Ibis on vintage linen

The ibis is much maligned by Brisbane urbanites. They have adapted to survive on human detritus and people object to their behaviours, scavenging discarded fast food and other morsels left behind. This has earned them their nickname, bin chicken.

I quite like the ibis. I find it both graceful and a bit bizarre, with its long beak, fluffy tail feathers and naked neck. As usual, I empathise with the underdog, the less fortunate, the more vulnerable of beings. In my mind it is not the ibis’ fault they now roam our urban spaces. Their habitats – precious wetlands where their long beaks could ferret out crabs and mussels – are progressively shrinking, paved and turned into carparks, roads or housing estates for humans caught up in their aspirational life. In pursuit of their aspirations, humans will work long hours with long commutes so they become time poor and, to compensate, spend their hard earned money fast – fast food, fast fashion, fast cars, instant entertainment. It is sweet irony that if humans enjoyed a slower life, they wouldn’t have to spend time on earning all that money required for fast living. Rather time could be spent on the slower things in life like being, cooking, gardening, creating, parenting, walking, enjoying the nature that is still right at our doorstep. And maybe then the ibis would have enough natural habitat to stay away from bins in urban areas.

My latest piece pays homage to the ibis. Initially, I found it difficult to draw the shape of the bird. In our archive of photos taken over the years, I found photos of ibis. I copied the shapes of four ibis and drew them again and again until I was happy with the result. Then I transferred the black beak, tail and legs onto on piece of transparency, and the white body onto another for each of the birds.

This let me expose 16 silk screens, a left and right version for each bird with a black and a white screen, eight birds in all. I had difficulty exposing the screens as the UV was low, but ultimately, I found the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency’s UV radiation index, which has let me develop a bit more science around exposure times.

I visited my neighbour’s pattern archive and found a suitably extravagant pattern for my ibis top – a Vogue top by Marcy Tilton (V9089).

Previously, I have handprinted entire lengths of fabric with a repeating pattern, for example, the Graffiti Bird wrap. This time I wanted to give the ibis – and this top – deserved a different, more distinguished approach. Using contrast cotton, I marked the pieces from the pattern out on a beautifully woven grey vintage linen from The Fabric Store.

I created a map of which birds I wanted where on the final garment, and started printing, one bird at a time, first white and then black once the white paint was dried. I used little templates to place the birds and give me a sense of spacing, meter and rhythm

I finished the middle back piece and realised that I needed to be able to see the other pieces to align the pattern across them. So cut the fabric pieces before continuing to print the other two back pieces. This particular fabric is quite fragile, so printing was stalled while I cut pieces and zigzagged the edges.

Printing the birds in this way made slow progress, yet every time I felt confident enough to try to print multiple birds at one time, I made mistakes. Patience is indeed king and I continually told myself that it is all about the process more so than the end result.

Once I had printed enough birds on the relevant pieces, I could start sewing. It was not a difficult pattern, though the cuffs on the sleeves caught me out, in part because I had put a bird on the back of each sleeve, but miscalculated the distance from the raw edge. I invented a work-around; I don’t mind it too much.

I am happy with the result – I really love the wide flowing back that lets the birds move and fly. I am looking forward to taking it out, when it is again safe to venture back into the community with the Delta strain of Covid-19. The matching face mask may still come in handy.

Knitted colour

A few years ago, on one of our pilgrimages to the Danish homeland, a friend gave me an abandoned knitting kit. The finest spun wool in a multitude of tiny bundles, two-ply and wonderfully diverse colours. The Garnguf kit was for knitting a woollen, short sleeved summer blouse, suitable for the Danish summer.

It took me some years to figure out what this kit might usefully be used for the Queensland weather. When winter kicked in this year, I realised that I needed a woollen jumper to keep me warm in the studio.

Probably a decade ago, another friend had taught me to knit ‘Fanø strik’, a type of fair isle knitting made popular by Christel Seyfarth. I realised the Garnguf kit was just right for this technique.

My first attempt at Fanø knit

I needed a base yarn of a single colour to stretch the short sleeved kit to a long-sleeved jumper. Unfortunately, the local speciality yarn shop, Yarn Over, closed some years ago, so I felt rather treacherous turning to its warehouse competitor, Spotlight, where I was left ferreting through revolting acrylic, nylon and poly yarns to find some rare pure wool. There was no two-ply that would match the kit, so I bought some Patons four-ply, grey baby marino wool, thinking it would be ok with the two-ply.

I looked at the pattern to see how I could modify it, thought “what the heck, I will just give it a go”. And then I started knitting.

And now at the end of winter, I am chuffed with the result – it is colourful and soft, and probably only I will see the errors and knitting sins committed along the way. And all those yarn endings? I just tied them together, taking a leaf out of Lærke Bakker’s book.

Warm and brown and wombat shaped

‘Wombat’, 2021, detail, Print on Rice Paper

In the beginning of the 1990s we were blessed with our first garden. Recently arrived from Denmark and acutely aware that gardening in Australia is not like gardening at home, we shiftly acquired the freshly published The Wilderness Garden by Jackie French (1992, Aird Books, Melbourne). And though the conditions of subtropical Brisbane are nothing like Aralen Valley in New South Wales, we both were committed the idea of a pesticide and herbicide free sustainable wilderness garden that could feed us as well as be home to native wildlife. This idea has shaped our gardening ever since.

