About Me

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Hi, welcome to my blog. I'm a writer of poetry, prose and plays but my best known work is children's fiction. My most popular books are the Selby series and the Emily Eyefinger series. This blog is intended as an entertaining collection of thoughts and pictures from here in Australia and from my travels in other parts of the world. I hope you enjoy it. (For more information have a look at my website.)

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Mirror: The Art of Jeannie Baker

Jeannie Baker is the real thing. She's an artist, illustrator, author and film maker of great vision and dedication who over the past four decades has produced a series of wonderful picture books. The reason for this blog post is that those of us in Sydney have the rare opportunity to see the original artwork for Jeannie's book, Mirror.

These days picture book artwork usually begins as drawings or watercolours on paper or, more often, computer files created electronically using a digital art software package such as Corel Draw. In contrast, Jeannie makes meticulous constructions which are then photographed for the books. The books are wonderful but seeing the original artwork, quite literally, adds another dimension.

About her technique Jeannie says: "Where I can I like to use textures from the actual materials portrayed ­ such as bark, feathers, cracked paint, earth, knitted wool, tin so that their natural textures become an integral part of the work. The vegetation used is often natural. Using plants was a problem at first but I have learnt how to preserve them so they last and I add permanent colour."

The exhibition of the Mirror artwork is at the Blacktown Arts Centre till February 2nd. It's been touring Australia for the past two years and this is the end of the road. Don't miss it.

Mirror was published in 2010 won the 2011 Children's Book Council of Australia's Picture Book of the year, among other prizes.

Full credit to Walker Book Australia for tackling such a non-standard book
The book's unique design is really two books in the same cover. Open the cover and there is a book on the left, reading from left to right, and another, that reads from right to left. The wordless stories are of the lives of two families---one in Australia and the other in Morocco---as they go about their days. Turning one page at a time we can follow their parallel lives, one commuting through city traffic by car, the other going to the market on a donkey.

Sorry about my ham-fisted photographs. The works are in acrylic cases and, because of reflections from everywhere, haven't done them justice. Also some of them have lights built in and...well, seeing them in the flesh---and feathers, bark and fur---is the only way to see them.

Jeannie Baker signing a book for a young fan

Donna Rawlins and Jeannie Baker
At the opening of this final exhibition, editor and author Donna Rawlins summed up the unique place that Jeannie Baker's work holds today and why it will for many years to come. Don't miss the exhibition! If you liked the book you'll love the original artwork.

Photographs with permission from Jeannie Baker.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

In Search of Lost Time to Waste

I learned to row when I was very young, I've made four trans-Atlantic crossings on ships and been on many ferries, canoes, kayaks and other pleasure craft and still I have to think for a minute about which is port and which is starboard. And I'm hopeless on pintles, gudgeons, barbettes, tyes, nippers, skegs and baggywrinkles. Still I find boats, especially wooden boats, wonderful to look at. Confession: I'm a closet boat model maker. I've got one model that stays in the closet from year to year only to be dragged out when I'm particularly inspired to do so or just bored witless.

Inserting the mast in the mast step on DSS Procrastination
Growing up in Boston, Massachusetts, I made lots of visits to the USS Constitution. This ship was built in 1797 and named by America's first president, George Washington. It's still afloat, although with the normal replacement of weathered and rotting timbers over the past 215 years, very little of it is truly original. But it does look fantastic and is well worth a visit if you're ever in Boston.

The Australian National Maritime Museum at Darling Harbour in Sydney is an easy walk from my house and I often drop in for a look, although not quite as often now that admission is no longer free. I know the permanent collection well but I keep coming back and back to see the ship models.

British corvette Atropos c 1810 made by Steve Adamantidis

Port Jackson schooner 1803 made by Richard Keyes

One of the best models is of James Cook's ship HMS Endeavour (below) which brought him to Australia. Mapping Australia and New Zealand was a bit of a sideline on a trip which was to observe the transit of Venus in Tahiti. Note the blunt bow and the flattish bottom. That's because HMS Endeavour was built as a coal carrier and formerly named Earl of Pembroke. The thick hull surely saved it from breaking up when it ran aground on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Later it was used to transport troops to the American Revolutionary War and was scuttled somewhere in Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island in 1778 while blockading the Bay.

James Cook's ship HMS Endeavour
If you want to see a life-size replica of HMS Endeavour, there's one you can visit moored outside the Museum but I think I prefer the Lilliputian one.

Detail of HMS Endeavour's rigging
Probably the biggest ship model in the Museum is that of the Orcades II. Launched in 1937 it carried passengers to and from the U.K. and Australia till 1939. It was then used as a troop carrier during World War II but was torpedoed near Cape Town, South Africa, in 1942.

Orcades II
The thing about models is the detail.

Could ship models be dolls houses for men? Surely not.

