The Story of Blue and White Pottery

A blue and white ceramic bowl. (Credit: Pxfuel)

I’m always fascinated by patterns that are able to stand the test of time and space, that are able to transcend geographic and cultural borders as eras and fashions come and go. One example is the Dutch movement in visual arts named “De Stijl”, which I have already covered. It began after WW1 and is found all over the world to this day. An even more interesting case is that of blue and white pottery. Professor Anne Gerritsen of the University of Warick, author of The City of Blue and White (2020) calls it the “ultimate global commodity”. 

If you do an online search on blue and white ceramics, you will encounter similarity and variety. Many collections of plates, vases, bowls and more, show Chinese dragons and landscapes. Some have Central Asian Islamic geometric and floral designs. European styles are also available—Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese. There is a whole batch that is manufactured in the western Indian city of Jaipur. Examples are also available far away in Mexico. Which place and period does this craft ultimately come from? What were the migratory routes like? We can’t really guess by looking at it.

Rows of blue and white ceramics kept with other varieties in Bukhara, Uzbekistan by User “…your local connection”, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, Flickr.

It turns out the origin lies in both China and modern-day Iraq. Chinese ceramics go back to the Palaeolithic era. Earliest pottery was earthenware and stoneware. “Qingbai ware”, a type of white glazed porcelain, became popular under the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Very basic blue floral motifs on white were found upon white pottery in Henan province during the Tang Dynasty in the mid-800s.

Later, as trade routes between China and other parts of Asia were opened, developments emerged. It is believed that the craftsmen of the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1517), especially in the city of Basra, inscribed palm trees, garlands and Arabic writing in cobalt blue pigment (mined in Persia) upon Chinese white porcelain. A form of craft was created that combined foreign technology with local taste. (A fascination with blue had existed throughout the region since ancient times. The metamorphic rock lapis lazuli was extracted as early as the 7th millennium BC at the Sar-i Sang mines in present-day Afghanistan. Deep, intense blue had also been used in the jewellery of Mesopotamia and Egypt.)

As China increased contact with the Islamic world, versions of pottery richer than the experiments at Henan became prominent. A centre emerged in the city of Jingdezhen in the northeastern Jiangxi province in the 14th century.

A 17th-century blue and white dish from the Chinese city of Jingdezhen, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

With more commercial and colonial activities over the subsequent centuries, blue and white pottery spread to Europe, Japan, India, etc. The Jaipur branch was developed when the practice was passed on from Mongol artisans via Turkic conquests of India between 14th and 17th centuries. The Dutch East India Company (1602-1799) imported hundreds of thousands of pieces made in Japan and China, which led to a style known as “Delftware”. The pottery reached distant Mexico via Moorish influences in Spain. 

An article on Victoria and Albert Museum website mentions a phenomenon known as “Chinamania” in Britain in the 19th century: “In the 1850s and 60s, antique blue-and-white ceramics were discovered by a small group of artists and intellectuals linked to the Aestheticism movement, who valued ‘Art for Art’s sake’ (art that didn’t tell stories or make moral points, but was enjoyed purely for visual pleasure). Engaged in the ‘search for beauty’, influential Aesthetic artists such as James McNeill Whistler and the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti began eagerly collecting Chinese blue-and-white, sometimes known as ‘Nankin’ or ‘Old blue’, which was seen to embody true beauty in colour, material and form.”

Ewer of Medici porcelain, Italy, c. 1575–87, Met Museum, New York, Public Domain.

A blue and white pottery bathroom set from Jaipur, India on sale on kalakyari.com.

It is quite remarkable how easily blue and white ceramics were able to penetrate and permeate through lands following dissimilar belief systems, climates and lifestyles. Blue, symbolising peace and tranquillity, is the colour of the sky and sea, accessible to all. White, evoking purity and newness, is always acceptable everywhere.

The pattern is also democratic in its availability—found among antiques for royalty to mass-produced objects for the average citizen. Its ubiquity is proof of our common appetite for beauty, and also, to an extent, the same kind of beauty.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard: A Major Name in Rococo Art

The Swing (1767) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Wallace Collection, London.

The word “Rococo” immediately conjures for me 18th-century France and highly ornate architecture. Gilded, flowery design. Cream walls, pastel blue ceilings, trompe-l’œil scenes. Elaborate costumes. Marie Antoinette and her cakes. It’s a style that I have been aware of but barely paid attention to.

Until recently, that is—when the painting The Swing (1767) by French Rococo master Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) flashed before me multiple times on Instagram, and I was driven to search a bit more.

Rococo—with all its extravagance—it turns out, was a reaction against the more formal French classicism or Style Louis XIV. “The Swing”, which is a fitting representation of the movement, is believed to have disturbed the philosophers of the Enlightenment, who wanted art to be serious, dedicated to depicting reason and the nobility of man. When you look at the painting, the quality that is most perceptible is “frivolity”. It freezes a moment of frolic and carefreeness in a seemingly cultured and sophisticated garden setting. The figures, who look as though they belong to polite society of etiquette and ethics, appear to secretly indulge in what might be an impermissible act. The enduring appeal of the artwork lies precisely in this contrast. 

