells bark cloth (http://www.barktex.com).

For a small cover charge I got interesting information about their bark harvesting and processing in Uganda. Remember that the Bible talks about Adam and Eve having to wear fig leaves to cover their nakedness when they were thrown out of paradise? Well, perhaps it wasn't the leaf, but processed bark instead...

The Ugandan Ficus is related to the Banyan that we use here on Atiu, but in Uganda the trees are farmed and carefully attended to. On Atiu, they mainly grow wild in our rain forest on the sharp fossilized coral rocks and are hard to access. That's probably one reason why our women do not make tapa anymore.

The late Mama Rangi Tutaka beating bark in 1988

Most importantly, of course, I received a large collection of beautiful samples of Barktex's different bark products. Since in the end I decided to use white Paper Mulberry bark cloth for my thesis exhibition, I never did anything with the beautiful samples. They are too tempting to just let them sit here and get eaten by silverfish.

The green bark sample was lovely and thick and gave me the idea to try a long necklace that winds around your neck like a creeper.

Of course it needed a pair of matching earrings to complement it.

I like wearing black, so I wanted a pair of  black earrings and played with the black tapa next.

Now I have a hard time to choose...

07 January 2011

The benefits of being flexible

Generally, my private workshops at the Atiu Fibre Arts Studio (http://www.atiu-fibrearts.com/workshops.php ) are booked well in advance. This is important, because I have a busy schedule and need to plan my time carefully. The beginning of the year is a hectic time for us filled with stocktaking and office work. It doesn’t hurt, though, to make exception and I’m glad I decided at a moment’s notice to slot in a two-day embroidery workshop with Di. The result were two days of fun with fabric and threads for student and teacher and a high-quality frame for the Studio’s new sign board. 

Di had requested to learn embroidery stitches. I suggested she prepare a sampler which she would then be able to use for future reference. That way she could make the most of this limited time.

I enjoyed her choice of happy colours and the ‘get up and go for it’ approach of cutting and arranging random shapes on her strip of background fabric. Her sampler reminded me of Matisse’s paper cuts. Matisse is one of my favourite artists. Di did not know his work.

Even though Di sews her own clothes, embroidery was a total novelty. The first day, I heard her start most sentences with “I don’t know”, expressing her insecurity in the new terrain. As her confidence grew, her expression of self-doubt changed to happy laughter and “who would have thought”.

The most used sentence in my previous workshop had been “I understand”. It made me reflect about the power of words and how recurring phrases can give clues about a person or a situation.
Chatting away while sewing, Di told the story of how she and her husband Peter had gotten lost when looking for the Studio. I can’t blame them: The signboards are weathered and old .

The one by the main road even points in the wrong direction after having been erected wrongly when the wind blew it down. I had had new sign boards made already. All I needed now was finding someone to build a proper frame for them to put them up.
“Peter can do that”, Di said.  Like my quick decision to accept Di’s request for a workshop I did not hesitate to accept this unique offer. Arrangements were made to borrow some wood-working equipment. Peter had a look at the signboards, told us what he needed and brought along a young German tourist to help him and our friend Nooroa.

For one busy morning the three worked well as a team to finish two fantastic frames. They will soon insure that the visitors do not get lost anymore when they want to visit my Studio.

We concluded the two busy days with an enjoyable time around a big pot of spaghetti. My wall hanging will remind Di and Peter of their visit to Atiu.  I will remember how good it can be to be flexible every time I pass the signboards once they’ve been erected – I will have to paint the frame first...

02 January 2011

A New Year

We’re at the start of another decade. I wish all of you that it will be a wonderful one, filled with good health, confidence, loyal friends, lots of creativity, success and prosperity. In short: May it be all you ever wanted! 

As we sometimes do, on New Year’s Eve I looked back on the year that was leaving us. 2010 began with my packing up the lace panels that I had been making for Third Space, my final MA exhibition at the Mission House on Rarotonga. As I was sewing them, I had hung each new element in the passage way across our house for a trial. Once they were taken down, the house had looked so empty. I had felt somewhat nostalgic. Sewing these long lace hangings had been a constant discovery for me over the preceding months. The emptiness added to the fear of the other empty space that I was soon going to have to fill.

Would I even have enough pieces to fill that space? Were the elements long enough? Would I be able to find the right balance to create a successful spatial composition? Would the lighting be adequate? How would the examiners receive the work? What would the visitors think? All these questions accompanied the beginning of a new year that would become the most amazing year of my life.

