Friday, 8 February 2013

Materiality and Placedness

Stone Bowls
In many ways when you think about the work that you make, and you start rifling through the catalogues of your work, there is quite a bit there that is counter intuitive there in regard to your materials and their ‘placedness’. 

One supposes in Tasmania that “wood” might form an important part of the materials larder for a ‘maker’ like yourself. 

Instead, we find that you are an eclectic maker who uses a lot of different material and not so often wood. In fact there seems to be some kind of antithesis here. Is there? 

Since we are talking about the place of ‘place’ in cultural production, and the making of things, your use of metal seems to pose a few questions. For instance, for whatever reason, and it is refreshing to see, you do not seem to pay homage to a particular metal technology, say like one of the ‘smithings’ – black, tin, copper, whatever. 

From the little you tell us about your childhood visiting relatives living in isolation from town, does metal, or any other material figure in those kind of memories. That is, the kind of memories that subliminally pop up from memory, and that provide solutions, or perhaps even giving a permission to do things in some way. 

Traditions are often 'place centred'. For instance, maker in a particular place traditionally, or is it habitually, use particular material in particular ways. You seem to be inventing or invoking you own kind of traditions and technologies.

Sally: Tasmania is well and truly branded and perceived as an island of wood and woodworkers. When I am introduced to someone as a Tasmanian designer-maker, there is an immediate assumption that I make lots of tables and chairs out of native special timbers. I have hardly made any tables or chairs and very rarely use special timbers, or much timber at all. 

I was surprised and pleased recently to be invited to take part in an exhibition which will focus on Tasmanian metalworkers for a change. Of course woodworking is perfectly valid and it stands to reason that a place renowned for this beautiful natural resource would produce craftspeople skilled in using it. Indeed Tasmania seems to attract fine woodworkers in a kind of cultural exchange, replacing those interested in industrial or product design who leave for mainland cities. 

When I began my studies in Furniture Design at university I suppose I too assumed I would pop out the other end of the course and become another woodworking designer-maker. The truth is, I really don’t like woodwork. I also don’t like the look of the special timbers; I find a lot if it far too gaudy, especially highly figured and coloured timber. 

I also happen to really, really like working with metal. I love the strength, durability and malleability of metal. I love the way it feels to work with and the enormous creative potential it offers. I have used a lot of different materials in my practice but looking back I can see it has been a process of elimination; a search for the right medium. 

I have fiddled about with wood, plastics, fibreglass and lots of fibre and fabric before realising that my passion is for metal. I still incorporate other materials into my work, but usually in a supporting role, as a means to an end, such as the ‘stone’ bowls shown above; there is a wooden substrate to give the bowls a nice solid feel, and to provide something to nail into. 

I also ‘borrow’ techniques and ideas from other disciplines. I have come to realise that my long held passion for fibre and textiles is about technique, not material. I frequently use these and other techniques, unconventionally, with metal. Gradually, over about 10 years, I have more or less abandoned woodwork and now define myself as a metalworker

Antithesis? Not on any deliberate, conscious level. It is simply a matter of preference. But why? Why would someone from the Land of Wood have a preference for metal? I suspect it does come ultimately from my upbringing and family. 

 Tasmania(indeed Australia), is also the land of two other things of significance; mining, and ‘Making Do’. Ingenuity and the ability to ‘make do’ with whatever is to hand is seen as a quintessentially Australian trait; ingenuity born of necessity. 

These days we call it ‘thinking outside the square’, and mostly leave it to ‘designers’, probably because the essential ingredient of necessity has been more or less removed. 

My grandfather was an engineer, and operated a small alluvial tin mine in a remote part of Tasmania.  He often worked alone. He had to rely on his ingenuity, making do with whatever was available for repairs and maintenance both of the mining equipment and general requirements of a remote existence. I greatly admire this particular brand of ingenuity/problem solving, and I guess it was significant in my upbringing. 

I have never been formally trained in any specific technical discipline, which is perhaps why I don’t adhere to one. I have never learnt the ‘rules’ so I don’t feel bound to follow them. I learn various techniques as I need them or as they interest me, and add them to my eclectic set of skills. 

 I experiment. I use a variety of metals in a lot of different forms, often salvaged. An array of materials demands an array of techniques. I invent my own way of doing things, with whatever materials I have to hand and whatever skills I have, just like my grandfather did. It seems to me that in a way I am following place centred traditions, just not the woodworking tradition that is apparently expected of me. 

Rather, I follow a family tradition, or a rural and remote tradition, of working creatively with the materials that are available.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012


In the discussions leading up to this interview you question the notion that your work's 'placedness' is clear for all to see. From the inside looking out that is a reasonable question to posit. After all there are no unambiguous 'signposts'  the place/s that inform it. Yet somehow the proposition that it 'belongs' to a place in some ways is almost inescapable.

If one didn't know your background, then maybe they would not know that you work in South East Tasmania. Nor perhaps, would they detect an hint of your family background or your family's connections to remote places that few, very few, people visit. But it is quite likely that they would very soon start asking themselves questions like, "what kind of place do these objects spring from?

