Environmental Issues, Anyone?

February 20th, 2020

On one of several Facebook pages I follow, the other day someone asked if anyone had ever designed quilts “based on environmental issues”. But this is not new, and I was able to answer with two favourite artists whose work had strong environmentalist themes in the early 2000s – Linda MacDonald and Merril Mason and there are many more in the catalogues from that and more recent times. My own art is closely linked to landscape and environment, featuring colours, shapes and textures resulting from process, without focusing on whether the pattern resulted from natural or man made processes, but I don’t think I’ve been expressing environmental concerns as such.

When I and my sisters were very young, Mum sometimes packed a picnic and took us in the car to park for a couple of hours uphill from the Trevallyn Power Station construction site. There was a wonderful view of all the cranes, machinery, concrete-pouring and other construction activity going on below us. While we leaned in fascination on the chainlink fence, or sat in the front seats of the car if it rained, Mum was free to read her book, dispense snacks and drinks, and sip her tea, occasionally commenting or explaining something. We loved those afternoons. I was born in late 1946, and the power station was commissioned in 1955, so we were very young indeed.

Since marrying half a century ago, I’ve moved in and out of many environments, most of them directly mining related. Our first home was on the Great Boulder Gold Mining Company’s leases at the southern end of Kalgoorlie’s Golden Mile. Four hours’ drive from the nearest coast, Kalgoorlie’s an outback mining town in the vast, flat Eastern Goldfields of Western Australia, where gold has been continuously mined since its discovery there in 1893.

The mining industry leaves many marks on the Earth’s surface – shallow workings or diggings, head frames, railways, roads, disused equipment and plant, power houses, crushing plants, machinery sheds, slime dumps, disused mine shafts, plus towns and cities of course. In the late 60’s this historic industrial environment was in the grip of the nickel exploration and mining boom. The excitement of that countered the culture shock of moving there from the leafy green, cool temperate mountainous Tasmania where I we both grew up.

From our arrival until we left in 1975, I sketched and took photos, though I have no idea where those are now. But by the time we returned in 1981, I was stitching creatively, and, inspired by mining activity around me, stitched several framed wall panels, such as this one:

On The Golden Mile” c.1986 approx. 30cm x 25cm. The mine leases on which we once lived included office and plant buildings, head frames, the powerhouse, crushing plants, slime dumps and senior staff housing. By this time, construction of The Superpit was underway, and where we used to live was already being swallowed up in the open pit mining process.
Looking north from the edge of the Superpit, Kalgoorlie, 1993.

I am not blind to the unacceptable damage mining has inflicted on some/many environments around the world, through greed, ignorance, or blatant disregard of mining laws. There have been many unforeseen consequences of actions taken or not taken through inadequate planning. The mining industry has much to answer for in many places: underground collapses, slime dump avalanches, flooding from broken dams being just some. Though mining in developed countries like Australia, USA, Canada and many parts of Europe is probably as safe as such a dangerous industry can be, in other parts of the world where mining is less well- or even not regulated, workers often include children, conditions can be very dangerous, and wages are extrememly low compared to the value of minerals produced.

“Hannan’s Reward” 1993. 100cm x 140cm. In the centenary year of discovery of gold at what became Kalgoorlie, I stood awestruck at the edge of the Kalgoorlie Superpit which had by then absorbed the location of Paddy Hannan’s 1893 reward claim.

Modern living demands mined raw materials to produce essentials such as computer keyboards, wind turbines, solar panels, mobile phones, cars, trucks, trains, planes, steel bridges and house frames. Anti-mining activists tend to cluster in cities where they more easily attract media attention. I am a realist – as even with better rates of recycling, the world’s population cannot do without the products of mining. Companies need to mine responsibly and carefully rehabilitate land once mineral wealth has been extracted.

But to return to the original question that prompted this post, I believe many textile artists are environmentally conscious, even those whose designs don’t spell all this out. Repurposing fabric has historically informed traditional quilt making. Many contemporary artists recycle fabrics in their art, and more use biodegradable fabric-like materials, including builders’ or industrial waste. I believe these are as much an environmental statement as is the actual design content of a piece of art.

Stitches As Mark Making

February 19th, 2020

I’m probably 3/4 way through a small quilt, 40cm sq. The order of work is a bit unusual though, with trimming and binding already completed so I can hand stitch detail over the top of the fused machine applique, and machine quilting. The signing, sleeve and label will be last, as usual.

