Saturday, 18 August 2018

Art Commission For a New Coat of Arms for Western Australia Supreme Court Civil - Guest Post by Maggie Baxter

Madam Bukeshla

At $57,000 Aus it wasn’t a big art commission by local standards, but as the Coat of Arms placed in the Ceremonial Court of the new Western Australian Supreme Court (Civil), it was an important one to get absolutely right.

The new Supreme Court Civil is part of an expanded redevelopment of Cathedral Square in the centre of the Perth Central Business District, incorporating the restoration of the beautiful, historic Old Treasury Buildings into what is now the award winning Como The Treasury Hotel. The aim of the State Government was to preserve and transform a grand and elegant heritage asset from a derelict empty building in a rundown precinct to a world-class yet publicly accessible hotel. They succeeded, the award winning restaurants and bars in this beautiful building are packed every night with the after work crowd.
View Through The Court

This restoration became the centre of a designated Legal Precinct. An elegant, minimalist high-rise office block was built behind the hotel to house the Supreme Court (Civil) and Mediation Services, and the Departments of Justice and Treasury.

Madam Bukleshla Crown - close-up

As part of the State Government Percent for Art Scheme, site-specific art commissions were already underway for these new offices and courts when the Chief Justice suggested one more. He had seen a tapestry Coat of Arms, albeit old and falling apart, in another Australian State’s Supreme Court and thought we should have something similar.

Another Supreme Court Judge, who has an interest in the local art scene, took over the project. He and the Executive Manager of the Supreme Court were a pleasure to work with. It was an act of great faith and trust for them to commission Trish Bygott and Nathan Crotty as neither had any previous experience with public art projects and Trish’s embroidery work is completely process driven so they could only present a loose and imprecise concept when they pitched for the project.

The Wild Side of The Swan

As a young artist Trish came to Western Australia from Melbourne over 25 years ago for a six months residency, but never left. She describes herself as a ‘Crafter of cloth. Stitch-ress of beauty’. Artisan of adornment’ and says ‘I learnt to hand stitch at the age if 6…. then honed my love of textile design in Melbourne’s RMIT in the early eighties and found myself exhibiting a naïve, personal narrative celebrating stich and adornment for another time’
Trish making a start with the background construction

Nathan Crotty is Trish’s partner in life and art. He contributed to the overall design and more difficult aspects of project management that required lateral thinking. From their shop selling hand-stitched clothes in Fremantle, (the port suburb and artists’ hub of Perth), they have gathered a group of like-minded passionate stitchers to give workshops and seminars on embroidery and associated crafts.

Hands at Work - Long Stitch Details for Kangaroo
When the Chief Justice came up with the idea for an artist made Coat of Arms, it was only nine months away until the official opening of the Court, but because it was public money precious time was taken up with a formal commissioning process, asking three other artists to submit proposals as well. This meant that Trish and Nathan’s production time after being awarded the commission was reduced to just over 6 months.

 Finalising the background around the crest
The Coat of Arms is governed by strict rules, yet Trish and Nathan were asked to be innovative, celebrate the skill of the hand made, and work within a 21st century sensibility that would complement the modern interior of the Ceremonial Court. The only flexibility afforded them was they did not have to place the iconography within a rectangle, circle, or oval unless they chose to. What they did have to think about carefully was the hue, tone, and vertical emphasis of the wooden panelling that dominates the interior. Trish, Nathan and their team performed the miraculous and managed to complete the minutely detailed embroidery on time and ready for the official opening.

Seed Stitch Between the Ripped Silk - for the background

When the State and Judiciary of Western Australia were founded any Indigenous perspective was completely denied. The symbols we are left with for the most part reflect outmoded sentiments around this division. It was important to Trish and Nathan to correct this in some way, no matter how subtle. They contacted respected Noongar[1] Elder Dr. Noel Nannup, who graciously shared his wisdom. Although many of the symbols within the crest do not sit well with Noongar people, Noel talked about the significance of the Sheoak tree[2] as a natural and living symbol of justice for his country and culture. Uncannily yet appropriately the filament-like leaves of this tree have a stitch-like appearance. This information was crucial as it allowed the essence of Noel’s narrative to consciously enter the new Coat of Arms and infuse every aspect of the process, embedding a deeper layer of meaning and sensitivity into every colour and stitch within the work.[3]

Nicole Demarchelier working on the background- the spirit of the sheoak

Before starting on the embroidery Trish tested numerous samples inside the Ceremonial Court to confirm that proposed stitch sizes could be seen at a distance while still maintaining a sense of intimacy. Silks and threads hand dyed in natural and reactive dyes were placed against the wood to ensure each complemented the other yet allowed the embroidery to stand apart.

