Reading frenzy

Recent treasures

In Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, tucked away on Winn Lane, a little booth of a bookshop has sprouted. A bookshop owner is a curator, and a good bookshop is a thoughtful composition of literary gems—a museum of words, carefully collected and arranged. Its walls are lined with the types of things you read, and some others that surprise and stretch you.

I’m a long-time lover of bookshops, and have idled away many an hour lusting after books, and many more reading them. (My reading has recently exploded completely out of control, but we shall not speak of this). As a child I was constantly berated for reading at inappropriate times and places. So it’s with great pleasure that I introduce to you Siân Williams, owner of Atavist Books on Winn Lane–a completely appropriate place in which to read and / or lust over books.

Atavist has a respectable wall of classics, a solid Australian writers’ section, a good dose of seventies crafts and a beautifully married wall of romance and crime novels. Siân’s collection is tight and sure of itself, and doesn’t try to be everything to everyone. And Siân herself is the very antithesis of Bernard Black—she’s laid back, ready for a pleasant chat and brimming with book recommendations. Her books are all carefully prepared, their page edges cleaned up and their paperback covers massaged with eucalyptus oil. When it comes time for her to part with one of her treasures, she sends it off to its new home with a ceremonial stamp proudly proclaiming ‘Atavist Books’ a part of its history. Atavist is, to my mind, the baby sister of the rambling secondhand bookstores of Edinburgh—equally full of character, equally inviting, equally well-priced, and smaller only in stature.

Siân offering literary advice to a superhero. Source

I pestered the amiable Siân about her reading habits.

Now reading: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides.

Top 5 best authors: Of all genres!? Too hard! I guess I can say that some authors I never pass up are Knut Hamsun, Carson McCullers, Johnathan Safran Foer, Don Delillo and John Pilger.

Best reading drink: anything with a cocktail umbrella in it.

Most influential book in childhood: Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes.

Best place to read: On the bus! Multi-tasker!

Tight plot vs meandering narrative: Meandering.

Fictional crush: ergh. Toughie. I can’t think of anyone off the top of my head so let’s just say my stone cold heart is up for grabs. Actually let’s say Atticus Finch. He’s an upstanding gent.

Optimal number of books to read at once: 1. If I start reading something else it’s the kiss of death for the first book.

And guess what? You can pick up a pack of these little babies at Atavist too! Opening days and hours are Tuesday to Friday 10am – 5pm; Saturday 9am – 5pm; Sunday 10am – 4pm.

My Infernal Dishes tea towels have been getting about town, too, and you might spot them down in Salisbury at Apples on Ainsworth, where you can pick up a decadently wholesome $15 weekend breakfast full of seasonal produce and the most haloumi cheese ever seen on one plate.



Paddington powerpoles © Samantha Groenestyn

Not a chance to go biking this weekend, but J and I got a lot of work done in various cafes, and caught an excellent sunset over the city from Paddington. Then we came home and gave the house a bit of a refresh. I even potted some plants, but got bitten by ants in the process.

J put together this amazing dude craft made out of rubbish old paintbrushes. You should have seen him out there with his Swiss army knife.

I upcycled the Spanish and Italian olive oil tins, but more on that some other time. Our living room–always crammed full of art–is now labelled appropriately with a souvenir from my show:


Home and away

Un regal pour les yeux © Samantha Groenestyn

I frequently itch to travel. Leaving behind all those weights we tie around ourselves, stretching our legs, exercising our brains and our tongues, memorising new maps and trying out new words. Seeing the limitless unseen things, tasting the untasted, pouring all the raw sensations into hurried drawings and writings. Meeting new faces and learning new philosophies, talking it out by rivers or over campfires or over beers in smoky bars.

It’s hard to feel content at home when so much is waiting, like a word on the tip of a tongue. But then I remember that opposite pull that I feel when I travel—that desire, not to be at (my) home, but to be stationed, based, established. When one is established, one can work. No longer limited to dog-eared sketchbooks and simple pens, one can drag out an easel, spread out paints and turps, plug in the sewing machine and invest in detailed projects, and best of all, read fifteen books at once. Books on philosophy, books on French intellectuals, books on language and books on graphic design. Books on artists, books on colour theory and the science of light, books on history. One can study, and, better, one can apply that new knowledge and create endlessly, on any scale. One can load up one’s car with materials, go to classes on a regular basis. Travel often provides that spark, suggests new avenues to explore, prompts the acquisition of new languages or provides new material for paintings. But home is the place where you can get down and work day after day and really produce something.

As Maira Kalman, renowned illustrator and writer, concludes of life: there is love and there is work. ‘How do you spend this time without perpetually being so brokenhearted about saying the eventual goodbye? I usually say in the end, okay, it’s love and it’s work. What else could there possibly be? What do I want to do?  What is the most wonderful thing I could be doing, and who are the most wonderful people I could be with?’ It’s hard for me to shake the idea that there is also place, and I think place is fundamental to my being—to my work and to my love. Travel lets us explore new places in which to be—perhaps for the long term—and we need to find our physical place as well as what to do and who to do it with.

What overwhelms me most of all is that I consider there to be so many things crucial to living that I cannot find the time for them all. I can’t get by only speaking English! That limits me to particular places. I can’t rely on my untrained artistic ability—I need to learn to use new materials, and to understand the particulars of light and tone. I need to understand people, and ideas. Then I start to feel like Henri Perron in Simone de Beauvoir’s novel The Mandarins, who feels that he can’t continue to edit his newspaper L’Espoir (‘Hope’) unless he has a complete grasp on the world(p. 153-4):

‘Well, I’ll just have to start working at it,’ he said to himself. But if he really wanted to extend his knowledge, it would require years of study. Economics, history, philosophy—he would never be done with it! What a job! And all just to come to terms with Marxism! Writing would be completely out of the question, and he wanted to write. Well? … ‘What I need is time!’