An elegantly dressed woman is swinging happily, one shoe thrown in the air. A young man is in the bushes on the bottom left, looking up at her, one hand reaching out. An older man is behind on the right, pulling the rope, perhaps unaware of the young man. A cupid-like sculpture does a shhhh.

Alina Cohen of Artsy explains: “Baron Louis-Guillaume Baillet de Saint-Julien commissioned The Swing from Fragonard with salacious intentions. Saint-Julien wanted a picture of his mistress that also featured him looking up the lady’s skirt. Initially, the Baron tried to hire history painter Gabriel François Doyen to make the work. Given the sordid nature of the task, Doyen refused. Fragonard had no such qualms—and his career benefited from it. After all, austerity was hardly in vogue throughout Marie Antoinette’s France. With the success of The Swing, Fragonard was able to successfully transition from a history painter frustrated by royal bureaucracy to a favoured artist of the upper class—members of which, ostensibly, were more willing and able to pay on time.”

There are other paintings by Fragonard that are worth engaging with—a set, in fact, titled “The Progress of Love” (1771-73) that was commissioned by Madame du Barry, the mistress of King Louis XV, for her château. They were, strangely, rejected by her. They changed houses and owners and, in 1915, were purchased by American industrialist Henry Clay Frick for $750,000.

The four artworks are The Pursuit, The Meeting, The Lover Crowned and The Love Letters. They are definitely less famous than The Swing—because they are simply less mischievous and almost more moral. But they possess technical and thematic beauty of their own.

The flowers, the trees, the sky—everything is quite enchanting in these scenes. In the first artwork, we see a young man offering a woman a rose. Another female is present in the painting, a companion to the object of affection. Later, there is a tryst. Then, the crowning of the man by the woman with a wreath—signifying commitment. Lastly, the two are together in a bond, and look back fondly at their letters.

Romantic and sexual symbolism is hidden within the garden through the stages of courtship. For instance, in the opening image, the fountain might point at future consummation. In the tryst, the two characters meet below a statue of Venus, the goddess of love. The man’s red stands for passion, the woman’s white for purity. In the final image, they are seen before a personification of friendship, which implies their relationship has matured to a certain warmth and stability and ease.

The way in which the drama of the series unfolds, with depth and exuberance, is quite alien to our current age of superficial dating apps. What we hear of now is an abundance of options for a potential partner, rapid swiping and ghosting, disposability. Flippant, boring behaviours. Fragonard shows us a completely different and much more interesting world. A world of concentration in one person, effort in wooing. Better manners, higher standards, and therefore, more fun, more play.

The Progress of Love: The Pursuit (1771-73) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Frick Collection, New York City.
The Progress of Love: The Meeting (1771-73) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Frick Collection, New York City.
The Progress of Love: The Lover Crowned (1771-73) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Frick Collection, New York City.
The Progress of Love: The Love Letters (1771-73) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Frick Collection, New York City.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

How to Regulate your Mood as a Creative Person

Mood dice by User “Intgr”, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

I have come across countless stories of very successful people—from actors to athletes—who’ve said they struggle with mental health issues. And I have wondered why it is so easy for some who seemingly “have it all”—fame, professional accomplishments, material wealth, a safe and luxurious house, a support network—to sink into depression. This whole phenomenon of prolonged low mood has been examined from several perspectives—as one will find in the brilliant book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression (2001) by prolific American writer and Columbia professor Andrew Solomon.

Various causes have been identified (tragic events in one’s life, poverty, psychological and physical abuse, one’s environment, isolation from others, etc.), but the subject continues to remain elusive. Often there can be nothing massively wrong or unfortunate in your life and you might still find yourself curling up in foetal position, feeling as though all vitality has been sucked out of you, and that you will be in that state for days, maybe months.

Sometimes, of course, to treat your mental health, you do need therapy and medication. But if you are not clinically depressed, what is the most important thing that you can do by yourself to make sure your mood doesn’t fall for extended periods? For me, the helpful answer to this question comes from the “evolutionary” approach to depression.

If we examine the brain of Homo sapiens from the viewpoint of a hundred thousand years, we will discover that for more than ninety thousand years, it existed within a hunter-gatherer framework. Civilisation is recent, and modern life as we know it—with its click-of-a-button comforts—is not even a century old. The biggest change between our lifestyle and that of our ancestors is that we no longer have to worry about survival on a daily basis. We are stable and secure in our homes, we do not have to kill lions and snakes.

But our brains are still used to those older rhythms, to seeking everyday highs of the hunt in the middle of danger. In his book The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic (2014), psychologist Jonathan Rottenberg, a professor at the University of Southern Florida, makes the point: “Moods, high and low, evolved to compel us to more efficiently pursue rewards. While this worked for our ancestors, our modern environment—in which daily survival is no longer a sole focus—makes it all too easy for low mood to slide into severe, long-lasting depression.” So instead of crests and troughs, what we get now is slope and flatline.

Our hunter-gatherer brains no longer get the thrill of everyday highs and easily drown in protracted melancholy. (Credit: Pixabay)

Because the problem behind low mood lies in daily routine, the solution also exists within our everyday to-do lists. We must be constantly accomplishing something no matter how tiny, pushing ourselves forward. A one-time victory, even when it is as colossal as an Oscar award or Olympic medal, cannot guarantee continued feelings of bliss.