The hand stitched ‘vegetation’ is a joy, as I’m a fan of hand stitchery from way back, but it’s been a while, as the most recent work of this kind I’ve done was around 2015. Below are some of my favourite landscapes with hand stitched detail ranging from 1980 to 2014 –

Upper left: Sunburnt Textures 6, 2014. Upper right: Ancient Expressions 1. 1988
Lower left: Simpson Desert Sunset, 1980. Lower right: Out Back of Bourke 1987

I learned the basic stem and straight stitch needed to embroider around printed Semco doilies and place mats when I was about 8 years old. I was positively influenced by my own mother whose needlework was beautifully finished (traced designs, drawn- and counted-thread works) I don’t have my very first embroidered work from grade 3 sewing class, a yellow doll’s bed cover with a Semco design of the three bears and a mushroom or two, that year. But I do have this one from a few years later, about grade 6:

I’m pretty proud of it ­čÖé and ask you to try to not to focus on that eyecatching stain – more than 60 years have passed since I stitched this and crocheted the edging. I used it for many years, and have it here with me in Montevideo in my ‘collection’. The left side of the photo shows the reverse of the doiley, the right half the right side.

I show these because, though I am perhaps better known as a maker of contemporary art quilts, my interest in hand stitch goes right back really, to early childhood. I embraced creative embroidery in the late 70s, and in the late 80’s quilt making emphasised to me the power of a stitch as a way to make a mark on fabric. Today, some of the textile artists I most admire are fabulous makers of marks using stitch on fabric – people like Dorothy Caldwell, Helen Terry, Debbie Lyddon, Christine Mauersberger, Rieko Koga and Richard McVetis, all of whom have instantly recognisable styles. I love them all, and would aspire to achieve what any one of them do.

This afternoon, browsing on Pinterest, as you do, I came across UK ceramic artist Craig Underhill. I’ve started seeing his slab constructed pots crop up since I recently saved one or two images on Pinterest, because some of his markings on them suggest overlaid sheers with very informal, freehand stitchery on fabric. That drew me to his website, where I was enthralled with his sketchbook slide show at https://www.craigunderhill.co.uk/sketchbook.html Of course, I would never copy anything he or any other artist has done; but I saved a few to remind me of the potential of similar mark-making in sheers+hand stitch, or even sheers+machine stitch, as suggested by some of his pieces.

Rapid Landscape Change

February 15th, 2020

I see landforms in terms of the denudation-deposition cycle, metaphorically equal to what happens over the life of a human body, including the less tangible aspects of being ‘alive’ – such as personality, character, knowledge, relationships, perceptions, beliefs and so on. In short, nothing stays the same over time. We are surrounded by change, but it is often at such a slow pace that we don’t even register it happening day to day right before our eyes.

But sometimes things happen really fast, too. In Australia’s current bushfire season, beginning September-October 2019, bushfires have wreaked havoc over much of the country. Vast areas have been burned out, people have lost lives, homes, businesses and farms. Many people were compelled to flee to safer areas to escape roaring walls of flame driven by strong winds, heading their way too fast to fight and contain. Sometimes their property was spared, but often evacuees had nothing left to return to, and in some instances whole towns were obliterated. The loss of human life, which though low considering the cicumstances, was devastating for the families and communities from which those people came. Several were firefighters themselves. Many domestic and wild animals were killed, with some estimates as high as a billion in total: we’ll never know for sure, but the toll was huge.

Change has continued though, as since early february many of the dried or burnt areas have received at least some rainfall courtesy a moderate cyclone and the arrival of the monsoon in the region. Much rain has fallen on the coastal plains and some, not a lot, has pushed inland, so the severe drought is not yet broken completely, but there is hope. The worst of the dreadful fires are now out or under control due to this rain, which has been so heavy in some parts that flash flooding has become problematic.

Photos and film footage are showing that in the earliest burned areas vegetation has been sprouting. Some trees are sprouting new leaves, and grass has returned to bone dry paddocks, illustrating how rapidly the Australian landscape can regenerate, as it has for countless thousands of years. It is this story of regeneration and hope that I want to underlie some planned new works. There is no problem with colour schemes themselves – think black, various shades of grey (up to 50 …) red, orange, sandy colours, dark brown and the bright greens of fresh new vegetation.

I’m thinking in terms of mini-landscapes such as this sample I made to be part of a presentation to a mini-landscape workshop a few years ago:

Mini landscape area approx 7cm x 5cm , on black background. 2013.

I’ve often used such little landscape compilations or units within larger works, and looking at these next two quilts reminds me of how much Outback travel I have done looking at the passing changing landscape!

Songlines” 1997 40cm x 200cm
Ticket To Munmalary ” 1997 120cm x 150cm.
Landscape scenery changing as if on a long journey by car bus or train. Photographed against a yellow background, for some reason!

