When the world’s gone mad, there’s always art…

Recently, a friend and I went to the David Hockney exhibition ‘Current’ in Melbourne. Known as the UK’s greatest living artist, Hockney, who turns 80 this year, is a master at embracing the new while still acknowledging the past. His digital art is inspirational, but so are his acrylic portraits. One informs the other, it seems.

Anyway, my friend and I were talking about how we felt overwhelmed by the current political situation at home and abroad, poor treatment of asylum seekers and refugees in many countries, erosion of women’s rights and the disintegration of fair work practices.

Although we believe in fighting against these things, it is also worth noting that you can’t fight all the time. It is still important to take time out to create: paint, write, cook, or whatever your idea of creativity is.

To this end, here is my latest attempt at creativity: a painting done with Copic markers and fine-line pens, inspired by a photo of an old building I saw when I visited relatives in Oamaru, New Zealand. Oamaru is a peaceful South Island coastal town of grand historical buildings and a centre of ‘steampunk’ culture. Unlike the perfectly renovated buildings in the nearby tourist precinct, this one was yet to be ‘done’. I kind-of like it this way, though.

Oamaru

This is a bit more fun than writing lectures!

nanosummer2016I haven’t been posting much lately—that’s because I’ve been so flat out with work that I’ve hardly had time to do anything else. But I have a couple of weeks now with just a few hours a day of office work, and even the occasional whole day off.

I’ve become entranced with Nanoblock micro-building blocks over the last year or so, and this is what I’ve made so far these holidays. They are three iconic landmarks from three different countries: the Statue of Liberty, The Louvre, and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Each one is built with hundreds of tiny plastic blocks—650 of them, in the case of the Statue of Liberty.

I’m not sure why, but I’ve always loved miniatures of anything: little china ornaments, dolls, dioramas, model train sets. Until recently though, I hadn’t actually made anything myself since a childhood obsession with Lego.

Next up: Big Ben, London Tower Bridge, and the Parthenon.

And so ends another puzzling day…

Tram

This is so cute, I had to post it. For those who don’t know, this is a classic Melbourne tram. Well, it’s a miniature model I made today with the Japanese micro block brand Nano Block.

These W-class trams were designed in the 1920s and built for decades, but they have been largely superseded now by sleeker, bigger, quieter models.  However, it’s the old clackety-clack tram, like this one, that is most fondly remembered as synonymous with Melbourne life. We had conductors on them, too, who would wear change belts, sell tickets, and dispense all sorts of information.

I’ve written before (here) about my new model-building hobby. This is the biggest model I have made so far (though it can fit in the palm of my hand). It came with a formidable set of instructions, but they are precise, every block fits and there are always enough blocks and more. Imagine if one tiny block were missing…

TramNano

 

The 1940s media technology nothing can better

Radio

There is an adage that says, don’t try to reinvent the wheel: that is, if an invention is perfect, leave it be. One of these perfect inventions, I believe, is the transistor radio. That’s because

  • It is light and portable, and you can buy one small enough to fit in a pocket;
  • The battery lasts for months, perhaps years, depending how much you use it;
  • It always works, as long as you’re in range of radio waves. No electricity, recharging, modem or internet capability needed;
  • When the weather is very hot or very cold, it still works;
  • You can do other things while you’re listening to the radio—you can drive, garden, cook, whatever;
  • There’s a world of entertainment for everyone, young, old and in between, and broadcasts available in almost every language. There are music of all types, dramas, news, advice shows, arts shows, science shows, chat and talkback.

In fact, radio was the world’s first live interactive media. When talkback started in the 1960s, the law in Australia had to be changed, because it was illegal to record phone calls, and radio stations needed a slight delay so they could censor inappropriate callers.

When I was about 9, my parents bought me my first transistor radio. It was a palm-sized red one with silver buttons. Back then, my favourite show was the children’s story request program on Sundays, starting at 6am.

In those days, also, I can remember my grandparents still had a ‘radiogram’ that was a big piece of cabineted furniture, in a polished wood that my grandmother would put a vase of flowers and family pictures in silver frames on top of. They called this piece of furniture the ‘wireless’, and it used valve technology rather than transistor technology. No doubt they thought the radiogram a superior being to the transistor, which was invented in 1947.

When I was a teenager living in Auckland, New Zealand, the soundtrack to my life was the cool music on Radio Hauraki, so called because it had started as a pirate station broadcasting from a boat out in the Hauraki Gulf from 1966-70.