In his book Good Reasons for Bad Feelings: Insights from the Frontier of Evolutionary Psychiatry (2019), American physician Randolph Nesse writes that “…mood is influenced most not by success or failure but by rate of progress toward a goal…Baseline mood is remarkably stable for most people, and variations reflect mainly the rate of progress toward a goal.” That is why some highly illustrious figures can also turn gloomy in the aftermath of a huge win. The novelty of elation erodes because soon their brain will get accustomed to the state and will enquire, “yes, but now what next?”

So you must always have some project you are working on. The moment you finish one, you must begin a new one. And you must establish a mechanism of measurement, have targets in place. That way, as soon as the mood falls, it can be perked up through action.

Never be without a goal you can make daily progress towards if you care about your mental health. (Credit Pixabay)

I have found this insight very useful in my entrepreneurial life. Of late, I have made a rule that I must fill my spreadsheet with new contacts and send marketing emails every single day, instead of delivering them in batches twice a month. Introducing myself to strangers daily, even if just 5 or 10 in number, has been giving me a thrill and keeping those periods of inexplicable, unreasonable low mood away. The thought that I’m consistently taking steps, making small progress towards the bigger goal of advancing my career makes me less irritable and more positive.

A lot of creative people tend to not live a life of strict routine but might operate fervently in spells. This is because they have no control over their ideas. They never know when inspiration may strike. They can spend huge chunks of time shut off from the world, just thinking, scribbling, waiting for light-bulb moments. And while periods of pure concentration and contemplation are necessary, extended absence of quantifiable action can seriously damage one’s sense of wellbeing.

Let’s say if you are a painter planning an exhibition in the coming year on a particular theme—maybe something political—how can you use the vehicle of your project as a daily mood regulator? You can devise a strategy that might sound like this:

  • Read two articles per day, one on a good thing done by a government, another on a bad thing done by a government
  • Every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, talk to somebody about what they’d want their government to do differently
  • Every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, talk to somebody about what they appreciate about their government
  • On Saturdays and Sundays, research something historical—about a benevolent emperor or ruthless dictator

Record your findings in a spreadsheet, track your efforts. After you have finished all your paintings based on your reflections, rest but do not be idle for too long. Choose a new theme and start over again.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

Albrecht Durer and selfies

Albrecht Dürer, Self-portrait

Who are you, and what are you doing here? You, there in the mirror, there in the lens of your phone: What do you see? asks Lawrence Farago in the opening paragraph of an essay in the New York Times about self-portraits and Albrecht Dürer.

Selfies are everywhere. The Google arts and Culture page estimates that about 93 million selfies are taken and uploaded onto social media every day. Social platforms like Instagram were specifically designed for the iPhone in 2010. Selfies are the major means of self-expression in our times. Few realise that selfies have art royalty in its bloodlines in the form of Albrecht Dürer, who lived from 1471 to 1528.

Dürer was a genius, one of the most remarkable artists of all times. He is regarded as the father of self-portraits. Prior to Dürer, self-portraits were rare. Dürer changed that. He was obsessed with his image and painted numerous self-portraits. For artists like Dürer, self-portraits were a means of self- expression. Think of self-portraits by artists as diverse as Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo, to mention but a few. Today, with the advent of the selfie, self-portraits are everywhere. They are the major means of self-expression.

Farago’s questions about portraits are similar to those asked by the foremost cultural critic of our times, the late John Berger. In his book Portraits, Berger writes pithy essays about 74 artists. Berger, looking at the same self-portraits of Dürer as Farago had, asks why people seek images that depict them? His first response is that any person who has a portrait painted about them, seeks to produce evidence that they lived. It is a voluntary existential act with a particular look that is unique to the subject of the portrait.

As always, Berger digs deeper and suggests that the appearance and look of the subject has a duality. First, it is an image of a particular person. Secondly the image interrogates the looker of the portrait, and asks what the looker thinks about the image. Any journalist will tell you that any story is about the “w’s”, “what, when, who and why”. The person who created the image (selfie included) asks the same question and seeks to answer the question by means of how the subject is presented in an image.

Selfies say a lot of things. They tell stories or can poke fun at us. I once saw a selfie where the maker of the image stands in front of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. The caption of the image says one of these faces are worth $860 million dollars.

Farago who is no media hack, studied art history at Yale and won the acclaimed Rabkin Prize in 2018 for art criticism, is rather cynical about selfies. He writes “In the eyes of us poor moderns, it seems self-evident that a picture can capture who you are. That your posed image, your face and your clothing, express something essential about your personality. It’s the myth on which every selfie stands”.

Farago argues that Dürer is the principal perpetrator of the myth upon which selfies stands. In this respect he looks at Dürer’s self-portrait painted in Munich in 1500. It is a magnificent painting. More so because flat mirrors did not exist at the time. Farago writes that the detail in the portrait evokes divine inspiration. Just look at Dürer’s hair in the image. Dark and light intertwined, displaying immense skill. Study the eyes and ask whether you see a window in them. Dürer’s gaze is intense, so much so that it troubles lookers. One person even damaged those eyes by poking needles into them. Farago also writes that the myth about self-portraits, is not innate but manufactured. He sees arrogance in the portrait but also believes that it is the best portrait ever.

