Through Emerald Eyes

My concept behind the Solo show are partly explained here.

About the exhibition at Gympie regional Gallery in August 2014

You may have read that these works reflect the development of my ideas during the journey through a Master of Environmental Education Degree.  There’s something about study that challenges you to read stuff you might never even find on your own. With exposure to new ideas, I embarked upon a journey that framed my own practice within the great educational discourses of our time, and made me aware of some great debates within it.  The concept of looking through Emerald Eyes sprang from a colour-coded method of characterisation by environmental theorists.  Strategies with mild reforms are regarded as light green, such as setting a per tonne price on carbon. The most radical theories, with the potential to bring about deep societal realignment, and therefore requiring the deepest attitudinal and behavioural changes, are portrayed as deepest green. An example might be the idea that ecological landscapes have intrinsic value for their own sakes, rather than value only as raw materials for human beings to use.  

These works deal with formative ideas such as myth and legend, nature as mother, the interconnectedness of many elements, spiritual and sacred concepts especially those suggested by First Nations cultures. These works, many featuring actual shades of green and others only conceptually green, use biodegradable fibres of paper, cotton, silk and wool, along with other natural embellishments.

 Classification is a challenge here.

These are works which are hard to classify. In these works I have aimed to forge a synthesis between a number of skills and materials and, to boldly to go where no artist has gone before. In these pieces, possibly describable as cast paper assemblages, I attempt to bring together a range of skills and materials in order to create a statement about the amazing matrix of the natural world in which we are embedded, but also aspire to suggest other concepts of a more spiritual nature.

When I say I am having an art exhibition, the first assumption is that I am showing paintings, the privileged sibling of the art family. And there is painting involved in some pieces, but never painting alone. During my early years at the College of Art in the 1970s, there was a strict divide between the “fine” arts and another pursuit, entitled “craft”. Items such as clothing, knitted, crocheted or sewn household items belonged firmly in the realms of craft. These items were regarded as of a lesser status, possibly to do with the fact that they were by and large the pursuits of women, and also they had real-world uses, rather than purely decorative functions on the walls of stately homes.  So anything that smacked of usefulness was actually down-graded!

I always had a problem with this kind of demarcation, and in recent times a lot of these barriers have been broken down. There has been a re-discovery of the value of the skills ironically timed to coincide with the wide-spread loss of the skills. These days we do see a revival of quilting as a hobby, while knitting, crochet, lace-making, tatting, and dress-making have largely been victims of industrialisation and globalisation, with cheap mass-produced products flooding markets.

BUT maybe it is destiny?  As A child I hated the pre-occupation with clothing with which I was surrounded, with a dress-maker for an aunt and a mother who made most of our clothes through dire necessity.

A recent bit of family tree research on my mother’s side revealed our descent from James Crie in the early 1700s, whose occupation was described as a “waucher “ who apparently a person who watched the safety of linen cloths as they were dried on the last remnants of England’s commons!

Another privileged art form back in my art school years was sculpture. Are these works sculptures? Technically, each sheet of cast paper is a small relief sculpture. These use specially-made paper which has been cast in a mould. Not a commercial mould, but one I have made from scratch.

The soft paper sheet is pressed into this mould while still quite wet. And to make one’s own moulds, yes, sculpture is required. I form the originals from clay then usually cast a plaster mould from the clay master, which allows me to make multiples of particular forms. These are then able to be individualised by using different fibres to form the paper, over-painting, over-stitching or otherwise altering the paper form once dry, and combining it with other elements such as fabric, felt or other papers.

The major works were completed at a time of considerable personal and professional trials, and provide me with a reflective and meditative space of which I was in control. The slow, repeated layers of overpainting, embroidering and other slow experimental processes in the evenings contrasted with the earlier phases. The paper-making required exertions of gathering, cooking, blending and pounding, followed by pulling the paper sheets and drying them over the moulds. The process of making the moulds had to precede all this, as they have to be completely dry to take the moisture from the paper sheets. So the hours of work to produce each work is quite vast, cumulatively. It also demands the particular range of skills in drawing, painting, sculpture, felting, sewing, crochet, basketry that come together with varying degrees of harmony in these works.

Detail from Song of the Seasons


All this still does not really allow me to describe my work in one sentence. 

Drawings? Well there is drawing and water-colour painting involved.

Books? Well some belong to the new category of book arts, which includes book-like objects and items made from paper which is made from specific fibres.

Textiles are involved, so are they clothing or quilts? Some like the bunya panel/s do clearly refer to quilts, with wadding between layers of cloth. Embroidery? Well that is used on many pieces, but only as a part.

Felting? Well that’s a whole other story!!! Hours of arranging fluffy wool rovings, soaping and rubbing and hanging out to dry.

Well after all this, I still have not come up with a snappy name for these works, but I hope you now have some ideas of what is involved.

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Susan Zela Bissett (Zela) is an educator, writer and artist with a lifetime involvement in environmental education and advocacy. Zela was born on Butchulla Country in Maryborough and has worked as an artist, educator, permaculture gardener, studio potter and consultant. She is passionate about sustainable lifestyles, maintaining habitat for wildlife and about unleashing the creativity in all of us.

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