Now I live the beginning of another year. It amazes me that it starts again with packing up tapa and lace panels that I have been making for an installation. The same questions cross my mind. However this time I am more confident and even more excited. The Third Space has developed a life of its own. Third Space II at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney will be accompanied by sound. My Hawaiian friend Rudy who lives on Rarotonga has composed amazing tunes on my request. I am very excited about this prospect. Again, I have no idea what the finished installation will look like, whether I will be able to fill the allocated space. This time, I don’t even know what the room will look like. I have all these plans of what to do with these individual elements and can’t wait for the next 6 months to pass quickly. Only in early July can I travel to Sydney and start creating this space that at the moment only exists as a vague idea inside my head.

In a week’s time, the cardboard box with the rolled up panels will go on its journey. Australian Quarantine will have to find its contents suitable for entry into the country, the last hurdle yet to take. It amazes me that these few small rolls have been my focus for almost an entire year. 

And yet, I still have so many ideas for the future around this project that it only feels like another stage in the life of an unknown organism; an organism that I am exploring through the making of its elements; through its exposure in different environments, to different viewers; and through the people I meet and the knowledge I gather as a result. Let Stage II begin! 

25 December 2010

Thoughts at Christmas

Every year, the holiday season feels odd to me, as in this warm and sunny climate and the souterhn hemisphere’s summer I find it hard to develop Christmas feelings. Christmas for me comes along with early darkness and cold weather, quality time inside the home, foods that keep you warm and hot chocolates or toddies.
On our island, this year’s end is sunny, but not yet as hot as it has been most other years. I really appreciate this, because it makes working easier. One doesn’t dribble sweat all over the work... The last element of my installation is in the sewing machine. Soon I will be able to bundle them up to send them to Sydney.
Jeanne Humphreys with her recently finished painting

I had a lovely visit from a Cook Islands friend who is from Atiu, but lives in Christchurch most of the time. Jeanne Humphreys is a painter. We had spoken on the phone about her last work in progress, a special commission that she had only been reluctant to accept. I know from my own experience that at times it can be hard to force your creativity to follow someone else’s dreams. I was happy when she brought along her friend Penny and her finished painting to show me. Her client, a masseur, had wanted hands to feature in the painting. Jeanne’s friend Penny admired the detailed work in which she could “even see the fingerprints”. I enjoyed that Jeanne shared her finished work with me as a special Christmas treat before she left the island again to celebrate Christmas with her children.
Juergen and I celebrated Christmas the German way, on Christmas Eve. This year we had decided not to have a tree and just enjoyed a nice dinner together. I had given Juergen a DVD that showed features from his birth year, 1942. It was interesting to watch and catch up with some history. Learning about the fashion of that year was what I enjoyed the most. But the film clips were, of course, taken from British, American and Australian footage. We would have enjoyed seeing what happened that year in war-torn Germany. It must have been so hard for Juergen’s mother, who already had a three-year-old girl to look after and whose husband was at war, to give birth to this little boy who is now my husband. I know from the stories my mother told me, who was in Berlin during the war, that it was terrible there. Everybody was hungry and afraid. Winter was cold in the bombed houses. People were poor. Many, like my mother, had lost their homes and everything in it and had to make do with what friends shared with them. Life was a daily struggle for ordinary people, how much more so for a young mother who, at Christmas 1942 had two children who were born on the exact same day eight months back, but three years apart.
I am glad that today we are safe and satisfied, living a peaceful life on our little island. But I am sad for all those who are not as lucky as we are. Nearly 70 years later, the world is still not at peace and there are mothers in this world who are hungry at the end of this year, who worry about what to feed their children the next day, how to keep them alive for another year, and what their lives will be like. I feel for them and wish them strength to survive the bad times. I wish them the same good fortune our mothers had: to live through war’s end and in more peaceful times, seeing their children grow up into educated and healthy adults with children of their own.

I wish all of you, my friends, happy holidays, merry Christmas or whatever you chose to celebrate these days in the company of your loved ones or, if you preferred, on your own. Enjoy the snow, the sunshine, a family meal inside a well-heated home or a picnic at the beach.

05 December 2010

Creative encounter

Tivaivai, the Cook Islands traditional textile art form, is very different to the quilts that most other countries make. For many years, I have held workshops in my Studio to share tivaivai techniques with quilters from around the world. Tivaivai are not quilted and consist only of two layers of fabric, a patterned top layer and the background fabric or backing.

