Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Australian Spirit

Australian folk art has not had much attention payed to it probably because our history has been so short, the need to focus on the professional arts has been paramount to establish some sort of fine art culture in the far flung colony. There is in Australia an unfortunate and persistent myth that only elitists like art, and that to enjoy and participate in it is to be some how un-Australian?! I find this to be one of the saddest aspects of our culture as it is simply not true.

The painting above is a beautiful and lovingly Australian painting by the folk art painter, Irvine Homer, called The Birthday Party (1970, 55cm x 61 cm, oil on board). The father comes home, in through the old gate to be surprised by a big family party with games in the yard and dancing on the veranda decorated with balloons. While we only see the back of his hat his all-embracing arms express gladness and love. He seems to be embracing the whole landscape before him. I feel it expresses Irvine's love for the country he traveled over during his very difficult but rich life. After having been a drover, a shearer, a hole digger, a swagman during the Great Depression, worked on the railways, worked a little bush sawmill, been in the rodeo....etc he took to painting when illness struck him and he was no longer able to stand at the age of 35.

This is his description of his painting Summer by the Hawkesbury, "I used a magnifying glass when I painted the little fences around every house. The poultry farm, the oyster leases, all had something to do with me. Sometimes I'd get a job cracking and bagging oysters. In summer there was always a bushfire burning somewhere in the distance, so I put that in too. There's a petrol station with a shop in one corner, where I always bought my tobacco. I thought of how I'd put them together and make them into a real place. Not a real place. In my memory it's a real place, the mighty Hawkesbury (River) in all its glory. Brooklyn. And the poultry farm. I swiped one of his chooks (chickens)."

That doesn't sound un-Australian to me! :) He loved painting and he loved to study the works of other Australian painters too. His poetic nature seems very Australian to me, so I hope that Australians will joyfully embrace the lyrical nature that runs through our blood, and openly embrace the arts as that storehouse of the generational spirit of our nation.

I came across Irvine Homer and many other wonderful Australian folk art painters in a book I found from the last Life-Line Bookfair, called Australian Primitive Painters (Geoffrey Lehman, University of Queensland Press, 1977). I've had the painting above open in my studio for some months now, and I've been waiting for just the right time to share it with you.

On a recent visit to shibori artist Margaret Barnett's house I was struck by a piece of shibori she had made ready for future textile work (see the fabric above). It reminded me vividly of The Birthday Party in its character. Margaret explained to me how she had used rusted railway spikes she had collected from her travels to the Outback to dye with, leaving rich rust foxing over the antique handkerchief linen that had also been dyed with indigo. My mind was already dreaming away as I clutched the delicate cloth. She saw how overwhelmed I was with it and she generously gave me the only piece she had! I told her of the painting I was thinking of and how it was speaking to me to make some sort of doll, connected with the painting and this cloth....I just didn't know what it would be.

Looking around at all the treasures she had collected from amazing trips around the world, I saw a doll from Peru that had been roughly made with scraps of fabric over a base of bound grass. It must have struck me as when I went home, with a huge bag of textile goodies from Margaret, I made up a doll using mainly materials that Margaret had given me. Blending the primitive style of the Peruvian doll with the image of The Birthday Party had a very unusual result as you can see from the doll above. I've called it a spirit doll, and this one an Australian Spirit Doll. It will be a gift for Margaret to thank her for all the wonderful goodies she brings me...but shhh! don't tell her, it's going to be a surprise ;)

This week I want to leave you with a quote by William Blake who wrote, "Poetry Fettered, Fetters the Human Race. Nations are Destoy'd or Florish in proportion as Their Poetry, Painting and Music are Destoy'd or Florish! The Primeval State of Man was Wisdom, Art, and Science." Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, 1804.


shula said...


I enjoyed every inch of that post.

Sunflower said...

Your blog is so fascinating and I love the painting you posted today. So wonderful. I am an artist, too. I do nature art, paintings, collages and photography. Would love for you to see my art. I will visit your blog again I am sure. It is wonderful!!

jude said...

beautiful post and that shibori fabric, just wow. a wonderful use of all in your little spirit doll. filled with wonderful story and elements.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

A first rate post, Florence; written well, as usual.

Florence said...

Thanks everyone :) I love sharing these stories with you.

Sunshine, thanks for dropping by please feel welcome here. I'll drop by your blog soon :)


ps if my images have disappeared (due to blogger strangness) the popup snapshots will have the image in it if you place your curser over the picture rectangle. Hopefully the images will reappear shortly.

annadee said...