By the time I was listening to Radio Hauraki, it was many years after those pirate days, and it was well established as a legal land-based station. But it still had that edge of being rebellious and even a bit dangerous, with Kevin “Blackie” Black (1943-2013) the coolest of all DJs in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Imagine my excitement when, as a young newspaper reporter in the 1980s, I actually got to interview the great Blackie himself at his house.

These days, of course, you will tell me that radio has been modernised and that I should stream it over the internet using an app on my phone. Yes, I can do that. But somehow it’s not the same: it eats my phone battery charge, for a start.

And I rarely listen to the radio for the music these days, because I can download any song I like and play it whenever.

But in today’s new environment of music on demand, something has been lost. I remember how, as a 14-year-old, I used to sit eagerly by the radio, finger poised on the red ‘record’ button of my cassette player, ready for when a favourite song happened to be played. It felt like winning a raffle when a song you’d been waiting for actually came on.

I still like a transistor radio. My current one is a retro-styled powder blue, which I did an ink and watercolour painting of, as you can see above.

I’m getting another one soon, a digital pocket-sized number. But essentially, it’s the same perfect invention even in the 21st century: simple, easy to use, strong, and lasts forever.

Nothing lasts forever

IMG_2532

I have a couple of possessions that have been part of my everyday routine for a decade or more. They are not necessarily valuable or one-of-a-kind, or even very unusual.

One of them was a Capricorn mug I got in Thailand when I was living there in the late-1990s. Almost every day since then, I have had at least one cup of tea from this mug.

IMG_2535Although the gold leaf that used to decorate it has almost gone, it seemed to be going strong. But a few days ago, it broke when it fell into the sink. Just broke, just like that.

Now I have to throw it away, and I will. But I will miss it.

Knowing it couldn’t last too much longer, I recently searched for another on the internet, but there is not one to be found, it would seem, although these mugs were available in a shop at a particularly popular shopping centre in central Bangkok for six years or more.

A couple of years ago, I even emailed the factory that makes Royal Bone China in Thailand, hoping they might have some remainders. They replied very cordially, but no luck: the cups had all been sold years before.

So now all I have is these pictures. If ever you see one, let me know, won’t you?IMG_2531

Felix, that wonderful cat with his bag of tricks

There are some animated characters that stay with you all your life. I was never much of a Mickey Mouse fan. My favourite character was always Felix the Cat.

The cartoons were very old when I was a child, being made in the 1920s, long before even my mother was born, but great animation always remains so. The song was what got me, too, and the idea of having a bag of tricks that you could reach into whenever you got “in a fix”.

I went to the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) at Melbourne’s Federation Square recently. Having an interest in the history of film and TV, I kept meaning to go, and never quite got there. Fortuitously, this outing was part of a class trip I had to take some students on.

ACM’s permanent exhibition, Screen Worlds, is free, and it is packed with films, sound, interactive opportunities and memorabilia. How delighted I was to come across this little fella, then. Yes, it’s Felix, and it reminded me that it was an Australian cartoonist and silent film maker, Pat Sullivan, who was one of the originators of Felix.

Felix

This is controversial: although Sullivan (c1887-1933) was the owner of the character and the producer, he always said he had originated Felix.  US critics have usually credited his American employee, Otto Messmer as the original animator, but an Australian Broadcasting Corporation show, Rewind, in 2004 seems to have confirmed Sullivan as the originator. Whatever, Messmer and Sullivan drew the comic strip, which started in 1923, with another American animator, Joe Oriolo, later replacing Messmer. It was Oriolo who gave Felix his famous bag of tricks.

Felix started out as a character in the silent film short Feline Follies (1919), before being adapted for print and syndicated in hundreds of newspapers. He was around long before Walt Disney created Mickey Mouse. Ironically, a mouse often being the target of a cat, it was the popularity of Mickey Mouse that led to Felix’s demise in the 1930s, before he was reinvigorated by Oriolo for US TV in the 1950s and given that magic bag of tricks.

Some trivia: the original voice of Felix in the 1930s was performed by Mae Kwestel (1908-1998), who also did the voices of Betty Boop and Olive Oyl. She appears to be the only woman to have voiced Felix, with at least eight male actors to have played Felix over the decades.

Interestingly, DreamWorks Animation acquired the rights to the character this month (June 2014), with CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg quoted as saying his company will make Felix into ‘one of the most desired fashion brands in the world.” Oh no! I was hoping for a new Felix cartoon series also starring Felix’s nephews Inky and Winky.