Berger in turn regarded Dürer as the first one man, avant-garde. Dürer did his first self-portrait, a drawing, when he was 13 years old. His talent, even at that age, was remarkable. Like Farago, Berger sees the divine in Dürer’s self-portrait of Munich 1500.

Albrecht Dürer, Self-portrait at 13

Berger wrote that Dürer’s self-portraits were theatrical in the sense that they conveyed something more than what he actually was. In the Munich portrait, Berger suggests that Dürer presented himself as deity. It is not blasphemous because the artist was a devout and practicing Christian. Berger’s suggests that the divine is an awareness of the artist and of his creativity. At the very same time Dürer was aware that he was living in a world of suffering and that his magnificent creativity was impotent to do anything about human suffering.

Both critics conclude that self-portraits are designed to represent the ego in a flattering manner. In that sense the artist, whether it is the hand holding a telephone for a selfie, or a brush loaded with paint, is misrepresenting the self. Upon looking at the Dürer self-portrait two things stand out. One is that Dürer was truly a magnificent artist. His ability to do detail is genius. He was concerned with portraying himself exactly as he was. The missing part is, despite the self-portraits, we do not know who and what Dürer was like. That question hangs in the air, just like with most selfies.


Written by Luisa Blignaut.

The art of Luisa Blignaut

After Anaesthetic

Driven by a freight train of a mind, Luisa Blignaut’s acrylic paintings frequently and impulsively veer off track into unexpected, fertile territories.

The painting After Anaesthetic describes the minutes after Luisa woke from surgery and looked out of the Box Hill hospital window towards the Dandenong Ranges. Below is the city, with geometrically abstracted buildings. Luisa paints her reflection in the window where the rolling mountains and hills stop for the self portrait which is itself a geometric construction and traced by rainbows. Luisa has described this experience of waking and then slipping away again to wake again in another room.

It was a rainy day and I saw a rainbow when I opened my eyes. I closed my eyes and when I opened them again, I was in another room, remembering the rainbow.

The hills musically echo the rainbow, as if Luisa has recognised herself somewhere within them, somehow, in the rainbow also. A part of these elements but aware of self as constructed, geometric, like the buildings. This seems to be a description of a slipping in and out consciousness, from apparent void into self. To be both separate from things and a part of all things, a sense of the tentative and the universal, of being in-between. The in-between of things characterises much of Luisa’s work.

Bark Blues

Luisa has a deep love for contemporary classical music, experimental music and jazz. She finds joy, meaning and integrity in improvised and experimental music. She frequently parallels natural textures and patterns with musical ones. In Bark Blues, subtle tones and textures correspond as much with music as with the bark of the trees, the title being a play on both texture and rhythm. Music and the improvisation of blues and jazz give the best insight into Luisa’s working process. Luisa has said that she “thinks all the time when painting, whilst thinking nothing at all at the same time“. Of all Luisa’s quotable quotes, this is my favourite. She also describes this as a “conversation between cognition and intuition displayed on a canvas with paint and brush. Brush strokes explore, discover and react. The resulting paintings are spontaneous and improvised.” Bark Blues describes Luisa’s way of thinking and working in a wonderful mixture of spontaneity, musicality and visual revelry.

The painting Polyrhythms uses the landscape to describe a musical composition which combines contrasting rhythms. As with Bark Blues we are seeing the two elements, visual and musical simultaneously. Each element of the landscape – sky, sea, beach, coast and even the poles have their own rhythm which simultaneously contrasts and seemingly harmonise with each other. Luisa has created the visual equivalent of a complex musical technique.

Polyrhythms

European Bee Eater, Thorns and Namaqua Spring all directly reference Luisa’s South Africa. Luisa was a frequent bird watcher and walker. Each of these images translates Luisa’s memories into a play of colour, form and space across the canvas using direct spontaneous brush marks. Thorns, uses the native vegetation to create a patterned abstraction as a homage to South Africa. Likewise, the intensity of colour in Namaqua Spring is extremely subjective, referencing an intense personal connection to a place where Luisa frequently found solace during turbulent years.

European Bee Eater
Thorns

Namaqua Spring

Hay Fever Near Coober Pedy, references Luisa’s experience of driving across Australia’s Nullarbor Plain whilst suffering hay-fever. It is as intense in colour as Namaqua Spring but more topographical in its structure, appearing to describe a spatial vastness.

Hay Fever Near Coober Pedy

The work, Maybe somewhere else, has a blue band of light at the centre which splits the composition top to bottom as if universal and all encompassing. The warm orange and reds surround the cooler blue. What is, Maybe somewhere else? Perhaps, for moment there is a pause here, a reflection of what lies outside the immediate and the material. As painting it contains an integration of all the elements discussed so far, organic, memory, visual and musical, but then asks a very seemingly simple question, what else and where?

Maybe somewhere else

As with After Anaesthetic, the painting Conversation combines the human face with natural elements, in this instance the textures of the bark of a tree. The eyes double as knots in woodgrain, and the simplified rhythmic forms also seem to reference music. This is a painting which knows no constraints. Is it a portrait or portraits? Yes. Is it comical? Yes, and also dry. Wry? Yes, but not cynical. It is biographical but altruistically, in that it is generous to the self and others. It appears to describe a moment of frustration without being mocking, drawing out the comical elements of the situation. The works brilliance is in bringing tree bark, the face(s) and social interaction together successfully into an expressive artwork.

