Down in the Valley

Cracked (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

 

Today you can go have a good look at this little painting, which is on show at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts in the Valley, in Brisbane. He’s breaking hearts as a finalist in the Brisbane Art Prize which runs until 27 October 2017. The exhibition is open every weekday from 10am-5pm and you can see a whole stack of art from around the world in little old Brisbane!

The awards night is in one week–Thursday 12 October 2017, 6.30pm–and if you want to get involved in all the excitement, you can grab a ticket through the Judith Wright Centre’s website.

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At home with Steven Black

 

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2014.05 (c) Steven Black (oil on canvas) – Courtesy Galerie Thomas Fuchs

Long before I met Steven Black, I came to know him indirectly, but in a strangely intimate way. I stayed in his Leipzig flat every time I visited that moody, gritty city, and encountered him through his freshly vacated rooms, his formidable multilingual library, his jungle of plants, his pantry, his coal ovens, his music, even his friends, but most of all his paintings. The paintings unobtrusively watched over my parallel life in Leipzig, the silent, contemplative faces observing intently, sunken in their own thoughts, impenetrable as the coarse paint in which they consist. I lived with them, communed with them over breakfast, worked among them. The walls absorbed them, reflecting the same dreamy blues and faded browns, the same peeling and crumbling textures.

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2014.04 (c) Steven Black (oil on canvas) – Courtesy Galerie Thomas Fuchs

The flat feels like a transplanted old Queenslander house, uprooted from a subtropical clime and deposited—as precarious as it would have been on its original wooden stilts—atop an East German apartment building. It seems ill-equipped for bleak German seasons, as though it were built to stay cool in warmer weather, its charmingly disintegrating and sprawling wooden interior always chilled despite the coal ovens we have to stoke and feed around the clock. Eventually I learn that it was Black himself who was the transplant, and that he, like me, called Brisbane home, once.

Quiet days dawn in that flat, the sunlight trickling weakly through the mist. Black’s books pepper every corner of the house—German and French philosophers, yellowed poetry books and art books heavy with pictures. The stacks of CDs reveal a penchant for classical music. We are captivated by Pablo Casals, the throbbing cello filling the flat and becoming our work anthem. Ezra Pound and Max Klinger accompany us to breakfast under a crumbling sky-blue wall whose cracks look like clouds; Wittgenstein hovers by my computer; Deleuze taunts us and Velázquez lulls us to sleep.

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2007.03 (c) Steven Black (oil on canvas) – Courtesy Galerie Thomas Fuchs

When I finally meet Black, I’ve already had quite an introduction. He suddenly returns from Australia, simultaneously languid and bustling. He has much to do, and his restless energy permeates the flat with a new urgency; his radio and podcasts and lectures fill the cool air with busy chatter. But he is easily diverted, and has a special knack for turning any conversation into a deep, lingering discussion. He is always brimming with insights and eager to share them, insights that have been subjected to long and careful consideration.

His friends come over unexpectedly, drifting in and out as they seem to in his paintings. I began to meet these characters that I had lived among, and to realise that these paintings are every bit real life. Many of the silent thinkers prove to be other Leipzig artists: Stefan Guggisberg, Johannes Rochhausen, Sebastian Stumpf, Timm Rautert. They share homely meals, or sit and talk, seeming every bit at home in this flat as Black does. I realise we, too, have been welcomed into this comfortable domesticity when Black assures an impromptu guest, ‘Sie wohnen hier, ungefähr, du kannst sie ignorieren.’ (‘They live here, more or less, you can ignore them.’) I glance up at the paintings and they mirror the life of this flat: still, quiet people, casually dressed, slouching and reflecting, or standing and gazing distractedly, a gentle stream of conversation or an audio book or Pablo Casals washing over them. The pictures fix that lingering mood, that tone of probing the deeper things in life. A meditative guest might find themselves the balancing element in a heretofore unresolved painting, as what starts as a discussion ends as the visual solution Black has been looking for.