For the record, Felix the Cat was ranked number 28 in TV Guide’s list of the “50 greatest cartoon characters of all time” in 2002. Well, Felix is still number one for me.

 

Sources:

ABC http://www.abc.net.au/tv/rewind/txt/s1229985.htm

ACMI http://www.acmi.net.au/screen_worlds.aspx

Felix the Cat official website http://www.felixthecat.com/history.html

The Wrap http://www.thewrap.com/dreamworks-animation-acquires-felix-the-cat/

Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Felix_the_Cat

Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pat_Sullivan_%28film_producer%29

 

Update: Through a glass darkly: the strangest house in my suburb

In February last year, I wrote about a house in my suburb in Melbourne, Australia, that seemed incongruous with its surroundings. The street is full of period homes: Victorian cottages, lovingly restored to reflect the tastes of a bygone age. You can read more about the house here.

This was what it looked like then:Glasshouse4

As the months went on, I grew to like the little glass house, as I called it, strange though it seemed in its setting. I would often see a young man hard at work on it, early evenings and weekends. It seemed like a labour of love: someone’s dream home, slowly taking shape. A fabulous ball-like light fitting was put above the stairwell, and the kitchen fit-out almost completed.

But late last year, all work stopped. In the months since then…nothing.

It looks like the house has been deserted, and I can only surmise that the young man ran out of money, his dreams dashed, at least for the moment. Yesterday, I took this photo of it.House-revisited

We are soon to move far away from this suburb, so I don’t expect I will ever find out what happened to the little glass house. But perhaps one day I will visit, just to see.

Boys’ toys, girls’ toys: really?

Screen Shot 2014-04-05 at 7.22.57 AMBoys, you are astronauts, pilots, detectives, scientists; girls, you are mothers and baby minders, and you like pretty things for your hair.

Boys, you will build things, go places, blow things up, conduct scientific experiments, see the world; girls, you will stay at home, heating bottles for the baby, doing craftwork, wearing beautiful clothes and dreaming of being a makeup artist, while dressed almost exclusively in pastel pink.

I could hardly believe my eyes this morning when I saw how an online shopping website I subscribe to was advertising toys based so much on gender stereotypes. Like something out of the 1950s, it told me that boys had the whole world to explore, while girls had better stay home.

For boys, the Crazy Forts Construction Toy offers imaginative play in which you create a cave, igloo, pirate ship or castle. To be fair, this toy also has a girl pictured on the box cover with two boys, so it’s unclear why it’s marketed only for boys. There is also a build-a-fort set for girls—the “Princess Play Set” in…you guessed it, pink… “perfect for your little princess”. No mention of pirate ships, caves or castles, though.

My mum was a neuro-scientist, and she says that to a certain extent, boys naturally gravitate toward more adventurous, rough and tumble toys. But the almost complete demarcation in the media seems unnatural, as if we are choosing for our children what their roles will be before they’ve even had a chance to explore these things for themselves. No wonder there are still so few female plumbers, carpenters or mechanics.

When I was a kid, my favourite toys were Lego and my brother’s case of tiny cars, plus our cowboy play sets with hats, toy guns in holsters (very un-PC now) and sheriff’s badges. I also loved my dolls (though I couldn’t understand why my cats would never consent to being dressed in bonnet, dress and booties and wheeled around in my dolls’ pram). My hero was Georgina (“George”), the fantastically independent girl in Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five series of novels. In those days, a girl like George was called a “tom boy” because she didn’t conform to the normal idea of what a girl should behave like.

There’s nothing wrong as such with giving girls dolls and encouraging them to nurture babies: many girls do become mothers, after all. But boys become fathers, and in these days of equality, shouldn’t we also then be giving boys dollies with dummies, feeding sets and nappies? See how dumb that sounds? While personally, I have always loved dolls (and still do), I think we can leave the parenting accessories out when children are young, particularly if you’re only teaching parenting to one sex (girls).

I suspect (well, I hope) that advertisers are hopelessly out of date when they market toys in such a way. In most homes, I’m sure, children end up playing together with many of the same toys. We shouldn’t limit girls to home-based toys and boys to adventure toys: let them make up their own minds what they will be.

 

You still have to fix the fence or, Dear Architects: Let’s Drag Houses Into the 21st Century

Technology can't fix a broken fence

Technology can’t fix a broken fence

As I was having breakfast one morning, I heard someone next door hammering nails into the fence. This was a good thing, I thought, since our fence was about to fall down and the landlord was not interested in fixing it. Unfortunately, they weren’t working on the fence between us and them, but between them and the next dwelling. Oh well.

