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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Time and psychology, visually

Dancer studies c Scott Breton

Dancer studies © Scott Breton

Scott Breton, one of my teachers at Atelier Art Classes (and, just quietly, this year’s winner of the AME Bale travelling scholarship), gave a talk about his work at the Royal Queensland Art Society (RQAS) a couple of Sundays ago. It was thoroughly insightful to see where he’s come from, and what he’s been trying to achieve all this time. I’ve seen a lot of his dark still lives and been surprised at the heaviness of them; a dark psychology radiates from paintings produced by an amiable if serious young man. Consistent reds and blues glow in the passages of paintings that are softly lit. People are cut up as if by time slices, leaping mid-air. Narrative mostly takes the form of sequential figures. And he’s very open to adapting his process, drawing in pencil from life, developing an image digitally before finally painting it in oils. He’s methodical, but obsessed with discovering new methods all the time. Currently, he’s all about the drawing beneath the painting, the drawing as part of the painting. A mysterious mix of artistic attributes.

Dance composition c Scott Breton

Dance composition © Scott Breton

Scott’s talk followed the chronology of his work, beginning with an early painting of a young man dragging the weight of modern art in a gilt frame on his back. He quickly came to realise that he didn’t want to labour over meaning in this way in his work—that meaning can, in fact, be something less readily expressible than social commentary. Many things can be said in words, but some things can’t be said at all—they must simply be seen, and felt. Scott considered the strongest and most resonant part of this early painting to be the execution of the figure itself. Tracing through his early explorations, it was amazing to me to see how the figure alone—bare, exposed, unadorned with symbolism—can be so pregnant with meaning. Another early painting explores this simplicity through the body language of a man (Despair) and a woman (Optimism), conveying a meaning through mood and through that physical language that we all speak. The human form and body language are so expressive, and Scott became concerned with tapping that psychological element.

Optimism and Despair © Scott Breton

Optimism and Despair © Scott Breton

Much of his work is moody, and he openly admits to being inspired by music—directly and indirectly. Older paintings explore the idea of a ‘key change’, as in music, only through colour and form. Drapery changes direction and shifts from blue to red with hushed shadows, and this motif returns again and again in more subtle ways in later still lives, in which the light turns a corner and softly introduces a new key. His current work involves a dancer, who improvises to music he puts on. He draws her trailing around the floor, her hair and woollen dress floating about her, and she becomes a time-worm, creating a circle of temporal selves. These paintings are four-dimensional—incorporating time in a very visual way, not simply through change, but through adjacent moments sliding into one another.

Jacaranda harvest © Scott Breton

Jacaranda harvest © Scott Breton

Seeing where your teacher has come from and where they are going is a pretty special thing. Scott thinks so deeply and brings so much conceptually to his work, though not in the manner usual to modern art. His concepts are more directly connected to the process of painting, pushing the medium to express things best represented visually.

Swing by his blog for updates on his dancers and other work. Or sign up for a class with him on Tuesdays and Wednesday nights!

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The gentlewoman

Over the past week, I was privileged to spend some time with the delightful Caitlin Shearer. Caitlin’s inimitable watercolours span pleasant baked delights to confident glamorous ladies to awkwardly beautiful intimate scenes. Her painted characters gaze distantly, lost in worlds of their own, always poised, though letting us in on a quiet, private moment. Her linework is firm and angular, carving out hands, faces and figures with merciless honesty, but in these irregularities of features one sees not disfigurement but personality. As one who has complained about the smoothing over of ‘blemishes’ and the bland rounding-out of the female form, I certainly admire an artist who can explore femininity in a truthful way.

Caitlin is that rare breed of lady—elegant, unassuming, poised and polite. Her lips and nails are painted, her hair is a voluminous flowing mass, and she speaks with a soft trill, as though sentences are melodies. Sydney terrace houses with Juliet balconies have her dreaming up the sorts of fantastical narratives that her paintings depict, full of romance and longing. Painting is, for her, an escape—a means of creating worlds in some ways simpler, in some ways more complex, than the one we really inhabit.

It was a real treat to meet another illustrator and to talk candidly about our hopes and fears and illustrative intentions and aspirations. Illustration is a bizarre sort of career that demands a great deal of work—constant output, clever ideas, maintaining a presence and a little bit of luck getting noticed. And once you’ve put all these things in the pot, given it a good stir and seasoned to taste, people are wont to become attached to the things you are not, and to fail to notice the work that you feel defines you. I suppose all an illustrator can do is make a fresh pot of tea and keep translating her ideas into physical things.

© Caitlin Shearer

 

The tea towel above was a present from Caitlin, and should you need to celebrate your love of cakes too, you can get one through her Etsy shop.

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Narrative

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.

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Style

Phoning Mum © Samantha Groenestyn

I am experimenting with style. Thus far my output has been the natural result of my putting paint to paper. I like strong colours, strong lines and textures that don’t quite conform to perspective. I like reflections on shiny objects, and take infinite delight in recreating a view realistically. The expressiveness of realistic painting is much like that of photography—the suggestion of composition. I can frame a view that you could certainly see for yourself, but might not have seen in the way I have. I can draw your eyes to a new centre, where in the world you would see an unfocused panorama. Remember when everyone was stitching their photos together to take panoramic shots of their holidays? It’s because they wanted to capture the view as they saw it, with peripheral vision. I want to show you little worlds that are self-contained, with a person or an object to ponder, at the centre of its own little universe. There is meaning in this that there isn’t in 180-degree vision.