Everything had to be drawn to scale because the drawn marks determined the stitch size. Once this process was resolved Trish engaged two expert embroiderers to work with her. Each took on responsibility for individual parts of the whole work.

 Dr. Nicole Demarchelier. Bridget Bygott, and Dr. Jane Donlin ( left to right )

Before commissioning the artwork, the architect had designated leather as the background material for the Coat of Arms.  However, to ensure overall aesthetic cohesion Trish and Nathan decided to replace this with textile created from thin strips of torn silk hand dyed in nuanced shades of earth and amber.  Each strip, meticulously folded to ensure no raw edges were revealed was laid down held was laid down and held in place with and estimated 40,000 minute running stitches. At over 2m in length the background was hard to handle and their first attempt was thwarted because the fabric was distorting. Textile artist, Jane Donlin, who was working on the project with Trish and Nathan suggested the strips had to be held tight like a warp of a woven cloth Overnight Nathan made a special frame on table legs while Trish and Nicky Desmarchelier, another textile artist who was responsible for stitching the background, unpicked their work to start over again. All of this added to stress and adrenalin levels.

Hands At Work, Stitching the background Silk  in Place

The kangaroo paws,[4] kangaroo, fleur-de-lis, water, and crest with the swan were embroidered separately, cut out and appliqued onto the background.  Trish had to design around stitches that would allow for the body of each element to be easily cut and turned. The ground of spirals below the kangaroos give the work a three-dimensional feel.

Trish engaged a textile conservator to mount the finished work. The architect provided the original backing board for the leather, but it is MDF (medium-density fibreboard), which is definitely not acid free.  To rectify this Nathan had to glue a thin layer of rag board to the MDF to act as a barrier between   the acids and the finished work. Then it was wrapped with a layer of bamboo wadding, and covered with another layer of de-ionised linen. Only after all this preparation could the artwork be mounted.

Readying the placement of the central components on the background

Everything was measured very precisely. The completed artwork was stitched onto the linen which already had Velcro stitched on to hold it under the board. The four corners had to be very carefully mitred. This final mounting turned out to be an all night task right up until the van came to take it into the Court at 11.00 am. 

detail of the ground stitched onto the background

‘The whole process was so intense from start to finish’, Trish said ‘no matter how careful our planning, we still had to make on the spot decisions every day. It was a balancing act because even though we knew we were working against the clock to a strict deadline, nothing could be forced and we had to allow each and every part to come together at the right time. After the artwork went up in the court, we all went through a strange phase of having withdrawal symptoms. We were all so exhausted yet didn’t know how to relax, sleep or conversely how to fill our days’.

Irina and Alena, stitching the crown in place with surgical precision

Background: Torn silk strips held down with running stitch;

Earth: ripped silk backstitch held down by running stitch, seed stitch, and stem stitch;

Crown: a combination of satin stitch and backstitch using ripped silk rather than thread;

Ermine:  ripped silk held down with running stitch;

Fleur de lis: feather stitch;

Kangaroo: ripped silk held down with running stitch, backstitch, and long satin stitch;

Kangaroo paws: couching;

Shield:  satin stitch (405 squares), and stem stitch;

Swan: ripped silk feather stitch and long and short stitch; and

Water: ripped silk held down with running stitch, ripped silk backstitch.

If you would like to know more about this artwork, tune into the short video made by Rob Bygott to document the processes from start to finish:

Or read ‘Crest-Risen in the Supreme Court by Nathan Crotty in The Fremantle Shipping News, Feb 24 2017:

For a short video about the other art commission for the Supreme Court Civil: ‘Journey of a River’  (an18 m long painting + 5 x 20m long glass panels) by Jo Darbyshire in collaboration in Rick Vermey go to:

Artist: Trish Bygott in collaboration with Nathan Crotty, Dr. Nicolle Desmarchelier, and Dr. Jane Donlin,

Title: State Coat of Arms
Architect: Peter Hunt Architect
Art Coordinator: Maggie Baxter
Photography: Robert Frith
Textile Conservation: Patricia Moncrieff
Client: The Department of Justice
Department of Finance Project Managers: Grayam Sandover and Louise Armstrong

The artist would like to thank the Western Australian Government Department of Finance and Rob Bygott for their support in making the video. ‘Coat of Arms Embroidery’.

