Shapeshifting seal

I think of seals as the labradors of the seas, their face like butter would not melt in the mouth. Of course, unlike labradors, seals have no soft floppy ears; seal ears are seen merely as holes on the side of the head.

I wanted to portray the harbour seal, or spættet sæl. It is a northern hemisphere seal that lives in the waters of the arctic and in the northern pacific and atlantic oceans. They are quite common in Danish waters, though the only ones I have ever seen in the wild were well decomposed on the Danish beaches on Æbeltoft and Møn. They don’t much like humans, so in the densly populated country of mostly islands their style is somewhat cramped.

The harbour seal is solitary, though the males have been observed gathering and calling collectively to attract the females for breeding. The aquatic mammal hauls to shore to give birth to 16 kilos of well-developed pup, which are so cute that well-meaning campaigners nearly destroyed the traditional practice of seal hunting by the Inuits.

Norse and Celtic mythology suggest that seals are shapeshifters, called selkies. The Faroe Legend of Kópakonan suggests that once a year on the thirteenth day seals come ashore to shed their skin and emerge as humans. A farmer went to the beach to experience this transformation. When naked humans emerged from the seal skin, he stole the skin of a woman-seal. When the seals returned to their skin and slid back into the ocean, one seal-woman was unable to be reunited with her skin and had to stay on land. The farmer took her home and locked away the skin. For many years she lived as his wife, until one day he forgot his key and she got her seal skin back and finally returned to the sea.

I cannot help wondering if HC Andersen had this folk-tale in mind when he wrote The Little Mermaid, with her fish tail and ability to shift shape to a fully blown human. Except of course she could live as human by choice, not because some incel male was unable to woo a wife in a more romantic and less coersive way.

This time, I’ve used a new type of vinyl for the cut, and I have printed on a form of see-through rice paper. If my seal is a selkie, I hope humans have the grace to leave the skin so it can return to the sea.

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Jumping dolphin

Dolphins are aquatic mammals and the name is thought to come from Greek for womb. They exist in every ocean and in my first language, Danish, local dolphins are sometimes called marsvin or pigs of the sea. They are intelligent and social creatures who learn, teach and cooperate.

To me, dolphins signal joy and play. I recall being delighted seeing them first in the waters off the northern beach of Moorgumpin (Moreton Island), chasing a school of fish that handily drove them to the spot we were fishing. I have enjoyed spotting them play in shallow waters on many beach walks in South East Queensland, most recently on the gorge walk on Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island). In Jandai, the traditional language spoken on Minjerribah and other the Moreton Bay Islands, dolphins are called buangan and is a sacred totem of the Quandamooka people.

Humpback dolphin in South Gorge, Minjerribah

A few years ago I fed dolphins at the old whaling station, Tangalooma, on Moorgumpin with my newphew. It was an exhilarating experience, though by then, dolphin feeding was tightly managed. Probably a good thing for the protection of both dolphins and humans, but it was too much of a tourism experience, rather than an encounter with a magnificent wild animal of the sea.

The lino cut is of a bottlenose dolphin jumping for joy. It may be seeking to impress me, or just be checking me out.

Good luck dragonfly

The first dragonfly I remember was one I caught in a butterfly net in primary school. We had been sent out with nets and jars to collect insects and I was roaming a vacant block with class mates when I struck gold.

In Danish the dragonfly is guldsmed or gold smith. This is a relatively new name for the graceful insect – European folklore has little positive to say about the dragonfly, giving it names that mean the devil’s horse or eye poker and scaring children with stories about dragonflies sewing people’s mouths shut with their needle looking body.

Back on that empty building block in the 80s I caught a massively big dragonfly in the net and nearly scared the pants off myself, perhaps because of those tales. Though I was proud as punch of my catch, my excitement faded quickly as my science teacher showed me how to drop cotton wool with chloroform into the jar and then pin the poor insect onto a polystyrene board. So much for powers to poke people’s eyes out, here’s a poker for you!

Fast forward to Australian experiences, where I spotted the beautiful red, blue and green dragonflies hanging around the billabongs and streams when we were camping or walking in the bush. I love them for their grace – and their moscito eradication abilities.

