A little while back, I posted on my good fortune to be the inaugural recipient of the Ridgeline Residency, which was offered by Ben and Peta of Ridgeline Pottery in Hobart, Island magazine, and the Inglis Cark Centre for Civil Society at the University of Tasmania.
I wrote about my stay there in Island’s blog, Islandia, and I’ve posted the entries below. In my first entry I mention that all I knew of Tasmania came from books, but that isn’t strictly true. A friend of mine visited some rellies in Hobart, and told me that a large proportion of their conversation was whether Holdens or Fords were better cars. I wasn’t sure if he was telling the truth, or just wanting to make me laugh. Possibly both.
As my vehicular literacy is nil, I didn’t have any conversations about cars. However, Ben and Peta of Ridgeline Pottery were the most marvellous hosts who showed me the sights of Hobart, took me to Dark Mofo and the Red Queen exhibition at MONA, and to a lake to see and touch some wild clay which Ben sometimes used for making his pots. It was sticky, but looked like smooth coloured rocks. I also drank wine & watched telly with them in the evenings, and went home a few kilos heavier.
At the end of the residency I took part in, and presented at, The Longest Write, a writing workshop offered by Island over the winter solstice. I’m in the process of recording part of my talk for this, while the essay which I wrote while I was there is almost done (it just needs some editing), and will be published in the Summer edition of Island magazine.
Wednesday, 12th June 2013
I write this from my table at Ridgeline Pottery, which looks through tall glass windows across Pipeclay Lagoon. A thin-blooded BrisVegan, I am swaddled in wool, cashmere, and whatever synthetic fibre they make thermals from, and I have the heater on. My feet will not be warm regardless of how many socks I pull on. It was bucketing in Brisbane when I left, and the rain followed me, which is good, I’m told, because Hobart is the second driest city in Australia. The rain washes in from the coast and blurs the promontories and peninsulas. Bright green lichen grows beneath the gums, rabbits bound through the tall native grass and sometime a jenny wren flutters by. I can’t remember the last time I saw a wren, having lived in cities since I was 18.
All I knew of Tasmania, before the plane began its descent over brown sloping hills surrounding Hobart, I had absorbed through reading. There was a snippet from a 19th Century letter (the reference to which I failed to write down and I’ve rued it ever since), its writer disapproving of a woman who hadn’t covered her shoulders well enough in a male-dominated town; the first half of Patrick White’s A Fringe of Leaves, in which Ellen Roxburgh visits her brother-in-law and is both attracted and repelled by his physicality; one of my favourite novels, A Child’s Book of True Crime by Chloe Hooper; Griffith Review’s excellent edition on Tasmania, which is worth buying for Cassandra Pybus’ essay on the Chinese tin miners and their fabled connections alone, although many of its other essays are well-executed and absorbing; pieces from Island Magazine about writers Geoffrey Dean (whose story in the Review of Australian Fiction I still think about from time to time) and Amanda Lohrey; Cate Kennedy’s The World Beneath, which I thought lacked the density of her short stories; and, recently, Lady Jane Franklin’s journals, edited by Penny Russell.
These are but a smattering of stories, and already I’m collecting more of them from Ben & Peta of Ridgeline Pottery, who established this residency in collaboration with The Inglis Clark Centre for Civil Society at the University of Tasmania and Island. It’s supported by Tasmania's Department of Economic Development, Tourism and the Arts and by Griffith Review. I’ll use my time here to write an essay on 19th Century botanist Georgiana Molloy, who emigrated from England with her husband to south-west Western Australia in 1829, and began collecting specimens for an amateur botanist in England, Captain James Mangles, who was the cousin to the wife of the governor of Perth. I’ve been writing about Georgiana for 13 years (some things never let you go until you’ve flogged them to death), but have never had the time to focus on the materiality of her collecting. This essay will be about how well-adapted she was, as a lady of leisure in the 19th Century (at least until she arrived at Augusta) who had been taught botany, to the craft of collecting the tiny Western Australia flora, and how her skill gave her access to the world of science from which, as a woman, she was barred.
