A Different Place

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Saturday, October 8, 2011

Perth is different from Melbourne, of that I’m sure. I have been here a little over thirty hours, so I can’t say much authoritatively. Add to that that I slept for eight of those thirty hours, spent five hours with Designing Women (a group of textile makers at their monthly meeting) and fully two hours trying to find a wireless Internet connection which included several visits to various McDonald’s, and you will see that I haven’t spent much time really getting to know Perth. I shouldn’t be saying anything at all yet.

But here goes. Perth seems Mediterranean. It is clean and well-kept. The houses have red tile roofs and are made of stucco or brick. Many, maybe most, have huge windows and thick plantings that you would expect to see in a display of Moroccan gardening. The water in the Swan River is an exquisite blue. There is a downtown business district that is full of high-rise buildings and the requisite posh shops. Some beautiful historic buildings have been made into museums, cafés and arts centers rather than torn down for new construction. This is a young, vibrant city with a laid-back California vibe. When I say young, I mean that the city itself as well as the inhabitants are young. (It’s interesting being in a country that is even younger than the US.) These impressions may all change next weekend when I have more time to check it out but for now that’s my story.

I haven’t spent much time on the ground, so to speak, because I spent most of the day with a group of a dozen women who are very familiar to me. They call themselves Designing Women and have been meeting once a month for twelve years. They are dollmakers, quilters, weavers, papermakers, designers, feltmakers, stitchers and more. They are familiar because they are like most textile people I know: talented, kind, funny, hospitable and eager to learn and share. Today a member of the group brought beautiful materials to share with everyone for making cards with collaged leaves, fabric and her own handmade paper. They were kind to include me and I am grateful.

Delys is my host here in Perth and my ride to Bunbury for the Fibres West conference this week. She is a member of Designing Women and makes fabulous dolls. Two knee replacements make walking difficult for her and so we saw a good deal of Perth, including parks, the University and the yacht club where her family went sailing when she was a child, from the car. It really was a good “crash course” in the highlights of the city. Since it was Saturday, there was modest traffic downtown which made it easier to see what was around us.

As we came out of the building where Designing Women meet, Delys pointed out a small grouping of grasstrees, or zanthorrea. They grow extremely slowly and the “grass”, actually the leaves of the tree, are used often in basketmaking here. But it was a dead grasstree that caught my eye. The trunk of this tree is made up of thousands of slim strands that grow from a hollow center, ending in the grassy leaves, but in their decay, they become an organized pile of single elements. They are gorgeous. The orange substance they secrete makes a type of shellac.

The materials for basketry here are amazing and probably hold a lot of people back artistically because they never get beyond the beauty of the materials. You could explore what is outside your door and never run out of possibilities.

Goodbye Melbourne, Hello Perth

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Friday October 7, 2011

All packed up with a few hours to pass, Alison and I went out for our last walk around the neighborhood. I wanted to photograph some of the terrace houses, the connected one- or two-story houses that are so prevalent in the neighborhoods around the CBD and perhaps elsewhere. I’m afraid I wasn’t successful in finding the most elaborate ones on our walk but maybe you can get a sense of what they are like from these pictures. The terraces, as they are called, are highly decorated with brick patterns, tiles, wrought iron banisters or terra cotta trim. Some are in decline but many have been renovated and are quite charming.

New construction is thoughtfully planned to continue the lines of the surrounding buildings in the best of cases, though not always. And often, I am told, the insides of the smallest and most modest looking ones have been renovated inside to be spacious and modern.

The wrought iron railings look more like New Orleans than what I had imagined Melbourne might look like. And many houses have what I assume is terra cotta decoration, often forming the name of the cottage, scrollwork or occasionally a woman’s face. I’m sure there must be a story behind who this woman might be, but I don’t know what it is. Yet.

Behind these rows of attached houses are lanes. “Melbourne is a city of lanes”, it says in something I read. And it is. These are what in Indianapolis we called alleys, narrow but useable passages between blocks, behind the houses. Most of these properties have walls or fences along the lanes that gives them definition and, unfortunately, a place for graffiti, which is all over the city. Too bad.

Our last latté was at a wonderful Italian bakery whose name I have forgotten. Bertucci’s, perhaps. We sat outside, under an awning, while small brown birds flitted about, cleaning up the crumbs. A final toast to Melbourne. And many thanks to friends, Alison and Ian, for their hospitality, humor and guidance. Our Australian experience would not have been the same without them.

