Holidaying

Snowy cardiIt being summer and all, I’m working on a couple of light cotton knitted things which I certainly won’t be able to wear for several months unless I put the air-conditioning on full blast in the car and drive around for at least an hour. But that doesn’t detract from the fun of the actual knitting! The above is a little short-sleeved cardi I am making up as I go, which has a rounded lower edge and some traditional Scandinavian textured patterns around the top. This textured knitting initially thrived in Denmark (says Sheila McGregor*, p. 13) and can be created from any two-colour chart by using knit and purl stitches with only one colour. The cotton is originally from a sweet little shop in Paris I visited several years ago, which I had knit into a polo-like cabled shirt which was so bulky and not at all the sort of thing I’d ever wear, I don’t know what I was thinking. I never wore it, so I unravelled the entire thing and set about making something better suited to my wardrobe. Unable to find a pattern, I made some hasty sketches and set to work.

Then a fortuitous visit to the glorious Woolloongabba Antique Centre found me in the possession of a gorgeous little knitting booklet from what appears to be the forties, boasting designs called ‘Paris,’ ‘Vienna’ and ‘Sydney,’ among others. Realising I had plenty of cotton to spare, thanks to all those ridiculous cables and collars and rubbish, I cast on a sweet little design called ‘Naples,’ which is sure to keep my shoulders snug in any air-conditioned environments I find myself in.

NaplesInspired by some voluminous skirts I spied at a market in Sydney, and by the classy ladies in Isabel Bishop’s paintings, I picked up a large bundle of mustard-coloured fabric to make the biggest swishy skirt I could imagine, and played around with double box-pleats until I’d come up with this:

Mustard

Unfortunately, three metres of fabric means there is a lot of unwieldy drapery hanging about one’s back tyre when bike-riding–so I learned when I biked to the pub last night. If it’s not speckled with paint, it’s dusted with brake-dust!

Christmas picnic

Christmas was, for me, a lovely bike ride with J down to a sprawling park in the city, where we picnicked and ran through sprinklers and climbed trees and read books and dozed a little. Our families live a couple of thousand kilometres north and south of us, so we enjoyed our first Christmas in Brisbane without too much fuss. I’m surprised to learn how little is open at this time of year–it feels like we are so culturally introverted, hiding away in our homes. A couple of cafes are still pouring coffee, so I can live a reasonably normal existence! And in the meantime, I’ve been getting out and doing some painting with Ryan and with a new toy I picked up in Sydney:

Mabef

 

*McGregor, Sheila. 1984. Traditional Scandinavian knitting. Dover Publications: New York.

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Tweed

Tweed sketches

And now for some textile / bicycle eye candy.

J, Nathan and I spent all Sunday afternoon gadding about on our bicycles in some fine specimens of tweed, as part of a mob / organised social event.

Plenty of pants tucked into argyle socks.

Time traveller.

No really. This guy built his penny-farthing. You can take courses and build your own if you live in Brisbane!

After a minor altercation with the police, we picnicked. (The police suspected us of protesting, and were anxious to ascertain whether or not we had a permit to do so. ‘No, officer, we are but an oversized group of people enjoying the sunshine together.’ ‘Nonetheless, I shall fine you, sir, for not wearing a helmet, and thus make an example out of you.’ A collection was taken–in a tweed hat–and the fine was paid and a profit was made and no one learned anything.)

(Frilly blouse, knitted cape and bifurcated tweed skirt, ftw.)

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Heavy with history

Reading Nozick © Samantha Groenestyn

Sometimes it feels good to clear out a bunch of old things—it’s refreshing to remove the weight of things that hang on you, and which you must carry around with you. I’ve been culling my collection of earthly possessions which, while not especially extravagant, seems to consist in a lot of things I don’t want (old paperwork, anyone?). Sometimes, though, those things are imbued with so much history that it’s hard to let them go.

Winter sunrise, Brisbane–biking to work at 6am

I sometimes speculate whether this is a function of having little money. The value of each item, when finally attained, is vastly inflated. Old, stretching clothes don’t seem like they are at the end of their useful lives. Dresses from the markets that I lusted over for weeks and finally bought though they never quite fit. Old, broken jewellery of my mum’s from the eighties. Then there are the cherished things that I have made. The first skirt I sewed, and the many dresses since, faded from ceaseless wear, or in an impossibly beautiful shade of green.

J hates missing out on a good sunrise, especially from the bridge.