Ben and Peta are craftspeople. Ben makes pots and Peta glazes them. Ben also teaches about glazing. I followed them to the studio last night, shivering in the night, and watched Ben stack pots in the kiln. Stored under a long bench were buckets of his glazes, and the colours of the room were creams and browns, all muted, and all one tone, at least at that time of day. Peta pays great attention to the meals she crafts and her food is exquisite. Even a salad with lettuce, raw corn, radish, capsicum and chicken (smoked by herself) flourishes with flavour. It’s wonderful to be among artists. Writing is such a lonely business that I told them I was happy to be interrupted. If I was writing fiction, I wouldn’t want to be talking to anyone, but non-fiction requires a different kind of thinking, one that is slightly less intense. Ben mentioned that working on his pots was similar, in that the method and energy required for wood-firing was different to that of electric-firing. It’s the same material, but a different form.
This morning I walked with Peta, wrote in my journal and scribbled down the opening of the essay, which begins in an archive. Much of the essay is about opening seeds, boxes and packages and the subsequent expansion of their meaning, so it seems apt to start in a place that is about unpacking the past from archival boxes. In the afternoon I battled with Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space to source his thoughts on the miniature. I don’t know if my frustration with abstract writing is the problem, but his prose is slippery and hard to grasp. I shall persevere.
Saturday 16th June
Yesterday evening evening Ben and Peta took me into town for the opening of Dark MOFO, stopping first by an exhibition opening of one of Ben’s ceramics students. The gallery’s glass windows fogged up from the heat of bodies. Outside, the wind was bitter. We went on down to the docks at the end of Hunter Street. Beyond some burning crosses, and people huddling around fires in ten gallon drums, was a shed full of installations. We queued for Ivana Franke’s ‘We Close Our Eyes and See a Flock of Birds, 2013’, and eventually sat in a white chamber and shut our eyes while hundreds of tiny light bulbs played a pattern. It reminded me of the bad LSD experience I’d had in Amsterdam when I was 21 and I panicked. However, when I calmed down, and I found it more like when I was a child on car drives home to our property in late afternoon, and light fell through the gum trees into my eyes.
There were plenty of young people about, and families with babies, and girls in woollen hats and berets, and I wished I had brought mine. You can’t wear a beret in BrisVegas without looking like you have aspirations of method acting a malnourished writer. People sat in lounge chairs, and kept warm by wrapping themselves in red capes that hung from coat pegs on the walls. Ben made an appointment for an Anish Kapoor massage and Peta put it in his iPhone.
Before heading home we stopped by Ryoji Ikeda Spectra in the Regatta Grounds of the Queen’s Domain. 49 beams of pale blue light were projected into the sky, at the centre of which, at the top, clouds drifted by. I was so cold by this stage that Ben and Peta bustled me into a jacket that looked like a sleeping bag, and I warmed up. There was music playing, and I felt the vibrations through my soles, and people’s faces were lit up by the light from the beams. It was spectacular. On the way home we saw the shaft of light from across the water, a crescent moon hanging beside it.
On Saturday afternoon, Matt Lamb, co-editor of Island magazine, and Natasha Cica, director of the Inglis Cark Centre for Civil Society, came to lunch. Peta put together a lovely salad, and sourdough bread she’d made, and set out walnuts dusted in icing sugar, and goat’s cheese that was pink with peppercorns. I was introduced to cherry cider, which agreed with me very well indeed. The conversation canvassed ceramics and the industrial revolution, which had given rise to the expectation that pottery should be perfect, when there ought also to be space for the handmade, the almost-perfect. We too talked about houses and places, and how Tasmanians asked in what street and at what number you lived, because they invariably knew someone who had lived in that house. The community is so closely-knit, it’s like a fabric.
On a morning walk, Peta mentioned that a number of the older men who lived in Port Arthur after the massacre died from heart attacks, because of the strain. I was reminded of my aunt, a teacher in Christchurch, who said that after the earthquakes there was scarcely a day when she had a full class, because someone would be sick, the stress of the tremors having depleted their immune systems. When a community is torn asunder, things begin to fray.
Sunday 17th June
After struggling through several of his chapters, I decided Bachelard and I weren’t destined to be buddies. I get frustrated with writers who can’t get their message across clearly, which comes from being deaf and appreciating clarity in a voice, whether written or spoken. I put the book aside and went back to Georgiana’s letters, which I transcribed for my PhD, and highlighted all the references to her collecting practice. I’m using these to discuss the physical activity of collecting, and to focus on her hands, which were responsible for the carefulness and daintiness of her work. After watching Peta push bread dough on the kitchen bench, and Ben moulding a piece of clay with almost the same action, I decided I needed to reinforce the work of hands, and to illuminate how they connect us to environments from which materials are taken.
