process

Arts Open

Opening up your house to strangers is often a fraught and invasive enterprise. It usually means you’re trying to sell it or, if you’re renting, someone else is selling it out from underneath you. Or the estate agent is inspecting it and, if you’ve kept it nice enough, they’ll let you stay.

In our case, it’s a celebration of Art and the work we’ve made over the course of a year. We transform our living space into a gallery and open it up to the public every March. It’s a fine line between clearing as much out as we can, and keeping it liveable for the times between. This year, we were open last long weekend, and this one, for Arts Open Castlemaine. We scrub the windows, throw art up on the walls, and optimistically buy lots of red dot sale stickers because we always lose the pack we bought last year in the intervening 11 and a half months.

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Despite the occasional bought of nerves, and all the extra cleaning, it’s wonderful. People are lovely and chatty, and ask great questions, and often lead me to new ideas, just by talking about the work. They see a different angle to something that I hadn’t considered, or are affected by different ideas in an image or story. Some respond to something from their childhood, or to the single mother in a story, and some just want to know the technical details. Whatever it is, there’s something about talking about the same thing over and over again to different people over several days that brings out new ideas to me as well: new work I want to make, or a different way of seeing an image I created and know right down to each leaf and twig.

Even if we don’t make as many sales as hoped (there are always some, but I never seem to end the week rolling around in a mountain of cash, tossing banknotes around like autumn leaves; gold coins tinkling around me like rain, and that seems most unfair) it’s an invaluable way to make new contacts, generate ideas, and absorb some of the enthusiasm that people bring with them. Always, the positives outweigh the odd negative. Of course we do get the odd close-talker, looooong-talker, left-of-field theorist or self-promoter. And there always, always seems to be one who is a combination of all of the above. Last week one man claimed something so wacky, and frankly racist, that I was very happy to show him the door. And there was the woman who walked in, cast a cool glance around, said “No, this isn’t what I want to see,” and swept out again. But I treasure these moments too, for they give me good drinking stories.

This year I am exhibiting work with my mum (Hooray!) Jenny Carrington, an incredible artist, book crafter and weaver, amongst many things. Style-wise, she comes from a ‘hard-edge’ background, but her connection to the landscape that is often her subject makes her work anything but hard. It’s imbued with symbolism, spirit and her deep love for the Australian bush.

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Her woodblock prints are uncomplicated, but they’re far from simple.

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And her pen drawing are full of so much detail, even her perfect shading is accomplished with thousands of perfectly placed pen-marks.

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Arts Open is a great chance to visit artist’s studios and see how they work. Castlemaine is an incredible hub of artists: Photographers, painters, sculptors, printmakers, jewellers… You name it, someone here makes it.

So if you’re in Castlemaine this weekend (March 19th & 20th) please do come visit. Our door is open!

 

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Fairy Tales and Narrative Structure

As you all know, I’m working on a project about the lost strong girls of fairy tales. The project involves searching out old tales with strong female protagonists, and illustrating them with my artwork. Another aspect of the project, and a part I’ve only just begun working on, is the rewriting of some of the tales. I tossed up whether to leave them as they were, or re-write, for a long time. I like the idea of keeping them as they are, in their own culture context. Unfortunately the cultural context is all over the place. Some were recorded in the 1700s, some early last century. All were originally taken from the oral tradition, removed from their true context anyway, as a story told in the moment; to a group of listeners, a child caught wandering to close to the woods, around the dying embers of a fire. The storyteller was the holder of these stories, a role vastly different to the author. A storyteller brings stories into everyday life, an author sweeps you away from it. Many of the stories were rewritten several times over several generations, to fit the fashion and morals of the time. Some stories I’ve found are on webpages that look like they haven’t been updated since 1998; without references, and with no mention of whether the story is taken directly from an old (and out of copyright) collection, or written in 1998 by the owner of the website, and therefore very much in copyright.

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All of this has lead me to a point where I feel, I think, that I’d like to start afresh; to take the framework of the stories and weave my own narrative between the bones. One, because it feels like it will be a more cohesive book; two, because I want children to enjoy reading them (some of the stories are pretty hard to wade through, or written for a vastly different era); and three, because it’s fun! Really fun.

It has also got me thinking about things like narrative structure, all that cultural context (as above), and the difference it writing between eras. When I write fiction, I usually write short stories. That’s the genre I’m most comfortable in, so to me it’s important to frame my ‘new’ fairy tales within the appropriate constructs of short story. Not in all cases, but often, fairy tales go something like “Intro to characters, moral supposition, this happened, then this happened, then this, the bad people die, the good ones get married and/or untold riches, moral conclusion, everyone live happily ever after”. That, you cannot get away with in a contemporary short story. Readers want to know what characters are feeling, and why they are feeling it; they need to be shown and not told, and they don’t want to see everything laid out in black and white. The best short story, to me anyway, is made up of a whole lot of shades of grey. But not, ahem, fifty.

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I feel I’m going to have a whole lot more to say about all of the above, but for now I’m still grasping for ideas, writing, and thinking about writing, and frankly, having a lovely time.