Kirby left this morning at 5:15 for the long trip back to Portland. I left in the afternoon to fly west to Perth. There is a three-hour difference between Perth and Melbourne because Melbourne has switched to daylight savings time and Perth hasn’t. That places me even more behind (ahead?) of Portland time! But no time for jet lag. Tomorrow I see Perth.

Second to Last

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Kirby and I both leave Melbourne tomorrow, he to return home, I to fly to Perth. The second to last, or penultimate, day always seems odd. You start thinking about what’s next without really wanting to detract from what’s now. I think we found a good way to deal with it. Go to a botanical garden. There are many parks in Melbourne, as I mentioned before, but the Royal Botanical Gardens are something else altogether. They are within easy walking distance of the CBD and are a part of city life.

As I understand it, the gardens were patterned after English gardens (they are The Royal Botanical Gardens, after all) and used the appropriate plants. But after time and the effects of increasing heat and drought, many plants have been replaced with native and drought-resistant species. The gorgeous huge trees remain and the new plantings are far more interesting to those of us from New England who have seen many English-inspired gardens at home.

Kirby and I took pictures of vistas and individual plants, far too many to include here. It still seems strange to see cacti, palms, roses, succulents, oak trees, ferns, iris and violets happily living and thriving together, but they do. I changed my mind as to what was the most surprising plant form at each turn in the path but trees were often the winners. They can be huge. They can have a trunk and leaves with hardly any branches. They can have many trunks. They can be gnarly or svelte. They can be so broad as to shelter a family picnic of thirty people. They are all beautiful.

The world is a very small place. In case you need proof, consider this. Last night we had dinner with Tim McCreight, a fellow Mainer whom we have known for about twenty-five years. He is here to teach workshops, as well, in different cities and for different groups than I, but we are overlapping for about 36 hours in Melbourne. What are the odds of that? But, wait, there’s more… We were in a Malaysian restaurant, Blue Chillies, coming to the end of our meal, Alison, Ian, Kirby, Tim and I, chatting away about all sorts of things, including what Tim was doing here. A woman came over to our table and said, “Are you Tim McCreight?” We were a little stunned.

She pulled out her iPhone and showed us a picture of Tim in the advertising for his lecture tomorrow night and held it up to him. He didn’t have the beard in the picture but it was undeniable. She said that she has his book, The Complete Metalsmith and that she has used it so much that she had to have it rebound. If we had gone to a different restaurant, if Tim had sat on the other side of the table so she hadn’t seen him or if she had sat at a table across the room, this encounter would not have happened. It makes you wonder how many other encounters are out there that we miss because we take a tram instead of walking or sit at this table and not that one. And it made Tim seem like a rock star.

Getting Around

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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

There are many adjectives that apply to Melbourne. Some of them are opposites. It is a big city that seems small. It is a southern hemisphere city that seems northern. It is a young city, founded in 1847, that seems old. I can’t pretend to really understand it or to know it but it seems comprehensible, given time. There is lots of data and some gorgeous pictures on Wikipedia, if you’re interested. But as with most things, the data doesn’t do it justice. Above and to the right are pictures taken from the balcony of Ian and Alison’s apartment. You can see a row of the ubiquitous terrace houses in the lower half and the CBD (Central Business District), being built as I write, behind.

Today, Kirby and I went out to explore a bit on our own in the CBD and along the Yarra River. Within this area, you find businesses, museums, hospitals, parks, theaters, train stations, historical sites, the botanical gardens, and just about anything else you would hope to see in a city. Melbourne has the world’s largest tram system and it is efficient and inexpensive, if complicated to understand for the novice. Fortunately, there is a City Circle line that is intended for visitors. It is free and goes around the downtown area in about 40 minutes, with a recorded voice explaining some of the highlights on the way. It is a good way to get one’s bearings and to feel a part of the city.

We hopped off at Federation Square, a new mega-structure which houses museums, cafés, galleries, meeting areas and more. It was designed in what seems to be a mad fashion with few right angles and a mix of materials splashed on walls, ceilings and floors. I must admit that at first I thought, “What were they thinking?”, but it grows on you. And the interior is really beautiful, in a disorienting kind of way. The materials in this wall to the left are glass, metal and sandstone. Open shafts that allow you to see down three floors cut through the building, opening it up and making you aware of the space. Maybe that is it…Australia is about space. And the land. In this building you get the materials from the land and the space from the endless skies.