Conversation

A series of paintings which Luisa entitles wth the word Bifurcation use the same simultaneous integration/separation of elements we have seen elsewhere in Luisa’s work. These abstract paintings, limited to two colours/tones play two fields against each other. Which colour is the top layer? We can’t quite tell because they shift and refuse to be grasped. Bifurcation means the division of on element into two. These two fields are both one whole organism which refuses to allow distinction of its parts and also, two elements. The apparent simplicity of these works hides a tactical resistance to being defined.

Scattered Bifurcation

Luisa’s works often combine elements of landscape and abstraction; rich memories from her original South Africa, and of Australia combining with her extensive musical knowledge. They form intuitive contingencies to hold together elements which become deeply biographical images. The works feed off a great depth of experience which is channelled through spontaneous painting decisions, making them appear disarmingly simple. Yet they contain complex strategies that are intriguing in their visual and conceptual structure.

Written by Marco Corsini.

Outside of place, a reflection on the work of Margaret Dunn

Margaret Dunn

Margaret Dunn’s paintings build environments, often domestic and exotic at the same time, often modern and ancient also. These environments seem to be in flux, suggesting that while we exist in this time and place, it’s in the transience and conflicting aspects of our experience that we have the possibility of greater perspectives.

Margaret Dunn
Margaret Dunn

A Rothko like painting on a wall with glass of wine in the foreground. Perhaps we are in a New York apartment. Out of a window we see both a cityscape and the ruins of an arch. There is no consistent spatial correlation between the elements, rather this is a narrative about the conflict between the apparent permanence of our moment in time and its inevitable decline. Permanence, represented by the city with its great crowning victory of culture, the painting. While these are all celebrated in the moment, with wine, it is all contrasted against the ultimate decline apparent in the ruins which sounds a clarion call.

Margaret Dunn

We look out from the ruins of a building. An unusually large carrot leans precariously, humorously, in the distance. Dunn has mentioned that the carrot represents Trump leaning against a missile. There is a precarious fragility to this moment both through the imminent threat and through the decay, an awareness that it all can, and is ending. However a tree in blossom anchors us back in the moment and points to a natural and logical hope. The hope of new growth and of a future. Yes, all is transient but not without meaning or hope. Perhaps a fine balance contains the tension between transience and hope. Perhaps it is all one.

Margaret Dunn
Margaret Dunn

A complex weave of of staircases and buildings envelopes us. Are we destined to remain enmeshed in the the confusion of our built environments, our ideas and our culture? Are we trapped in this one moment as if it was our definitive and confused place? It’s in the confusion and the clash of the present with its myriad of experiences and possibility that we occasionally see windows and doors to other places that are beyond our present experience. There is a hint that as with the seascape that provides a stable and reassuring horizon in the distance, there is an opportunity for us to go beyond the limitations of ourselves, of our times, and that there is a reliable, consistent place there. 

Margaret Dunn

A building crumbles and its structure merges back into an abstract background. The transient and decaying building gives way to a new form of diagonals and planes. The building is limited but it flows out into an infinite rhythm of abstraction. All is in flux, flowing from the temporal to the infinite, with both existing simultaneously.  

Margaret Dunn

The camel rests in the desert, not in the tent which meets an immediate need for shelter, not in the tombs of great cultures and not within power, represented by the turret. Rather, the camel rests alone, beneath a limitless sky with the moon as its companion. The camel is not limited to this time and place, because it avoids entrapment, rather it has available to it, the infinity of the sky and of the desert plain.

Written by Marco Corsini.

Margaret Dunn attends Studio Art classes with Marco Corsini.

Sarah Murray – Internship Experience

Sarah Murray, pictured here with her artwork, 2019

Of the many things that I have learnt in doing an internship with the Melbourne art class, the most prominent was the importance of fostering community and art’s unique ability to reach people whoever they are. I am a Visual Arts student studying at the Australian National University in Canberra and have been completing a course requiring the students to pursue an internship in an arts-based organisation. I jumped at the idea of doing my internship in Melbourne, the lure of a new city with an amazing arts culture, a multitude of galleries to explore and artists to connect with. However, I was most interested in the prospect of working with Melbourne Art Class for the unique opportunity to do practical studio work with an artist and gain teaching experience in the art class setting.

In Melbourne Art Class children’s classes and adult studio classes I observed how Marco taught and I also provided assistance to the students and gave presentations. Melbourne Art Class puts a focus on the individual’s development and fosters each student’s learning in establishing technique and creativity through their own directed works. I learnt that teaching is more beneficial when it is through guidance rather than instruction, that the teacher must meet the student where they are and to leave your ego at the door and accept that you do not know all the answers. The classes that I attended had a great sense of community, each group had gotten to know each other and created a great learning environment where the students could learn from what each other were doing as well as from their teacher.

