Lyrical in Nature – The collaborative nuances of Gregory O’Brien

By Rebecca O’Shea, M.Art Admin UNSW Art & Design, BCA UOW

Cicada Press at UNSW Art & Design in Sydney, is involved with many projects that employ art as a mechanism for broadening social consciousness, all the while interconnecting with a passion for the printed form and the exchanges it enables. Two printing projects involving New Zealand artist Gregory O’Brien offer examples of such an exchange, and how collaborative partnerships can have a participatory role in changing culturally ingrained attitudes toward the environment.

Gregory O’Brien, a recipient of the New Zealand Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in 2012, identifies ‘foremost as a writer and poet, though, also as an artist’[1] often uniting the visual art and literary worlds. He explains, ‘that rather than seeing the disciplines in contradiction, working in both areas is a way to become creatively ambidextrous within the forms’. Echoing the tenants of French Symbolism, O’Brien enjoys the notion that there is poetic resonance in all the art forms through the fundamental formulas that they share, such as form, narrative and texture.

Gregory O’Brien Writer's Table (K. M. at Villefranche) 2010 etching

Gregory O’Brien Writer’s Table (K. M. at Villefranche) 2010 etching

The opportunity to collaborate with Cicada Press instigated an exciting way of working for O’Brien, and in so doing affirmed his love of paper as a medium. For O’Brien, the printed form offers a perfect meeting place between the paradigm of published books and original artworks, as the technology of intaglio incorporates aspects of both. While working on his new etching ‘Whakaari/White Island obscured by seabirds’ to be developed at Cicada Press in 2014, O’Brien regretted that he had not pursued printmaking, with its inherent tradition and abundant possibilities, much earlier in his career.

Gregory O'Brien Basement Kitchen  2008, etching, in the boxed set Crossing the Tasman.

Gregory O’Brien Basement Kitchen 2008, etching, in the boxed set Crossing the Tasman.

O’Brien signing Basement Kitchen

O’Brien signing Basement Kitchen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Since creating his first etching with Cicada Press in 2008 for the boxed set, Crossing the Tasman, O’Brien has produced over 30 prints. Since 2010, many of these were developed collaboratively with fellow New Zealand poet and artist, John Pule. Sailing to Raoul (2011) and What I did and did not have (2012) are specific examples, demonstrating the complementary fusion of the artists’ approach to collaborative practice through print.

 

Gregory O’Brien and John Pule Sailing to Raoul 2011 etching, aquatint with colour roll

Gregory O’Brien and John Pule Sailing to Raoul 2011
etching, aquatint with colour roll

 

Gregory O'Brien and John Pule What I did and did not have 2012           etching, aquatint with colour roll

Gregory O’Brien and John Pule What I did and did not have 2012
etching, aquatint with colour roll

 

Collaboration is at the core of O’Brien’s approach. He ‘sees art as a conversation that allows human experience and intelligence to be brought together,’ be it through curating, writing, creating or being a visiting resident in a communal print workshop. The collaborative process is one that allows for inspiring experiences to be shared by like minds.

The Kermadec project, a creative expedition made by nine artists to the Kermedecs aboard the HMNZS Otago in 2011, is an ongoing interdisciplinary collaboration in which O’Brien acted as an advisor and coordinator. The aim of the project is to advocate for the protection of a 620,000 square kilometre region centred on Raoul Island along the Kermadec trench, a natural formation resulting from the subduction of the continental Pacific and Indo-Australian tectonic plates. It is an ecologically diverse, relatively undisturbed expanse of water that spans the northern tip of New Zealand through to the Tongan Islands. As ‘Science has difficulty capturing the public’s imagination [just] as art can’ the PEW Environment Group invited O’Brien to gather an artistic cohort to visit this unique environment. The diverse body of work produced, culminated in the travelling Kermadec exhibition.