Today I watched Ben stroking the bottom of pots with a paintbrush dipped in wax, and Peta then dipping them into buckets of glaze so cold they let off steam. They had already done one glaze that morning, a white one, and after the other glazes were done they would put them in the kiln. To get one pot is a lengthy, involved process.
As they worked, Ben described a part of the conversation I’d missed yesterday, about how Scandinavians are good at working with textiles and interior design because they spend so much of their lives indoors. You can’t do a tapestry in an Australian summer, I added, because sweat and wool don’t go together.
I’ve been thinking about this distinction between inside and outside, and at lunch yesterday I’d also asked why Tasmanians are sometimes so resistant to outsiders. Resources are scarce, I was told, and competition is fierce. A comparison was made with Darwin, the population of which is more open and fluid (though I thought it was still felt like a frontier town, when I visited three years ago). Is it something to do with migration, I wondered, as Darwin is opened to an influx of people from Asia, and people constantly travelling with the army? Or is it that Tasmania is a microcosm for Australia as a whole, with its aversion to boat people and subservience to dinosaurs who crouch over piles of fossil fuels or woodchips? If this is the case, then, as Peter Timms writes in his essay on Lady Jane Franklin in Griffith Review, ‘Assuming the Mantle’, Tasmania also has the capacity ‘to serve as a cultural laboratory – to be Australia’s off-Broadway, as it were.’ The smallness ‘tends to throw people together, which generates conversations, especially across disciplines’ (28). And that is the thing about being inside – you sit, talk, think and generate ideas for a future.
When I phoned Parental Unit to let them know all was going well, they told me I was a wuss for not coping with the cold. I pointed out that they couldn’t abide Brisbane’s heat. I frequently wonder how I survived four years in London, and pull on another jumper.
Friday 21st June
After putting Bachelard away, I picked up Susan Stewart’s On Longing. I really like this book, because it attempts to articulate how reading makes you yearn for something you cannot have. However, after perusing Stewart’s meditations on tiny dollhouses, books that need to be read with magnifying glasses and writing about the miniature in fairy stories such as Tom Thumb, I realised there was a problem. All of these things were crafted, and the flora in WA was not. It was merely seen as small in comparison to English flowers.
I wasn’t completely stuck, because I could still use her idea that new worlds could be opened from a collection of words, and this could be linked to the hortus siccus, the book into which Georgiana fastened specimens so that Mangles could see what his seeds would grow into. In this way, by ‘reading’ the hortus siccus, Mangles and the men to whom he distributed Georgiana’s seeds could envision Australia, albeit in a fairly rudimentary way. Likewise, the seeds they grew in English soil were a literal embodiment of the growth of new worlds. However, I need to work out a way of tying together craft and reading.
In between bouts of writing, Peta and Ben kept me busy. Ever a slave to fashion, I decided to risk pneumonia and wore my favourite grey frock to the opening of The Red Queen at MONA on Tuesday. The impression I have of David Walsh is that he has single-handedly revitalised Tasmania, so I was pretty excited about going to an opening exhibition. Inside the sandstone walls, lit with red light, I found it was warm enough to take off my coat and expose my bare arms, while a glass of champers took care of any goosebumps. There was a trampoline, and ping pong tables, and an installation of a possum besieged by insects, which were suspended from the ceiling. Peta and I peered at a spider and an elegantly-dressed man stood beside us, studying it as well. He said something in an accent to Peta that I didn’t hear. ‘No, I don’t think that’s Australian,’ she replied, ‘it’s too big.’ He continued to stare at the spider.
A while later, Ben and I sat in a mirrored room for a tea ceremony with a lady in a kimono that was also spangled with mirrors. Ben, who has been influenced by Japanese ceramics in his pottery, explained that it was usually a very simple ceremony and the shiny reflections were the antithesis of this. We had a bit of Japanese biscuit and then the bitter tea. The lady in the kimono asked me if I liked it and, as one who is always to the point, I replied, ‘Not really.’ However, I loved the novelty of it.