I’m going to part with them, because they are old and heavy with history, and in spite of that. When I visited the national museum in Denmark, I spent a whole day tracing the chronology of Danish history, and at the end I sat down, exhausted at the heaviness we human beings create and leave behind us. The world is riddled with our artefacts, and they collect dust and smell musty and leave historic dirt on our hands. Yes, they mean something, but they also mean nothing. And when I remember the things already parted with—impossibly green knit shirts stretched out of shape, and carefully constructed homemade skirts with diamond panels in retro fabric—I feel a fondness but not a sadness. Those things had their day, and I loved them dearly while I used them, and I used them until they were beyond use.

Playing in the fog

It’s good to remember that even the most precious things are still things, and whether they live on in someone else’s possession, like my treasured old rustbucket car, or meet their end, our lives are still rich and our histories remain in our memories.

I was reading Reading Nozick in Edinburgh, and am now reading my own secondhand copy of Anarchy, State and Utopia. In the painting I’m wearing a treasured $5 skirt which flounced over woollen tights in Edinburgh winter, and brushed my bare legs in Italian summer, and visited Einstein’s birthplace of Ulm, and never came home. Which is to say nothing of my green army seconds satchel that saw me through my entire university career before meeting its demise!

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Discipline

Ready or not © Samantha Groenestyn

What’s been on your mind lately? I’ve been thinking about poverty, and whether it has any intrinsic morality. I haven’t been reading anything that overtly argues as much, only old French novels (by Simone de Beauvoir) populated with guilty petit bourgeois intellectuals and tough millionaires imposing their will on the former, and environmental science flavoured books (by Jared Diamond) that posit the correct functioning of business as to make a profit and not to hinder itself with social concerns. Those with money look out for their own interests, and take care to ensure that their money achieves what they desire. It’s therefore easy to paint them as the bad guys, forgetting about the rest of us, forgetting that they are acting rationally given their position. This realisation that it’s perfectly rational to act in certain ways when one has money—most notably, in one’s own interest—leads me to wonder whether having money is somehow connected to one’s moral downfall.

I’ve always viewed money as an enabler. I’m absolutely not the kind of person to argue that money is the root of all evil. But perhaps, money being the enabler that it is, once you have it you are able to act as yourself, unimpeded by poverty or lack of access to resources. And in so acting, you reveal your true nature. Some people will help others with their money. Some will spend it selfishly—not in itself a bad thing. I’ve seen plenty of others feel uncomfortable with it.

Testing out J’s new picnic blanket today at New Farm Park. Yep, you can sit on it. It also buckles onto his bike in a tidy little package, and it’s also homemade by me!

I started to wonder if my personality is best suited to poverty. Can such a notion make sense in the modern world, in which everyone is aspiring to earn and multiply their wealth? When I was on a salary, I could and did buy many things. I could eat more meals out, drink fancier wine and travel, and I picked up some very nice shoes. But I did these things haphazardly, and in something of a fog of not being sure what I liked or wanted. I had the means to do things, so I did them and thought about them later. Now I’m in no such position, I do all the thinking beforehand and make carefully calculated decisions and finally, when I’ve saved up enough, execute them. Is this a virtue—being discerning in your decision-making? Lack of money somehow clears my head and enables me to see straight. It imposes discipline.

Discipline in itself may not be virtuous, but it works for me—I can better order my life and achieve what I want to achieve, resources be damned.

Freight train sunset

I recently knit these Scandinavian mittens with some tweedy Harris wool sent over from Scotland from my dear friend Anna. Brisbane doesn’t get much of a winter, but fortunately I get up at 5am a couple of times a week to go open a cafe, and I open my eyes in the dark and hope that it’s freezing, and am often rewarded with 8 or 9 degree mornings, which warm up to well above 20 C. These mittens keep my hands toasty on the longish bike-ride down.

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Clementine

Early in the year I sent away some designs to Avant Cards, and my ‘portrait’ of Clementine was selected as postcard-worthy material. (She’s chuffed). They’ll start popping up in shops and cafes all over Australia pretty soon, so make sure you grab one, because they’re free!

Clementine now sports a basket on back, a big one with a handle that probably held someone’s nanna’s toilet rolls for the last decade. She recently had a flat tyre, but I learned to replace an inner tube on the weekend and she was raring to go at six this morning, and so was I, with some cosy new mittens (details forthcoming)!

I love going on bike adventures. If you want to see your bike immortalised in a painting, send me a photo of your bikeventure to samantha dot groenestyn at uqconnect dot edu dot au. I’ll paint my favourite ones and post them here as part of a bike series. And if you send me your postal address as well, I’ll send you a Clementine postcard!

