Into the mountains of Laos

This is the third part of the talk I gave at Clayspace back in August 2014. Some new work based on this part of the talk is on display as part of Newstead Open Studios. 

Laos is a place I have visited several times now – I feel like I am falling into a kind of connection with this beautiful country. My last visit was all about textiles and traditions, travelling into the mountains to visit relatively remote villages and experience their textile traditions.

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Supplementary weft silk weaving

Travelling out of the mountains in the north-east we came to Vieng Xay, a landscape of limestone mountains that became a haven for Laos people and for the Pathet Lao, a communist political movement closely linked to the Vietnamese communists. To quote Wikipedia:

Through the 1960s and 1970s the Pathet Lao battled the Royal Lao Government during the Laotian Civil War, gaining control of the north and east of Laos. The Pathet Lao gained power throughout the country by the spring of 1975. In May, the US-backed Vientiane government fell and the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party formed a new government.[3]

In Vieng Xay we explore the caves deep inside these mountain, visiting places where the Pathet Laos planned their campaigns and where people lived, sheltering inside the mountain as bombs rained down outside. Laos was the most heavily bombed country in the Vietnam (aka American) War, and today unexploded ordnance – bombies – still takes lives and limbs despite the massive efforts of the bomb clearance teams.

Today bombs are made into practical objects and jewellery – including miniature bombs!

Vieng Xay

Vieng Xay

Vieng Xay - entering the well protected cave system

Vieng Xay – entering the well protected cave system

As a counterpoint, the story of the Hmong people interested me. They are one of the so-called ‘ethnic minority’ groups in this region – mountain people who were recruited by France and then the United States to fight on their side during the first and second Indochina Wars. Being on the losing side meant many Hmong became refugees, heading for the US, Australia and other countries; those who stayed were pushed out of their traditional areas, out of the mountains. Hmong women wear skirts of hand-woven hemp with patters created through wax resist and then indigo-dyed, and then appliqued, embroidered, stitched together, pleated and starched and finally worn. Remarkable pieces of work, representing days or weeks of work in each skirt.

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Hmong skirt: museum display

Hmong skirt: museum display

 

 

And so I have started on a series of work on the theme of “Haven”, reflecting the form of the mountains and the sweep and motifs of a skirt. The first pieces were only a partial success, with the terra sigillata surface peeling unexpectedly.

Haven 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

2015 Developing the Haven idea

2015 Developing the Haven idea

Recently (in early 2015) I have made another set of pieces on this same theme and have had these on display as part of Newstead Open Studios during the 2015 Castlemaine State Festival.

Ultimately for me it is about being in our place – in our identity, our inspiration, our stories, and using our signifiers and symbols.

For me, ideas and words are evocative. Often what seems like a new idea leads me back to a familiar place, visited before.

I continue to be intrigued by enclosed forms – the unknown interior – and in painting the surface with the clay that is literally from beneath my feet. I enjoy throwing on the wheel and reshaping – pulling, folding and cradling pots.

And I love the not knowing – the wondering of how might I express this feeling, this idea, this place!

This posting is just one of many steps on my continuing ceramics journey.

Coming back home – Central Victoria

This posting is a continuation of my Clayspace talk (see previous posting).

What speaks to me here – at home in the dry, flinty goldfields landscape of Central Victoria?

  • the forests – ancient, damaged, glowing in spring
  • big trees
  • ancient rocks
  • kangaroos – mobs – alert, always a group
  • soft hills, volcanoes.

And it’s a landscape of creation and of loss. Volcanic eruptions from Mt Franklin – Lalgambook – would have been witnessed by Dja Dja Wurrung. They called this country the ‘smoking grounds’ and it is known to have been an important ceremonial place. I find Mt Franklin a very spooky and sad place; so is the cemetery at Franklinford – the mission cemetery – looking to Mt Franklin.

Here are some pieces I’ve made that respond to being here.

Nurturing Lands: Nurturing LandsMy ceramics reflect my response to a sense of storied places. These forms are hollow – the inside is unseen. Their skin is a thin wash of clay from the land I live on. And always a group – a mob – just like the roos.

 

Yearning 1Yearning :  Yearning is about that feeling of the land yearning for life – and people yearning for the land. These are wheel-based forms, enclosed, hollow, leaning.

 

Breaking the DroughtClay pans: Dry, cracking clays mark drought times. Water holes turn to clay pans, skin peeling, harsh dryness. Rain refills the land, but dryness will come again, and the water recedes again. Using the wheel, I altered these forms, folding the rims, and sealing the surface with terra sigillata from my own block at Green Gully.

Ground TruthGround truth: What is in the ground beneath our feet – mud and blood, generations gone. These pieces were made when we had rain after years of dryness. Suddenly new things were growing skywards.

But what are these growing things? What is the ‘truth’ of this land, and what does it give birth to?

These tiny pieces were hand-made. I pressed my elbow into a nest of leaves, the clay squashing up against my skin. Each is supported on a curly snake tail – symbolic, totemic, Jaara. The skin of these pieces is a thin wash of clay from the land I live on. The fractured circles on the upper ‘bowl’ represent water – the occasional rain of our stony gold-fields landscape.