It got me thinking, though, about the fact that fences still need to be fixed and painted, in the same way they’ve always needed to be.

This, despite the amazing technological advances of the 20th and 21st centuries; despite the fact that I can write an email and send it to someone in Iceland and have an answer from them in a few moments; despite smart phones with apps for everything from spirit levels to measuring your heartbeat to doing your shopping; despite reports of 3D printers being touted as the next great thing that will be able to grow body parts and print cars; despite all this, you still have to fix the fence. And when you do it, you still usually need a hammer and nails, pretty much the same gadgets our forebears were using thousands of years ago. There’s not an app to do that, now, is there!

There must be a better way.

All around me, I see in our house and in the houses of everyone else I know, design from a bygone era of servitude. This was the era when rich households all had servants to work full-time on cleaning and maintaining a property, while not-so-rich households had women to work in this role, even when they took paying work as well.

Out with grouting, tiny tiles and difficult shower doors

Out with grouting, tiny tiles and difficult shower doors

Today, few people have servants; few women accept that their entire role in life is to clean up after others, acknowledging that, even if they work at home full-time, they should still be able to have some time off, the same as any other worker. In such a time, we should be making houses that need a minimum of maintenance. Architects, engineers, designers, and builders, please take note!

*I don’t want shower cubicles with nooks and crannies that collect soap and mould. I don’t want tiles with grouting that collects dirt, then discolours and cracks.

*I don’t want fancy “period style” doors that collect dust. For example, each of the doors inside my rented townhouse has 91 separate surfaces to clean. The front door is the same, and there is also a decorative screen door (see picture). Ditto cornices and skirting boards. I blame the penchant for Victorian style in all its fussiness. Although mine is a late 20th-century house, it was built in Victorian style, which has been very fashionable for a few decades.

Our Victorian-style front-of-house security door: a dust collector.

Our Victorian-style front-of-house security door: a dust collector

*I don’t want wooden fences that warp and spring out of their nails. I don’t want to have to paint a fence every few years.

I have seen pictures of amazing houses designed by top architects that have all smooth surfaces that need little maintenance—but they have multi-million-dollar price tags. That’s well and good, but I’m talking about houses for the ordinary person.

My idea of the perfect house would be the lowest maintenance place possible: no fancy edges round the walls or light fittings, no tiles with grouting. The decorative touches could then be added via soft furnishings, beautiful artwork and sculptures…which would all need cleaning, I know.

The World’s Most Romantic Present

Rom1Of these three, which do you think would make the most romantic gift? The French perfume, the diamond and Burmese ruby ring, or the pencil sharpener?

Yes, you’re right: the correct answer is…the pencil sharpener. For me, anyway.

This is pretty much my favourite present this Christmas, given to me by my husband, Gordon. I’ll tell you why it’s romantic.

Nearly three years ago, I took up art as a hobby. I use lots of media, including pastel pencils, and I’m about to start using coloured pencils.

Now, I think doing art is quite romantic in itself. Out of a few tubes, cakes or pencils of colour, a piece of paper or board and some brushes or sponges, you can create pictures that move people to cry or laugh, that remind them of their favourite things, that inspire them to become creators themselves. Potentially, anyway, if you’re Leonardo Da Vinci. In contrast, my paintings are much further down the evolutionary scale and very much those of a novice without wings. But you get the idea.

Anyway, I am always having trouble with my pencils. The leads are always breaking off, new pencil sharpeners quickly become blunt, or aren’t quite the right size, or don’t sharpen to a point. In the last year, I’ve probably bought 10 pencil sharpeners. Gordon has become used to me walking round the house, looking for another sharpener, and muttering about how useless they all are. I have entire conversations with myself about pencil sharpeners. Only artists will understand what I mean. And they do: there are lots of online discussions about pencil sharpeners, I’ve discovered. If you can’t get a sharp point on your pencils, it can seriously affect the quality of your art.

Romance2Furthermore, I recently bought these expensive coloured pencils which are sold unsharpened. To be fair, this set comes with its own little pencil sharpener that is quite good. However, it is laborious using such a small implement: I managed to sharpen three out of 72 before I got sick of it!

Anyway, when I opened my presents at Christmas, the one with the free-standing pencil sharpener was very exciting. All the online forums talk about the X-Acto sharpener, and here was one for me, complete with its vacuum mount and its eight-hole choice for pencil sizes.

This will make my little creations easier and better. More importantly, we will be a more peaceful household minus the mad ravings about the hazards of pencil sharpening.

Thanks, Gordon