Toowong Cemetery, Brisbane, where J and I spent a quiet Saturday.

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Ideation

Owls © Samantha Groenestyn

It is true that I have a lot of interests. Yesterday I indulged my impulse to bike around and explore foreign parts of Brisbane. I painted a little, and knitted a little, and read a lot. I picked up some sewing supplies for pending projects.

Sketching in Toohey Forest

In 1939, an advertising man by the name of James Webb Young* put out a little pamphlet on generating ideas, and the crucial beginning of his five-step method is to gather raw materials—as broad a collection as possible, to supply yourself with a very deep reservoir of old things to combine in new ways.

For this is what an idea is, according to Young (p. 19): ‘an idea is a new combination.’ This is what is at the heart of Maria Popova’s brain-titillating site Brain Pickings, on which she argues (and demonstrates daily) that ‘creativity, after all, is a combinatorial force. It’s our ability to tap into the mental pool of resources—ideas, insights, knowledge, inspiration—that we’ve accumulated over the years just by being present and alive and awake to the world, and to combine them in extraordinary new ways. In order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these ideas and build new ideas—like LEGOs.’

While Young (p. 26) recommends an index-card filing method of collecting one’s ideas, a recent Design Matters interview with Ken Carbone reveals another method. Carbone’s journals have become somewhat legendary—he has been keeping them for fifteen years after having had the privilege to see Paul Gauguin’s journals in a museum’s archives. In his journals, Carbone documents his life, takes sketch-breaks at museums on his lunch breaks, records noteworthy events and writes mini book reviews, obsessively recording details chronologically that he refers to years later to mine for ideas.

‘Every really good creative person in advertising whom I have ever known has always had two noticeable characteristics,’ Young (p. 24) insists. ‘First, there was no subject under the sun in which he could not easily get interested… Every facet of life had fascination for him. Second, he was an extensive browser in all sorts of fields of information.’

Young’s ideation method is as follows (p. 40):

First, the gathering of raw materials—both the materials of your immediate problem and the materials which come from a constant enrichment of your store of general knowledge.

Second, the working over of these materials in your mind.

Third, the incubating stage, where you let something beside the conscious mind do the work of synthesis.

Fourth, the actual birth of the Idea—the ‘Eureka! I have it!’ stage.

And fifth, the final shaping and development of the idea to practical usefulness.

I have three types of books in which I record various stages of my ideation process. Most ideas get their start in something completely foreign: usually they strike me when I am knitting. Knitting lulls me into a concentrated meditative state, and my thoughts usually concentrate on a creative problem. When they arrive, I note them down in my Ideas Book, whatever my first impressions of them. They can be sifted and developed later—what matters initially is that they are captured. Rarely can I move directly to producing the idea, however.

My ideas graduate to a funny little sketchbook full of thumbnails, layouts, hand-lettering tests and border developments. I need a secret place to try my idea out, see what it might really look like when it takes form, work through the details of it. Sometimes I rush this stage, but I am beginning to enjoy it. I can take this book out for coffee or tea, and draw and draw until I can’t represent the idea any more, or make lists that extend a previous idea.

My most polished books, my ‘real’ sketchbooks, are full of life drawings and field sketches. Curiously enough, these books represent the beginning of the path to an idea: they accompany me on adventures through Europe and around Brisbane. They are a way for me to consciously explore what I see, because I carefully note down structures and colours. These sketches, more broadly, are representative of my interests—of taking time out from the solid work of painting to refresh myself and immerse myself in new experiences, to learn new things and incorporate this new knowledge into my reservoirs. Ready to be connected in new ways with other knowledge, later.

‘Part of it, you will see, is a current job, and part of it is a life-long job,’ (Young, p. 26).

Sketching in Toohey Forest

 

Do you know Kate Davies? She’s a formidable academic knitter living in my erstwhile home of Edinburgh, and the talent behind the above O w l s jumper. Her blog was the first I started following, and it set the bar decidedly high. You can find my Owls on Ravelry.

 

* Young, James Webb. 2003 [1939]. A technique for producing ideas. McGraw-Hill: New York. (↬ Maria Popova’s article led me to spending a fiver on this little book.)