There are three kinds of tivaivai. Tivaivai manu, the snowflake-style appliqué, consists of a mostly uni-coloured top layer that is folded, cut out and appliquéd on to a background layer of contrasting colour. Tivaivai taorei, the mosaic piecework, consists of tens of thousands of tiny squares (1” or 2.5 cm) that are arranged to form large symmetrically repeating designs. While the Cook Islands share the snowflake-style technique with French Polynesia and Hawaii and the piecework with French Polynesia, tivaivai tataura, the emboidered appliqué is uniquely Cook Islands. Large stylized flowers cut from uni-coloured fabric are arranged in rotational symmetry and heavily embellished with raised embroidery.
There are no traditional patterns, but only traditional motifs which, apart from butterflies, the odd fish and bird as more recent introduction, chandeliers or candles, are mainly floral. The first thing my students therefore learn is to design their own patterns. Since our visitors from overseas are not bound by tradition, I encourage their artistic freedom.

Left to right: Cindy and Sylvie

Cindy from Texas, a travel agent, has waited many years for this workshop and I have looked forward to meet her after a long email correspondence and to put a face to the name. I have already met Sylvie from France on Rarotonga where she has been living for the last several months. Sylvie is an artist and has brought her husband Michel along who is a carver. We are looking ahead towards a creative week together.

Cindy has chosen to learn how to make a tivaivai manu in more than two colours. She begins by learning how to develop a pattern using paper. Soon the entire table is covered with her imaginative designs. 

Sylvie intends to learn the piecework technique, but joins in the paper cuts just for an alternative. Her artistic mind breaks the boundaries.

After lunch, Sylvie is ready to start working with hand-dyed fabric squares, her preferred medium for this workshop. Cindy wants to spend the afternoon sketching flowers and thinking about a composition.

The next day is sunny and the colours on our table brighten it further. Cindy enlarges her paper pattern to life size and soon her small sketch has become a colourful tivaivai ready for basting and sewing. She decides to sew it by hand and it will take some time to finish.

After Sylvie has laid out the patches of her final design, she strings them up in the right sequence. I have brought her “Mami Tepu” my “patron of the tivaivai makers” to keep an eye on her efforts. 

Sewing together those tiny squares by hand is fiddly and time-consuming, but also quite a meditative activity.

As alternative I show Sylvie a more contemporary method of sewing by machine. When she discovers the delicate fibre structures of the lemon hibiscus bark that I am currently working with, she asks me for a piece and incorporates it into her work. Creativity knows no limits. 

On the fourth day, both my students have finished their preliminary tasks and are ready to sew the ‘real thing’. 

We decide that we are more comfortable around the coffee table. 

While the two women are busy cutting patterns from paper and sewing fabric together, Michel chisels away at a large tree stump that “guards” the entrance to the grave area that leads up to our house. He has no pre-conceived idea and lets the wood speak to him. 

On the first day, a friendly face appears next to a hand raised in welcome. 

The following day a heron lands on the man’s shoulder. When I see the heron in the afternoon, I am reminded of the white heron that came to visit when my father lay dying. The elegant bird sat in front of his bedroom window for quite some time, then left and later returned. The thought had crossed my mind that it might me my mother’s spirit calling him to follow her.

When I visit the sculpture at the end of the third day, I am surprised to find a second heron sitting on the man’s other shoulder. After my father’s funeral – he is buried close by in the family cemetery behind our house – a grey heron came. The dogs chased him and he flew up into a tree. When the dogs weren’t looking he flew down again and landed on Dad’s fresh grave. As if he were visiting, making sure that we were OK, as if to tell me that he was OK, too. Now both herons are framing the friendly face, all three released from their hideaway in the tree by Michel’s artful chisel.

On midday of the forth day, Michel has finished and signed his sculpture and we go outside to take a photo of the artist and his wife for memory’s sake. I take Sylvie and Michel down to Dad’s little house to show them his picture and to tell them the story of the two herons. They are tattooed on my ankle. 

When I have a closer look at the photo later, I can see that the face resembles Juergen, my husband. The three most important people in my life together as a unit, what a wonderful present Michel has made me!

In the evening, we gather to share a farewell dinner for our French guests who are returning to Rarotonga the following morning. Fresh pineapple on ice cream concludes a lovely evening in the company of new friends. 

Cindy stays another day of sewing. She promises me to email a photo of the finished tivaivai. I look forward to that.

26 November 2010

Hidden qualities

The most enjoyable works are those that speak to me right from the start. Two narrow strips of tapa blinked their holes at me and took me away to where the dreams live. After a day of dreaming and sewing, listening to great music and to my inner voices, a long strip was finished and ready for washing.