These patchwork units were all improvisationally pieced before being machine appliqued to their background fabric. However, I’ve just realised such units could also be constructed by cutting to fit precisely together like a jigsaw puzzle, fused to a background, cut out from that before hand or machine sewing onto the quilt top. I’m experimenting.

Landscape: Lines And Shapes

February 10th, 2020

Lines and shapes are on my mind as I work out how I want to represent a bushfire ravaged landscape in a small format, 40cm x 40cm, to submit to Ozquilt’s call for entries for the next Australia Wide Seven exhibition. It’s juried of course, and though there is an option to include an artist statement which could explain my work a bit, I want the lines, shapes and colours to spell out the savagery inflicted by this year’s bushfires on the Australian people, their landscape and the national psyche. I have always said the best artist statement is a well chosen title, and that nothing more should be needed, so that’s another aim.

At various times in the late 90s I designed several quilts with fire themes, including these – all of which are entirely concerned with the action of fire itself, so I now see them as the primal fascination with flickering flame.

Left: “Fire Danger 3” 1999. Upper right: “Fire Danger 2” 1999.
Lower right: “Bushfire 4” 2000

Australians are raised to respect fire and fear the speed with which it can leap out of control, surging up into the forest canopy layers, and, aided by wind, high ambient temperatures and volatile vegetable oils in the vegetation, flow out of control across the landscape in a phenomenon known as crowning. The fire races very fast, trapping animals and people beneath and ravaging everything in its path. News and social media coverage of the 2019-20 bushfire season in Australia, now mercifully winding down, gave the world dramatic but horrifying images of walls of flame which firefighters say are true to what they have often faced when fighting fires. The difference today is that every firefighter, firetruck driver, ambo driver, support personnel and evacuee has a mobile phone with a really good little camera, and from a few seconds’ pause in a zone of temporary safety can take a pic or two before moving on or away from danger. I have never been close to a wall of flame like that depicted in “Bushfire 4”, but I now know that what was largely my imagination twenty years ago in 2000, has been proved to be a fair representation of the reality of such a situation – lines of rapid motion, the strong colours of flames. What is not in any of those designs is smoke or any indication of the smoking blackened landscape surface after the fire has raced on.

Which brings me to the present. Recently I made my first couple of landscapes focusing on the aftermath of fire. Afterglow 2 I made for the SAQA auction later this year. It would be tempting to just make a larger version of this work, which was 25cm sq. But it has had such wide coverage that I think it could be recognised in the blind jurying process as something that’s already been done (derivative) Also, I’m almost out of the brown/black stripe! The other recent work I made which referenced fire and landscape in a semi pictoral way was FUTUREWATCH , which in a way might be transitioning to my current thinking about the aftermath rather than the process of burning itself.

Many of my quilts and quilting designs reference lines and shapes in and on landscape. My earliest art quilts, Ancient Expressions I – XIV, always contained a painted, stencilled, hand drawn, or as below, appliqued element of landscape. The whole series featured marks left by ancient Man in/on the landscape, and of course here I had the Egyptian pyramids in mind. As a geographer I was also thinking of the map symbols for mountains, but looking today at this quilt made 28 years ago, I am seeing more than I was aware of then. You could also read into the image ‘heaps’ of things such as mined coal, sand, gravel, and all the other minerals that come up out of the earth, to be crushed and stockpiled for transportation. Also there are two kinds of lines in the landscape segment – wavy lines representing the earth’s surface, and straight-ish tracks or roads or boundary lines …back then, I just put them in to give some perspective, they were no more meaningful than that.

Ancient Expressions XIII, 1992. 90cm x 125cm

Thanks to my friend Janet Jo of www.dyesmithy.com I have some very flame-like red/orange hand dyed fabric, enough for backgrounds for two 40cm x 40cm quilts. I want to use that rich colour and various symbols to depict results of fire in a landscape. Today’s writing is part of the thinking, researching, diagramming and list-writing steps I usually take to assemble my ideas.

Lines And Shapes Continued.

February 4th, 2020

This blog is my visual diary, Part A . which is why I sometimes write about my process here. This and the previous posts combine insights to process with considerations of technical possibilities. After my previous post, I spent a morning on another sample, working with the same shapes and lines based on the photo heading that post.

Beach ‘cliffs’ beside sample based on the diagram, approx 20cm x 30cm.


  • cut less vertical, wider, shapes to emphasise spreading deltas
  • the row of short upright-ish shapes is good, but could be a bit stockier
  • horizontal lines between sections are too wide
  • patchwork in some parts, fusion in others?
  • achieve more drama with contasting plain fabrics
  • consider slight slivers/dabs of colour
  • fme around the basic shapes?
  • depending on the scale, break up larger areas with surface design techniques
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