When travelling, we have all the time in the world. Time to wander along the Seine, in and out of bookshops and ice creameries, time to contemplate passers by from benches. But we lack resources. When we have resources, we are battling schedules and weekly events.

I think that all there is to do is to keep on working. Keep pushing ourselves to learn, keep pushing ourselves to produce. Jack White muses that ‘inspiration and work ethic ride right next to each other. … Sometimes, you just get in there and just force yourself to work, and maybe something good will come out.’ And if you go beyond just showing up and really make things a little hard on yourself, the tension that you build can produce that spark and make something happen.

Brain Pickings pointed me in the direction of these interviews with Maira Kalman and Jack White.
‘Un regal pour les yeux’–a feast for the eyes. A Parisian sent me off to explore the labyrinthine flea markets of St Ouen in the north of Paris, and they did not disappoint. I wanted to convey the alluring decayed splendour of the markets. Europe could almost survive solely on selling its old junk to the rest of us!


News: I’ve cobbled together a sweet collection of drawings I did in Europe, many of which you may have seen on my website, into the Tour of Europe non-sketcher’s sketchbook. The covers are hand-stitched in three different fabrics and there’s room for your own musings. Grab one from my Etsy shop.



Kichi-Ba Tea House © Samantha Groenestyn

Frank Chimero’s* thoughts on narrative and fiction have been on my mind lately. And not only the melancholy French literature kind of narrative. I’ve been struck by the idea of visual narratives—of pictorial untruths that grasp something within the viewer and beg the viewer to close the circuit, finish the story. An illustration can enhance words, it can be more verbose than words, but it can also leave clues—cues, perhaps, for the intelligent viewer. It has always been important to me to treat people with respect as though they are intelligent and thoughtful beings, whether or not they really are. Sometimes saying all the things is saying too much and ruins the subtlety.

Chimero (p. 81) argues that for a ‘work to resonate and propagate, narrative becomes an essential component to design, because nothing moves as quickly and spreads so far as a good story.’ He illustrates the connections that arise between people through narrative through a particularly illuminating story about his design students. When asked to strip back their designs to simple-coloured geometric shapes expressing specific emotions, the students began to fill the gaps left behind by omitted typography and images with their own stories about what the yellow triangles were doing, what kind of music the blue squares were listening to, and how they felt. ‘After a critique,’ reports Chimero (pp. 84-85), ‘the take-aways were always vague in words, but wonderfully specific in consequence.’ Through the most simple visual media possible, these students had communicated something meaningful in their collective storytelling. While fascinating in a design classroom context, in the conversations between those who know the punchline, how can we bring this narrative element into still pictures that make their way into the world beyond?

‘All stories…are changes over time, so if you pay attention to what changes, you’ll find the point of the story,’ argues Chimero (p. 85). ‘This also implies that if we are looking for ways to use the narrative in our work as a design material, all we need to do is ask where the time passes to find the story’s proper place.’ This is evident in visual media like comics, but sequential imagery isn’t the only way to convey the passage of time. It is this idea of considering time that I’ve been thinking about in terms of my illustrations. It’s one thing to depict a thing, but another to contextualise it. A painting of a vintage teacup on a white background depicts a thing of beauty, a thing with a function and a past. A teacup left behind on a table with a teapot and an empty seat is something else entirely. Has someone just left? Is someone arriving?

These clues invite the viewer to speculate, to construct a narrative and—because it’s their own narrative—invoke empathy with that viewer. Chimero (p. 94) has a lovely line about this shift in control over the piece: ‘the designer and audience are now wed in co-authorship.’ He goes on to describe the designer’s role as that of ‘setting good restrictions that act as suggestions, but [to] then step out of the way to see where the audience takes those purposeful limitations’ (p. 95). This extends to illustration: the illustrator sets the visual framework and provides the clues, and perhaps distils them to very refined clues, but leaves gaps within which the viewer may construct the passage of time.

Further, fiction is a kind of untruth—an invention, be it aspirational, mundane or malicious. ‘Every untruth forks reality and opens up a gap between what is imagined to exist and what actually does. Each fabrication creates a second version of the world where the untruth is true’ (p. 67). This is where ethical questions seep into narrative promptings. But while the ability to deceive is ever at our fingertips, Chimero (p. 66) believes that ‘an alluring, productive untruth is frequently what’s necessary to get things going.’ As illustrators, we need not only describe the world around us, but we also have the tools to stretch the imaginations of others, bringing to life counterfactual worlds.

Regional Flavours Market, Southbank

* Chimero, Frank. 2012. The shape of design. Self-published.

Kichi-Ba Tea House is a memory painting for Michelle, owner of the erstwhile tea house. Full of ideas and guided by her excellent taste, Michelle is no doubt plotting her next venture, but I’m sure she’ll always remember this one fondly.


Open for business!

Today is the Grande Opening of my Etsy shop. Won’t you go and take a look?

I’ve listed some of my favourite original illustrations, but you can always contact me about purchasing any others, or about commissioning your very own painting!

I’m also terribly excited to introduce you to a little project I’ve been working on, and awaiting the delivery of: my incredibly tasteful and slightly snobbish bookplates.

They come elegantly hand-wrapped in packs of ten, two of each design. Just write your name, peel off the backing, and slap these stickers in your bestest books.





I’ve got lots more tricks up these sleeves, so keep an eye out for more covetable illustrated treasures that could soon be yours!



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.