One of the best exhibitions I've seen at the Australian National Maritime Museum was a collection of toy boats---Bateaux Jouets---from the Musée National de la Marine, Paris. These weren't exact reproductions of boats but just wonderful little---and sometimes big---toys. I can't think of an equivalent kids' toy in today's internet world. While we're on the subject try to say "toy boat" over and over as quickly as you can. Why is it so hard to say?

But back to bateaux jouets, Imagine a spoiled little rich boy in a sailor suit, perhaps Marcel Proust, searching for lost time while sailing the toy boat below in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. Bliss.

Tres joli bateau jouet

I'd have thought that ship and boat model making died out by now but on a recent visit to Hobbyco I found quite a few boat model kits. So I guess it's not dead yet.

As for me, I've put away DSS Procrastination for the moment to do some writing but already I can feel the lure of the sea, the luff of sailcloth and the smell of superglue.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Okay, but is it art?

Sydney's 18th Biennale has finished. This year it was at four venues: Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the NSW Art Gallery, and Pier 2/3 at Walsh Bay. Children's Book Week has kept me on the hop but I did manage to see almost all the Biennale artworks. 

With over 100 artists represented from forty countries there was a lot to enjoy but of course not everything was for everyone. Okay so not everything was for me. Do bricks and leaves on a floor, or cloth hanging in a vast room, or some decrepit furniture on a platform qualify as works of art? I'm not hard to please. I just want works of art to make me feel something---other than exasperation---or works that make me think. It's also important that works of art pass the I-could-do-that test.

I'm afraid that these rocks scattered around a room didn't pass the I-could-do-that test. At first I didn't think that it was one of the entries but then I noticed the sign on the floor that said "Please do not touch the artwork".

How about this midden of oyster shells and tea cups? If you knew that it was the work of young Aboriginal artist, Jonathan Jones, who wanted us to think about the oyster middens of pre-European contact days with today's detritus---sort of a meeting of the middens---would that make a difference? Interesting but is it art?

How about a collection of tents in a vast warehouse. Inside the tents are television sets showing images of people in Cairo talking. This is Susan Hefuna's "Celebrate Life: I love Egypt." There is a lengthy explanation of the artist's intentions and a statement about the tents having been made in Cairo.

How about Fujiko Nakaya's fog sculpture, "Cloud"? The kids seemed to love running in and out of it. Are real clouds themselves or only artificial ones?

One of the problems for me was the written explanations of the artwork. One artist used "irony to create empathy" another "employs everyday objects and materials, de-constructing them to reveal their underlying codes". Another artist "overturns the relations between the work and its space". The artistic directors said that "the artworks gathered here engage with new models of reciprocity". New models of reciprocity? 

I gave up reading the explanatory material.

Things began to pick up for me with Canadian Artist, Cal Lane's "Domesticated Turf", a sculpted shipping container made to look like some kind of European gingerbread house. Clever and a lot of work sawing out all those bits of steel to liberate the cottage within. I was impressed.

And I loved New Zealand artist, Peter Robinson's, huge Styrofoam chains draped over some of the old rusting ship-building machinery. I didn't read the description of this installation but the internet tells me that Robinson "pursues multiple formal trajectories in his use of polystyrene, as if with its associations of disposability the possibility exists for any number of sculptural experiments to be tested, cast aside, reworked, reconsidered". Better to just look at it and enjoy it, I say.

For me the most impressive work at Cockatoo Island were Maria Fernanda Cardoso's Museum of Copulatory Organs, reproductions of reproductive organs. These much magnified---thanks to electron microscopy---models of male and female insect genitalia were not only wonderfully realised but quite beautiful simply as sculpture. Does an accurate reproduction from nature qualify as art? I think so. Certainly photos or paintings from nature can be art. Here science and art overlap. 

Back on dry land I went to the Museum of Contemporary Art at Circular Quay in Sydney to see the both the new wing and the Biennale exhibits there. Yeesookyung's Translated Vase, the Moon and Park Young-Sook’s Moon Jars easily passed the I-could-do-that test. 

And, by the way, don't tell everyone but the MCA has a cafe with the best view in Sydney. (See heading photo above.)

Liu Zhuoquan, Two-Headed Snake was the stand-out for me at the MCA at least as a technical feat. Using an old Chinese technique of painting inside bottles the artist made the bottles appear to have snakes in them. There were a huge number of bottles and the detail was quite breathtaking. Art? Well I felt something.

Also at the MCA, Alwar Balasubramaniams Nothing From my Hands. For me these are unknown shapes pushing out from behind a wall. (Click on his name and it'll take you to a talk by this fascinating sculptor.) 

Most moving of all for me was Judith Wright's installation, A Journey. (For a better view of it click here.) This is a haunting work, displayed nearly in darkness. Whatever it's "about" (and here I did read the artist's explanation) I found it moving. It's not a great technical feat but, well, for me it works and that's all that should matter.

This Judith Wright, by the way, is not the late Australian poet but a former ballet dancer, now a a visual artist living in Queensland.

From the Museum of Contemporary Art I went to the Art Gallery of NSW. Those are paper bags from designer shops that you can see in Perspex cases on the wall. the top of each one has been intricately carved  in such a way that the carved bit, hanging down but still attached to the top, forms a tree.