Hey Florence,
Thank you for introducing me to that painting, and that's a great post. I wonder if you can post more about some 'contemporary' folk artists. It seems that folk is often used to refer to the quaint or sentimental but I'm very interested to find out more about contemporary artists who consciously (or unconsciously) produce contemporary folk art which doesn't reference the past. Or, by definition, does folk art have to reference the past?
cheers, Anna

annadee said...

Also when I got to the image of the fabric I completely missed the link of "The Birthday Party" to the painting above and thought you meant the Melbourne band 'The Birthday Party'. I was thinking "...I guess it looks like a cover of one or their albums.." Dumbo!

annadee said...

Also, (sorry I would've emailed this but I can't find your email address on your blog) I wonder if you've come across 'fodder' which is a dialogue blog between Nalda Searles and Kevin Murray? In one of the early posts Nalda mentions "Sometimes with objects I make there is a real effort to contribute to an Australian myth" This quote really struck a cord with me as I feel that perhaps this is sometimes how I work too. But I wonder what is "The Australian Myth" and is the concept of this Myth changing in the 21st Century?

Oh, and there's also an image of what looks like a really beautiful echidna toy
cheers, anna

risa said...

i love your doll! i am quite familiar with those peruvian burial dolls so i can totally appreciate the ways in which you were influenced by one. fanstastic!

shannon said...

Lovely post Florence- I love how you tied all those things together. Do you know the work of contempoaray Australian artist Gary Shead? It is not quite folk art but captures the spirit of "the Birthday Party".

Merlyn Gabriel said...

Florence, I love the first image so much.

I woudl write so much more but words fail at the moment.

I do miss you.


Felicia said...

Your Australian Spirit Doll is lovely!

Florence said...

Firstly, I'd like to thank everyone for their lovely comments.

Secondly, for my tardiness in responding. I can assure you however it is due to an intense transitional shift in my artistic life that preoccupies me, rather than a lack of interest in your thoughts. please forgive me.

Shannon, my parents have two of his paintings...lucky them!

Risa, your pointing out the dolls as funeral objects helped me to see this doll with clear eyes. I have an interest in the objects that surround the rituals of life, the ceremony of burial is one of the most interesting and telling a culture's state of mind. I have been fortunate through my study to see many objects contected with the this rites, and dolls are particularly of interest to me. I see now that the Australian Spirit Doll as related to a tomb object makes sense as it has a direct association to the world of generation which is of course the child of death...or the passage of time and memory.

This leads me to Anna's questions...which have been gnawing at me, I must refine my thought to answer them as they deserve respect.

"Does contemporary folk art have to reference the past" I personally have defined contemporary folk art as the beautiful expression of a people or nation. I did this because I wanted to create an art that was not responsible to the domain of International contemporary post-post modern conceptual art which to me often seems like a space station that is gradually drifting further out of Earth's orbit.

Because I'm not insensible to the art historical reading of art and understand my stance or desires artistically are being created with the assistance of formal academic training in art history and art theory, I could hardly call myself a folk artist. Folk art itself is, I believe, in its academic sense an art primarily by people without a formal training in the fine arts and is related departments. Folk art is by nature and from an art historical or museum view point about the character of a nation, as the art has grown from the soil, or culture of a country. It becomes a vessel of the nation's soul because it is relatively unrestrained by the formal aethetics of western culture.

I can not presume to remove my knowledge and the influence it has on my work, however I can consciously make the choice that addresses my need to create work that cherishs of the soil of place as the tender dream that lifts us to the glad day of a life of grace. This may take many forms and is a product of today rather than an a cosmetic quaintness and anacronism.

I hope to be able to offer through my art in all its manifestations a door through which the people of my own home culture might walk. Our myths are not yet complete as we are barely conscious of them. It is still a time for artists to dream and give life a shape.

(due to the length of this comment I'll post it again in the body of Windbag and Thunder)

but also, Fodder is an interesting blog, I had heard of it but hadn't visited so thanks for the tip !
and the link to the woven grass echidna :)

Merly, miss you too.

xxxs and ooos

Trish Goodfield said...

Hi Florence

I stumbled across your blog while browsing and got really excited when I saw you were an Umbrella girl, which is what actually prompted me to post a comment. I wanted to say thnak you to the Umbrella Girls for inspiring me to start a blog. I had been reticent to say the least. Before I saw an email from Crafts Qld( before the name change) my experience of blogs had been akin to online teenage diaries. The Crafts Qld email opened my eyes to blogging as a marketing tool. I haven't looked back and have even added an online shopping basket to the site, though it does need a bit more work. Thank you again.


Anonymous said...

I'd like to thankyou for a wonderful piece on my grandfathers 'THE BIRTHDAY PARTY'painting.I was wondering which other piece your parents own?
Thankyou again for letting his memory live on,n god bless xox