A view from wall to ceiling that defies logic. No right angles, no solid planes. This was in a large atrium area where today tables were being set up for a wine tasting of regional vineyards. On Sundays, the same area is set up for booksellers and buyers. I don’t know about the other days…

In the evening we went to the Malthouse Theatre in a renovated brewery. Titled Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, the play was fascinating, thought-provoking and like nothing we had seen before. The theater community is vigorous here, as are all the arts. Festivals follow one on the other…film festivals, theater festivals, writers festivals, jazz festivals…bringing international performers and artists to Melbourne, as well as supporting Australian artists. And they know how to surround their arts with conviviality and quite often food and drink. This is the café outside of the Malthouse Theatre and there was one inside, too. Across the courtyard is the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, where an opening was in full swing when we arrived. Would have loved to see what was going on in there, too. So much to do, so little time. I leave Friday to go to Perth…

Sally and the Yarra Valley

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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

To borrow a phrase from the world of art, I don’t know much about wine but I know what I like. Basically, I like what is in front of me, preferably in a glass. But what I really like about wine is where it is grown and made. Some of the most beautiful places in the world are vineyards and, quite often, in valleys. Whatever it is that makes grapes happy, makes me happy.

The Yarra Valley, created by the Yarra River which crosses Melbourne to the sea, is north of the city and is reached after a forty minute drive through several suburbs. The small strip malls and housing units reminded me of the south of France near Valauris and they reminded Kirby of Atlanta, Georgia. Suffice it to say that they looked like suburbs pretty much anywhere in the western world. But suddenly the fields opened out and the mountains, actually large hills, framed the view of seemingly endless rows of supported grapevines. Beautiful.

We were on our way to the Healesville Sanctuary, where Australian animal life is presented in relatively appropriate environments. It was a rather desperate effort on our part to see a real kangaroo in the landscape. I did see a kangaroo, several actually, and they were in the landscape, but it was cheating. And I know it. If I don’t see one out and about, as I have been told they exist, at least I will have seen one. But the chicken-wire fencing and the park rangers nearby took away the thrill.

The very cool thing is that we saw bats, koalas, emus, platypuses, storks and all sorts of other birds, fish and reptiles, most of which we would not see in the wild. Our favorite was probably the kookaburra bird, who laughed while sitting in a not-so-old gum tree, just as the song says. And this obliging koala turned just as I was ready to snap a pic, as if to say, “Let’s get this over with.”

But a really wonderful part of the day was not documented. (Don’t know what I was thinking. It would have been so simple to take a picture.) Sally Walk, one of the artists at AIR Vallauris, the residency I wrote about in 2009, came to Melbourne from her home an hour away for a couple of hours. We talked about what she is doing now, her trip to China and upcoming trip to India for her ceramic work, how her children and husband are doing (all fine). It was really wonderful to see this fine artist and friend again. Her website is www.SallyWalk.com.

Note: I know that some of you have tried to leave comments. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work. I know that it is because of something that I have done in setting it up and I apologize. Hearing from you was such a large part of the joy of the French blog. If you would like to leave a note, please just email me at lisshunter@aol.com.

Out and About

Monday, October 3, 2011

After returning from Mt. Martha last night, I could see before me…nothing. There were no entries on the agenda. No classes, no set mealtimes, no reasons to be present and accounted for. Kirby had some business meetings today and so he was off early. Mid-morning, Alison and I set out on foot to explore a nearby neighborhood, Fitzroy. It is one of many neighborhoods arranged around the Central Business District, or CBD, as it is called. The neighborhoods are areas that were settled early in Melbourne history. They have not been destroyed for more recent building and have very distinctive architecture. I’ll post more photos of some examples in a day or two.

Street after street of two-story (two-storey in Australian English) buildings, in various states of disrepair and renovation, house cafés, dress shops, hat shops, galleries, fine restaurants, frame shops, dives, bookstores, bakeries…you get the idea. This is an area that had fallen on hard times and is now being energized by young people, artists, longtime residents, ethnic communities and social services. We turned down an alleyway and saw a sign. Grizzly. Since there are no bears of any kind in Australia, we wondered what it was about.

It seems that a young man from Vancouver, Canada, has opened a coffee shop in the courtyard of his apartment. I asked him if it were difficult to open a business in Melbourne and he said that because he is in Zone 1, allowing all business, it was pretty easy. He has applied for a liquor license which may take a few months and plans to have pastries and simple prepared foods. This was his first day and we were his tenth and eleventh customers! I must say that it was probably the best latté I have had in Melbourne and one of the best ever. When I asked why he called it Grizzly, he said that that was his DJ name, Dan Grizzly, I think it was, in honor of his Vancouver heritage. Much like Maine, many of these folks have two or even three jobs.