Maggie Baxter is an Australian artist, writer, curator, and public art coordinator.

[1]. The Noongar are the original Indigenous inhabitants of south-west corner of Western Australia. They have inhabited this area for more than 45,000 years. Their traditional lands include the metropolitan area of Perth, Western Australia’s capital city.
[2] . A species of the Casuarina genus, native to Australia, the Indian Sub-Continent, South east Asia, and the Pacific Islands.
[3]. This paragraph has been extrapolated and slightly re-worked from an article by Nathan Crotty for the Fremantle Shipping News.
[4]. The common name for a number of plant species found in the south west of Australia so named because the tubular flowers are coated with dense hairs and open at the apex with six claw-like structures. The red and green kangaroo paw is the official floral emblem for Western Australia.

Sunday, 29 July 2018

The Shell in my Stones' Jar - Crochet Stories (Washed Ashore)

I have spent many hours on the beach, walking and thinking and often trying not to collect. Not to pick up anything but eventually coming home with something or other. I disinfect, scrub and clean each piece of my booty and sort them  out into categories based on size and type. I have glass jars of varying sizes  and designs, all around my apartment, housing the various shells and stones that I have amassed. Yesterday, I spied what looked like a shell, lurking erroneously, in my large stones’ jar. I fished it out and realised it was one of those interesting pieces that I hadn’t been able to leave behind on the beach. Neither a stone nor a shell, but I had placed it in with the stones because this materiality dominated its form. It was a red laterite stone with an oyster shell stuck onto it.
 In Siolim, along the Chapora and at Ashwem beach one sees a lot of shells, mounted one on top of the other, clinging to the porous laterite stone which makes the stone very rough and difficult to sit on, or even walk over – especially bare footed. Out of curiosity, I once asked a local restauranteur why they do that and he said that oysters grow on rocks, which I found absurd, but for lack of any other information  kept mum. And then a few weeks on, as the quest continued, it was a  fisherman who enlightened me. Apparently the oysters secrete a substance that allows them to cling to the rocks and onto each other, to stay stable during the ebb and flow of the tide and river current. And they do this when they are breeding. Now that made much more sense than oysters growing on rocks but, I remember the other story better because it adds to an already curious shell-stone form.
The day had been a busy one. I had a meeting with the lawyer so had to leave before noon. The moment I parked it pelted down and the umbrella was no cover. My beige coloured trousers were splattered with mud and by the time I reached the courts – barely a three minute walk, I was soaked. As it happened the lawyer wasn’t there and I had to coax his colleague to listen to the details I needed him to understand, which he may not have understood from a cursory glance at the documents. Thereafter, I had to complete many odd chores and finally came home with the cushions that complete the interior décor of my flat, seven months after I have moved into it.
Simona comes to help out on  Fridays and so, despite the fact that I was rather tired by this point, the kitchen chores also had to be done. I had lots of other paper work to complete. I hate these constant phone calls and follow-ups. It is so annoying that no-one does anything until you remind or beg them to. So while Simona cut and chopped, I did my share of begging and reminding for the pest control, the internet cable to be installed, for a refund pending five years, for my car insurance claim that is almost a year overdue and more in the same vein. It’s work that has to be done but it’s not work that I enjoy doing.
I didn’t think that I would get any crochet done today. It was the shell in the stone jar, that inspired me. When I had dug it out, I left the it on my work-table, so couldn’t help but see it as I pottered around. Weeks went by and it lay there tempting me but, clearly it didn’t evoke the right feeling and many other stones and shells got crocheted. But today, as I winded down the day, even though it was late, I felt the need for some clarity. Precisely because the day had been so crowded with doing and phone calls and all the rest of it that, I hadn’t had much time for reflection. Aside from the early morning writing in my journal, which thankfully, I had managed to do before I drove to Mapusa, Porvorim, Panjim and back.
Laterite is a rusty-red-maroon stone that is quite nubbly in itself. The oysters add to this and make it even more rugged. This particular stone, with the shell attached to it,  also had some largish white spots dotted over its surface which may be because that the oysters eventually do get washed away with the tide and the secretion they use to adhere to the rock, changes its colour. I haven’t studied this  nor asked around, so it’s pure conjecture. But, holding this odd looking rock in my hands, pondering what colour to use, I decide that I  wanted to show off its texture as much as I could and picked an off-white yarn.
I hooked a chain of about forty stitches and closed it around the shell, just below where it sat, because it formed a ridge where the circle of chains could sit, hopefully, without slipping off. Then, I proceeded to crochet, adding another row of single crochet onto this line, working on the stone. I find this both challenging and fascinating because the object I am crocheting suggests what to do where, and I have to keep it simple. I cannot get all lacy and curvy with the chained lines because, with every stitch my steel hook hits the stone, scraping itself along the unrelenting and uneven surface making a grating sound, which isn’t pleasing. Nor is it easy to work around the form. I have less manoeuvrability and ease of access. Also, until I reach a point where the fabric is snugly fitting the stone and stops slipping off, especially when I pull the thread a tot to even out the tension of the stitches, it involves a lot of yanking up of the fabric, positioning it around the stone-shell and only then moving on. I have to do this manoeuvre, consistently, with almost each stitch.
However, this stone didn’t take too long to complete. Wanting to reveal more than cover, I used a lot of double crochet, which adds length very quickly. It is also no more than a couple of inches or just a bit more. It was late at night and I was listening to Eckhart Tolle on YouTube, speaking about accepting the unacceptable. Not a riveting talk because he repeats himself constantly, but when my hands are engaged, I am too involved with the thread work to be bothered to switch off the video, so I let it play on. By the end of it, between my crochet and Tolle’s droning on about being in the present, about being grateful even in the most difficult moments of life – for the simple fact that one is breathing and therefore all is well,  I felt calmer and relaxed enough, to feel like sleeping.
There is something about the hooking of thread and the complexity of working around these stones and shells, that engages with an intensity that somehow alleviates the tumult of emotion within.  I am not quite sure how it works but have noted the results and sometimes, pick up a stone to crochet just to get past difficult feelings of the moment.
It was passed midnight. It had been a long day, busy with daily-living chores and driving around navigating the rain. Even so, I was chuffed that I still managed to do some crochet. Having these moments to ponder on living with the flow of thread, or in this case, erratic needling of the chain, I feel a sense of ease that is difficult to put into words. But, having  done something more than just tend to the business of living, there is a sense of well-being. It doesn’t have to be a grand creative endeavour.  Sometimes just this little is enough to alleviate the stress.


Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Personal Threads: ‘The Imperfect Cloth’ by Priya Ravish Mehra, Guest Post

Rafoogar Bathak,Najibabad

Najibabad, my hometown in Bijnor district of Uttar Pradesh, has historically served as a hub of the shawl trade in North India for the past 250 years, and has been known as the country’s most important centre for the specialized repair of valuable antique Kashmir kani shawls. At one time a profitable industry in Kashmir, the weaving of these beautiful textiles with their tapestry techniques, complex designs and intricate colour combinations is in sharp decline today.
Rafoogar demonstrating his craft, photo credit Priya Ravish Mehra
My own journey into the world of textiles began in childhood through the sight of kani shawls and other precious fabrics that were often brought to the family home by local rafoogars, expert darners who pass their carefully protected traditional skills from one generation to the next – fathers to sons, elders to youngsters, master artisans to apprentices – within their community. The rafoogars’ relationship with my ancestors had continued unbroken for decades. It was my rare good fortune to be raised by artistic parents – from the late 1930s to mid-1940s my mother and father had been students of Nandlal Bose, Binode Bihari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij,  the  three renowned Santiniketan modernists. I grew up in a house where handicrafts were integral to daily life, and where creativity and aesthetic interests were highly encouraged and appreciated. Kani shawls were prized items in our family collection, and my intimate familiarity with these exquisite objects from the time I was very young proved to be the core catalyst for my interest in the textile traditions of India, and later of the world.
Untiled-Kantha fragments with paper pulp, 14.5 in x 17.5 in -2016
My deep fascination with textiles took concrete form when I abandoned my postgraduate studies in mathematics and joined Santiniketan. Five years (1982-87) as a student in this renowned institution helped me to develop my interest in  textiles as both an area of study and as a personal art practice.
Untitled - Various thread with paper, 12 x 10 inches 2014
Over the years various opportunities to exhibit in solo and group shows in India and other countries came my way, and I received encouraging responses to my work. At present I am documenting the darning tradition in India, specifically the mending of Kashmir kani shawls, perhaps the only significant textile woven using tapestry techniques (with the possible exception of Deccan paithani saris). My research project, Making ‘Invisible’ Visible, is about a living tradition of craftsmanship, continuously upheld in difficult economic conditions by Najibabad’s rafoogars who have carefully protected the pushtaini (hereditary) knowledge required for the conservation of antique kani, keeping their specialized skills within the community and hence ‘invisible’ to outsiders.