Next posting – Laos

 

Making place: finding inspiration in the land

Clayspace is an active ceramics co-op in Daylesford: you can find them on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/ClayspaceDaylesfordRegionCeramicsCooperative.

On 9 August I was their invited speaker as part of the Words in Winter – http://wordsinwinter.com/event/- a wonderful annual event that links towns like Newstead, Daylesford, Castlemaine and others in our region.

Outside our meeting room, their midwinter wood firing in a Steve Harrison kiln slowly crept towards temperature, regularly stoked.

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Ground Truth

Tonight I want to share some ideas about what inspires us to make? To pick up the clay, the paintbrush, the thread. And to make an object – to use, enjoy, or to share.

My making is based on clay, and a lot of my inspiration is based on the land or place. So I’ll talk a bit about the idea of place, our connections to place and some of the ways that I have sought to express my feelings of connection or sometimes disconnection to place.

And of course clay and place or land are very connected!

I grew up in Murrumbeena – a suburb between Caulfield and Oakleigh. Over my back fence was the abandoned outer circle railway line – it was the country – paddocks, horses, big eucalypts, long grass and a flooding creek. It was an extraordinary place – a wild place – one of those kinds of places that suburban has now vanquished. And I know that my wild place in now a neat and mown park.

It’s only since starting to live in the country – at Green Gully near Newstead – and reflecting on the joys that living there has for me that I have realised how influential growing up with a wild space to play has been for me.

What is place?

Both my ceramics and my other work as a heritage consultant relate to place. What is place? Some words that connect to place for me – land, country, place, space, landscape, earth, here, home, water, sky, dwell. Especially country – country that lives, breathes, is present.

Tuan (1974) defined place as space with meanings – meanings imbued through lived experience and Barbara Bender (1993) said ‘The landscape is never inert: people engage with it, re-work it, appropriate it and contest it. This is part of the way in which identities are created and disputed …’

I would like to look at three places and how I have engaged with them and created ceramic work in response: central Australia, central Victoria, and Laos.

Alice Springs

I studied ceramics at ANU as part of the distance diploma. This followed classes with Jane Sawyer and then part of a Dip Art at Homesglen TAFE.

In the ANU course, the last part-time year is an Independent Work Project – I started with the idea and the word “Imprinted” – that is that the land imprints into us. I spent 6 weeks in Alice Springs as part of my IWP – working in the Central Craft studios – making pots. When I applied for a ‘student residency’ there I said I wanted to:

…explore ideas related to the landscape of Alice Springs, especially the immediately landscape of the ranges and sand country.

… use the time there to look at landscape form and meaning, and to develop some ideas about layering – both in terms of the complex meanings (imprints) on the landscape and in the creation of layered ceramic surfaces.

… to refine my ideas, develop specific concepts and build a vocabulary of surfaces and techniques through an intensive focus on my ceramics work for this period

Being in Alice and Central Australia was interesting – and I was looking to respond to places that are not mine in any sense – so it was about a process of coming into relationship with a place – the processes of experience, learning, witnessing, feeling, sensation.

I was interested in the profound experience of being in a place – the power of place – emotional response to place – and how this entwines itself with what we know, what we fear, what we crave. and on the other hand I am interested in landscape – the opposite to the experienced place – landscape as the seen place – from the viewing point. In the idea of landscape – we are not of the land – we are outside – we are observers.

My ceramics are set with a body of ideas that I am interested in – and these are part of my other life as a heritage consultant and historian. So this is my context – less a context of material culture than it is of ideas.

While in Alice I did a trip out to some communities – to Yuendemu, to Haasts Bluff (Ikuntji), to Hermansberg – and to Gosses Bluff/Tnorala – a place I had seen before from a distance but this time never been inside. Actually being there and learning the story was powerful.

I also ran the ceramics studio – cleaning it up, recycling clay, firing the kilns, running a workshop, testing what was in the mysterious glaze buckets etc!

Earth and colour was my immediate focus: I started mixing clays and firing to different temperatures looking for a colour palette. I fired local materials at different temperatures – to see what happens when you subject different earths to another extreme. I played with slips and stencils – and I starting trying terra sigillata for the first time. I played with forms. And I wrote my first blog!

After returning from Alice I developed two bodies of work: Falling to Earth and Gorges and Gaps.

Gosses Bluff – Tnorula – was created by a ‘celestial body’. Western science says it was a comet – a frozen ball of gases whereas Western Arrente says a baby, falling in its coolamon fell from a dancing ground in the Milky Way. Both disappeared on impact.

Caught imageThe Falling to Earth work I made seeks to convey both the act of falling and the sense of the land that the baby in its coolamon crashes into. The act of falling is ever-present – it is happening now. And so it is witnessed – it is part of today – not just part of the past.

The second group of work – Gorges and Gaps – is laid out as land, to be walked through by the viewer. To imagine that journey that so many of us take looking at each gorge in the MacDonnell Ranges – these gorges are dark and mysterious – a pool of icy water at the foot of vertical cliffs. They seem to exude a presence – but so much is hidden.

The surfaces on both these series are also terra sigilatta, in layers. And these pieces – all of them have been held – cradled – polished. For me that directness of touch is important.

I’ll continue this story in my next posting.