Wombat, Australia Zoo 2014 (Photo: Mick)

Famously, Jackie French had a resident wombat named Fudge, and wombats were subject of many, many books by French. Truth be told, we could have done with a wombat to dig deep burrows in the shale and clay soil of the foothills of the D’Aguilar Range, but of course wombats like dry sclerophyll forests at a certain height, so wombats were unlikely to take residence in suburban Ferny Grove or on Mailmans Track in Bunya, never mind the floodplains of Mitchelton.

Burrowing wombat, Australia Zoo 2014 (Photo: Mick)

When I still read stories for the boys, I particularly enjoyed ‘Little Wombat’ by Chris Mansell, illustrated by Cheryl Westenberg. Little Wombat had difficulty figuring out who she really was because – just like my own child self – she aspired to be so many things, tightrope walker, archaeologist, dentist, swimmer… Exhausted by all these opportunities, in the end, she choses to be the wombat that sits in the sun, listens “to the bush singe like music and be warm and brown and wombat-shaped.” She was not at all a wombat doing, but a wombat being.

It was this sense of being enough, just as you are, whether a wombat or a human that I tried to capture in this lino cut. I hope you like it too.

‘Wombat’, 2021, print on rice paper

The Graffiti bird wrap shirt

For some months I have been working on a new garment, which has actually been years in the making. Perhaps not quite finished to claim for #memademay, but happy to share anyway.

My fascination with the simple bird design started in 2015 when we were living in Nørrebro in Copenhagen. Walking the streets thin in all kinds of weather, I loved grafitti spotting. I liked themes that repeated themselves across the public spaces of the city, and in particular I noticed, photographed and wrote about birds in the graffiti cityscape.

Inspired by the clever, but unknown graffiti artists (Spyo? Bravo?) I designed a pattern with six bird drawings for the beautiful purple linen I bought from The Fabric Store in Brisbane in December. You may suggest that I appropriated the design, as some are direct copies of what I saw in Copenhagen and from Brisbane can enjoy via #thebirdsthebirds on Instagram. I would love to attribute the original creators if anyone can let me know who they are.

I developed a silk screen with the pattern design and started printing, screen after screen. Unfortunately, the print quality deteriorated as I went along and I had to acquire new emulsion and develop a new silk screen half way through the process. This left an uneven pattern with some birds very vague in their prints while others are showcasing sparkling yellow lines.

It was challenging to fit the pattern to the finished fabric, so the best of the birds would be put to best use in the final garment. With help – again – from my sewing fiend (and friend) of a neighbour, we modified the Simplicity pattern from a wrap dress to a wrap shirt, so I was sure there was enough fabric.

Modifying the pattern to fit me and the fabric was complex, but rewarding

Birgitte helped me aligning the organic pattern across the pieces so I could get the most out of my fabric in the cut.

Then off I went with my beginners sewing machine in the spot Mick has gracefully granted me in his studio. Sewing a button-up shirt with a wrap was challenging for a relative novice, and Youtube was definitely my virtual friend in explaining things like understitching (thank you Evelyn Wood!) and other unfamiliar terms the pattern threw up.

I thought I was going crazy when I got to the yoke. I simply could not get the logic straight, and I watched countless Youtube clips explaining the burrito method in so many ways that I went nearly cross-eyed. I basted and practiced pulling through the fabric unsuccessfully a few times before I finally got it. It is nothing short of miraculous, like so many other things with sewing.

I still need to hem the shirt, create the button holes and sew in buttons, but I am pretty pleased with the result already.

What have you been making in May?

Kraken

In Old Norse langauge, Kraki is a gigantic sea creature that is the nemesis of sailors. So large it was better not spoken about at all, Kraken is the definite form of krake, the word for something unhealthy or twisted.

When I was researching cultural significance of octopuses for this post, I was mystified by the Kraken meme that runs rampant on pro-Trump conspiracy theorists’ social media accounts, keen to see the consequences unfold when the election fraud is exposed.

I don’t think of octopuses as twisted or frightening, though I can imagine why Norse sailors in the North Atlantic found large specimens to be terrifying. Rather, octopuses are fabulous intelligent beings with memory systems and intergenerational learning.

I am not suggesting that Paul the Octopus was an animal oracle when he accurately predicted the result of the soccer World Cup 2010, but I think these magnificient creatures deserve our humility.

Not because some are so large they can pull down a Viking ship or because the small blue-ringed octopus is the most venemous thing of the ocean, but because they are creatures that have evolved to exist in an ecosystem that we humans tend to regard merely as resources to be mined for our benefit.

That is the humility I wanted to portray with ‘Kraken’ this week – not a giant man-eating octopus, but a creature living in equilibrium with its surroundings.

I printed this version on Japanese rice paper.

Weaving baskets

In 2017 I learnt the ancient art of weaving baskets from master weaver from Yarrabah, Philomena Yeatman. She had come to Brisbane with Yarrabah artist Elverina Johnston in association with State Library of Queensland’s showcase: Jabu Birriny, Land+Sea in kuril dhagun.

Like Philomena I am trying my hand at many artforms (though nowhere near as talented as she is). And like Philomena, since learning the skill, I have come back to weaving as a constant. I have woven heat savers, bread baskets, coasters, and shared with unsuspecting recipients. How many breadbaskets does one household need?

Philomena Yeatman describes how she was taught the skill of weaving from her grandmother and was required to collect the weaving materials, clean them and dry them. Unlike Philomena, recently I bought bunches of raffia on the internet. It comes coloured and an bulk to satisfy my urge to do something with my hands when I watch tv.

I finished this basket this week. And annoyed by all the thin trailings that come with commercial raffia, I started on a tiny basket. I reckon I need years more practice, but I enjoy the process, possibly more than the result. Which may be the case for all art.

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.

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.