In Japan dragonflies are symbols of courage, strength and happiness. Inspired by my colleague, Krysi Egan, it is the grace and happiness I wanted to capture in my lino cut of the dragonfly buzzing around the lily pad pond. I hope it makes you happy, too.

Gentle giants of the sea

The sea and the sound of the waves rolling to the shore nourishes my soul. I love long walks on the shoreline, forever changing always new, reminding me of the finite nature of being and the infinite nature of time and space we exist in.

When I first spotted humpback whales in the Pacific Ocean, it was from the vantage point of Hells Kitchen in Noosa National Park years ago. They were swimming past in the distance, surfacing, diving, blowing and jumping their unfathomable large bodies out of the water on their way north to warmer breeding areas near the equator.

I have since experienced whales in playful banter in Moreton Bay, welcomed Yalingbila (Jandai language for whale) at the Quandamooka festival on Minjerribah, and signed petitions for the preservation of whales and stopping international whalers.

T-shirt design by Delvene Cockatoo-Collins for the Quandamooka Festival

Most recently, I learnt that the humpback whale is the Sacred Spiritual Totem of the Woppaburra First Nations People of the Keppel Islands off the central Queensland coast, and is named Mugga Mugga in Woppaburra language. The Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation ambition to install a tourism attraction with the bones of a previously beached whale on the top of Mulumba is contested, and a tent embassy campaigns against the development. I pay my respect to the Elders of both the Quandamooka and the Woppaburra peoples and hope this current conflict can be resolved amicably.

I wanted to document these magnificient creatures in my new way of expression – the linocut. I love the meditative carving away of linoleum, the rolling of paint to cover the lino, and the pressing of the lino onto paper to reveal the mirror positive image of the cut.

We can learn from these giant mammals: take time to play. So I let out my inner, child artist, learn new skills and discover new ways of expressing myself.

We have seen the images of turtles dying entangled in fishing debris or eating plastic bags floating like jellyfish. Recently in Queensland, baby turtles were found dead with bits of plastic in their stomachs. Our insatiable consumption of plastics is killing our oceans slowly. Plastics in our oceans is dangerous to turtles because it looks and smells like food to turtles.

Turtles are amazing creatures who deserve much better than this horrible fate human greed is serving them up. It is testament to how much humans love turtles that the World Science Festival 2021 turtle hatchery sessions were the first to sell out. Luckily you can catch the hatchery on live stream here from 24 to 28 March 2021.

I have learnt from His Excellency Chief Antonio Chevez, of the Mayan-Lenca people of El Salvadore, that in his culture, turtles and tortoises are the symbol of love and empathy. Turtles have no speech, because love cannot be reduced to words.

Turtles are soft and vulnerable on their underbelly, but are protected by the strong shell on their backs. If you look at the turtle shell, it has 13 segments, scutes, that are all differently shaped and fit together like a puzzle. They are made of keraten, just like your fingernail. Individually each scute would not be able to protect the turtle, but together they are strong.

This is not so different when we think about diverse humans in a team. If we each are on our own, pursuing our own goals, we will not achieve as much as we can if we take time to understand and know each other, our strengths and challenges. Together we are stronger, we can be more than the sum of our parts. Thanks to PeopleHQ and Shelley Wild for taking me on a journey to learn how to satisfy our brain’s need for interpersonal connection when leading teams.

With my lino cut turtle print I try to bring out my fascination with these amazing creatures and remind us all that as humans need the empathy of those around us to thrive.

Walking to the Edges

Sometimes, walking is the best way to get around. Yes it might be easier to jump in the car to get from A to B, but the rush deprives you from truly experiencing the environment around you in human speed. Walking is important to our physical and mental health – it is said that 30 minutes of walking each day keeps you healthy. The very act of putting one leg in front of the other can bring you to a mental place of peace, especially if you are able to practice mindfulness as you amble along.