Unnamed, charcoal on paper, Sarah Murray 2019

In the studio work I had the opportunity to do some life drawing, some of my own work and the underpainting or first layer of Marco’s work. I was most excited for the time in the studio and not only learnt practical knowledge but had the opportunity to pick Marco’s brain about his experience as a working artist and fostering an art’s career. I learnt that process and consistency are essential to creating work. I really benefitted from working through a process of conceptualising and idea, sketching the composition, drawing details and then painting. This process allows for problem solving along the way to reach a successful work. The consistency came from setting a schedule to do studio work and staying faithful to the routine in order to get the work done.  It was so wonderful to see into how another artist works, starting from the initial idea and going through the process to achieve completed artwork.

Unnamed, charcoal on paper, Sarah Murray 2019

In this time, we also visited many amazing local galleries to gain inspiration and knowledge from other artists which can feed back into the studio practice and fosters the art community. One of my favourite galleries was the Australian Galleries stockroom in Collingwood. The stockroom had paintings covering all the walls and sculptures surrounding the floors, it was bursting with art from many different artists, it was incredible to see so much work and in a unique way to how it is normally displayed in an exhibition.

My time with the Melbourne art Class and with Marco Corsini has been incredibly formative and sparked a way to see that an arts career is not so unattainable when surrounded by community.

Written by Sarah Murray.

Building Melbourne, creatively

Swanston Street, 9 -10 February, 1985
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald, 2019

The idea of building a creative city has been at the forefront of how we imagine and develop cities like Melbourne for the last decade or two. As an artist, I’ve found this city creatively liberating and I’m thankful it has given me a place where my own skills have been developed and shared. However, at times, I’m made aware that I am living in the midst of suffering due to drugs or homelessness or mental health issues or some form of displacement. The recent reporting about injecting rooms and some of the associated conversations I’ve had with friends have highlighted the dichotomies present in our city. I do believe that working in a creative industry does build and enrich our lives and Melbourne supports this well, but how do we think about creativity in the context of the city that is often suffering?

There has been a significant influence upon our city policy makers concerning the role of the arts in our cities. In recent decades Richard Florida and Charles Landry have influenced many planners across the globe including those planning for Australian cities.[1] Florida’s book, The Rise of the Creative Class, has had a particularly big impact. Florida makes a connection between a successful economy and economic development based upon the presence of technology, talent and tolerance within that area. Florida’s argument is that in order to attract creative workers, that city has to have a lifestyle that is attractive to the new ‘creative class’. This ‘creative class’ values diversity and tolerance in the places they live. Florida says that companies will follow creative workers who have taken the opportunity to choose their location based on their preferences. For Florida, attracting and retaining talent rather than focusing on capital projects such as buildings and stadiums is the means to economic growth.

Rowland Atkinson and Hazel Easthope believe that there are significant reasons for the popularity of these ideas by Florida and Landry. They write, ‘First, the ideas of both Florida and Landry fit well with a broader recognition of the importance of the cultural industries in the economy… Second, particularly in Florida’s formulation, the creative class thesis is not at odds with economic rationalist or neoliberal policies.’  However, they raise the concern that gentrification tends to accompany the attraction of the creative classes which raises housing and living costs, displacing a sub section of society. They conclude that it appears that ‘urban governance approaches seek to enhance’ the possible benefits of a creative city agenda but are ‘generally ignorant of those excluded from, or unable to join, the new economy.’[2]  So, while there are many benefits touted about building a creative city, the focus on economic gains sometimes means that we fail to see those that are marginalised by the aspects such as rising house prices.

Charles Landry’s work which is concerned with urban renewal is perhaps better suited to creatively solving the problems of a city such as Melbourne. Landry’s, The Creative City, written with Franco Bianchini in 1998 argues that creativity can and should be used to tackle economic and social problems. Landry states in a later interview, that all aspects of a city are required to contribute to sustainable cultural environment, not just a creative class. While people in the arts can provide content, it is those working in infrastructure that are key. ‘If content is to have any effect, you need creative logistics analysts, creative engineers, creative educators. Above all, you need creative bureaucrats.’[3] Perhaps along the lines of Landry’s argument, broadening the scope of who is creative, to insist that all roles need to be creative, could enable more diverse solutions to our cities problems.

The original idea of a creative city has its basis in the works of several thinkers of the 1980’s, notably Australian David Yencken in 1988 who described ‘The Creative City’, in an article of that name, published in the literary journal Meanjin.[4]  It was Yencken who paved the way for imagining Swanston Street closed to traffic when in 1985, he proposed that for Victoria’s 150th celebrations, Swanston Street should be turned into a giant green park. So, for one weekend, 13,250 square metres of grass was rolled out along four blocks of Swanston Street. Tens of thousands of families picnicked in a park that had previously been a bleak road in the centre of the city.[5] Yencken was offering a vision that this car ridden centre of Melbourne could eventually be made completely car free. This eventually happened, as after being restricted to traffic from 1992, Swanston street was made completely traffic free by 2012. This serves as an example of how Melbourne was a beneficiary of creative thinking that didn’t come from an artist, rather from David Yencken as secretary of the Victorian Planning Ministry.

Daniel Pink writes that the future belongs to a person who thinks like an artist, inventor, storyteller a holistic ‘right-brain’ thinker. For Pink, the aptitudes that will make a person successful will be those of design, story (listening and communicating), symphony (connecting various elements), empathy, play and meaning. Recalling Landry’s ‘creative bureaucrats’, it seems that deepening our use of these aptitudes in our work, whatever that work is, will enable us to connect with the bigger picture, solve the bigger problems. Perhaps this is the key; that we all remain creative, seek meaning, listen to the stories and communicate using stories, connect the obscure dots and carry empathy, so that we can find creative solutions to our city’s problems.

