Do you need to be obsessive to be an artist?

Last Saturday I was fortunate to have two creative outings: one to visit Ballarat Woodworkers’ Guild and the other to attend a talk at Ballarat Art Gallery.

Ballarat Woodworkers’ Guild is based at Ballarat airport – which, in hindsight, I don’t think I had visited since I attended Traffic School as a kid! (Think: lots of primary school kids riding around on bikes, having all sorts of fun and probably getting up to all kinds of mischief while some poor instructor tries to keep their attention long enough to teach them road safety 🙂 ) My husband and I decided to drop past the Guild in the morning before taking our dog for a walk at ‘the lake’ (aka Lake Wendouree). The purpose was to check out their facilities and decide whether or not I wanted to become a member. We arrived shortly before their committee meeting was about to start, however their President – Ross, very kindly delayed proceedings slightly in order to provide the relevant membership details and take us for a tour.

Initial membership to the Guild costs $80 with annual membership from thereon being $50 per year. I was very impressed to hear that at present they have around 100 members! Fortunately for us, it wasn’t terribly busy on this particular morning, however, and we were taken to see a storage room where they keep the toys made for the Christmas 3BA appeal (in addition to those from some local toy libraries which the Guild kindly repairs), the Member’s room, wood storage and cutting areas (which contained a rather alarming looking vertical saw!), the workshop containing the wonderful and tantalising collection of wood turning, cutting, drilling, bevelling and other kinds of woodworking tools that I couldn’t name as yet, and the Guild’s own shop. The facilities were, in my humble and amateur opinion, fantastic.

In addition to the range of equipment available, the Guild also provide demonstrations on how to use different tools, regular meetings to hear from a guest speaker and discuss the group’s work, a dedicated furniture making evening(!), and participation in a number of other events and including support for charitable causes throughout the year. I was really impressed and excited by the prospect of having access to such an wonderful array of tools, meeting other enthusiasts and learning from the vast wealth of knowledge and expertise held by the group’s members in addition to contributing to the community… I now just need to weigh up if I really have the time for this right now in amongst all my other projects? Hmmm.

My second creative outing was to attend an ‘Artists Forum: From the bower’ at Ballarat Art Gallery. We heard from the artists: Loris Button (work pictured), Deborah Klein, Louise Saxton and Carole Wilson, who have being collaborating for 2+ years to create their current exhibition ‘From the Bower’, and specifically address the question “Do you need to be obsessive to be an artist?” The talk was facilitated by Ballarat Art Gallery Curator, Julie McLaren.

In short, all the artists in one form or another generally agreed that you do need some level of ‘obsession’ in order to be an artist, however, their perspectives all varied, for example, on how you might define ‘obsession’ and whether the nature of creating inevitably involves following a cycle of enthusiasm and intensive focus which evolves and fluctuates over time as you move through the initial phases of a project and out the other side when you gravitate to something new.

Collecting, it seems, is a big part of the artists’ practices, with all of them having amassed objects around particular themes: doilies and doily covers, crochet and needlework, mourning jewellery and combs, maps, leaves, porcelain flowers, heirlooms (both from their own and other people’s families). Traditional women’s work, such as embroidery, seemed to be a particular focus, while concern about sustainability also came through as a theme, with many of the pieces in the exhibition being re-used and re-purposed items that have been given a new lease and purpose in life. All the artists expressed a reluctance (even abhorrence!) in seeing potentially useful things thrown away. Carole Wilson, in particular, mentioned that her studio floor was covered in map cuttings from her work which she wouldn’t throw away as she would often find new and interesting pieces to incorporate in later work.

Rather amusingly (and something I greatly enjoyed conveying to my husband later) was that the group all shared an aversion to cleaning… something I can definitely relate to!

The moderator asked the group to describe a typical studio day and how it might unfold. It was interesting to hear how important personal discipline was to ensure they had at least an hour or two in their studio, as the busy-ness of life could easily take over. Louise Saxton mentioned how she would put on Classic FM which made me smile (I love it too), while Loris Button – who shares a studio with her husband – mentioned an organising and tidying ritual the two of them go through before beginning which they have dubbed ‘sharpening the brushes’ 🙂

All in all, hearing from experienced artists about their approach to their work, habits, rituals, perspectives on obsession and collecting was simply wonderful… so much of what they discussed resonated with me and I felt that I was in the presence of like-minded souls.

The quote from the day that will probably stay with me the longest, however, was from Deborah Klein. When asked about her work and how the concept of ‘obsession’ might relate, she quoted a line from the movie, ‘The Red Shoes’, which she felt explained both her creative practice and that of many others on the panel and in the room. The movie, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s story by the same name, is about a ballet dancer who is single-mindedly focused (or obsessed!) with becoming a prima ballerina. When asked as to why she dances, she responds, “I dance because I must”. This contrast between dancer and artist drew a lot of nods of agreement from the panel and audience. Me included.

Work pictured: Loris Button, Renkum Spring 2016, Colour Pencil on Japanese Handmade Paper, 46 x 82 cm (framed) – part of the ‘From the Bower’ exhibition currently showing at Ballarat Art Gallery.

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