Thursday, August 29, 2013


Recently, a friend asked me in which of the countries I've visited I felt most at home. I was a bit stumped by the question. It's not that I couldn't answer it. If pushed to answer I think it would be the Netherlands. But my first thought was that the question was not one I would ever ask myself because the reason I travel is to feel different, rather than to feel at home. Of course there are limits to the extent I want to explore differences. I don't like physical challenges or even extreme physical discomfort, so I'm not going to canoe down the Amazon or climb mountains in the Himalayas. What I like to explore is why things are the way they are in other countries; which traditions, values and 'taken for granteds' make the places I visit different from my life here in Australia.

I always seem to have itchy feet. There's always somewhere I particularly want to go, but when an opportunity for travel presents itself, I'd go almost anywhere if I could afford it. I used to travel quite a bit for work, organising international student exchange programs. This took me to many places that were large enough to have a university, but weren't on any tourist itinerary. I learned that most places have something of interest and, if nothing else, they enrich your impressions and knowledge of the diversity that exists in any country.

So, I'm planning my next trip. My daughter will be working in Mexico for a month in November this year, so I will join her to help with caring for my grand-daughter. We'll visit places my daughter needs to spend time - Mexico City, Merida, Chetumal, but we'll probably have a week's holiday within the month and are still discussing where we might spend it.

In the spirit of making the most of chance travel opportunities I'm also planning on this trip to partially fulfill one of my long-held travel ambitions - to travel across the USA. I'd really like to drive across the US, or rather, be driven across the US because I hate driving. I think that's not going to happen, so the next best thing is to go across the US by train. And in this particular case, I can't even go right across the US, because the best, most affordable connections between Australia and Mexico go via Dallas/Fort Worth. But I've applied the travel principle of something is better than nothing and so I'm travelling from Los Angeles to Dallas by train, with a stop in San Antonio, Texas. Amtrak has so far proven to be extremely efficient, with great customer service, and amazingly cheap - even with my own 'roomette'(ugh! what an ugly word) for the two nights between LA and San Antonio.

Readers - I'm looking for travel advice. I arrive in LA at the end of October and then I'll have two days in LA, three in San Antonio, and two in Dallas. What part of LA should I stay in? (remember I won't have a car). What should I see on my stops? I've been to both LA and San Antonio before, but I'm sure there are lots of interesting things I've not seen or done. Dallas is unknown territory. Are there yarn shops I should visit anywhere?

Any advice or suggestions are welcome. Gratefully received, even.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

and there was light!

My elderly apartment building has been under major renovation for the last sixteen months. Anybody who lives in an old house knows that they fall into disrepair without constant attention. If you live in an old building that was built 110 years ago for purposes other than human habitation, such as a factory, then you know the additional complications of ensuring that the charm of the original structure is preserved while meeting current safety and maintenance standards. Many 'Grand Designs' can attest to how such projects gobble time and money. In my building, lintels above the large windows were repaired or replaced, window sills were rebuilt, cracks were repaired and stitched, wholly new windows were installed and the building coated with a waterproof membrane. My side of the building was the last to receive attention. In May, scaffolding was erected along the wall outside my windows and was then covered in blue netting to ensure the safely of people using the street below.

windows scaffolding

Not only was the view of trees outside my window obscured, it was like living in an aquarium of blue filtered light. Worse was to come. The metal bars supporting the lintels above my windows were found to be badly corroded and in need of replacement. The builders erected a wall of plastic sheeting about a metre inside the apartment so that they could gouge out the rusted bars and rebuild the lintels.

windows living room

Fortunately, the workers were efficient and the lintels were replaced in a couple of days and the plastic wall dismantled. Later the windows were replaced and internal repairs around the windows were completed. Eventually, after all the apartments on the eastern side of the building were done, the blue netting was removed and the scaffolding dismantled.

windows clear

There was light! I've always thought of myself as someone who is relatively unaffected by the physical environment in which I live or work, but there was a wave of physical relief the morning I made my way from the bedroom to the living room to find the light had returned. By now the internal touch-ups to the paint have been done and my blinds re-hung. My living room has been fully restored.

living room restored

Thursday, August 15, 2013

People in boats

With all of the current heart-breaking rhetoric around people in boats seeking asylum in Australia, this artwork is just so right for its time.

Guan Wei's Journey

Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art recently commissioned its second wall painting for the entrance way - a huge work by Chinese-Australian artist Guan Wei. It's populated by Guan's usual whimsical figures with their mouths shaped by cries or laughter - though in this particular case I have no doubt their cries are of anguish. Guan says this of his work:
I have observed that much of our daily news is filled with stories of refugee ships arriving in Australian waters...As an Australian immigrant and as an artist, I am able to not only identify with but also help relate and bear witness to (the refugees) solemn, stirring and tragic story...
As you go up the stairs you follow the immigrants' journey, from the mythical dragon-lion creatures of their past,

Guan Wei's dragon-lion

through the horrors of the sea voyage, with accompaniments of helicopters and navy vessels (evoking both their strife-torn past and surveillance-ridden present)

Gian Wei's boat

to arrival in Australia.

Guan Wei's arrival

I love the way the arrival scene reminds us of the first arrival of European boat people who were forced to flee their pasts. The Museum's location at Circular Quay where that first influx of immigrants occurred, like many to follow, adds even deeper emotional resonance. In Guan's words it's 'a place that links the past with the present, you with me, and Australia with the world'. Such wise words. The painting reinforces my feeling that what distresses me most about the current debate about people in boats is its denial of both our history and our ties with the wider world.