A Tender Beginning: or, why I’m not showing you my new artworks (yet)

After talking and blogging and social media-ing about fairy tales and art for a while, I’m getting back into creating new work. I have a couple exhibitions coming up and a book project waiting for me to get back on board, which means I often begin my day like this:

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Not shown: strong black coffee, slice of vegemite toast, existential angst. It’s rare for a photographer to start with a blank canvas. Though, this isn’t technically the beginning of the process for me. I have already photographed the many separate elements and created the silhouettes I need. But it is the beginning of the final artwork. I’ve spoken before about how I create the silhouettes. They are all sitting in the background waiting to be added. If you look closely, you can see some of the file tabs already open behind that blank page.

I’m not sure if I even feel like a photographer at this point. The creation of the final image is a tentative process of layering, pushing and moulding the work into life. Something like painting, sculpting and kindergarten cut-and-pasting all in one.

The Stolen Bairn and the Sidh I (detail)

The Stolen Bairn and the Sidh I (detail)

I usually begin with the silhouettes against a white background, so I can see where they are fitting together, and to make sure I’m not leaving stray bits and pieces when I’m erasing the elements I don’t need. Sometimes, if the background is integral to where the silhouettes are placed, I’ll have it in place, and toggle it on and off when needed. Often, if the background is there simply for atmosphere, I won’t even know what image I’ll use until everything else is in place. Whenever a new layer is pasted in, I alter its blending mode if needed. ‘Multiply’ is wonderful for placing silhouettes with residual tonal detail, as it settles them into the images in a softer way than a direct overlay. They are then scaled and flipped if necessary with the Transform function. (Apologies to those who have no idea what I’m talking about – I’ll be brief I promise). The ‘Liquify’ tool is my friend if slight adjustments are needed to the shape of a silhouette – longer hair, fabric not flowing smoothly, a tree branch not quite reaching the right way. All those layers start to add up, especially when trying alternatives of the same elements and adding multiple adjustment layers. It’s not unusual for the image file to gather 50+ layers and start tipping 3GB in size.

When everything is in place, then begins the long process of standing back, squinting, head tilting and stepping back in to move something three pixels to the left, or dodge and burn parts of the background, or resize a leaf fourteen times, a pixel at a time, before it looks right. The process of tweaking takes at least as long as putting the image together, usually longer. It’s a process of highlighting the important bits, balancing out the composition and making that frankenstein of an image look like a cohesive whole.

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The Stolen Bairn and the Sidh I (detail)

The final piece feels raw and still made up of its separate pieces. It is not yet the sum of its parts; a fragile thing, part newborn baby, part freakish conglomeration of arms and legs and liver and lungs, stitched with careful threads. I look at it and see the separate parts that make it; can’t see the forest for the trees. At this point I try to walk away and let it settle for a day, but usually I can’t help peeking in; a nervous new mother checking on a peacefully sleeping baby. I want to show everyone, to see if they see it like I do, but I feel protective of it too. It needs time to grow into itself, to heal from its stitches and become whole. In reality it’s sitting here on the hard drive, a collection of code, but in my mind it’s coming to life. It was a thing that didn’t exist, and now it does. It belongs in the world, but not yet ready to face it.

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I’d love to hear your feelings about the creative process, knowing when something is ‘finished’, and letting go.

Magical Shadows: The technique behind my silhouettes

I recently had a studio session with my daughters and one of their friends to create some new silhouettes for future artworks, and thought I share the process with you. As I mentioned earlier, my works are completely photographic, and made up of many layers, which means photographing every element individually. The figures are the most fun. The kids love the chance to leap around and ham it up in from the camera, while I beg them to stay within the realms of the backdrop, or yell ‘Argh, I just cut off your foot!’ when I miss-frame an airborne child.

The studio set up is thus: white backdrop, kept as (ahem) wrinkle free as possible to avoid shadows that can make it harder to isolate the figure later. I light the backdrop with one or two studio flash units, and hook up the camera with either a long lead or slave. The slave is simply a wireless trigger for the flash units. The subject is then given strict direction on where they need to be when the camera is fired – in front of the lights, so no light falls on them (unlit subject + brightly lit background = silhouette!), but still on the white sheet, and between ‘here’ and ‘here’ to keep the backdrop behind them. We usually begin with some ‘crazy’ shots to get them settled into being photographed, then I direct the images I know I need. I shoot a lot of frames, and also leave a lot to chance. The surprises are often the most exciting.

One of the characters I needed for a future image is the Baba Yaga, witch of the forest. Here’s my eldest daughter Mari with my cardigan over her head. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be allowed to dress her up, but I’m enjoying it while I can. Note the lit background and (almost) totally unlit figure.

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I import the image into Photoshop, select the figure and tidy up the outline with the ‘refine edge’ tool. I then create a new black layer and use the selection to copy and paste the silhouette into a new image file. Sometimes, if I want to keep a little bit of tonal detail, like light glowing through a dress or a glint of golden hair, I’ll select the image and darken most of it down to black, keeping the details I need. In this case, the Baba Yaga is all silhouette.

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Then begins the search for a background. I have a stockpile of background images that I shoot whenever we go on holiday, or out for a walk with the camera. Or, often just around the back yard. Most are close-ups with a shallow depth of field. This gives me a few details, but leaves most of the image as a soft backdrop for the detailed silhouettes I lay over the top.

The image below is not a final artwork, but a test for how the silhouette works over a background. I often make small sample images to gather elements before compiling a final piece.

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I love the magic you can weave in photography by removing detail and context in an image. Suddenly my daughters can fly, fall through space like Alice in Wonderland, and be whoever they want to be. Though of course, they can already do that…

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