 

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Artists, illustrators, graphic designers

Infernal dishes © Samantha Groenestyn

Saturday I had the great fortune to partake in the birth of a brand new movement, a collective of artists, photographers, musicians, body-painters and street artists who gathered in a warehouse to ‘vibe off each other.’ Lost Movements is creating a space for Brisbane creatives to meet, collaborate and get crazy. I like to think this is Brisbane beginning to grow into itself—Brisbane, grittier than Melbourne, funkier than Sydney, hotter, sub-tropical, a place where anything goes as long as you mean it. Posers are decried, haters are ignored.

I painted walls, imbibed beer, mingled, danced and warmed myself by the fire, and began to learn a thing or two about the social aspect of art. I am something of an artistic floater. I paint seriously under the guidance of representational artists, carefully studying tone, learning how to achieve the perfect mixed black, paying strict attention to form and generally filling my head with dreams of growing into a Dutch master. I also paint in what I consider a freer, bolder style, mixing bright gouache with thick linework and unrealistic patterns. I also dabble in graphic design, applying lettering and otherwise putting my illustrations to designerly uses.

The Go Between Bridge–a pleasant Sunday arvo bike ride.

These types of art all intersect with one another, but, most interestingly, they each bring their own crowd and their own way of gathering—their own artist archetype. Designers unabashedly meet for networking drinks and exchange business cards; artists throw out-of-control parties of which nudity is an integral part. Illustrators—when they make it out of their studios—love to show off their shiny published children’s books.

Crossing these boundaries can be bewildering, no less because modern artists are a different breed to representational artists, and while illustration is largely figurative like representational art, it is so bound up in creating a world based around children that it feels like the kindergarten version of art, certainly not to be taken seriously by traditional artists. Illustrators are then lumped with graphic designers, though, as Heller and Arisman* (p. 30) argue, ‘the majority of graphic designers have more in common with the producer in film or television than with painters.’ While my oil painting teacher would likely be underwhelmed by my illustrations, unable to comprehend a conscious choice to bend the rules of tone and perspective, spray-can-wielding warehouse-painters are miffed at my stuffy stylisation of angry Dutch children because it adheres to technique, and technique is so passé. My graphic design cohort is astounded I even use a paintbrush—or a pen, for that matter—though they understand that illustration, unlike fine art, has long played a role in advertising, subordinate to the designer (Heller and Arisman, p. 38).

The trouble is, I appreciate each group, whether or not they appreciate my position and my work. I make accessible art—like Howard Pyle’s ‘pictures:’ ‘art for the people, art about the people’ (p. 33). Does that make it ‘commercial, lively entertainment’ (p. 49)? That people are purchasing it to hang on their walls suggests not—though it easily could be. Having people approach my work as one would fine art has been surprising, since I was set to license it out for well-defined commercial uses. But this is a thing to be embraced. While Arisman (p. 49) argues that the distinction between art and illustration lies in the intent of the artist, I’ve found that even the artist’s intentions can be subverted. The distinction is, at best, flimsy, and at worst, meaningless and unnecessary. Taking on the title of ‘illustrator’ has forced me to attempt to break away from my natural stylistic tendencies to try to create something for the people—something designers will sit up and take notice of, because it’s not stuffy and old-fashioned, but something that can convey visual meaning in a way that modern art attempts to subvert. I get to hang with designers, the cool kids, and party with artists, the crazy kids. I am both, by the nature of what I do.

Janice Wu, a talented Canadian illustrator, sees it both ways as well: ‘When an artwork is just all about a concept, it is not as appealing to me. Yet when it’s just all craftsmanship and there’s no idea, then it lacks substance, and it is not as thought provoking.’

View from the bridge

With my own exhibition on the horizon, a private commission under my belt and a children’s book in the works, I feel very much like I am all the things, and that they sustain each other just as the different types of artists sustain me, whether or not they support me. Janice sums up her career intentions thus:

With me, I want to pursue both commercial illustration and visual art, and they’re two different practices. They overlap in some ways, but they are different. I want to be an exhibiting artist and have shows in galleries and work on my own, self-initiated projects. But I also really like doing commission work for different publications and having projects assigned to me and working with people. So I hope that in the future I can do both and that I can succeed in both. I like to think that my work can exist within both realms.

As do I.

*Heller, Steven and Arisman, Marshall. 2004. Inside the Business of Illustration. Allworth Press: New York.

↬ Read a very thorough and sparkling interview with Janice Wu by Stacy Thomas at Trim Magazine, from which these quotes originate.

Our beardy dishes-hating friend is soon to appear on lovely cotton tea-towels which will be for sale at my show.