These are the work of the Japanese-born New York artist, Yuken Teruya. These have both beauty and a definite wow-factor. They were hard to photograph. To see his work properly click here.

The Sydney Biennale is over but there's still so much on the internet, including videos of the artists, that it can still be enjoyed from a distance. But if you're in Sydney and want to see a small but wonderful collection of contemporary art from China, you might want to go to The White Rabbit Gallery. It's a private collection but, as with the MCA and the NSW Art Gallery, there's no entry charge. Here it's important to read the descriptions and to talk to the very helpful gallery attendants. This show is called Double Take for a reason.

The White Rabbit rotates its collections about every six months and the present show opened at the beginning of September so you have time to get there in you're in or around Sydney.

Here's a taste to get you in:

Above is Zhang Chun Hong powerful calligraphy-like drawing of a long braid on a scroll that stretches down the wall and across the floor.

Taiwanese artist Ah Leon’s Elementary School days. This deceptively simple wooden table and chair are not what they seem but I won't spoil it for you except to say that Ah Leon is a ceramicist. There, I just ruined it for you.

Above and below is/are Li Hongbo's Paper, two identical figures sculpted from honeycomb paper, one of them with it's head beginning to ravel and the other stretched all around the floor. Li Hongbo was one a a few artists represented at the White Rabbit who also had works in the Biennale.

My favourite of the trompe-l'oeil works was this one. I inspected it closely and was about to walk away when a museum attendant stopped me and explained that this wasn't two chunks of a log connected by chains. This is two chunks of wood with the connecting piece of wood carved to make the "chains". No matter how closely I looked, those chain links looked like metal, not wood. A definite wow factor but is it art? 

Absolutely. Well I think so anyway.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Postcards from Malaysia

(Note: if you received this by email then click at the top where it says "Duncan's Blog" and you'll get a better version of the blog. If you've gone straight to the blog with the header photo and the title "Duncan Ball's blog" then this is as good as it gets.)

I miss postcards. "The weather is here. Wish you were beautiful." "Arrived in Venice. Streets flooded." I used to enjoy writing them and getting them. Try using a txt message for a bookmark or a photo from someone's iPad to put on your fridge. I even like reading the boring and corny inscriptions on the pictures as well as friends' messages trying to make me feel jealous of their holiday.

We're just back from ten days in Malaysia and, no, I didn't send any postcards. I didn't even buy any. Buying the stamps is often the biggest hassle. Yes, we sent photos from our iPad. Guilty as charged.

Malaysia is a fascinating place. Take a country, divide it in half---both in land mass and population---separate the two halves by a sea and you've got it. The western bit is Peninsular Malaysia and the eastern is Malaysian Borneo. The sea between is the South China Sea. As well as the geographical split, it is a country so ethnically, religiously and culturally diverse that it's a wonder anyone can govern it. It has had its moments. It's also beautiful and friendly. Public transportation is good, most people speak at least a bit of English and the food isn't bad either. What could be better for tourists from Australia?

We spent most of our time on Penang Island but also a day or two in Kuala Lumpur coming and going. I now have enough material to fill a few blog posts but I'll limit this one to a few holiday snaps which I've turned into postcards to give it a retro feel:

Malaysia is a Muslim country so there are domes and minarets everywhere. The one above is on the roof of the Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur. Thanks to whoever recommended this museum if you're reading this.

The second biggest ethnic group are the Chinese and there's no shortage of Buddhist temples like this one near George Town, Penang. You have to run the gauntlet of trinket vendors (worse than Lourdes or Fatima) but the temple is well worth the hassles.

Indians make up the third largest ethnic group so lots of colourful Hindu temples.

Something old...  (There's a world heritage order on part of the old section of George Town Penang to keep developers at bay. Let's hope it works.)

Something new...

Something borrowed... (At least one of these bollards at Kek Lok Si Temple seems to have been borrowed from Walt Disney.)

And something blue... (When you live in Sydney you'd be foolish to leave the country to find beaches but Malaysia has some good ones despite the jellyfish warnings.)

Oil palms are creeping up hillsides.

Photos from the train window from Kuala Lumpur to Butterworth on the way to Penang.

We watched these gibbons out our hotel window. 

If you judge a country by its toilets, Japan would win hands down, so to speak. In the case of Malaysia it ranges from the sublime (above) to the testing (below).

I confess that the stupid man was me but I didn't get stung. She was more interested in my watch band than in my arm.

These are Jill's and my feet as the fish chewed off anything they could get their teeth into. Not a great diet for the fish but we came away feeling very clean of foot.

Some photo ops are too hard to pass up. No, we didn't leave our laundry.

All in all, a great trip and we'd go back anytime.

Oh, and while we were away the latest Emily Eyefinger book, Emily Eyefinger and the Secret from the Sea, was distributed to bookstores. In the next book Emily may well travel to a tropical country and sample exotic foods. But more on that later.