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2012.07 (c) Steven Black (oil on canvas) – Courtesy Galerie Thomas Fuchs

The paintings are drawn up with runny Indian yellow lines that trickle down the canvas. It’s a warm and sunny and earthy beginning. The drawing starts out somewhat rigid, but leaky, as Black positions his protagonists, establishes perspective, digs into the corners of the room. The angles dominate: the intersections of walls and doorframes and pipes of coal ovens and tubular chairs. The organic beings that emerge from the underpainting begin to come alive as the layers of eggshell blues and pale browns and ochres and transparent yellows pile on, concentrated at these visually inviting junctures, the angular grid of the room comparatively receding. Sometimes the paint converges to a frenzied climax at the face, which can be smushed beyond recognition: naturalism gives way to paint itself—to thick, abusive paint, growing like some leprous disease, pocking the face with actual shadows in its unexpected three-dimensionality. Such faces seem to suck inwards like black holes, bubbling with the mental fury of the otherwise obedient stillness of the sitter.

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2009.03 (c) Steven Black (oil on canvas) – Courtesy Galerie Thomas Fuchs

Seeing the portraits among the balcony landscapes and stairway paintings, a sudden aptness, a smooth continuity, emerges. The cool views outside carry the same contemplative mood of the stark interiors. There is yet something introspective about these outward-turned gazes. Black works intuitively, but also very visually. He is not a slave to what he sees, but he feeds on what he sees. Each painting is a fresh encounter with his environment—inside or outside—a meditation upon it. The view is usually comfortably intimate and familiar, but observed afresh every time.

And yet I feel it is not quite correct to say that Black simply paints his house. For he only ever seems to hint at it, to mark in the ghost of its skeleton. He strips it of the little treasures that move about the house and presents it as bare and indeterminate. Sometimes the setting is not so much the room as the ill-defined transition between rooms—as in the portrait where a woman stands in the doorway, catching the sun, with the wide, shadowy hallway gaping behind her and prying open the space, and beyond that another doorway cuts into the inviting blueness. The transitory setting could be somehow destabilising. But here is the thing: when you know the house—as she does, as the other sitters do, as the comers-and-goers do—you recognise the distant kitchen immediately, you situate her in the old familiar flat instantly. More than the appearance of the flat, the intricacies of it, Black captures the sense of moving about in the flat, of occupying different corners, of coming and going; the lived-in-ness of every pocket of it.

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2012.06 (c) Steven Black (oil on canvas) – Courtesy Galerie Thomas Fuchs

Black, characteristically irreverent, remarks, ‘The gallery is the last place my paintings should be seen.’ I think I know what he means. They trade on intimacy and familiarity, on the home he has woven with the movements of his friends. His paintings should be lived among, in their native setting.

Nevertheless, you can see Steven Black’s paintings in Stuttgart early next year:

Galerie Thomas Fuchs
Reinsburgstrasse 68A
70178 Stuttgart
Deutschland

20.01. – 11.03.2017
Vernissage: Freitag, 20.01.2017, 18 bis 23 Uhr

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Since paintings are to be looked at

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Paintings are to be looked at, and their reality in paint is an inextricable part of their being looked at—far different from their representation on screen—and so, last month Ryan Daffurn, Adolphe Piche and I banded together to exhibit some recent paintings. Since coming back to Brisbane in April, I’ve shared an artist’s residency with Ryan at the Sculptors Queensland shed at the back of the Old Museum in Bowen Hills, where Adolphe had likewise spent some time. Our show, held in the Museum itself—a grand red-brick, art deco construction set amongst lush, flowering gardens and palm trees—commemorated our time with Sculptors Queensland and displayed the fruits of our labours.

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The arched foyer of the Old Museum quickly filled with a flood of people, and showing in Brisbane proved a surprising experience. I was reacquainted with people I hadn’t seen in five, seven years, people from many parts of my life, from café jobs and university, even my philosophy honours supervisor. It was a great big soup of my past and present lives, and it was really thrilling to stand behind my work and have something to present for the intervening years. Yes, I’ve been busy.

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It’s always surprising to hear people’s response to your work. I rather apprehensively showed a self-portrait whose slow and painful birth produced an intense and dark painting, with crudely designed shapes for arms, with thickly-built-up hands that betrayed a long battle with planes and forms, and with a face perhaps among the most painterly-mature I’ve painted, certainly not effortless, but with a firmer control of paint, bearing a harsh expression (my very involved painting-face). And despite my reservations, it was well received, and people were even disappointed not to be able to take home prints of it.