I recently had a  conversation with Luisa, a Studio Art student at MAC. She described creativity as ‘finding a door where you once only saw a wall’.  Applying this thought to our city, we are not going to fully realise what a creative city can be until we all look for a door where we only can see a wall.

Written by Marco Corsini.


[1] Rowland Atkinson and Hazel Easthope, The Consequences of the Creative Class: The Pursuit of Creativity Strategies in Australia’s Cities, 2009 The Authors. Journal Compilation © 2009 Joint Editors and Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

[2] ibid

[3] https://www.strategy-business.com/article/10306?gko=f6f79

[4]Yencken, D. (1988). “The creative city”. Meanjin. 47.

[5] https://www.smh.com.au/national/the-man-who-helped-re-imagine-melbourne-20190705-p524mc.html

The power of visualisation and drawing your desired future

Credit PixabayMid-2018, I underwent a massive “shift in consciousness”. It was like my mind expanded exponentially between May and August. I began perceiving both myself and the universe in an entirely different way. I was powerfully impacted by the realisations that I have just this one life and that the world, for all its ills, is fundamentally and ultimately a wondrous place (these facts may seem obvious but most of us simply take them for granted). And so I decided I’d make good use of every minute, be more proactive in reaching out to people and also squeeze every drop out of my own potential. Quite naturally, I found myself gravitating towards content on personal development and self-help. I wanted practical tools and tactics that could help me lead a genuinely meaningful and useful life.

I soon noticed that successful entrepreneurs across different industries would recommend certain common practices for peak performance—for instance, meditation, journalling, affirmations, cold showers, not checking the phone the first hour of the day. Also, many would talk of “visualisation”—vivid, extremely meticulous imagining of how you want your life to be. The creative designing of your desired future in your mind. I have found this proposed by people like Chase Jarvis (CreativeLive), Vishen Lakhiani (MindValley) and Mel Robbins (The 5 Second Rule).

The word itself might seem a little delusional, some kind of dubious New Age trend similar to the “Law of Attraction” popularised by the 2006 book and documentary The Secret, but it turns out, the concept is indeed rooted in neuroscience and psychology. The people who recommend visualisation also frequently mention that “the brain is pliable” and that “the subconscious can be reprogrammed”.

Former attorney and now a highly sought-after motivational speaker, Mel Robbins, who completely turned her life around after being broke and directionless, says that “visualisation is her secret to success”. She explains that our brains have a filter, a network of neurons, called the “Reticular Activating System” (RAS) that allows certain information and blocks out other information. And it is programmed by us and the people from our past. If we constantly feel that we’re unlovable, our RAS, going through the day, will point out every single piece of evidence that confirms that negative belief. We can use visualisation to reprogram our RAS so that our brains can start to spot opportunities for growth. This is done through a two-step method. Robbins provides an example. We must:

  1. Close our eyes and, in our minds, have a specific picture of what our life looks like when our self-worth has improved (see yourself speaking up at work, leaving bad relationships, defining boundaries, going to the gym, etc.).
  2. Consciously think of the positive emotions that we are going to feel when that situation has materialised (happiness, gratitude, etc.).

When we do this, we are training our brain to have a totally different filter. Our brains do not know the difference between something that actually happens to us (like the F in a 10th grade test) and the things we envisage happening to us (like an abundant and joyful social life), that is, between “real” and “imagined” memories. So when we imagine getting a raise or becoming physically fit or entering into a faithful relationship, the brain encodes these scenarios as real memories. Your RAS filter will change, your network of neurons will modify and, according to research, you may very well end up developing/improving the confidence and the skills needed to manifest those scenarios. So the next time you are in a meeting, instead of looking for all the reasons why you should not speak up, you might immediately spot an opportunity through your new filter and just present your opinions and findings with little hesitation—for you have already rehearsed the situation multiple times.

Colorado-based Patti Dobrowolski, a critically acclaimed comic performer, business consultant, illustrator and author, spends her time focussed on new neuroscience discoveries that leverage the power of imagination and visuals to actualise a vision of the future. She goes further than Mel Robbins, passionately inciting people (even outright non-artists) to “draw” their Current State and their Desired New Reality in all their messy and glorious detail, respectively. The bridge between the two being three bold steps: (1). See it, (2). Believe it, (3). Act on it. Dobrowolski explains the process in this TEDx Talk:

Of course, this technique isn’t magic. When we will make a strategic effort to alter our circumstances, we will face tremendous resistance from within ourselves. Our wild and inventive right brain will be thwarted by our critical and cautious left brain. In another TEDx Talk, Dobrowolski points out that when you start to make change, the amygdalae (almond-shaped clusters of nuclei located deep within the temporal lobes) get all freaked out and will do everything to slow or stop you. For this reason, she suggests participants take out some time daily to daydream, allowing our brainwaves to enter the “alpha” state. Here the soil is soft. It becomes easier for us to weed out thoughts that might inhibit action and plant those that might advance us towards our goal.

