Q&A with Mati Rose McDonough for her guest interview series conducted as part of her Daring Adventures in Collage 5-week e-course
May 2014


Gracia Haby, In the borrowed costume of Petrouchka (c 1911), 2014, collage on ephemera

Collage is the ultimate exercise in daring. As an artform, collage is all about gathering inspiration, embracing imperfection, and transforming the mundane into the extraordinary. Unpredictable by nature, collage challenges our inner critic as well as the inner choreographer who wants everything to be just so.

This 5 week e-course is not just about collage: it’s about building our daring muscles while practicing courage in art + life!

This course is for anyone who wants to strengthen their creative muscles, be inspired on a daily basis, step into their own brilliance + find their magic. Oh, and create unique, inspiring mixed media artwork incorporating beautiful collage!

Gracia Haby & Louise Jennison are practising artists based in Melbourne, Australia, who more often than not work collaboratively. Graduates of RMIT University (Haby: BA Fine Arts, with Hons, 1997; Jennison: BA Fine Arts, 1996) their artists’ books and other paper works can be found in the collections of the state libraries of New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria; the university libraries of Deakin, Melbourne, Monash, RMIT, Charles Sturt; and University of West England (UK); Artspace Mackay; Burnie Regional Gallery; Latrobe Regional Gallery; Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery; National Gallery of Australia; Print Council of Australia; Tate (UK); and private collections. Their work has been commissioned for The Big Issue; NETS Victoria; Fjord Review; Australian Poetry; The World of Interiors (UK); ACE Hotel (USA); and UPPERCASE magazine (CAN) amongst others.


Q: What are some of your inspirations?
Our inspirations are perhaps as they should be, many and varied, direct and indirect. Sometimes they will be courted, deliberately sought out. And always will it be apparent at the time. You see/feel/hear and are inspired. Inspiration is, if nothing else, always clear. It announces its arrival, whether brought about by a passage in a novel by a favourite or newly discovered author, or an exquisite visual seen in a book held in a collection, like Malherbe’s incredible Woodpecker compositions from Monographie des picidées 1861–62, held in the collection of the State Library of Victoria.

Fiction, natural history, film (in particular the full immersion we favour of the annual Melbourne International Film Festival where we treat ourselves, and perhaps render ourselves silly in the process, to seeing upward of fifty films in nineteen days), dance (in particular, The Australian Ballet’s annual season, and new works at Dancehouse or as part of a festival like the recent Festival of Live Art, amongst others), art then and now, and music, all of these things and more are inspiring.

For our most recent body of work (currently being exhibited at the Counihan Gallery in an exhibition called In Your Dreams, May though June, 2014), for example, the work is inspired by the choreography of Graeme Murphy, Jiří Kylián, George Balanchine et al., and it is about loss, of a Siamese cat of sixteen years, Omar, of species, of possibilities. It is about the body inevitably growing older and knees that creak. It is about all the things that are now only possible in our dreams. It is inspired by the short stories of Katherine Mansfield, which pull the rug out from underneath you, and the writing of Patrick Hamilton and John Williams for their sadness and the beautiful ordinary characters on the page. It is inspired by Dickens’ description of a character ‘building castles in the sky’ as much as it is by the muted colours of the costumes of the Ballet Russes. It is inspired by all the things we love.

You see, inspiration is found in everything.

Q: Describe a rhythm of your week and/or a day in the life of you!
Varied, as per inspiration, if broken down and dissected day by day.

Our day starts at 6am and runs through until 12.30. Some days we can work solidly on our artwork, and other days are more splintered. Necessity dictates it so, and stamina too. Some days are broken up with the business side of things, a tight deadline, grocery shopping, and archiving what has been done. At present, as things are a little hectic, we are working from the top of the pile, getting the things that have to be done for tomorrow done first and anything else a bonus. This helps us get things done without getting into too great a panic. We tick things off our mental To Do list. So tonight, we will be, for example, making final preparations for a bookbinding and artists’ book workshop we are conducting tomorrow.