Our family in Næstved had a plan for walking. Næstved, on the south coast of Sjælland, was established as a trade centre in 1140 and became an important religious centre when both the Franciscan, Dominican and Benedictine orders established monestaries and churches here in those early days of converting the Vikings to Christianity. For the rowdy Danes worshipping the White Christ was probably mostly an insurance policy, just another god among the many Asa gods in Norse mythology.

Our first walk was out to Karrebæksminde at the entry to Karrebæk Fjord, where the Grasshopper Bridge connects Sjælland to Enø. This small town was once an important harbour for Næstved, though since the canal was dug deep enough in the first half of the 20th century, this function is no longer relevent. Now residents of Karrebæksminde commute for work or sustain themselves through fishing or tourism. During summer the population grows significantly with holiday visitors. The walk from Næstved is about 12 km.

For the second walk, we drove to Store Heddinge to walk Trampestien on top of Stevns Klint, a 41 km long world-heritage listed formation that provides evidence of the largest incidence of mass extinction on earth about 67 million years ago. When the Chixulub meteorite hit earth offshore the Ycatan peninsula at the end of the Cretaceous Period, it generated an ash cloud and the sediment of the ash and the life that came after the event can be seen as seams in the chalk exposed by the Baltic Sea. The fossil record exposed is outstanding and the flint stone amply available has been crucial to the Northward migration of humans after the last ice age. Similarly, limestone became an important building material in the medival and Bishop Absalon build his fort where Copenhagen later grew up out of building blocks from Stevns Klint. Harvesting of limestone for building materials did not cease until the 1940s and the scars can still be seen, for example near Højerup Gamle Kirke.

Between 1250 and 1300 a church (Højerup) was built close to the sea high up on the Klint. But the sea encroaches on the land by about 15 cm per year in this spot and in 1928 the outermost part of the church tumbled into the sea. A new church has since been built in safe distance to the sea, and the old church has been secured and heritage listed.

Our walk along Trampestien was about 15 km and we caught the train from Rødvig back to Store Heddinge.

Would London by any other name be as … Londonish?

The London corner of the UK was dead set against Brexit. Grayson Perry’s Red Carpet kind of shows why – a corner of privilege set against the rest of the country. We saw his  exhibition The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! at the Serpentine Gallery – his work is provoking, smart and highlighting the irony of white privilege championing art for human rights.

When I started learning English at school, one of the early texts we studied was Ralph McTell’s Streets of London. The story of inequlity in a wealthy country lit a fire that still burns bright. Why are some people so unbelievably wealthy, living in gilded  flats in Kensington, with a country estate for hunting and pleasure, expensive cars, and children bording at the most exclusive ‘public’ schools, when others cannot scrape together enough for a meal? Compared with the 1960s, London is possibly less occupied today, with lots of housing owned by foreigners who visit occassionally, while others cannot afford to live here and those who do live in more affordable social housing risk their lives.

Yet, for the visitor, London is just fabulous, With its glamour, culture, diversity, history, and dirt. I have loved London since the first time I came with my parents and my older brother for one hot summer in 1974. It was great cultural experience and my young imagination was captured by the history of the place: the castles, the stories of royal conquest and deceit, the megalomanic empire building. However, the holiday could also have been a premature end of this lifelong fascination: it was sheer luck that we went to see the Crown Jewells in the triple armoured basement of The Tower of London, rather than the weapons in the rather vulnerable White Tower, that day when the IRA popped a bomb into a cannon. When we came out into the sunshine police were everywhere, Bobbies with batons, guiding us to the exit. Damn, said my brother, he really wanted to see those weapons. We read all about it in the Extra, Extra newspaper that our uncle-second-removed, Brian, bought on the way back to Hammersmith.

This time we also caught a heatwave, 31 degrees and the English were nearly melting. Even as a Queenslander I have to admit it was hot, with the asphalt steaming, the bridges creaking and the hot air pushed in front of the trains in the tube only marginally hotter than the ambient temperature on the underground platform.  Our need for a cold drink was rewarded by a hand-pulled luke warm draft beer at The Dove. The pint was of course Fullers Pride of London, and we sat in the breeze on the back deck overlooking the Thames, watching the rowers launch their boats into its murky waters opposite. We reminded ourselves that the words to Rule Britannia were penned in this very pub, wondering how the Brits imagine their glorious future divorced from the Continent, and what this future will hold for London.