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Since paintings are to be looked at, and since we would prefer them not to be seen as luxury commodities, we freely offered hundreds of postcard prints of our best works. It’s nice to offer a memento, to permit a little piece to be taken home, to implant a memory of the night and of the work in someone’s mind.

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I was surprised to learn that many people—even those familiar with my work—consider me more of a writer than a painter. This is a dire new predicament in which I find myself. Though writing is undeniably important to me, and something I intend to pursue in a very serious manner, I think of myself first of all as a painter. I don’t consider my writing journalistic, but more philosophical and more about exposing the contents of a painter’s mind. Perhaps I’ve steered off course somehow, or let my writing—a skill I’ve had greater opportunity to flex—do more of the work than my drawing and painting. I feel that I might need to rest the writing a little more in deference to more painting and drawing, and that I might need to push a more visual presence on the internet. Certainly, it is important to write, and as Joshua Reynolds (1997: 167), himself a very adept painter, wrote: ‘The knowledge which an Artist has of his subject will more than compensate for any want of elegance in the manner of treating it, or even of perspicuity, which is still more essential; and I am convinced that one short essay written by a Painter, will contribute more to advance the theory of our art, than a thousand volumes such as we sometimes see.’ But it is good to have an opportunity to reflect on how you are publicly perceived, and to seize the opportunity to modify that perception.

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It was incredible to show with two painters I very much look up to, and to be raised up next to them. My work isn’t as strong or as complex as theirs, but I am, after all, a few years behind in terms of experience. And yet, they consider my work respectable company, and I relished the challenge of standing proudly in the shadow of people greater than me.

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The artist, so long hidden in her painter-cave, mixing pigments and scrutinising the fall of light across still and silent objects, must also be a very public creature, and must thrust the efforts of her labours on the outside world as regularly as she can. Our quiet diligence is rewarded with bursts of stardom, and the act of putting on a show is both a celebration and a very important feedback loop. Seeds of new ideas have lodged themselves in my brain, and I feel more certain of my course.

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Reynolds, Sir Joshua. 1997. Discourses on art. Ed. Robert R Wark. Yale: New Haven.

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Integration

North (Bill Thomas) © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

North (Bill Thomas) © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

I’ve been fortunate to be having some serious brain time with Ryan Daffurn and Scott Breton of late. We’ve been discussing, from our own viewpoints and languages, our common understanding of the role of the painter, which is to pull the visible world apart, inspect it, learn it, attempt to understand it, and then to reassemble our visual knowledge into constructed, tightly orchestrated images. Scott is perhaps most clear and persistent in his language, and I will adopt his term here: painting is about integration.

Life drawing

Ryan’s recent work is an ambitious amalgam of observation, collection, reinvention and imagination, in a manner I’ve found difficult to explain to others because they are not ready to hear such ideas. When people have seen his representational work, they have asked such questions as, ‘where is that?’ And I’ve realised that people are approaching realistic painting with a very limited perspective, thinking it can only be a rehashing of something once seen. In fact, the painting in question began with a fascination for a bizarre playground in Berlin, which lodged its oddity somewhere deep in the recesses of Ryan’s brain. It developed as he redrew it from memory, drawing little thumbnails and growing new exploratory configurations out of his brain, organically and freely. On transitioning to the canvas he referred to photos collected in Berlin, but these photos were always subordinated to his own design, and subjected to new physical constraints: the effect of an unnatural green light, like that accompanying a hail storm, completely imagined; the removal of black from his palette, to set hues off against each other more thoughtfully, to create a more meaningful colour contrast rather than an overbearing tonal one. In the end, ‘where’ is not really an inquiry relevant to this painting, which is ripe with fascinating things to talk about. But people are not primed to talk about these things, and it is to these things I hope we can redirect their attention.