We both prefer working on our own work in the mornings or in the early evening, but you cannot always wrangle things that way. Sometimes days are chopped about a bit. Ideally, we prefer large uninterrupted spells, but then, doesn’t everyone? At present, as we have just taken down one exhibition of hand-coloured prints and postcard collages (Not Quite Sure, Port Jackson Press Print Gallery) and we have two current exhibitions to, for want of better word, promote (In Your Dreams, and Louise’s artists’ book, A Flight of Twelve Southern Hemisphere Birds, exhibited as part of the 2014 National Works on Paper). We are looking forward to getting back to the making side of things. We are looking forward to installing our new work in a new way in a new space (for we love this bit). We’re looking forward to the cycle repeating. Always. 

Q: What is something daring you've done lately?
Our whole career seems most daring, upon reflection, as it offers no guarantee and it provides no shortcut. We have kept plugging at what we love and thrown ourselves in headfirst. At the back of our minds, the feeling that if we stuff this up, it has all been in vain, and this is a powerful motivator when twinned with love for what you are doing.

Q: Who are some of your role models?
Those who are hard-working and true always make the best of role models, and they can be found in all fields.

Q: Favorite art books? Music to listen to while painting? 
For the main, we both like to work to classical music. It can be familiar or new to our ears, depending upon which stage we are up to. So, for example, if working on something brand new, I favour something I know on repeat, and that way it helps me keep tempo and in the same unbroken zone.

Our bookshelves are heaving with books, from art books to fill us with awe to reference books and dog-eared novels. They are all favourites, all inspiring, and all in some way filter into our work.  

Q: What are some of your favorite materials?
Paper is our chief love, our favourite material to work with, now and always.

And upon a paper support, Louise favours pencil (both grey lead and coloured pencil) and watercolour, and I, archival glue, applied thinly with a brush. To create all (non-digital) collages, I use a small, sharp pair of scissors so I can cut in close to the desired image and make the edge fluid. Once adhered, I soften this edge further with pencil. 

Our tools of choice: 2B pencil, scissors, glue, brushes, bone folder, steel ruler, and drawing board

Q: Can you talk more about how you've incorporated these unique aspects/discoveries into your work?
When working with paper, we look to use a paper that will be of heavy enough weight to support collage (too thin, it will be too hard to flatten). Our collaborative artists’ book, As Inclination Directs, for example, which features collage and hand-coloured sunsets, is printed on 300gsm hot-press Fabriano.

When using found materials, there also needs to be room to add something to the scene, a need for a spot of collage in the first place, and the condition needs to be good. Some found material fashioned into an artists’ book is rebound by Louise, such as Tumbling lightly, tumbling fast (I) and (II). Others have their rusty staples removed and are rebound with thread. 

Q: Favorite colors as of late?
Gold. Greylead pencil. Colours with a slight muted earthiness to them. 

Q: How do you begin?
With an idea netted before it can escape. One can't be too polite.

Q: How do you side-step your inner critic?
They can be hard to muffle, those Inner Critics, but usually they don’t make their presence felt at the time of chasing an idea, making work or installing an exhibition, the three most enjoyable parts of the process when all feels golden and possible and exciting. The Inner Critic waits in the wings for a failed attempt at trying something new that results in a lot of then-deemed wasted paper, or an opening (sometimes), or the day after an opening (when, in cold light of day you dissect the parts and read them in an unfavourable way). Chiefly, once the work has left the studio. Once you’ve stapled your heart to the wall for all to see. But as with all things, there are exceptions to the rules. Sometimes when you do not feel like working or you feel small about ‘the silly things you do’ or ‘the same things you make’, perhaps this is the Inner Critic at work trying to dissuade you from brushing yourself off and starting over.

