Wednesday, October 5, 2011

grevilla flowers and birdsong

When naturalists write they often observe a place, in solitude for a period of many years. Part of developing a framework for filed notes relates to how I am making art and living life. Field notes and maps are an attempt to reconcile the crowded hours with this fantasy of long, loops of uninterrupted observation. There is a temptation to believe that the latter method is more "pure".
I haven't the opportunity for long days in the wilderness. I have to observe quickly, a couple of hours in my friend's garden, a week in the wallum, a flick of a shadow as I'm driving the girls to ballet class. All these things can come together to make a complete observation. The method of taking notes affects the final, analysis of the data.
These little sketches were done in my friend Sarah's garden, together with some drawings and paintings and my later reflections I am becoming familiar with what I want to explore as my core themes. Weird little impressions and drawings give me a feel for the shapes and sounds and smells of the landscape. Sarah's garden by coincidence, is on the remote, obscure road where I spent the first six years of my childhood. In one way I know this landscape and the vegetation , driving out to Sarah's is overlayed with all the memories I've ever had of living in the sclerophyll forest. The shadows on the road are embedded in me, but now I am 40 and travelling out there again. For me getting to know a place intimately enough to express it in a pot begins with a process of backwards and forwards between the actual place, photographs, thoughts. Drawing something makes me know it. Drawing something leads me further into it. Grevilla flowers and birdsong were with me today. Every journey is layered with previous journeys even if the explorer is traveling to somewhere they have only imagined.

Field notes- an intense and involved manner

Field notes are used extensively by birders, naturalists and ethnographers and provide a subjective record of intense and prolonged involvement with a particular place or experience. In "Field Notebook Primer: How to Take Good Field Notes" by naturalist Robert B. Payne he says "Your field notebook is your entry to memory" and recommends sketching as "Sketches firm up your ideas of field marks, show the postures in behavior, the shape and location of a nest, maps of where you go, and so on."

Ethnographer Robert Emerson believes that the immersive experience of taking field notes and becoming actively engaged in the observed environment allows the ethnographer to reveal the mulitvariate "truths " that make up people's lives. Emerson's methods for taking ethnographic field notes can be used as a template for the field notes taken by artist. Emerson believes that rather than letting the experience wash over one or trying to observe without interaction the ethnographer should use the taking of field notes as an active process of "interpretation and sense-making" p 4. chapter 1.

Emmerson writes that field notes are a way of transforming first hand events into words on paper and this process involves selection, interpretation and sense making. In this way my notes, lines sketched, photographs when bush combing create a layered, intensely subjective composite which is then further refined in to an artwork through formal two and three dimensional conventions ie. line, composition, colour and form. Writing field notes or sketches means that there is a certain linear quality to the written reflection and many anthropologists and naturalists have developed a series of "notations" to record non-verbal things such as gestures, eye gaze, birdsong etc that are happening at the same time as the main observed event. The idea of notations lead me to calligraphy and mark making. Many times over the course of this project I've tried to draw bird calls and hops of wrens throughout the bush and the feeling of driving on a quiet country road, tree shadows flicking that I've driven over many times before. I like the idea of the main "narrative" (in the case of an anthropologist) , the main image in my case, being overlayed to the point where it disappears with notations breaking in with details of the world around me in the bush. In some ways this is how I see the gleanings I've been throwing into pots- the other stories breaking into the form.

The other issue that Emerson brings up is the importance of being fully engaged with the place you are observing. He proposes that the researcher who is constantly jotting notes actually changes and distorts the qualities of the interaction they are observing through the very act of being such an ostentatious recorder. Immersion in a long -term casual but intense way combined with close observation of the subject is the ideal way to collect field notes.

Robert M. Emerson,
"Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes" (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing)

Robert Emerson's first chapter can be read online here.

"Robert M. Emerson is professor emeritus in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Contemporary Field Research: Perspectives and Formulations, now in its second edition." from University of Chicago Press website

Saturday, October 1, 2011


I have been reading this essay............
"The Naturalist" by Barry Lopez

"SITTING BY THE RIVER, following mergansers hurtling past a few inches off its surface or eyeing an otter hauled out on a boulder with (in my binoculars) the scales of a trout glistening on its face, I ask myself not: What do I know?—that Canada geese have begun to occupy the nests of osprey here in recent springs, that harlequin ducks are now expanding their range to include this stretch of the river—but: Can I put this together? Can I imagine the river as a definable entity, evolving in time?"

Published in the Autumn 2001 issue of Orion magazine

Observations of place are overlayed with the memory of the place. What we see with the eyes becomes a sign for other, less tangible emotions. In her essay "Symptoms of Place " Barbara Blackman describes the process of feeling a place when as she is going blind. She says "...things seen so often that they are not seen at all- that resides in the inner eye, images of place that unconscious carriers of sentiment, evoking vaster memory." pp50,

Tredinnick, Mark (2003) "A place on earth : an anthology of nature writing from Australia"

The pots and the materials and images collected and the actions of collecting, making firing, and using are like one of those collapsible 1950's anodized cups, every time you think it's fully extended there is another layer. They record me, at this second, in the studio, throwing, my fingers and thoughts at 10.30 on September the 30th 2011, the gray flat sky and pairs of rainbow lorikeets flying overhead with their tinselly mating songs, the hot weekend with Mum and the girls bushcombing at Tin Can Bay. They record the beautiful Australian bush, the banksias, seeing my first Rainbow Bee Eater.

All the naturalists that I have been reading are aware of the fragility of each passing moment. Recorded observation of nature becomes a record the moment we leave the scene, it will never come again. I am trying to observe and record the beauty and transience of a moment. To truly watch nature brings an awareness of the complex beauty and mundane tragedy of transience. I guess that when you have watched long and carefully enough this wrenching sadness is alleviated by the constant promise of renewal.