Here is customer number 12, giving us a salute under the rather grand chandelier. Mr. Grizzly seems typical of the kind of can-do, youthful attitude here in Melbourne. Because the global economic downturn has been cushioned by a regulated banking industry, Australia has not felt the harsh effects that have affected the US and Europe. Small, entrepreneurial businesses seem to be popping up all over in these neighborhoods, adding the the pleasure of living in the city. And, I must say, adding to the pleasure of visiting the city.

A Night in Mt. Martha

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Sunday, October 2, 2011

I have yet to see a kangaroo. I was told that three brown shapes in a field which looked suspiciously like sleeping calves were, indeed, kangaroos, but I don’t count that. I want jumping, hopping, joey-in-the-pocket kangaroos. I want them to come magically out of the bush and onto the path in front of me. I want them to stop and welcome me to Australia. (I know that last one is a bit much but it is a part of the fantasy.)

Meanwhile, until they arrive, I have been amazed and delighted by plants. They don’t hop or jump (at least, not so far) but they curl and whirl and hang pendulously in an exquisite range of colors. Everywhere one turns in this springtime exhibition, there are delights to behold. I don’t know the names of them and, because they don’t relate to much of what I know, I can’t even guess what they might be.

Some plants are those seen in offices and homes in Maine. The temperate climate here supports all sorts of possibilities. The Norfolk Pines, like the one we have in a pot in our back room at home, are towering here and they make me nervous about what we may have to do to provide a home for ours as it ages.

Mt. Martha if chock full of surprises and delights. The beach is seemingly endless and the color of warmth itself. Beach boxes, or small windowless cabins used only for day hospitality and storage, line up in clumps of 15 or 20 every so often all along the beach. Each is unique in color and character. They are wildly expensive and often passed on in families rather than sold on the open market, so I’m told. This is not the high season and so they are patiently waiting for the summer to come.

I realize that it is easy to see magic in a new world where you have no responsibilities or connections. These may be common sights to the people of Mt. Martha. But to me, they are totally uncommon and, if not magical, at least delightful.

A Change of Scenery

Saturday, October 1, site 2011

Once you are aware of the arbitrariness of time, you feel a little more free to play with it. After all, if you can lose an entire day, the notion of a daily activity is shaken. And tomorrow (or today, as it happens in this fluid perception of time) we lose another hour here to what we call in the States, Daylight Savings Time. This may be the most effective anti-aging prescription yet. Just arrive in Australia from the east and stay long enough and you shed time. I say all of this because I am a little out of synch with my writing and hope that it is not too apparent on your end.

The morning was an antic time of packing up, cleaning rooms, greeting guests, saying goodbye, and getting ready to switch gears. Each class had a small exhibition of the work done over the week and I was very proud of what wehad to show. All the pieces were “sketches” of ideas, no finished pieces, and were only about a quarter of what was accomplished. But anyone looking would see the individuality and the intelligence and the skill involved. I’m going to miss these folks.

My husband, Kirby, along with Alison and Ian arrived at Geelong Grammar School this morning to scoop me up and travel on to Mount Martha, a small resort town east of Melbourne, where they have a vacation home. The town reminds me in nature of some of the small resort towns of coastal Maine. They were always tourist towns and so have the scale and almost casual arrangement of roads and houses that gives them great charm, even though the houses may be close together and the architecture arbitrary. You would be more likely to see people ambling along with a picnic basket or fishing rod than with with a briefcase. People are here to escape work. A fallen window box is artistically repaired with what is at hand, as Alison has done in the image above.

On a brief walk around on dirt roads, leading inevitably to the beach, we saw plants and heard birds quite different from ours at home. They say that the species of animals and plant life here have evolved in a different way because of the complete separation of the land mass millions of years ago while other bits of Earth’s surface lingered longer intact and so shared more evolutionary direction. The Aboriginal culture here is the longest, continuous human culture in the world. Their history, though unwritten, has not been lost to them because it has been told from generation to generation. It is in the stories and the land around them and in their art. There is something that seems, if not impenetrable, at least arduous, about understanding the relationships of land, history and geography in Australia because there is seemingly little overlap with the particular mix of my own personal history. But people are people and birds are birds and the ocean is the ocean and I feel quite comfortable being amazed by the differences.

If you have never experienced Aussie Rules Football (or the AFL, the Australian Football League), you have not seen men being men on a sporting field. It has little to do with American football, except that there is a large field of play, actually a “cricket pitch”, with goals at two ends. The idea is to get the ball, fashioned like a fattened football, between the goals. But these guys run constantly, do not wear padding or helmets, kick, jab and catch the ball with an athleticism unmatched in other sports. And, I might add, they are very goodlooking. Today was the Grand Final, sort of the Super Bowl, if you will, of the AFL. Geelong playing Collingwood. Of course I cheered for Geelong. They won!

