The Missing Ink*

teaser

A change, they say, is as good as a holiday. When I moved into my friend Yvonne’s unit just after Christmas, my one big goal was to figure out by the New Year what the heck I was going to do for a living, now that my hours at work have been chopped to less than half what they were. I had been thinking about it a bit, at home on the houseboat, but found that my mind kept wandering the same old grooves, the same tired ideas: Bind journals and albums, sell them on ETSY, have exhibitions or rent pop-up space, and join two weekly tourist craft markets in Darwin…just thinking about it depressed me!—I’d chewed on these commonplace, uninspired solutions for so long that they were a grey, flavourless wad of gum in my brain. Also, I had tried them all before, and they hadn’t worked then, so why did I believe that they would work now?

Kris’s arrival in Hawaii, and the ensuing media hype, pushed my own plans aside for a few days. Kris and I exchanged e-mail letters twice daily, making up for time we’d been apart and the best of his time on land. As this went on I found myself wishing, as I do every time he’s off somewhere and I’m at home, that I could send him a beautiful letter. But it was impossible, with him on a boat. He, on the other hand, has taken advantage of my fixed address to send me dozens of postcards and hand-painted letters since I left him behind in Guatemala in August 2016.

Finally, this impracticable urge to make a beautiful piece of mail art for Kris, along with posts from my own blog, and some readers’ comments, gave me the idea.

Something so unlike all my other ideas that, instead of looking through it with indifference as it flitted past me like a soap bubble, my mind pounced and pinned it down. I was so agitated by this new thing that I got out of bed and paced the hallway for hours. For once, my inner critic was so astounded that it couldn’t find anything to say, and let me walk that idea from the land of vague notions and through the door into my world.

It’s so simple, I wondered that I didn’t think of it sooner.

vintage nibs

I love all things paper. I love writing and drawing. I have spent 20 years hoarding beautiful papers (not just for bookbinding), inks, calligraphy and fountain pens, matchboxes full of steel Gillot and Mitchell nibs, drawing pens, envelopes, paints. I love travel, travel sketching and travel writing. I collect paper money, maps, and stamps from other countries. I love sending letters and making mail art…I have dozens of sealing wax tapers, brass monogram seals that I’ve never used, and several albums filled with old postage stamps (I buy stamp collections from flea markets). One of my grand life plans (that never came to pass) was to send beautiful mail art to each of my friends, all over the world, on a regular basis.

Before the New Year, I posted images of some old work on this blog, and a lot of it was mail art. These images of mail art got the most reactions from readers.

“Everybody,” I mused, “loves the idea of a beautiful letter arriving in the mail.” *plink!* The proverbial lightbulb blinked on, in my head.

And yet, letter-writing has been called a “fading art,” and old-fashioned letter-writers, a “fading generation,” because although everybody would love to receive such a letter, nobody wants to have to write one.

Will this fading generation, I find myself quietly asking, also be the last to write letters? Messages crafted by hand rather than bits of binary code? Writing that carries emotions rather than emoticons?
—Catherine Field, The Fading Art of Letter Writing

“So, with letter-writing on its last legs and the New York Times publishing elegies to it, your great idea is to take it up, professionally? Really?” The way I see it, that’s an even better reason to take up my dip-pen, stir those sleeping Herbin inks, and start scribbling…to keep it alive.
back to colour


Here’s my pitch:

I propose to write, and paint, beautiful letters (that’s why I’ve been brushing up on calligraphy) with stories and images from my own life, and then reproduce and post them, once a month (like a magazine subscription), to anyone who wants to find more than bills and shopping catalogs in their mailbox…

I’ll make sure the letter is personalized (although I couldn’t possibly hand-paint and write one letter for every person!) and use the prettiest stamps I can find, with artwork on the page (a watercolor, a drawing, a collage, a bit of embroidery on paper, you know what I do…), calligraphy and art on the envelopes, wax sealed, rubber-stamped…a dream in an envelope. For you, or maybe for someone you know who’d love to receive regular letters as a gift.

A good handwritten letter is a creative act, and not just because it is a visual and tactile pleasure. It is a deliberate act of exposure, a form of vulnerability, because handwriting opens a window on the soul in a way that cyber communication can never do. You savor their arrival and later take care to place them in a box for safe keeping.
—Catherine Field, The Fading Art of Letter Writing

This idea goes live in my ETSY shop on Wednesday, 17th January…

What do you think?


*The Missing Ink is the title of a book I have by Philip Hensher, about the lost art of handwriting as a form of self-expression. I loved the title so much, I just had to use it for this post!