As a post-script - the earlier wall-painting commissioned by the MCA also pleased me greatly - for very different reasons

Eager - MCA entrance

It was a neat, precise, geometrically pleasing repetition of orange triangles painted by Sydney artist Helen Eager. I loved it. But look what I have hanging on my hallway wall:

Helen Eager hallway

Yellow triangles, in pastel on paper, also by Helen Eager. It also give me great pleasure.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Shawl Saga

I think the last episode of the shawl saga ended on a bit of a cliff-hanger. To recap - I bravely unravelled my attempt to make a shawl to feature the beautiful Shilasdair yarn I had bought in the Netherlands because I was dissatisfied with the pattern. I decided to knit Kate Davies Northmavine Hap, but needed additional yarn. After dithering about the best background colour for the shawl I ordered additional Shilasdair yarn from the UK in a rich mustardy colour - Tansy Gold. It arrived very promptly and I began the new pattern for the shawl. But after some knitting it became clear that the beautiful golden colour was a very bad choice. It was just too rich to fade into the background and allow the other coloured yarns to feature. Stymied again. I unravelled again.

I didn't want to give up on the yarn that had already caused me to obsess so much, but I couldn't justify spending any more money or air miles on this project, so I did what I should have done before I ordered the additional yarn - I went rummaging through the yarn I've been 'collecting' over the last years. Nothing seemed ideal, but I found some sticky Isager woollen yarn in a shade of beige-grey that was perfect as a background colour. (The yarn, by the way, had come to me from the queen of yarn destashing, who is responsible for many of the yarns in my stash. She seems to think that any grey yarn should find a home with me). The only problem by this stage of the shawl saga was that the Isager yarn is significantly thinner than the Shilasdair. Still, I guessed, and hoped, that the difference in weight might not matter with the stripey waves created by the feather-and-fan pattern of the shawl.

I was right. Both the colours and the weight of the yarns are a perfect match.


So, I knitted and knitted and knitted on the shawl. I wanted a shawl that could be crossed in front and tied behind, as traditional hap shawls often were, and as Kate Davies wears it in the illustration for this pattern. As Kate Davies is smaller than I am, I knitted several more repeats to the pattern and excitedly cast off. To my dismay, I realised Kate Davies is not only smaller than I am, she's VERY MUCH smaller than I am. So I unpicked the cast-off row and picked up more than 500 stitches. This took much time and even more patience. Then I knitted and knitted and knitted till my yarn ran out and I've just cast off again. I have a large shawl that I can cross and tie behind, but I can't show you yet. I still have this to manage:

Northmavine ends

I have to sew in the endless ends left after knitting the stripes. Someday soon the saga will have an ending. A happy one, I hope.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Places : Tweed River Art Gallery

So, maybe this will be the first in a series about places I visit. Today was to the Tweed River Art Gallery in far northern NSW. Over this coming weekend I'm going to the Byron Bay Writers Festival and so I've come to nearby Lennox Head a few days early to stay with an old friend. Today we've pottered around the very scenic hinterland of these coastal areas, driving through the Barringbar Range and marvelling at the newly framed landscapes as each hill is crested.

The Tweed River Art Gallery near Murwillumbah is a wonderful place to spend a few hours. The Gallery building is suitably local with its verandahs, wire screens and corrugated walls:

Tweed River gallery entrance

The entrance is low-key and unpretentious, but the views that stretch out from the building are magnificent. Mount Warning, whose tip is the first part of the Australian continent touched by the sun each dawn, is to the west

Tweed River gallery west

and we had this northerly view towards Queensland before us as we ate lunch at the Gallery cafe

Tweed River Gallery north

The closer views included these sheep, grazing in the grounds surrounding the Gallery:

Tweed River gallery sheep

Just now the Gallery is exhibiting some huge paintings by Ben Quilty in an exhibition titled 'After Afghanistan'. Quilty is one of the most recent in a long tradition of official war artists appointed by the Australian War Memorial. In 2011 he visited Australian troops in Afghanistan where he made sketches and took photographs of the experience. Most of the works are portraits - some done after he returned to Australia and asked some of the men and women he'd encountered in Afghanistan to sit for him. While the sketches done in Afghanistan are intimate and often moving, the paintings, with their huge scale, thick surfaces and bold strokes evoke not only power and strength but also horror and empathy for the experiences of the paintings' subjects.

There is also currently an exhibition of prints by George Baldessin, an Australian artist who died in 1978 aged only 39. He is probably best known for his beautiful sculptures of pears at the entrance to the National Gallery in Canberra, but I had also been aware of his print-making as he had taught one of my artist friends. She greatly admired Baldessin's work. I enjoyed the opportunity to see so many of his works together.

Tweed River gallery program

The Galley is being extended to accommodate the Margaret Olley Art Centre that will honour Olley's wish that her artist's studio and elements of her home be re-created in a purpose-built extension to the Tweed River Art Gallery. This seems to me to be a great coup for the Gallery and I imagine will bring many visitors to view the rooms that are almost as famous at the artist herself. Margaret Olley was subject of many renowned portraits across her long artistic life and the gallery has an exhibition of works by Nicholas Harding entitled 'Drawing Margaret Olley'. As a protege of Olley, Nicolas Harding had the opportunity from 1997 to 2003 to make many drawings of Olley and her surroundings. These drawings give a taste of the pleasures to come when the Centre is opened.

A great place to visit.