Jason O'Hara Group Shot

Jason O’Hara Seariders on Raoul 2011

 

The nine artists selected, including O’Brien, were New Zealand artists, John Reynolds, John Pule, Robin White, Phil Dadson, Jason O’Hara, Elizabeth Thomson, Bruce Foster as well as Australian artist Fiona Hall. O’Brien, described the venture as ‘an inspiring and galvanising experience’ with ‘a great crew’. Drawing on the sights and experience, each artist produced a print for the suite Voyage to the Kermadecs, that was developed at Cicada Press in 2011 and included O’Brien’s piece, A Crown for the Kermadec King 1. The zinc plates, on which the artists inscribed their reflections, were worked on during and after the trip – the experiential memory of the voyage now etched on their surface. O’Brien commented that Michael Kempson and Cicada Press ‘were integral from the beginning to the print-project which, as it turned out, proved to be a lively and interesting component in the ‘Kermadec’ art production’.

Gregory O'Brien A Crown for the Kermadec King I 2011 intaglio etching with colour roll

Gregory O’Brien A Crown for the Kermadec King I 2011 intaglio etching with colour roll

 

O’Brien’s Kermadec investigations included an accumulation of ‘notes for drawings and poems’. These were ‘inspired variously by the omnipresent sea, the charts and electronic gadgetry on the ship’s bridge’, as well as the daily cycles of nature and the magnificent rising and setting of the sun[2]. Poems that articulate O’Brien’s experience of the journey can be found in Beauties of the Octagonal Pool (2012) and on the Kermadec website.

Jason O'Hara

Jason O’Hara Raoul Island at Dawn 2011

 

Reflecting on poems and drawings created during the trip, O’Brien recalls a resonant chord that was felt by all who made the voyage to experience Raoul Island; ‘a strident, rejuvenating, energising sound, a note struck in defence of that which is worth preserving on this planet.’[3] Though not a prerequisite for attendance on the Kermadec voyage, advocacy for its protection seems to be a significant outcome for each of the artists, their tangible expressions offering insights into this vulnerable pristine environment.

 

Gregory O'Brien Raoul Island survey with shipping containers Astroloble Reef 2012-13 etching, aquatint and spit-bite from 2 plates

Gregory O’Brien Raoul Island survey with shipping containers Astroloble Reef 2012-13 etching, aquatint and spit-bite from 2 plates

 

Gregory O’Brien’s immersive print, Raoul Island Whale Survey with shipping containers, Astrolabe Reef, is a two-plate etching and aquatint in brown black and grey blue, produced by Cicada Press in 2013. Inspired, in part, by the Kermadec Project, it references both his time spent on Raoul Island, situated in the northern part of the Kermadec Ridge, as well as Astrolabe Reef, located in the Bay of Plenty just outside of the Kermadec Ridge. ‘Astrolabe Reef was the site of an environmental disaster in October 2011, when a container vessel ran aground, spilling oil and debris into the surrounding ocean.’ While the etching contemplates thebenevolent and positive agency of humanity that is embodied by the whale watchers and the conservation project on Raoul Island, it also engages with how humanity can get things very wrong.’

Two plate colour proof alongside colour proof of the support plate

Two plate colour proof alongside colour proof of the support plate

Raoul Island Whale Survey with shipping containers, Astrolabe Reef was completed via international correspondence between O’Brien and Kempson. As printmaking can already be an exacting process, working with the alignment of multiple plates, as well as communicating across continents made the process all the more exacting. The etching plate was first sent to New Zealand for the image to be drawn, followed by O’Brien’s visit to Cicada Press in Sydney to continue discussion with Kempson and make aesthetic decisions on colour and technique for the print’s resolution. To suggest the presence of an ocean, the spit-biting process was used on the supportive plate, creating tonal variation in the grey-blue wash. The hydrous blotches evoke the character of islands and the movement of currents, creating an aerial perspective that complements the key plate, where natural elements are juxtaposed with human gadgetry and poetic text, components that are characteristic of O’Brien’s oeuvre.