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Epic lazy bike ride

We joined some new friends for a Lazy Sunday Cycle from the city to the Northey Street farmers’ markets.

I picked up this snazzy and sturdy basket from an op shop this week, and with some swift zip-tie dude-crafting, Clementine was ready to pack a picnic.

Some forethought meant that we had this spread of balsamic vinegar and olive oil, antipasto and my first ever home-made bread to sustain us. At the markets I also picked up a swish ‘sustainable wooden fountain pen’–with some slick waterproof ink from the Art Shed, I’ll have me a formidable new drawing pen. I thought West End was hippy central–turns out the north side goes nuts for organic produce and city permaculture gardens.

Pumped full of endorphins, I’m already excited for bicycle dress-ups later this month!

And some news: My business cards arrived this week, so I’m ready to make new friends / network. I ordered them through Moo Print, and I’m very pleased with these little boxes of pocket art.

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Style and epistemological decisions

Downtime, Berlin © Samantha Groenestyn

The question of style is something that I have been giving some thought of late. How does one uncover one’s style, and how does one develop it? Does amassing a collection of work really amount to a ‘body’ of work—will the pieces speak to each other, and somehow stand united? Is style simply what pours out of the end of your brush, or can you train it, and if you imitate the work of someone else, how much can you appropriate into your own style?

Bike riding through the city

The ever provocative Susan Sontag* has some ideas in her essay ‘On Style.’ She argues that when metaphors are concocted to explain style, they inevitably ‘plac[e] matter on the inside, style on the outside. It would be more to the point to reverse the metaphor’ (p. 17). In this she agrees with Cocteau, whom she cites: ‘Decorative style has never existed. Style is the soul, and unfortunately with us the soul assumes the form of the body’ (p. 17).

This is appealing from a practical point of view. In creating something, it can feel as though the thing created is limited in many ways. I might attempt to write a book in the spirit of Thomas Hardy, but find my writing to constantly fall short. This is explained by Cocteau’s position, in that my writing will be restricted by my own facility with words and my particular habits in stringing them together. Rather than falling short of writing in Hardy’s style, my writing will simply exhibit my own style, at its particular stage of development.

The same may be said of illustration: I have particular gouache techniques that allow me to achieve very specific effects, I have a steady hand with a pen, and I have some innate (though nascent) understanding of tone, but my particular experience and practices will not allow me to achieve just any style. My very lack of experience dramatically restricts my art to the point that my right hand feels like it lives in a deterministic universe. It does not yet know what it can achieve, or how to achieve the styles that get me excited, and feels quite set on its course to make the type of art that it does. Ira Glass expressed the sentiment of being a person of taste whose capabilities have not yet met the high standards of one’s taste, which I think equally applicable to style.

Sontag notes the importance of repetition to style, which not only allows us to class it but also aids our memory (p. 34). It is easy to spot the patterns in any artist’s work, and this repetition allows us to explore something more fully, in a meditative way and, further, gives us a means to perfect our craft. Sontag goes so far as to say that being able to spot these repetitions is what makes art intelligible to the viewer (p. 35). Motifs are a powerful way of connecting with and communicating with our audience. Their frequent appearances are little clues to those familiar with our work, an ongoing dialogue, even an inside joke.

What is repeated depends on what it is that we care to emphasise. Sontag refers to the function of ‘insisting on something’ and removing other things—‘ the most potent elements in a work of art are, often, its silences’ (pp. 35, 36). ‘Every style embodies an epistemological decision, an interpretation of how and what we perceive’ (p. 35). Art allows us so many means of distorting the world, narrowing it, making small parts of it larger, creating fantasies within it, glorying in it. We make these decisions every time we arrange a composition, or strike upon a colour combination, or obsessively note down leaf structures. It only remains for us to share our style—our inner experience of the world—in the outward objects we create. To do this, we must repeat what needs repeating, and in repeating develop our technical proficiency to match our style.

* Sontag, Susan. 1994. ‘On style,’ in Against interpretation. Vintage: London.

In the morning we are going on holidays!

Downtime, Berlin is a study after Yelena Bryksenkova. Uncertain about how to move away from realism, I attempted to reimagine my own image with some of her motifs and methods that I found appealing. While nothing is directly copied, the spirit of the piece feels too near to hers for my comfort. This has given me much to ponder—does my style approach hers, when I have the techniques needed at my disposal? I sense that I am far too attached to realism—particularly tone—but I did enjoy the opportunity to exploit patterns to such dramatic effect.

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