The Inner Critic can be silenced by continuing with your work (it is rendered small by Perseverance), by reading or trying something related that gently then nudges you back to work, and sometimes by stepping away and coming back with fresh eyes. The old maxims are oft true. 

Q: What does it feel like for you to be in the flow? Any suggestions for how to arrive there? 
Wonderful. Utterly. Hours pass, but you are unaware of this, save for realizing that night has fallen and you now need to close the blinds and cover the aviary. It requires focus, and depending upon which stage of the process you are at, sometimes it can disappear if interrupted too often (by phone calls and daily chores). When chasing an idea, the state is fragile as you are racing to record it all whilst it appears clear. Later, when polishing this idea, the state is more robust and can withstand pets mewing for a third breakfast or emails tapping at the door seeking entry. At this stage, you can dip in and out with relative ease. 

To find this sensation, try to snare it with a few similar conditions repeated. This may be classical music playing in the background or first thing in the morning, before you turn on the computer and are pulled away. For me, water always helps. Ideas strike in the shower, when I can’t get to a pen and paper, or when washing the dishes, or watering the garden. Ideas seem often to crash in and beg to be seized when I am hindered in some way. So too when engaged in quiet rhythmical process, like gardening or sweeping. Perhaps this is distance making things appear clear. A way of stepping back and realizing what needs or could be done. Perhaps this is another version of, just sleep on it and in the morning, you’ll know what to do. Perhaps it is when you focus on a different task at hand that ideas or solutions can come to you and you silence your Inner Critic or the noise of the day and all the million jobs that need doing. 

This glorious blinkered state is one neither of us have had to struggle too hard to find, as yet. 

Q: I love that you COLLBORATE with collage! Can you talk about this process? How the idea was born and any insight into the collaborative creating adventure!
We rather fell into it, many years ago now. Our first series of artists’ books were made collaboratively, with the two of us working on the one image side by side. With our recent collaborative installation as part of In Your Dreams at Counihan Gallery, the process has shifted, but then, it is now some 14 years hence.  

We decided early on in our collaboration, through organic process, not to polish the same skills. We naturally lent towards different things and then bring these different things together to make one work not possible without the other. And so a third work is made that belongs to us both. Sometimes, Louise will create a drawing in response to one of my elements, such as the imagined portraits of the last pair of Great Auks and their spinning-top egg before extinction. These drawings were made to mirror the collages I had created on found photographs, right down to the gold trim she painted onto the sides of her drawings. At other times, my collage with scissors and glue, will respond to her drawings. Sometimes we pool our work together and see what we have before then racing in our related but separate directions. It is a definite pattern, but it is flexible and it is founded on harmony. We are influenced by similar things, but to the collaboration, Louise in particular brings her love of natural history reads, science, and bookbinder’s precision, and I enjoy inverting these facts about extinction and the plight of endangered animals to give them a different meaning. I toss in the red herrings. But not always.

We work together because we enjoy it and we could not imagine it any other way. We have never questioned it and find that it keeps us motivated. It sharpens our Can Do spirit, really. As well as being pleasurable, it is also reassuring setting up an installation that is fiddly and precise with someone else. We can take turns to lose confidence or faith, sharing the load. Moreover, as we both thrive when working, it makes sense to do that together.  

Q: What would you like to say to this class of Daring Adventurers to give them confidence on this journey?
There is much to be said for perseverance and determination. If you are in it for the long haul and because you need (more than anything else) to make whatever it is you need to make, everything is possible. Setbacks are inevitable, but eventually can be turned around to spur you on (after a fair amount of grumbling). Writer Iris Murdoch referred to “every book is the wreck of a perfect idea” and this strikes immediate chord. This is what ensures we keep working, trying, doing, making. The belief that one day it will all come together just as we’d envisaged.

And perhaps on more practical note, with practice, all work gets better. And to always make work that is in your own voice: it has legs to go the distance and leaves Fad for dead. 

Thanks Mati.