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We are drawing from the model regularly, and returning to my sketchbooks I see with satisfaction how much of a workspace they are. While people have dogged me to make more finished drawings, and to reconsider my ‘style,’ and to think about what my preferred audience might respond to, I am pleased to see that I have wholeheartedly claimed these drawings as a working zone. Each life drawing session presents a new opportunity to investigate something new, and it’s not always a piece of anatomy. Recently I’ve been attentive to the way I make a mark, and how to train myself to make such marks. There are the soft lines that tentatively feel out the forms, and then the brazen, dark sweeps that claim them. I love to use a tiny butt of a pencil that fits inside the palm of my hand so I can ruthlessly stab the page with decisive marks, and every single week I practice this decision-making to varying degrees of success. And having uncovered some older drawings, I’m pleased to note that there is a greater elegance to my lines, but also that this elegance is laid down with such confidence and certainty. It is not only the weight of curves set off against each other that I am practicing week after week, but the very manner in which I lay them on the page. Nothing but sheer repetition and practice cements such things. As Sir Joshua Reynolds (1997: 281) writes of Michelangelo:

‘The great Artist … was distinguished even from his infancy for his indefatigable diligence; and this was continued through his whole life, till prevented by extreme old age. The poorest of men, as he observed himself, did not labour from necessity, more than he did from choice. Indeed, from all the circumstances related of his life, he appears not to have had the least conception that his art was to be acquired by any other means than by great labour.’

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Ryan and I talk about the student’s perpetual search for surprise and freshness in their own work, the constant chopping and changing of media in an effort to chance upon something that they simply have a knack for, or that reveals something new—the apparently overriding fear of staleness. While this exploration is not without merit, it seems to prevent giving any one problem due attention. We have both remained faithful to the humble pencil, and reverent of its unlimited potential. While other media open up new thoughts, our ultimate goal is a deep and intimate understanding of and facility with our chosen medium. What we’ve learned via pencil can be transferred to many other media, but other media won’t substitute for the ability to set new tasks and doggedly pursue them. Actually, in stripping every problem back, in setting stiff parameters, we give ourselves a chance to isolate each task, to puzzle over it with clarity, to observe every minute shift in our approach and thinking. We have complete control over our learning and exploration, because we are so finely tuned into our chosen tool. We trust that accidents will never approach the rewards of systematic understanding.

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The pencil lets us isolate, struggle with, and hopefully resolve distinct problems. But those problems are never really discrete, and are actually far more intricately bound with problems of colour, texture, light and atmosphere. But the life drawing studies demonstrate an important part of being an artist—the determination to pull apart and investigate—the indispensable precursor to being able to reconstruct, to compose an image, to integrate our knowledge into a wholly new and meaningful design.

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Reynolds, Sir Joshua. 1997. Discourses on art. Ed. Robert R Wark. Yale: New Haven.

For a more regular drawing fix, have a look at my Tumblr! x

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The storyteller

Dr Rhyl Hinwood, drawn from life

Dr Rhyl Hinwood, drawn from life

Dr Rhyl Hinwood is a part of the fabric of Brisbane. Her work wove through my life well before I heard her name; her social spirit created Brisbane institutions that have profoundly shaped my life. Eminently at home here, and deeply invested in our sprawling, sun-drenched city, her life’s work exists not just in the immovable sandstone she carves with her gnarled hands, but also in the people of Brisbane. For while Rhyl loves to shape stone, and her hands have formed memorable parts of the city’s surface, she cares just as deeply about shaping less tangible things.

Steele building, University of Queensland

Steele building, University of Queensland

I learned this when Rhyl and her husband Rob welcomed Ryan and me into the home they built with their own hands some fifty years hence, Ryan eager to paint her portrait. The house is full of personality, and full of Australia. The sloped wooden roof hangs high above the tiled terracotta floor, and the space in between is decked with gumnuts, dried leaves, wicker chairs, exuberantly patterned fabrics and rugs in earthy colours and, of course, endless bronzes. A carved wooden cabinet houses the radio which plays classical music as we work, and on top sit a glowing cluster of green-bronze busts—mostly the heads of Rhyl’s grandchildren, and one of her mother. Frog bronzes pipe at flutes and saxophones as though an Australian rainforest bacchanal procession were coursing through the house.