Dobrowolski ends with an energetic note. After you have drawn your future and cleared your mind by assuming the alpha state, learn everything about who you want to be, where you want to go, how you want to live, do everything. You now have to act loudly for that key to turn the lock – and chances are you will be positioned to do so just excellently!

 

 

 

Painting and feelings – my journey with art

Art is in doing. Take the first step and be yourself. Brutally honest will do fine.

Luisa, one of our resident Friday morning Drawing and Painting students, has generously shared her reflection on her time at MAC, and how art has impacted her life.

I have been attending at Melbourne Art Class for a year. And in that year, I have not only discovered more about art, but also about myself. Art, and specifically painting, unlocks stuff. Opens doors you did not know existed. It can best be described by quoting Joan Mitchell, who in 1986 said:

Feeling, existing, living, I think it’s all the same except for quality. Existing is survival; it does not mean necessarily feeling. Feeling is something more: it’s feeling your existence. It’s not just survival. Painting is a means of feeling “living” … Painting is the only art form except still photography which is without time. Music takes time to listen to and ends; movies, ideas, and even sculpture take time. Painting does not. It never ends, it is the only thing that is both continuous and still.

Yves, 1991. Oil on canvas, 110 1/4 x 78 3/4 inches (280 x 200 cm). Private collection. © Estate of Joan Mitchell.

Mitchell was one of the few female abstract expressionist painters who gained critical and public acclaim in the 20th century. I read her quote often and only slightly disagree with her views on music. (Yes, music depends on time, but where does a note start and where does it end?) Abstraction in art, is by its very nature, abandons objectivity and moves into ethereal exploration.

One of the leading avant-garde jazz pianists, Craig Taborn, produced a recent album Daylight Ghosts. Taborn modified the sustain pedal of his piano in order to imagine a note when it is no longer audible. He then plays different notes and chords to talk to that note wherever it exists. He often visits art museums in New York to collect ideas for his music.

Once upon a time, I was a lawyer. And every day felt like groundhog day. Only voices, places and faces changed. The constant was a treadmill, self-doubt and a vulnerable ego. A mistake, a lost case and everything imploded. Happiness was as elusive as a good night’s sleep. The lawyer was moderately successful, but that only meant groundhog day was longer and more intense. People said the lawyer was eccentric, thought outside the square, had a creative streak. All I wanted was to feel the wind on my cheek and have the fragrances of plants and flowers linger forever. I wanted to step into every soft pastel orange sunset.

One day I did a Google search for art classes in Melbourne. The first one I stumbled upon was www.melbourneartclass.com. I enrolled in the only class available at the time, Portraiture with Marco Corsini. It was a fortuitous decision. In the beginning, I believed I was hopelessly out of my depth, wasting everybody’s time. At the time I did not realise the reach of Marco’s empathy and patience. Four weeks later I could produce a fairly accurate self-portrait and a week later I began painting with oils. It speaks volumes about the quality of the classes; the extent of their reach. I now paint things as I imagine and feel about them. I am no Joan Mitchell or Craig Taborn, but I think I know what they were aspiring to. There is more to life than survival or winning or being better; best; most.

I believe everybody is blessed with creativity. Granted some are more aware or talented than others. This “more talented” thing is an aberration, not an excuse. We meet more talented people every day in every aspect of life and we try to manage it without thinking or resentment. I also believe that we should not to confuse skill with creativity. Anybody who is reading this has a wealth of experience that feeds intuition which, in turn, is the basis of creativity. Do not compare or be judgemental. Artists, like Cezanne, Jackson Pollock and Rauschenberg were not great technical painters. They were magnificent artists and their influence will continue to resonate and open doors in our minds.

Art is in doing. Take the first step and be yourself. Brutally honest will do fine. Feel the wind on your cheek, smell the flowers and paint it. Integrity cannot be faked and it is often what makes art great. Everything else, like a prize or a sale, are simply bonuses. The reward is in expressing yourself on a canvas without rules, comparisons or judgement.

I am not a good technical painter. I am rather rough. Everything I do, is intuitive. Despite that, I have against all expectations, sold three paintings. It was not supposed to happen. The bigger reward is that I am content with my lot in life and happy that I no longer live groundhog day. The black shutter in my mind has lifted.

For me the key to painting is fluidity. The movement away from temporal to “a temporal”. Observing to feeling. For me it is spiritual; in a material world, everything has time limits. The idea I am exploring is to transcend this, to emphasise the nature of metaphysics as something that is forever. A place where time does not exist.

I recently looked at some eucalypt leaves in various states of decay that a friend of mine painted. I told her that she painted delicate evanescence and that it was beautiful. I could see a forever. Evanescence suggests the leaves will fade away. It does not mean they are gone. To make my point graphically, I enlarged her paintings with the edges of the leaves cropped off. Separated content from form or borders, her work entered a new dimension. Something that I saw and felt. It is beautiful and stirs curiosity.

Another way to phrase it is to “stop and smell the roses”. They linger in memory or on a canvas.

I love walking in the bush after the rain. Thousands of fragrances hanging in the air and my nose weaves through them. I pause when I enjoy something more.

‘Struggling artist’ sounds good. Should have tried it decades ago.

Written by Luisa Blignaut