Editioning day at Cicada Press-lifting the print from the key plate, 2013

Editioning day at Cicada Press-lifting the print from the key plate, 2013

 

Produced as part of a print project designed to raise funds for the development of a National Whale Centre in Marlborough, New Zealand, the theme of O’Brien’s print unites with its purpose, the outcome being sold through Wellington’s Bowen Galleries. Following the screenprint by Auckland based artist Dick Frizzell, O’Brien’s etching is the second of this series, which continues with contributions by John Walsh, John Pule, Michael Tuffery and Fiona Hall. ‘The National Whale Centre is the vision of former Director of the National Gallery of New Zealand, Luit Bieringa’, who, inspired by the Kermadec project ‘decided to produce a print suite on the theme of whales to help raise money for the venture’. With this contribution, the museum has developed from solely a virtual presence to an actual one in late 2014, becoming the first museum in New Zealand to offer a specifically oceanic focus. The Picton foreshore is an apt location, for it is a community with 172 years of history as the hub of New Zealand’s former whaling industry. There is now a shift to simultaneously acknowledge this history while initiating environmental research, focusing on the more sustainable industries of cultural and eco-tourism.

 (L-R) Gregory O'Brien Tuhua (Mayor Island) obscured by seabirds 2014 etching and aquatint Gregory O'Brien Raoul Island obscured by seabirds 2014 etching and aquatint Gregory O'Brien WhakaariWhite Island obscured by seabirds 2014 etching and aquatint

(L-R) Gregory O’Brien Tuhua (Mayor Island) obscured by seabirds 2014 etching and aquatint
Gregory O’Brien Raoul Island obscured by seabirds 2014 etching and aquatint
Gregory O’Brien WhakaariWhite Island obscured by seabirds 2014 etching and aquatint

 

With another stint in the Cicada Press studios in 2014, O’Brien continued his ecological reflections and collaborative inclinations with a beautiful series of birds in flight, including an etching with regular collaborator, John Pule. Through a veil of silhouetted birds, the viewer glimpses the volcanic Raoul, White and Mayor Islands of the Kermadec trench. The nuance in tone and texture is achieved through a combination of etched line work and aquatint. In contrast, O’Brien’s relief etching Low land, high water / Rekohu, Chatham Island and collaborative print with John Reynolds, Notes on the Raising of the Bones of Pablo Neruda at Isla Negra, demonstrate the graceful unison of contoured line-work and text, making use of the printed form as drawing and visual mapping to describe place and experience.

chopped and signed, 2014

Chopped and signed, 2014

Gregory O'Brien Low land, high water Rekohu, Chatham Island relief 2014 etching lined up on the drying rack

Gregory O’Brien Low land, high water Rekohu, Chatham Island relief 2014 etching lined up on the drying rack

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The lyrical imagination of Gregory O’Brien brings a distinctly individual motif to printmaking with the combined use of image and text. Describing ‘art as a song rather than a lecture’ he explains that while being ‘advertently political doesn’t interest him, there are underlying messages, both in his art and poems, that consider such things’.

            Gregory O'Brien and John Reynolds Notes              on the Raising of the Bones of Pablo Neruda              at Isla Negra 2014 etching

Gregory O’Brien and John Reynolds Notes
on the Raising of the Bones of Pablo Neruda
at Isla Negra 2014 etching

 

‘It is important to still consider notions such as beauty and truth, proportion and balance, in the modern world – especially in consideration of the environment, working towards the future, thinking more seriously about preserving what we have and celebrating it in a positive way…yes they are romantic notions but (in many cases) they are the values of individuals and the community that need to be nurtured.’

The conception of interdisciplinary partnerships, such as the National Whale Centre’s print series and the Kermadec project, are constructive examples of nurturing and furthering values of community, connection and preservation through art. Through collaborative initiatives, like those conducted between Gregory O’Brien and Michael Kempson at Cicada Press, artists and facilitating organisations contribute to a wider discourse that promotes ecological consciousness.