Enjoy this impression of London:

Art, bog people and sunburn

Silkeborg is a small town halfway between Aarhus and the town I grew up in, Herning. With the motorway now complete between Herning and Aarhus, it is no longer necessary to drive through the town – though the motorway is not without controversy. It was clever politicking by local government politicians that saw significant investment in road infrastructure to Herning, the Capital of the Heath. And though Silkeborg residents probably benefit from the connectivity created by Herning Motorvejen, I heard a fair amount of resentment for the rival town.

What Silkeborg has over Herning is natural beauty. When the ice receded during the last ice age, it created a flat corner, right down the middle of Jutland, from Viborg in the north to the German border in the south. While the heath landscape of this area was largely reclaimed and drained in the 19th century, it is still completely flat and windswept, and not particularly fertile.

The other side of this midline is a different story. The ice created hills (including the infamous Himmelbjerget ‘sky mountain’, all of 147m above sea level and the third highest point in Denmark), lakes and vallies with fertile soil, ripe for human habitation. The countryside around Silkeborg is particularly beautiful with lakes and dense forrest. It is no wonder that 10,000 years ago when the first human immigrants followed the deer north through Europe and into the Scandinavian peninsula they settled in the area we know as the ‘seahighland’. Archeological diggings at Bølling, near Silkeborg, has revealed a very old settlement from 9,600 b.c. Over the years, the Silkeborg area has been subject to many archeological digs, and treasures continue to emerge whenever a developer digs down into the rich soil.

The most famous inhabitant of Silkeborg is Tollundmanden, an extremely well-preserved corpse from the iron age around 200-300 b.c. He was discovered in 1950 and is thought to have been sacrificed at the bog. He can be seen at Silkeborg Museum.

Another famous guy, Grauballemanden, was also found near Silkeborg a couple of years later. His body can now be found in a fantastic shrine at Moesgaard Museum in Aarhus.

A third famous person to come from Silkeborg is the artist Asgar Jorn (1914-1973), one of the founding COBRA artists. It is fair to say that Jorn left his mark, not just in his hometown but on the art world, and still inspires budding artists today. He has his own museum in Silkeborg, which is well worth a visit if you are at all interested in art.

When we came to Silkeborg this time, we visited very live people, thankfully. We had new potatoes and barbequed meats, and walked around Almindsø. We also attended the opening of the newly surfaced town square, inspired by one of Jorn’s automation drawings. It was a sunny day and we enjoyed the jazz music and a couple of cold beers. Unfortunately, some of the people we shared it with ended up with quite a sunburn!


ARoS Triennial: The Garden – End of Times, Beginning of Times

A couple of years ago, we visited the very popular Sculpture by the Sea at Aarhus. Between 2009 and 2015, Aarhus was the only location outside Australia to stage Sculpture by the Sea, a concept by David Handley. In 2017, ARoS took over activation of Aarhus  Bay with art as part of the ARoS Triennial, The Garden. One morning we walked out to Tangkrogen to have a look at The Future displayed on the three kilometer stretch to Ballehagen. I love the way Bjarke Ingells Group’s Skum turned sculpture into cafe and place to sit at the beginning of the walk.

It is over a week we left Aarhus. The aim was to get to know this ancient town better, and to do that we walked. Not only to see the public art, but also to get a feel for the place, its people, its colours and its culture. It has been hailed as the new must do of Denmark, and it is easy to see why. A small concentrated centre with nature experiences so close by. I put together this little film about walking in Aarhus.


ARoS: Your Rainbow Panorama

Our best impression from Aarhus is that it is a fantastic town with a great cultural offer. But the very best experience is to walk Your Rainbow Panorama on the top of the art museum ARoS. It is a work conceived by the Danish-Icelandic artist, Olafur Eliasson, whom Brisbanites will know for The cubic structural evolution project shown at GOMA several times. Danes will know his Circle Bridge in Copenhagen.

If you cannot make it to ARoS, here is the second best thing: