The Lives of Animals

Q&A with Timothy Roberts for The Lives of Animals — Gracia Haby
St Michael's Grammar School website, 16th August, 2013


Gracia Haby, Making spare wings from foliage, postcard collage, 2013

Q: Can you describe the major themes of your current exhibition?
On the eve of our five-day-install of our work at Geelong Gallery, we are looking forward to the whole glorious process. Louise Jennison and my work for this exhibition, All breathing in heaven, is part of a three-person exhibition with Stephen Wickham. In reply to Stephen’s photographic grid (along one wall of the gallery space), 464 of my postcard collages will be arranged in columns dictated by colour and 23 of Louise’s birds (with one butterfly included) will appear to take flight. Louise’s birds have initial appearance of flight, but are actually pinned to the wall like specimen collections of old. Beauty in its place, tagged and recorded. These hand-drawn birds of Louise’s have nowhere to fly in the gallery; this is not their habitat. They will be boxed within my postcard collage grid. With my postcard collages (previously exhibited at Latrobe Regional Gallery as part of our exhibition By This Unwinking Night (2012), and including new postcard collages set in Geelong), I am chiefly looking to add one thing only to the scene that will alter its reading. Sometimes the new animal inhabitant will be hard to spot, a chameleon camouflaged in the floral arbour, and other times it will dominate the landscape. For me, it is what the animal I have collaged in place is doing that is of interest to me and what I see these works to be about. Are they scuttling or seeking shelter? The title of each scene, too, will serve as clue. (It will also serve as red herring.) This configuration along one long gallery wall features collages from 2006 to 2013 that will give way to Louise’s birds. It includes collages created as part of my Dear You series in which I write the narrative on the reverse side of the postcard too. Many people think I have found them this way, with a story on the reverse, which I find amusing. For me, like titling an artwork, it is another space in which to play and direct reading.

Q: How long have you been collaborating with Louise Jennison? How did you meet, and what do you each bring to the creative process?
We met at RMIT in 1994. We were both studying Painting (BA in Painting with Honours, 1994–97), and, along with a couple of others also straight out of secondary school, a bond formed. We worked side by side in the studio or were involved in group exhibitions together. We soon discovered that we each liked each others working methods. There are a great many less creative parts to staging an exhibition (the business nuts and bolts of any endeavor) and you need to put in a great many hours, so to find someone who is equally dedicated to this was essential.

Over the years, we have each set to polishing different skills in order to each bring something different. There would be little point in collaborating with yourself. But we also have a great many similarities too and our collaboration is one of harmony not discord. At this stage, we are not looking to create works from a collaborative tension between the two ways of seeing. We are looking to make artists’ books or prints or drawings that without the other would not be possible.

In our recent collaborative artists’ books, such as Beneath the screen of closed eyelids (Port Said) (2012), I have collaged over scenes completely hand-coloured by Louise. Who knows what we will do in the next. This is half the fun.

Working collaboratively is also another way, for us, of getting more things done. As I take care of the website, Louise is putting tabs on the postcard collages for gallery install. 928 tabs, two on each collage, perfectly spaced. For each of us, it is almost like having another pair of hands.

Q: You have stated that ‘the animal is there to question our very behaviour, those moral principles one governs the self by, and to explore the relationship with the natural world.’ How does your current exhibition expand on these themes? Does your art have an overarching moral theme or message?
I am primarily interested in what the animal in my collages is doing more than what type of animal they are (that is secondary). I am interested in putting them in scenarios both obvious and less so. Some promenade through a scene whilst others lurk seemingly undetected, such as in my artists’ book Testing the laws of hazard (2012). Most are out of proportion with their environment. They don’t fit and yet they do, such as in my artists’ book, All that’s bewitching by the water (Capri) (2012). Most are in some ways a self-portrait of how I see or feel my own place in the world to be. With Louise’s birds, the important part is the environment you do not see. In my works there is a landscape but it might not be the right one, and in Louise’s works there is no branch or nook. Upon first glance, I think our work looks cheerful, but upon closer reflection it is anything but. We use the animal almost as a lure to pull you closer.

We also try to leave our works open-ended. You can see in them what you will. You can make of them what you will. You can see yourself. You can see your own link or association with nature. You can see human nature reflected in the movements and actions. You can see charm. Along the way, some people have seen our zines to be artists‘ books, or our ‘this’ to be ‘that’ and as this is something beyond our control, we’re fine with that.

Q: Can you describe your method of collage? What makes the medium so compelling for you?
I have been using collage for many years now. It crept into my works at RMIT and made itself a nest. By the end of my course, I was no longer using brushes to paint with but brushes to apply the glue to reverse side of collage. To my way of thinking and working, it felt a natural fit with artists’ books. The two went hand-in-hand. The two, collage and artists’ books, were also extremely portable and required very little by way of space. Just as there is always room to be found to draw in your sketchbook, there is little that prevents one from creating collage. This practical approach was a way to ensure I kept working regardless, a way to push aside the obstacles. All of my work can be done on a large drawing board, anywhere, but space to think is a necessity. I cut out all of my pieces in advance to making. I store them in a large clear folder. This is my palette. This can be likened to mixing pigment. This part of the process requires different thought. I cut out pieces slowly and with a small sharp pair of scissors. This enables me to get in small spaces between a bird’s claws or a creature’s horns or antlers. When it comes to making a collage, I will work on about ten or more at the one time, and I will interchange the pieces until I am sure that every character or element is where I want it. I play with the options I see and decide on which I prefer. At the end of this process, there will be several works ready to be glued in place. Gluing pieces in place requires good light and patience. It is where mistakes can occur, so snouts of rodents are glued in place first and then the rest of the body, or the bird’s feet are lined up with their support or horizon line. I glue the part I am most particular about its exact position first and work outwards. They may be small pieces, but I glue each piece in several stages, smoothing them out as I go.

I enjoy the whole process of collage. It is flexible, and, for me, the best way I know to create what I see in my mind’s eye. I also create digital collages and the process here is quite different. Here, it is about layers one on top of the other (say, forty or more) that are then stripped back to reveal what lies underneath. The collages by hand conceal what lies beneath. Digital collages have a wider source pool of imagery to employ and for this reason are equally exciting. In our artists’ books and zines, both feature, as well as Louise’s drawings with pencil, watercolour, or sometimes pen.

Q: Can you discuss your experience with Art at St Michael’s, including notable pieces, teachers you remember, etc.?
In retrospect, I loved my time studying Art and Studio Art at St Michael’s (in the late eighties, early nineties). They were the periods in the day that flew by. The art department felt giddy world away in every sense, and not just because it was separated by a laneway. In addition to the practical side of study (from colour mixing to folio preparation), I enjoyed the challenge of Art History, of peeping at the wide world and scratching deeper. A good point from which to leap, I remember discipline fused with enthusiasm, two necessary requirements.

(I have but one chief regret and that is that I dropped out of English Literature before semester start in my final years at St Michaels. Though I’d read over the summer and loved the texts set, I, at very last minute, doubted my abilities. I am since learning to work through doubt.)

Q: When did you realize that you had artistic talent? Did you pursue this throughout your School years?
I have always drawn, scribbled, and collaged as a means of amusement, and I hope I always remain to do so. It is easy to place obstacles of time and finance in your way. “I don’t have time to work” or“I don’t have the money and/or space to make what I want”. I like to work with these restrictions. Almost anything can be used in a collage.

In a recent documentary I saw on filmmaker Michael Haneke, I particularly liked how he spoke about the privilege of being able to pour all of your neuroses into a creative outlet, and of taking your audience seriously. It is good advice, and it is true. It is a privilege, this creative outlet. It also takes a lot of determination to keep going in the face of funding rejections and other setbacks, but what else would you do if you didn’t make things?

Q: Which artists influence your work, and what have you gained from them?
Many. All. Everything you see can in someway influence you. What you like and what you dislike. The important part is being able to recognise why you like or dislike something.

On the back of the Melbourne International Film Festival, having seen fifty-three films in a short period, the works that are inspiring me at present are some of the great films I have seen. Bahman Ghobadi’s Rhino Season was exquisitely framed. Starring the exiled Iranian actor Behrouz Vossoughi, for me, it showed through symbolism what it might feel like to be released from prison after thirty years. Water appears in almost every scene as a device to recall memory, and you could pause the footage anywhere and a painting composition is apparent. Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours also read like Ways of Seeing in film format, and Nicolas Rey’s differently, Molussia with it’s use of a wind camera becomes an automatic drawing.

Dance is also inspiring to me, perhaps because it rarely has an actual (speaking) voice yet it can communicate, impart, reveal, explore so much. I am also greatly drawn to its seemingly collaborative side of so many people all working towards the one goal of creating and presenting a great work. Philippe Béziat’s film about the creative process, Becoming Traviata, was inspiring for this reason. The close look at the rehearsal process of staging an opera showed the dedication, devotion, and hard work required of all involved. Necessary requirements, you see.

All this and we’ve yet to talk about the influence of books read. Let’s leave it at many, all, everything.

Q: In an article on Swan Lake, you exalt the work for its ‘romanticism impossible to resist or ignore.’ Can you discuss your musical inspirations/leanings?
Classical music (or silence) is the only music I listen to when I am working as it enables me to ‘see’. It is, I guess, much like a film score, but one that only you hear at the time of making. It enables me to set the stage, to see an idea clearly, and follow it through.

I have recently started writing about the various dance performances I see (for Fjord Review since 2012), and this to me is like collaging not with paper but with words until I get them to flow as I wish. I write my pieces on paper in a messy hand that tries to keep up with the sentences as they form, and later transcribe and flesh out and reorder these on computer. I love writing these pieces, I love the challenge of describing what you have seen and felt, stripping back what is not needed, questioning why you like something, recalling what you felt. I studied ballet throughout Primary School and for most of my years whilst at St Michael’s, and have long been fascinated by what the body can do and how it can move. It is like a piece in a collage for me. A tool. It can describe, communicate, and watching dance, or indeed film, it let’s you, seated in the audience, forget all about yourself. Complete emersion in a moment. You are rendered weightless. You can imagine what it is like to soar. Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake enables this, and I enjoy seeing its different stagings. (For example, The Australian Ballet’s performance of Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake and The Australian Ballet’s performance of Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake.)  Like any work of art, the closer you look, the more you see.

Q: You have created artworks for a number of clients over the years. What is your favourite project, and why?
I have especially loved creating digital collages for The World of Interiors as the process was completely new to me. ‘Illustrating’ someone else’s words is an enjoyable challenge as you decide how specific or abstract you will be whilst sticking to a brief, adding in "a ziggurat of balls of porcelain clay” to draw a point. (For example, Time on his Hands (2012), The Genuine Article (2009), and Greeks Bearing Gifts (2008).) With these works, I create a handful (ten or so) and email them through. These works look nothing like the result on the printed page. They are, though technically finished visually, drafts to polish. They are one half of the page that is image and text and the two need to work together. It is the back and forth of the process that I especially like. As this magazine is based in London, I also enjoy making the most of the time difference, and trick my brain into thinking it is ahead of the (always tight) deadline.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add to the article? If so, please elaborate.
Think I may have bent your ear for long enough now, but thank-you for asking me these questions.