Dr Rhyl Hinwood (from life); copy after her sculpture

Dr Rhyl Hinwood (from life); copy after her sculpture

Rhyl is possibly best known for her work at the University of Queensland, where I studied, where she got her break carving grotesques for the central quadrangle, the Great Court. This was the beginning of a continuing relationship with the university, with the various colleges commissioning large sandstone works from her to this day, and, of course, the Wordsmiths Café (where I served many a coffee) and its snaking literary tribute to Australian authors. Rhyl assumes her position on the couch for Ryan’s portrait and talks about her recent visit to St Leo’s college, whose gate she recently produced, and where she was subsequently invited to attend a formal dinner and see all the boys suited up for an opera performance. Her attendance is always welcome, and she always follows through—being present, she advises us, is always a good strategy. When you are out in the community, being seen, meeting people, things come up, work comes in. She brims with stories of concerts, Great Court races, bumping into the now fully-grown son of a man she met while carving at UQ decades ago; the governor taking a liking to her and wanting to chat endlessly; the lovely but reserved Canadian woman she met and introduced to university dignitaries with the ease of an equal; the English reverend who saw her working in the Great Court and who invited her to stay with him in England in the very town where she was coincidentally going to work on a church. Rhyl excels because she is endlessly open and interested in her fellow human beings.

Wordsmiths Cafe, University of Queensland

Wordsmiths Cafe, University of Queensland

Rhyl is a storyteller, and at heart, her art form, public sculpture, is about collecting, distilling and preserving stories. Her frankness and clarity are indispensable in this matter. One afternoon we tramp down into the backyard to see some of her works in progress, and her storytelling weaves effortlessly in and out of the imagery. A huge concrete semi-circle bounds her outdoor carving area, a moveable crane fixed to the top, and a starfish adorns it. Heavy power tools rest nearby. Rhyl is working on an arced piece with a little saint, and Ryan’s narrow face is her inspiration for the character—she would hate for her sculptures to be peopled with generic forms. We follow her down a little path through the rainforest garden to the studio. It is a multi-level affair, wooden, again with a dramatically sloping roof. She shows us some plates she is preparing for bronzes, an amalgam of wood and plastic. She traces the elements of each one with her hands, explaining the stories through simple yet eloquent symbols.

Wordsmiths Cafe, University of Queensland

Wordsmiths Cafe, University of Queensland

Over several weeks we sat by her fireplace (flanked in sandstone, decked in coral, shells and urns full of banksias and gumnuts), painted and drew, and shared meals. Her husband, Rob, once in the army, but also a builder and a leather worker and ceramicist, chimed in with jokes and stories, and as the weeks went by, their stories built up a tapestry of their rich and social lives, their children, their travels, their work, their Brisbane. Rhyl’s parents had a house by Yerongpilly, and Sunday afternoons when she was young they would open their doors to Asian students, and together they would spend the evening dining and dancing on the veranda. She and her parents fundraised to construct International House at the University of Queensland, a residential college that operated on the same welcoming principle (‘that brotherhood may prevail’), the residential college I myself called home for two years and through which I made many lasting friendships that span the globe.

Forgan Smith building, University of Queensland

Forgan Smith building, University of Queensland

Paring a story back to the core elements requires much conversation, and asking many questions. Rhyl recalled seeing the austere slogan above the Forgan Smith building at UQ, home to my beloved philosophy department: ‘GREAT IS TRUTH AND MIGHTY ABOVE ALL THINGS,’ and resolving to work around this proclamation. She asked many professors, ‘Do you think that truth is the purpose of the university?’ and was met with a resounding no. After much conversation and deliberation, she determined that the university must, in fact, stand for knowledge: the uncovering of, collecting of, and preserving of. Her research efforts are admirable: she showed us a photograph of a large symbolic piece in the midst of being installed in a college in Sydney. She told us of an ineffectual meeting with all of the stakeholders, in which dominant personalities drove the discussion, and each party felt compelled to have their stamp. Earthy, pragmatic Rhyl simply decided to meet personally with every individual involved, and to give each their chance to speak with her one on one. Having collected every viewpoint, a plan for the piece evolved in her mind, and when she presented it to the group every party was satisfied. There is a profound lesson in this humble, attentive method of collecting stories and compiling them into something fitting and meaningful.

Copies after Rhyl Hinwood

Copies after Rhyl Hinwood

Societies and social events can be very demanding on your time, Rhyl admits, but she urges us to be present in our cities, in our communities. A chance meeting at a symposium, a fortunate conversation over morning tea at Customs House, can open up surprising opportunities. And one suspects that finding one’s place in one’s community and building it over a lifetime comes with rewards far deeper and richer than public commissions. Rhyl Hinwood lives and breathes Brisbane, and can take satisfaction in the knowledge that she and her work are an enduring part of its story.