The invisble darning
My research is a form of homage to these largely unseen and unacknowledged virtuoso artisans whose collective contribution to the great treasury of Indian cultural forms is missing from India’s textile narrative as well as from the sociological record. Other than the rare passing reference in Mughal manuscripts, quoted by various authors in modern studies of Kashmir shawls, there is no historical documentation of rafoogari as a profession or darners as a community. For me as a researcher, their discursive absence also embeds a symbolic irony, since the goal of repair and hallmark of expert rafoo is to render ‘invisible’ the damage on any kind of fabric.
Untitled- Indigo fabric with paper pulp 11 in x 8
I am not a textile scholar, textile historian or design/art pedagogue. My research is informed by my passion for textiles, my creative work as a textile art practitioner, my intuitive understanding of darning as an art form, my family associations with Najibabad’s rafoogars, and my deep concern for this vulnerable and unsupported community whose survival is under threat in an era of mechanization, as is the case with traditional artisans all over India. In more subjective terms, my research focus on the mending and restoration of degraded cloth acquired great significance for me some years ago when I was diagnosed with advanced cancer. I am still under treatment; and in this context the role of the rafoogar committed to preserving the unique life of a fragile, damaged kani shawl, who undertakes to repair it through difficult, meticulous, unseen, expert darning, has profound emotional resonance for me – as does the action of rafoo, which like all traditional Indian art forms is infused with meditative as well as cathartic and therapeutic potential.
Untitled- Indigo fabric with paper pulp 2, 11 in x 8
The medieval saint-poet Kabir, himself a weaver, frequently uses images from the craft to signify the process of material embodiment as well as of transcendence. The whole universe is stretched out on the cosmic loom fashioned from earth and sky; the sun and moon are simultaneously plied as twin shuttles… what was the warp, what the weft, what thread was used to create the finely woven, spotless sheet woven out of the five elements, the pristine cloth inevitably soiled, stained, defiled by the ignorant humans who wrap themselves in it…? So sings the poet, who concludes that only the Weaver can mesh thread with thread… with a formless shuttle weave a shawl with no edge… Today I am easily able to transpose Kabir’s lyric assertions to my own prolonged experience of an illness that has coerced visible and invisible uncertainties, fluctuations, blemishes and disruptions into the once-reliable order, logic and symmetries of my own somatic ‘warp and weft’. But I have also come to marvel at and respect the perfect design of the priceless perishable ‘sheet’; I have come to understand how the edges of each rip and gash have to be continuously aligned by the ‘darner’, firmly yet delicately pinioned, and then sealed stitch by careful stitch, to prevent further damage and to render the resilient cloth intact and whole. I have been absorbing and integrating those deeper intuitions simultaneously into my artistic life and my daily existence.
Untitled-Jute Fabric fragment with Daphne pulp,14 in x 21 in, 2016 (2)
Rafoogari thus represents an intimate merging of the artistic and personal paths within my life’s journey. My ongoing rafoogari research bestows a sense of coming full circle, a return to my origins which are also the source of my textile art practice that definitively germinated from my childhood love for kani shawls. Earlier, my ‘life’ and my ‘work’ were flowing in parallel, but now they seem to have become one. While my research documents the aesthetic, the technical skills and the sociological truths of the rafoogar community, it also provides me with an invaluable chance to assimilate various aspects of both visible and invisible darning as a powerful metaphor – to understand ‘repair’ as a vital modality of self-knowledge, and to experience the place, significance and act of such ‘darning’ in the fabric of a life, as well as in the life of a fabric. 
Priya Ravish Mehra is a Delhi-based textile artist, weaver, researcher and designer. Graduating from Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, she later studied tapestry weaving at West Dean College, Sussex and  at the Royal College of Arts, London under a  Charles Wallace Fellowship.  To study the maintenance and preservation of Indian textiles, especially Kashmir shawls in public and private collections in the US, she also received an Asian Cultural Council Grant  Her battle against cancer has been aided and inspired by her work in rafoogari.

‘Personal Threads’ is an endeavour to read our histories (both political and personal) as the interconnected pieces of a quilt – each one’s individual threads sewn together to form a larger picture. Telling our stories is a means to locate ourselves and who we are within the folds of their narrative. And often, who we are and what we do, emerges from the people, things and places that played some role in our past. We may claim different nationalities and religions but the DNA of our lives is complex and far from unconnected.


If you’d like to contribute to this project, drop me a line.