[1] All quotes unless otherwise stated are from correspondence between Gregory O’Brien and Rebecca O’Shea

[2] O’Brien, G Kermadec: Nine Artists in the South Pacific, ‘Kermadec, Gregory O’Brien, http://www.thekermadecs.org/kermadec-nine-artists-in-the-south-pacific

[3] O’Brien, G ‘A Crown and a Bell for the Kermadecs

http://www.studioj.co.nz/kermadec_exhibition/obrien_texts/

Vic Chapman : Scholar and a gentleman

By Rebecca O’Shea

Artist, Arts Writer
Masters of Arts Administration COFA
Bachelor of Creative Arts UOW

In February 2013 Vic Chapman participated in a one-week Cicada Press Aboriginal Print Workshop along with Laurel Nannup from Perth and her son, Brett Nannup. He then continued to visit the printmaking studio each Friday once the 2013 academic semester began. At the same time, I was enrolled in Friday’s Custom Printing course so was fortunate enough to have him as a classmate and witness his work develop. Affectionately known by many as ‘Uncle Vic’, he is generous with his time and knowledge both in class and outside of school hours. I have enjoyed many insightful discussions with him about his art and life, his connections to my own stomping ground of the Illawarra, as well as his Aboriginal heritage.

Vic Chapman’s presence at Cicada Press was thanks to a joint invitation by Tess Allas and Michael Kempson. Tess Allas first met Vic in Wollongong in the 1990s, when she included some of his ceramic works in the exhibition she curated, Unjustified in 1995. Unjustified was the second exhibition to be staged at the newly opened Project: Centre for Contemporary Art (‘Project’ was the brainchild of Lisa Havilah, Glenn Barkley and Nathan Clark). This exhibition marked a shift in thinking about local Aboriginal art as the exhibition attracted private and institutional collectors. Wollongong Art Gallery bought many pieces for their permanent collection, including some of Chapman’s ceramic plates that depict Yuwaalaraay stories. From this early exhibition Allas and Chapman’s friendship was born.

In 2012, during the first National Aboriginal Print Workshop held at Cicada Press, Allas introduced Perth artists Laurel Nannup and Brett Nannup to Chapman on a day trip to Wollongong. During this visit they discussed the work they’d been developing at Cicada Press. It dawned upon Allas at that time that it would be great to get Chapman in the printmaking studio to see how his drawing technique and ceramic practice would transfer to the printmaking medium. Already familiar with Chapman’s ceramics, Michael Kempson was keen on the prospect and accompanied Allas to Chapman’s home on the South Coast of NSW in December 2012 to offer him a place in the February 2013 workshop.

Michael Kempson and Vic pulling a colour proof

Michael Kempson and Vic pulling a colour proof

One of the underlying interests of Cicada Press is to invite artists to explore how their usual practice can be transferred to the printmaking medium. Chapman has had an intermittent artistic practice, working primarily in pottery and ceramics, explaining to me that his only previous experience with printmaking was a brief stint of fabric printing while at teachers college. Keen to learn a new technique, Chapman welcomed the opportunity of a Cicada Press residency, noting that he learns through doing, so really enjoys taking part in the many processes printmaking involves.

Vic with Tess Allas

Vic with Tess Allas

To develop the imagery on his plates Chapman has been working with hard-ground and compared this stage of printmaking to the sgraffito process in pottery, as both involve scratching away a surface that reveals a different colour underneath. Many of the etchings Chapman has developed to date offer a direct relationship to his ceramic work, through revisiting the same subjects painted on his ceramic plates, platters and bowls. Each piece reflects on aspects of his personal history.

The students at Cicada Press (myself included) have been keenly interested to hear the stories of Chapman’s work, which he tells with enthusiasm, informing me that storytelling is an important aspect of his work, reiterating that he believes “every work needs a story behind it”.

Currawillinghi

Currawillinghi

Currawillinghi is the name of several stations in outback Queensland, close to the NSW-QLD border. It takes its name from the language of the Yuwaalaraay people, the original and continued custodians of the area, from which Chapman descends. Currawillinghi translates as ‘no women allowed’ as it was a place of initiation for young men. Chapman explained that later in life he became aware of reports that this is indicated by the bora ring located inside the entrance to the property, which is where the initiation took place.