On Friday afternoon we drove to Pipeclay Lagoon to look at the wild clay that Ben uses to make his wood-fired pottery. In his Masters thesis, Ben described this area, ‘It is a place that is on the edge; on the south-eastern edge of this island and on the edge of the southern ocean. To lie here is to experience a place of eroded cliffs, refracted ocean swells, rock stack and the linear natural and human patterning of the tidal zone.’ The rich red and yellow of the clay, and the blue sweep of the lagoon, was utterly beautiful and I could see why, as he wrote, ‘This is the space I inhabit and is my place of making.’
Ben also mentioned that he tries to source local materials wherever possible, as does Peta in the ingredients for her food, and this was fresh in my mind when we headed into town for the launch of the latest edition of Island at Highfield House. Natasha Cica, who was in conversation with Labor MP David O’Byrne, asked Ben and I to say a few words. Ben commented on the importance of initiatives that weren’t necessarily reliant on the government, while I managed to collect some scattered thoughts, and said that Peta and Ben’s craft making seemed to mirror Tasmanians as a whole, for there was a sense of self-reliance about them. They are also jolly good at making cherry cider, I found, as I quaffed some from Pagan Cider.
Monday 24th June
On Saturday morning Ben and Peta took me into town dropped me outside Strawberry Fool. Happily caffeinated, I ambled up to Highfield House for The Longest Write, a weekend of writing over the winter solstice. There were about twenty participants, and first cab off the rank of our speakers was the quick-minded Matt Lamb, editor of Island magazine and the Review of Australian Fiction who discussed the history of the Australian publishing industry (of which I knew little, so I was fascinated) and its future prospects, which are dire. However, I’m sure the industry won’t cark it entirely, and will find a way to right its ship. Writers are an annoyingly persistent bunch, and if they want to get into print, they will.
We were then introduced to Johanna Baker Dowdell of Strawberry Communications, who described her process of self-publishing her book Business and Baby on Board because, although she had interest from publishers, they were unsure how to market it. However, she had plenty of followers on her blog and Twitter and knew she had an audience, so she crowdsourced with Pozible to raise funds to publish the book herself. I liked her conviction; I think that’s an important attribute for a writer.
I was looking forward to hearing Danielle Wood speak, for I’d enjoyed her Vogel-winning book The Alphabet of Light and Dark. She proved to be a lovely person, and spoke on the importance of first lines and first pages. Even though I’ve been writing for 17 years and have heard this advice several times, I’ve never really paid attention to it. I don’t choose a book according to its first line; rather I open the book somewhere in the middle and judge it on the quality of the writing. However, in this climate, where publishers are pressured and tired, and readers have too many books to choose from, I could see the logic in what she was saying, and resolved to apply it in future. This advice also segued with what Matt had said about needing to understand the context of publishing, in order to get published. In a microcosm, this means buying and reading lit mags if you want to get into print, and it also applies to the larger publishing world. Likewise, Text publisher David Winter’s (insert chilly Hobart quip here) discussion on the types of publishing houses and how they operate gave an insight into tailoring one’s work for publication.
The next morning I spoke about my essay and my experiences of getting published and said that, though I freely admit the industry is tough, I don’t see this as a reason to give up. You’ve only got one life, so if writing makes you happy, you should keep doing it. The rest of the day was devoted to writing and eating, and what with the excellent food provided and Peta’s cooking, I am now on a serious diet. At 4pm we cracked open the booze and had some more of that excellent Pagan Cider.
As for my essay, which now just needs a little bit more research and some polishing, I worked out the link between reading and craft. It came from a word which had been stuck in my head for several days: ligature, meaning a thing used for tying or binding. It was mentioned in a phrase that Georgiana penned to Mangles about her young daughter, who had ‘imitated in me in forming a collection of dried flowers fastened by ligatures.’ The flowers were tied down with thread and presented neatly, which in turn facilitated their reading by English botanists. Likewise, in choosing and setting words, we make our worlds into places that are inviting to readers. The crafting of botany and of words is ultimately an aesthetic act.
As the plane flew out over Hobart on Monday, I thought, well, that was all so wonderful. Tasmania is a beautiful place full of friendly people and exciting initiatives, so I’m definitely coming back. Only this time it will be in Summer, so that instead of wearing three layers of wool, I shall roam the isle in a silk frock.
On a final note, thank you to Ben and Peta of Ridgeline Pottery, Island magazine, Griffith Review, The Inglis Clark Centre for Civil Society at the University of Tasmania and Tasmania’s Department of Economic Development, Tourism and the Arts for making this residency possible. It has been just magical.