I like the stage when the bark is at its most vulnerable, floating in the water like angel’s wings (Ricarda’s description), but also the most beautiful stage. The sun was so bright, even the grid pattern of our screened doors shone into the washing bowl – another lace of a different kind. 

The strip is 7.5 m long and for drying I had to pin it diagonally to my long table where it could just barely fit. The material is so different when it is dry and before it has received a lot of handling... Manipulating it will make it softer again, may even break it in parts. Just like human beings, I think. The change in texture brings up thoughts of the difference between vulnerability and strength, softness and hardness. In this case, both are part of the same thing. But they can only be seen as part of it when it is submitted to different influences. Pretty much like human beings who are soft and vulnerable at times and can be, even prefer to appear, hard and strong. It is so good at times to accept one’s vulnerability, allow ourselves to be soft and give life a chance to remold us. It is also necessary to be strong, bendable perhaps, but unbreakable – if possible.

I let it meander around itself so I can get much of it into one photograph. The meandering tapa-lace strip has an almost architectural quality to it. I think of the balconies and walls in Arabian countries, richly carved into intricate patterns. They use their delicate designs to conceal from view the beauty (or ugliness) that lives behind them, allowing only an undetected glimpse into the reality of the outside world; tempting viewers on both sides to wonder curiously about the concealed.

23 November 2010

Shadows of the past: Hoarding

As a child from the post-war generation I grew up in half a house. The other half had collapsed when the house was bombed. Our apartment had a looong corridor on whose one end was a living room that would be dad’s bedroom at night and a bath room; on the other end a kitchen and the day-room, at night mum’s and my bedroom. When I was very little, there were no doors except for the main access to the apartment. Wood was precious and had been used for heating in cold war winters. Instead curtains gave some privacy. They were made from old coal bags – today’s eco dyers would probably have delighted in the traces of the coal that my mother had not managed to rub or boil out in the wash. She would certainly have preferred better than that, but that came later...

Open-mouthed I used to soak in her stories of how she would trade her only (!) one slice of bread of the daily ration for one (!) cigarette – dreams that went up in smoke were more important than the harsh reality and kept her going, I guess. I remember her as a very beautiful, but VERY skinny woman – not much different to today’s fashion models, except that these can probably buy lots of cigarettes... Dad was only just starting his own business as a photographer. Neither money nor commissions were abundant in the early years. Who needed and could afford a photographer?! Needless to say that very little was thrown away in our household. Things were reused and recycled and misappropriated for something else. We had nothing to throw away.

That’s how I became a hoarder. This trait qualified me greatly for living on a remote island with no significant shops. Do-it-yourself brought out the best in me. One of my great satisfactions was the separation of rubbish. We have one container for burnable waste (only paper and the odd fabric scrap that is REALLY too small to keep and use elsewhere!). Another is for rubbish like empty cans (no eco dyeing, yet!), broken glass, plastic and such. Stuff that will be collected and taken to the dump (from where our art teacher friend Bazza occasionally picks it up – his creativity goes along other lines than mine). Edible waste goes to the pigs and I do no longer have to overeat, "because otherwise the poor black children in Africa starve" – or did I remember something wrong there from my mother’s message??!

Occasionally I intend to free my house and studio of too much clutter, but often this good intention doesn’t go far beyond the sorting and re-arranging stage. Often, the day after I have bravely thrown something away and the rubbish truck came and got it I would have needed exactly that something... 

I am therefore glad I kept this piece of lace that had served me to try materials I wanted to work with during my recent studies. It hung on my soft-board studio wall, usually in my way when using the wall for photographing something pinned to it, as a screen for the overhead projector for enlarging or just to pin up a new composition. It was pinned here and there, but never banned to one of the boxes that contain my UFOs (translation for non-artists: ‘Un-Finished Objects’) where I would probably have lost it from sight and therefore mind.

I'm glad for a reason: It is now the centre piece of a new panel. I added two lengths of interfacing to either side and extended parts of the pieces patterns so they meander down the new sides, holding pieces of delicate tapa as embellishments. I like this combination, as it juxtaposes the entirely man-made non-woven cloth with the natural material, fibres bonded and spread out thin. Both are strong and hardly breakable in the direction the fibres run. They are soft, though, and delicate to handle when wet. Bark cloth is made from the inner bark of certain trees, that means it is – like interfacing’s original purpose – a material between two outer layers, liminal in its changing state.

The way I intend to hang this panel will enable the centre piece to cast a shadow – on a surface more suitable for display than my raggedy lawn. Today the bright south-seas sun supplied the best of all spotlights, so I had to take advantage. I was hoping to show you the shadow and that’s how it got me thinking about those shadows of the past...