The building in his print, Currawillinghi depicts Chapman’s family home, where he and most of his fourteen siblings were born. Chapman’s grandmother (‘baagi’ in Yuwaalaraay) was the local midwife and an avid fisherwoman (Chapman’s memory of her is depicted on ‘The Baagi Vase’, part of the National Maritime Museum’s collection). The Currawillinghi print was begun by drawing on a hard-ground surface and etching the line work. Following this, aquatint and burnishing processes were used to create tonal variation and highlights. The final colours for Chapman’s prints were resolved through consultation with Kempson, Chapman highlighting the value of having a clever teacher, who as Chapman describes it, “imparts knowledge easily”. For both the Currawillinghi and the similar Hebel State School prints it was decided to incorporate a gradation of four colours. As demonstrated in the following image, this involves the successive application of each colour on the plate from top to bottom.

inking the plate

inking the plate

Hebel State School depicts the one-teacher (20-25 student) school that Chapman attended from 5 to 10 years of age (1937-1942). In grade five Chapman moved to Goodooga Public School. While attending the school he was fortunate that his teacher, Mr McKinnon was an “individual thinker for the time”. Chapman explained that in the context of the time and place, Aboriginal people were excluded from participating with town affairs, were only allowed to sit in a sectioned area of the picture theatre and were not allowed to try on clothes in the shops. The expected norm for Aboriginal people, after finishing schooling at 12 or 13 years of age, saw females destined for domestic work and males for pastoral duties or labour. Attaining any form of community status or further education was seemingly out of the question. Mr McKinnon, not taking up the attitudes of the place, or fitting the societal mould, saw Chapman’s academic promise and applied for a State Bursary on his behalf for high school. Chapman chuckled when telling this story, remembering that upon receiving a telegram in the post which explained he would receive funding to attend high school, he and his family were bemused, having not heard about high school before; they wondered if it received its name from being built on stilts.

Hebel State School - not the final colour scheme. This image ended up with a red sky.

Hebel State School – not the final colour scheme. This image ended up with a red sky.

Upon travelling back to Hebel in 2013, Chapman framed a signed proof of Hebel State School as a gift to the school, saying that a group of nine-year-olds  he met there were very enthusiastic about the print and keenly encouraged him to tell them more about the ‘olden days’ that they, coincidentally, were currently studying. Upon hearing their sentiment I felt a strong affiliation with their curiosity.

The opportunity for further education was the launching pad for Chapman, who later went onto teachers college, following a career as a teacher and later, as a principal. As such, Chapman has taken a natural role in the familiarity of the printmaking classroom, as both a student and as a teacher. Having expressed my interest in Aboriginal culture to Chapman, he was more than happy to impart his knowledge of Yuwaalaraay language and dreaming stories as well as offer insights to the D’harawal dreaming stories of the south coast of NSW.

How the Black Swans got their Feathers

How the Black Swans got their Feathers

As part of a print portfolio produced by custom printing students in 2013, An Australian Bestiary, Chapman contributed the piece, How the Black Swans got their Feathers, which depicts a Yuwaalaraay story about neighbourly compassion. The story begins with the swans being attacked by eagles that stripped the swans bare of their feathers. Then, as illustrated in Chapman’s print, black crows took pity on the swan’s hardship and bestowed their feathers to the swans. Offering a personal reading of the story, Chapman embodies the two swans as himself and his wife Ruth, who endured great loss with the passing of their sons, John and Murray. Chapman likens the crows to the compassionate people in their life, who poured gentle solace and sympathy to them through their difficult time.

Signing the swans

Signing the swans

Currawillinghi – the place – is a place of great significance to the Chapman family. It is Chapman’s ‘ngurrambaa’, which is a Yuwaalaraay term meaning the place where one’s spirit comes into the world and the place where the spirit exits the world – with proper ceremony. A person’s ngurrambaa is inherited through the father’s side, so Currawillinghi is Chapman’s ngurrambaa as it is where he (1932), his father (1875) and grandfather (c1850) were born. In tradition with this paternal linkage, it is now, sadly, where Chapman’s two sons were returned for their final place of rest.