Clearly, this work is not made in a big city – say like New York, Paris, London .... Hobart even – nor informed by any kind of 'international metropolitan' sensibility. So, as soon as one says that to oneself, the next question in line to be answered is ever likely to be something link what kind of place would spawn such work – and it looks as much like it has been 'spawned' as it has been made. In a way, in this day and age, it is very likely that with the maker's name in hand a curious observer would very soon be able to answer such questions at some level.

So from your perspective, in the making of the work, how much are you are conscious of the place/s that it seems are subliminally – perhaps overtly even – informing the work and the 'making'.

Sally Brown: ... From my perspective, I don't feel at all conscious of the place that is informing the work. There is no deliberate attempt on my part to make my work look as though it comes from somewhere, or belongs to a particular place. In fact, there is no attempt to make my work look like it was made by Sally Brown, and yet it seems that I have a quite distinctive style. I don't deny though that it does come from and belong to a place- Tasmania, or southern Tasmania even- however it is not at all contrived to be that way; rather, it happens organically. 

It seems to me to be a simple matter of having spent 30 years growing up surrounded by the particular brand of nature that this part of the world has to offer. I make my art objects in a way that looks pleasing to me; my idea of what is aesthetically pleasing comes from an appreciation of my natural surroundings, and thus the place is expressed through the art. 

When I spoke about my work last year (in a floor talk/discussion about my exhibition Remade) I was asked that if I were to be plonked into a totally different environment- say, New York City, would my work change to reflect those surroundings. The answer is no.. my art making is not such an immediate response as that (some of my pieces have had a gestation of up to 10 years) and more importantly, if I were 'transplanted' my 30 years of Tasmanian influence would still form the basis of my aesthetic sensibility. 

If I'd lived all my life in New York City, however, I suspect I'd be quite a different person and who knows what I'd be doing. This raises the question then, not whether or not the environment (or place) influences my work, but how. When I am making art, the thing I am conscious of is the material I'm using; what I can and can't do, how I can manipulate/transform it. 

All the while I am making unconscious decisions about form/colour/scale/composition etc. which arise naturally and automatically from my personal aesthetic preferences. While I am making a piece, or often not until it's made, I'll look at it and recognise something familiar.. maybe there's a pattern like sand ripples, or lichen, or a geological formation. 

Sometimes it's bleedingly obvoius and I can't belive I hadn't noticed earlier. Sometimes it's more ambiguous, or it might be reminiscent of two or three things simultaneously. These natural similes provide the titles for my art pieces, and sometimes influence the way the piece is finished, but they are not the starting point for my work. Rather, they are my interpretation of the object I have made. 

I believe it is human nature to recognise, or even to seek out, something familiar in an unfamiliar or seemingly abstract object. We search our internal catalogue of imagery for a good match, and say 'Oh! it looks like....'. Other people, therefore, can (and do) interpret my work quite differently, drawing on their own experiences. I have sometimes been quite taken aback by others' interpretations. 

Here are some examples: 
Lapping ScreenIII

 This 3 panel, hanging organza and pebble screen is titled 'Lapping Screen', partly because the panels pivot and overlap, and because the stitched pockets which contain the pebbles look to me like lines left in the pebbly sand by a receding tide. 

Imagine my surprise to hear someone interpret it as towering office blocks in a city, with each pocket an office and each pebble an office worker! 

Spun Bench is to me very clearly a coccoon, but I have heard it described as a snarl of razor wire- quite the antithesis of a coccoon. 

 Made of barbed wire hammered flat, these are called Bramble Light Shades. Both barbed wire and brambles (I delight in the similarity between the two) are to me reminiscent of hot summer days, cow paddocks and blackberry picking.. but of course barbed wire comes with it's own baggage of obvious symbolism. 

I am suggesting here that the sense of 'place' in an artwork can be a curious mixture of that which is being projected by the artist, and that which is overlaid by the viewer. The sense of place in my work springs from an unconscious, place-specific aesthetic, which is reinforced by my conscious recognition of the familiar. I choose to give my work titles and statements, which provides the viewer with a signpost; an insight into what the work means to me, and, therefore, a clue to the place (and the person) from which it might arise.

Saturday, 18 August 2012


This site is dedicated to an interview between Sally Brown and the editors of a special issue of Coolabah. Ray Norman reviewed Sally's exhibition at the Design Centre Tasmania located in Launceston – REMADE: Objects by Sally Brown. That exhibition is the sparking point for this interview.

Norman's review entitled REMADE, REWORKED, REIMAGINED: Sally Brown talks about place looked at Sally Brown in the context of her, and her work, being  shaped by  a set of sensibilities deeply embedded in place. For quite a long time it has been claimed that cultural production in Tasmania has an inimitable and idiosyncratic place within the scheme of things. Sally Brown, a young Tasmanian designer, maker, artist, is unlikely to make this kind of claim for her work. Nonetheless, there is a particular sensibility evident in her work that it is doubtful that one might find anywhere other than in Tasmania – or indeed made by someone of an older generation. This 'interview' will attempt to unpick some of the thinking to do with the placedness, the vernacular social paradigm, the subliminal politics, the ‘crafting’ and the cultural savvy that gives Sally Brown’s work its presence. The questions that hang in the air around a collection of Sally Brown’s work are those to do with the ways local cultural imperatives might shape and make places they are found in and in what ways might places shape the cultural realities that inhabit them.