Flying over the Indian Ocean I pondered on my preparedness for the ambitious sculpture project I was about to step into—in the workshops, factories and living rooms of Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia.
My invitation from curator, gallery owner and fibre artist Anne Kempton of Timeless Textiles in Newcastle, was to lead a project working specifically with men from diverse professions to create a body of work ready for exhibition in a seven-week time frame. Using the skills and tools of their specific trades in combination with inspiration from the techniques, materials and history of textiles and fibre art, the work would be both challenging and contemporary with the deep roots of tradition and provide men with the opportunity to express themselves creatively in new ways.
Taking a deep breath for what was to be titled the Deeper Voice of Textiles and having gathered my own collection of essential hand tools—special fids, netting needles, bone awls and Spanish secateurs plus the usual selection of camera, lenses and digital paraphernalia—what else could I bring? Perhaps more to the point, what could I do? what was I bringing from the other side of the world to offer the working men of Newcastle?
As an artist and basketmaker with many years of making under my belt, experience of leading numerous community engagement projects inspired by the environment and the woven arts, plus—being a man—it appeared I was a perfect fit for the job. However, along with my tools, I carried a little apprehension in my bag and a trust that my abilities to improvise on the spot would see me through.
The seed behind Anne Kempton’s vision for the Deeper Voice of Textiles project was born both from her role as a mother and her previous career as a health professional. Guiding me in advance of the project Anne directed me towards Celia Lashlie ‘s book He’ll be OK: Growing Gorgeous Boys into Good Men and radio host Gus Worland’s recent TV series Man Up exploring the current state of mental health amongst Australian men and the alarmingly high suicide rates among specific age groups and industries.
Anne explains “men haven’t had the opportunity or time to play, to create work that celebrates the skills of their trade. Skills that have, traditionally, been passed on from one generation of men to another. Tim Johnson was the obvious choice to lead this unique project utilising his skill set of community building and basketmaker.”
“An invitation to create” was the ethos of the Deeper Voice of Textiles project—giving men who don’t necessarily regard themselves as creative, the opportunity of highly individual expression and to make in an open-ended way without the restrictions of customer demands.
Using fibre art and the traditions of textiles as an opening context to engage the twenty or so men in the project gave us a non-prescriptive starting point. From one of our most ancient technologies (the making of hand-plied cordage for making nets, baskets and shelters) to the internet’s optical fibres that wrap the globe, from the steel cables of suspension bridges to the finest of filaments of fibre braided into life-saving heart implants, the world of textiles provides endless inspirations.
If we look at the Australian fibre art and textile scene today, we can see that the makers and audience are predominantly female. However, this has not always been the way and the history of textiles is heavy with male and female involvement in the processes of cultivation, harvesting, processing and manufacture. This complex nest of references gave the project a rich seam of possibilities and the opportunity to initiate a way of working that could fulfil such an important need of male self-expression.
Through a process of gatherings, barbeques, regular workshop visits and collaborations, the project team and the “men of fibre” (as they came to be known) explored possibilities, made plans and created extraordinary things. Occasionally I could offer technical input. I was delighted to teach Dr.Peter Saul, the head of the intensive care unit at Newcastle’s John Hunter Hospital, the ancient technique of looping, but not with the traditional fibres of the kurrajong or pandanus, instead with discarded medical tubing—high spec’ stuff with great elasticity and delicate colorations.
Weaving into the unknown, our men from twenty local businesses explored with different approaches. Some, like John Morton from Studio 2, a bespoke metal and stone workers outfit, knew from the first meeting what they wanted to make. We had simply provided the opportunity and excuse for the realisation of the vision: in this case, a giant clam encasing a stainless steel pearl, John had been wanting to make this for years. Others trod more gingerly, not knowing how they could contribute and how it would be seen amongst the creations of others. Chris Johnston of Suspension Expresso, (a great coffee shop and perfect place to spend an afternoon weaving), struggled initially to justify the engagement of time outside of his busy schedule. However, by first building a large loom from recycled timbers and then through weaving with the usually discarded hessian sacks of his coffee bean trade, he seems to have made exactly what he needed: a machine that gave him time to breathe and be liberated by the hands-on making process.
For tradesmen and professionals with busy routines, it was hard to dedicate time and justify participation. Not everyone invited to the project managed to follow right through to the exhibition. But the extraordinary outcomes that we saw evolving through the project were not only the physical welded, woven, stitched and bound sculptures presented in the hugely popular exhibition, but the evidence in real time of new friendships, collaborations and community growing in front of us. This was priceless and spread stealthily, unspoken and with great beauty.
This was the outcome that Anne had envisioned: men being able to come together to express themselves in new ways building community as they went. And this was the outcome that swept away my apprehensions. I was welcomed and trusted.
On reflection now from my workshop at home on the Mediterranean coast just south of Barcelona, there wasn’t much I could have prepared for meeting these “men of fibre”. My job was to be a catalyst, to say “It’s ok to play”, “No we don’t know if we will succeed, but we’ll have a go” and “What will happen if you try this?” What happened next was what we should all believe in and what we so easily forget—that being creative and making stuff, whatever it is, is essential to being human and without it, we become less of what we are possible to be.
The Deeper Voice of Textiles story is still unfolding and we hope the success of this year’s project will lead to an annual event in Newcastle and a shift towards many more men being involved in today’s fibre arts. Further details of the project are featured here: deepervoiceoftextiles.blogspot.com
Over the past 25 years, artist and basketmaker Tim Johnson has explored the relationships of material, place, nature and culture. His diverse creative practice encompasses basketmaking and performance, photography and painting, sculpture and installation, textiles and costume, his work has been exhibited internationally. Tim combines a deep respect for traditional basketmaking with his own innovations and enjoys using a wide variety of materials and techniques gleaned from his travels, research and his own creative practice. Originally from Newcastle Upon Tyne, England, Tim has lived in various parts of England and Ireland and is currently based in the north east of Spain just outside Barcelona. Tim is an experienced tutor and has recently been awarded the prestigious Marsh Award for Excellence in Gallery Education and several awards for his baskets in Spain and Poland. You may see more of Tim’s work here: www.timjohnsonartist.com
Fibre artist, curator and gallery owner Anne Kempton created Timeless Textiles – Centre of Fibre Artisans in Newcastle, NSW. The only contemporary textiles gallery in Australia Timeless Textiles runs a busy and exciting schedule of exhibitions and workshops of Australian and international artists. www.timelesstextiles.com.au
All photos by Tim Johnson.