A lighter memory of Currawillingi, is Chapman’s personal account of the devious Manumadhaay, a story previously depicted on a ceramic plate and now transferred into the printed from. While living in Currawillinghi, Chapman’s family had a large number of chooks, who supplied their eggs, and, “on special occasions, a poultry dish”. As there were many goannas in the area, frantic noises were often heard coming from the chook-pen as the goannas raided the nests for eggs. In his print Manumadhaay, Chapman depicts this memory. The title of the work, appropriately, is the Yuwaalaraay word for ‘thief’ or ‘robber’. The crafty ways of the goanna sometimes led to their karmic fate of becoming food for Chapman’s family, as Chapman confirms, “they’re good eating”.

Manumadhaay ceramic plate

Manumadhaay ceramic plate

Manumadhaay Print

Manumadhaay Print

Vic Chapman has enjoyed the atmosphere of working in the printmaking studio, and commented that it is quite different from all the lectures he has been a part of through the years, as the environment is so friendly and inclusive, adding that it reminds him of the early days of the Ceramic’s Society (which he was involved in in Wollongong) where it was a fun community atmosphere and the sharing of knowledge was encouraged. Chapman also noted that having artists such as Chris O’Doherty (aka Reg Mombassa), Euan MacLeod and Elisabeth Cummings, who are regulars at Cicada Press, has been really helpful stating “they are great people and have been willing to help with suggestions and tips for his prints”.

Chapman also found inspiration in the work of Saeed Akhtar, a well-known Pakistani artist, who at the time of writing was undergoing a residency at Cicada Press. Chapman stated that Akhtar’s “sketch book is very inspiring and impressive”. He was particularly impressed with Akhar’s line work and commented “you can see the speed of the lines he makes and the curvature in those lines is fantastic”. After seeing Akhtar’s work Chapman said he became very interested in utilising the circle in his next print.

Exercising his interest, later in 2013 Chapman employed the use of a circular etching plate, and inscribed references to his life at Currawillinghi and Wollongong. The outer edge of the plate features the big tractor tyre that is located at the entrance of Currawillingi. The inner circle of the tyre revisits a design Chapman assembled in a circular mosaic at Figtree in 1998, which was commissioned as a public art project by the Wollongong City Council. The image depicts the Yaroma Story of the D’harawal people of the south coast. The figtree has special significance to the D’harawal people being used traditionally as a birthing tree by the Timbery family. The Yaroma (‘hairy man’), the spirit of the figtree, is said to protect the area and ward off intruders to ensure women’s privacy[1]. In this print, Chapman draws parallels to the Yaroma story of birth to his own birth place of Currawillinghi, connecting the personal significance of Currawillinghi and Wollongong and the cyclical nature of life. (He also noted the correlation between Currawillinghi translating as no women allowed being opposite to the figtree being a place where no men were allowed).

Chapman explained that the future prints he is considering producing at Cicada Press will continue to reflect on his lived experiences. In discussing these possibilities with him at the time of writing, Chapman revealed a drawing that represents a mapping of his personal journey, including references to his family tree and locations he has lived. He also explained his intention to represent the barriers he and his wife Ruth had to break through to gain acceptance for their marriage.

While revealing various societal barriers he has experienced, Chapman has also often noted the positive changes he has observed take place. He is enlivened by times that see a revival of culture and language that he was discouraged from connecting with when he was young -acquiring this knowledge self directed later in life. The once presumed improbable community status of Aboriginal people is accurately discredited; the esteem held for Chapman in the various leadership roles he has undertaken in the community, see him aptly described as a ‘legend’, ‘a scholar and a gentleman’. Adopted by many as Uncle Vic, he has been embraced like the resident indigenous elder of the printmaking studio at COFA.

http://www.daao.org.au/bio/vic-chapman/biography/?

Crino, Penny, 2010, ‘The Baagi vase Vic Chapman’. Signals 90 March to May