Wordsmiths Cafe, University of Queensland

Wordsmiths Cafe, University of Queensland

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The perfectionist, revisited

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My Nanna came to visit from New South Wales and I was very pleased to spend some time sewing under her direction. Nanna, born Aleida Grul—though forced to give up her name through anglicisation and marriage—grew up in Holland, where her father was a tailor, and she herself trained in the same field. As a young woman, she sewed for a living, paying board to her parents and saving up the equivalent of ten full weeks’ wages to buy her own sewing machine—a fierce and serious Swiss-made tank of a machine, driven by a pedal at the knee, which has accompanied her for the rest of her life. Her school was determined to take her on as a teacher, but toward the end of her studies, she and her family immigrated to Australia. Nanna paid her own way with the income she made from sewing. She and her younger sister took over a local sewing business in New South Wales, but eventually the demands of family life took precedent—her own family grew to five children. Still, children need dressing, and grandchildren too, and Nanna has continued to sew prolifically.

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When she came up to visit us, I pulled out some lovely, soft, creamy, floral fabric I had found in Vienna, and an unopened vintage sewing pattern I had discovered in Berlin. The pattern pieces were flimsy and sage-coloured, marked only with perforated words and symbols—‘EINHALTEN’, ‘FADENLAUF’—and the instructions ran in stiff, old-fashioned German. A combination of my German, her Dutch, and her practical knowledge of patterns allowed us to piece the thing together.

But more than receiving a little guidance, I was treated to a wonderful insight into her past and her attitude to work and to life. I’ve always known her as cheerful, contented, and unfazed by difficulties, but I failed to appreciate her quiet acceptance of her compromises, her driven and hardworking nature, and her adherence to the high standard she demands of herself. As we carefully measured and remeasured fabric, pattern and me—‘where is your tape measure?’ (my mother recollects Nanna ever having her tape measure hanging from her neck, never out of reach)—she spoke softly about the past, as though the act of sewing were a method of time-travel, a direct portal to the times she had sewn before. And this time I was permitted to travel with her.

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At the very beginning of our work, Nanna confessed to constantly unpicking her own work to this day, which surprised me. I wondered that she could be so unsure with her hands. But I quickly learnt that this stemmed from no uncertainty, but from very exacting demands. Should an unwanted pucker appear, should a collar sit too tightly, should a gathered edge not sit pleasingly, it must be undone. From my own viewpoint, of ‘good enough is good enough, no one will know the difference,’ it was a pleasant surprise to be held accountable to someone who produces the best work she possibly can, no matter how ignorant her audience.

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For no one would notice the length of my stitches should they learn I had sewn my own blouse—they would only be impressed, useless as they are with their hands, that I had made something. But Nanna, from the adjoining room, called out gently, ‘your stitches are too short. Small stitches look very unprofessional,’ a judgment made from the sound of my humming sewing machine alone. I lengthened my stitches, I worked more slowly, I took care with the intersections of seams, until my mum expressed surprise at the steady and controlled pace of my machine.

Sachsen Bluse

Following instructions is one thing, but working under the guidance of an expert is another entirely. There are things to learn that don’t read well in explanations—like how to make the back of the shoulders ‘roomier,’ and precisely where to overlap the seams of specific pieces. I began to be less assertive, asking for more help instead, hoping she would reveal more secrets to me at every step. Without malice, but matter-of-factly, Nanna told me, ‘the difference between what you know and what I know is very obvious.’ And I realised with what arrogant confidence I go about the works of my hands! Whether I sew, or knit, or paint, or draw—and this confidence, this ‘just and manly confidence in himself,’ as Joshua Reynolds calls it (p. 211), being ‘among the first moral qualities … which a Student ought to cultivate,’ is undoubtedly necessary. But equally necessary is the humility that comes with recognising a greater power than yourself, and the magnitude of the path they have already travelled, and that lies yet before you.

Three monkeys

I also realised that perfectionism coupled with diligence is no terrible thing. For all her unpicking, Nanna, Aleida—now Alice—is ever moving forward, and no amount of redoing sets her back, discourages her, or prevents her from finishing something.

Nanna

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