And so to bed for the first time here with no thoughts of what needs to be done on the following day.

And In the End…

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Friday, September 30, 2011

There is really no way to explain this day but I’m going to try. An odd thing happens to a group of people who spend five days together in what is actually an intimate relationship. Some of the people in this group knew each other at the beginning but not everyone knew everyone. And I knew no one. But, because all are serious about their work, and all were pushing themselves beyond what they thought they could do, emotions were near the surface. No big drama, really, but there was always a lovely carefulness exhibited by each person to respect the others and to navigate the emotional waves together.

The last briefs were worked on and presented, each successful in its own way. The studio was cleaned and boxes packed with materials and projects. And then we set up our exhibit in one of the class buildings with about ten other classes. It’s not easy to get the work of eleven people on a table and a few pedestals, but we managed to make selections and to give everyone her own space. (Our one male student, Eric, had to leave in the morning because of a brother’s health emergency. We missed him, as he had become an important voice in our group.)

Back to our rooms to dress for dinner and the final celebration. Now this is where it gets weird and kind of wonderful. There is a tradition at this event that one dresses up on the final night, not in finery but in foolery. This year, the theme was animals. There were cow costumes, cat suits, teddy bear get-ups. There were people in feathers and fake fur and animal prints. It was downright silly and delightful. My camera decided to readjust its own settings, meaning that most of the pictures I took didn’t turn out, for which the subjects would probably be grateful. I’m hoping that no one got a shot of me in a cow hat. Don’t ask.

After dinner and a fashion show, the DJ got down to business and the crowd, mostly women, mostly “of a certain age” but a significant proportion under 35, hit the dance floor. We had a fabulous time. The release of the week’s hard work and the celebration of our accomplishments melded beautifully to the beat of Twist and Shout and YMCA. (Does every DJ in the entire world feel compelled to play that song in the last set?)

Another Cliché Confirmed

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Thursday,September 29, 2011

What do you think of when you think of Australians? Outgoing. Friendly. Hard-working. And maybe something about hard-drinking? I think that I would confirm all of those after my “vast” experience of seven days here. Tonight, the tutors and staff here at the Fibre Forum were treated to a special dinner, along with bottles of wine and champagne. It was in the dining hall where we normally eat but there were long tables, set with glamourous cloths and wine glasses, reserved just for us. Even though we have all been here on campus since Sunday, not all of the tutors had met each other. This was our opportunity.

All meals are cafeteria-style, meaning that, even though this was a festive occasion, we went into the kitchen, trays in hand, to get our dinners, osso buco with rice or mashed potatoes, salad and bread pudding for dessert. Actually, it was pretty good. Slow-cooked meats are ideal for cafeteria dining and so the osso buco was pretty tasty. Mashed potatoes are always high on my preferred list, so that was good, and all dinners here have an abundant salad bar. Several staff people were attentive with bottles of white, red or sparkling Australian wines. The conversations were lively and soon there were groups singing Waltzing Matilda and a Dutch song of (to me) unknown origin. I had to do my best to quell the call for the American tutors, four in all, to sing America the Beautiful or, god forbid, the National Anthem. (No one sings that well.)

Let me just say that over time (and more bottles of wine), there were show tunes (Oklahoma and I Feel Pretty), a Polish toasting song and the state song of Tennessee, Rocky Top. I made the mistakes of sitting with the ringleaders of this silliness and of joining in with only slight provocation. It was a great time.

The classes being taught here range from felting to shoemaking to doll-making to Korean papermaking to batik with many stops in between. The textile community in Australia shares a great deal with the textile community in the US–an eagerness to learn and a generosity of spirit and knowledge.

The “trades” or commercial booths have a variety of yarns, fabric, fibers, books and paper and are a fine asset to the classes. They are modest by some standards but seem to have what is needed to service most of the classes. It was all I could do to resist buying books, both expensive and heavy to take home. But the paper (seen at top) still catches my attention.

Most of all, I am impressed by the students in my class. They are hard-working, warm-hearted and immensely talented. Tomorrow is the last day. They are working on their self-assigned exercises (or “briefs” in Australian) and had to manage without me this evening in the studio. Even though I know that they are totally capable, I feel a little guilty for not having been there for questions and encouragement. Maybe we shouldn’t have taken on that second chorus of I Feel Pretty.