Painting allows for greater manipulation than (unshopped) photography in that the colours can be tweaked—muted, brightened, monochromed and so forth. New moods can be overlaid perfectly realistic images simply by use of colour. By which I mean, through composition and conscious colour manipulation, photo-real paintings can really tell a story without relying on pictorial symbolism or stitching together conceptual motifs. These latter are certainly not my strong point (enter: high school art projects and gut-wrenching memories of candle wax and denim), but I have found other ways to communicate visually, which is, after all, what illustration is about.

Nonetheless, there is something unsatisfying about simply putting brush to paper and accepting the inevitable result. I am at war: the desire to paint accurately is so strong, though more imaginative work is around the corner if I can rein this desire in.

Being self-taught, I have no directed assignments to jolt me into trying new things. What I do have is lots of time to practice what I want to practice. To this end, I have devised a method of analysis and imitation to develop artistically. This does not mean blind mimicry of my idols, but, rather, careful consideration of the elements of their work and the way they differ from mine. I have always collected—vowel sounds, letterforms, haircuts, dress sense—I have compiled a style out of taking small bites of others’ pies and piecing them into my own. My accent is a pleasing amalgam of broad Australian a’s, soft South African e’s, and educated pronounced (rather than clipped) t’s and d’s at the ends of words. My handwriting was carefully appropriated from curled, connected letters penned by others, made fuller and shorter, and looped for optimal speed of writing. While I have the dress-sense of a four-year-old collided with Amy Winehouse, I can quote my sources. The key is to be selective and to be thoughtful. So will I approach my illustration style.

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How to Tell a Story

The art of storytelling is hideously undervalued in our society. We all have at least a few friends who, although they may lead interesting lives and have all kinds of stories to tell, just have no idea how to engage an audience. Both in writing fiction and in relating our experiences to one another, having the skill to draw out the suspense, emphasize the punch lines and make a coherent narrative is increasingly rare in a world where people spend too much time watching TV instead of creating their own stories.

The basic principles to telling any good story are these: deal in specifics, explore ideas, and pacing.

Dealing In Specifics

How many times have you had someone tell a story in which they get on thing with `some other guys’ to go and see a play, somewhere? People are naturally curious. If you can anticipate the things that people will be curious about when telling your story – what play was it, why did you want to see it, which friends came along – then you won’t leave them feeling frustrated and interrupting you. It is important of course to include only the details that people are curious about and not every single detail. Nobody needs to know what your seat number was or how long you waited in line.

Exploring Ideas

Never mind all the intricacies of constructing plots. The important thing to be aware of is that all good plots are composed of interesting ideas. What if there was a criminal who had a photographic memory? What if the fight took place in a room full of statues? What if the bad guy used his wife as a human shield? Whether it’s the driving idea behind the whole story, such as finding a suitcase full of money near a crashed plane, or just a clever idea about how to make a car chase more interesting, by incorporating paint bombs, every scene in the story should involve some novel idea that is then explored in the story. It need not be as overt as my examples – it could be as subtle as taking the assailant’s point of view, or having the conversation be partly in French to obscure key details – but the building blocks of a story are the basic ideas behind it, and the flesh of the story grows from exploring these ideas through the characters and the events.

Pacing

This is definitely an art form. Most people who tell good stories simply have an intuitive feel for how to control the flow of information. You want to dwell on the parts of the story leading up to punch-lines, but you want to deliver action scenes fast. It’s like fishing in a way – you have to keep the fish (the audience) interested in the story by paying out the line just enough to give them something without letting them have the whole reel. You have to know how to really milk a story. Often, this comes with practice; by observing the reactions of many audiences to the same story, you can learn to tweak the story to get better reactions. You find out what to emphasize and what to leave out because it gets in the way.

Finally, there is something to be said for knowing how to end a story. Even a riveting yarn will fizzle if you just leave your audience hanging, or end with a non-sequitur. The ending has to be something short, said with finality, that neatly ties up and caps off everything you said up to that point; it is the punch-line to the entire narrative and not just a single event. As my own punch-line, I’ll tell you a story about how I made breakfast today.

Bad version:

`I had oats for breakfast, but we only had skim milk, which I hate because it doesn’t have all the nice fats and protein in it. I have this weird hang-up where I have to eat fats and protein for breakfast or else I feel like my brain doesn’t work. Luckily we had some cream, so I just mixed it together with the skim milk to make normal milk! I was satisfied with the result.’

Good version:

`I stared vacantly at the pot. Oats and skim milk? The ingredients mingled there like the contents of my brain, in a washing machine. It bugged me that we had only skim milk, which as far as I was concerned was white-colored water, wedged into the fridge door next to the thickened cream like an insult. As the stove heated, an idea warmed in my confused morning-mind. “Evil separators of milk and cream, I undo you” I said, mixing like a mad scientist. Later, eating it, I imagined that I could feel the protein waking me up. Brain food.’

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