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Dear Anthony : In the aftermath of a dirty little media scrum

Yesterday I found a dozen facebook Messenger requests from people I didn’t know …all claiming to be “glad to hear that Kris is safe” and then wanting me to call and “answer a few questions about his ‘amazing voyage'”. They were pushy af, insincere, asked loaded questions…but didn’t know how to listen to the answers. They were annoying, to say the least. I left my phone and laptop downstairs (I am supremely capable of ignoring a ringing phone…it is one of my greatest pleasures and strengths), and went to practice oblique pen calligraphy.

When they couldn’t get hold of either me or Kris, they trawled the internet for every little thing they could find about him, took what they could use, presented it—naturally— out of context, misquoted, and made shit up to fill in the gaps in their reports and create an aura of verisimilitude. The title everyone seemed to settle on was coined by the Maui News, repeated by The Guardian, and this of course set off a case of echolalia among all the other news sites. It read:

“Disoriented” Australian man Kris Larsen rescued in homemade boat off Hawaii”

It’s not important, in the end, what was written, what was true, what was untrue…the reports—even tarted up—were only moderately interesting to the internet, and activity faded away by evening. Internet news reporters are trained to take stories without substance, research, information or nutrients, pump it with steroids, prop it up and get it online within hours. Quantity, not quality, is their fare. But never mind all this, everyone knows that reporters are not journalists. What I want to share here is this:

This morning I found a copy of this letter in my Inbox. It had been sent by Dene Waring, a reader of The Age, to Anthony Colangelo…the byline for the article on the news site. His open-minded and intelligent approach—well-versed in the history of sailing and courteous to the reporter—from someone who clearly “gets it”, prompted my grateful reply, and I’ve included both our e-mails in this post, because they give me hope that not everyone “out there” is a 2-minute opinionated dunderhead.


Dear Anthony,

I read with interest your article “‘Disoriented’ Australian man Kris Larsen rescued in homemade boat off Hawaii”, and wish to broaden the perspectives expressed and inferred. I should add I had not heard of Mr Larsen before this morning.

In an industrial first-world culture that depends upon a large number of conformists to support its infrastructure that in turn support its conformists, we have come to hold up as heroes a small handful of intrepid adventurers – but not, it seems, during their own lifetime. However, there are exceptions in the sailing world of world sailors, such as Joshua Slocum, Lin and Larry Pardey, Robin Graham, Bernard Moitessier, and many others. My wife and I have also met more of whom the world will never hear during our own modest ocean voyages – those sailors want it that way. It seems Kris Larsen may be one of those quiet adventurers who has proven, with every one of his honest ocean-crossing miles over many years, that he is an intrepid man who sails under his own flag – the hard way – and thereby keeps alive that unique quality of human nature that drives the strongest of us to attempt great adventures with no absolute guarantees. Indeed, what great adventure would be a great adventure, if it also guaranteed being home by 5:30pm for dinner?

There are some issues with your article and its premise that you may find warrant (what I hope will be largely constructive) critique from some of your readers, which I also offer below. The article will also garner a large number of comments calling out Mr Larsen as “an idiot”. Those comments will come from those who are inflamed by the emotive angle of your piece. They may not research their subject before making their judgements.

It may have been a more interesting story both to write, and to read, if the context of Mr Larsen’s voyage had been explored and put forward. He appears to be an experienced sailor who chooses to circle the globe the way it has been traversed for millennia – on its own terms, without the assistance of such recent advents such as GPS and long-range communications.

Let us examine those key elements of the article that will elicit the most emotive responses from your readers: “Disoriented”. “Rescued”. “Homemade boat”. “Mr Larsen’s boat did not contain communication equipment, electronic navigation instruments, an engine or a toilet and his sails were in poor condition.”

“Disoriented”: Are we talking about knowing one’s exact position on the planet to within a metre, or are we talking about the strangeness of the first words one utters in the first human contact for many weeks or months? If the former, navigating as all master mariners have over the centuries with a sextant and a timepiece – Captain Cook comes to mind, but let’s not go into Christopher Columbus, poor man had no reliable timepiece – is a challenge many of us are not adept enough to be able to perform. I myself was required to demonstrate that I could navigate using traditional methods as part of New Zealand’s Cat 1 regulations when departing overseas on our own vessel; I had to strain considerably to demonstrate this just the once, and from then on depended on the U.S.’s military GPS satellites and prayed that war would not break out, thereby leading the U.S. to scramble the signals for civilian use. If that happened I would have been helpless and require “rescuing”. Mr Larsen in the same situation would have just carried on his way, undaunted by the loss of complex systems that depend on the actions of others.

“Rescued”: Asking for a tow into harbour when you have navigated across the Pacific to within 6km of shore does not always constitute “rescue”. Almost all engineless vessels for centuries have been towed into harbour by pilot boats as a matter of course – this is prudent seamanship, and still applies to most cargo and passenger vessels. In modern times, Lin and Larry Pardey (http://www.landlpardey.com) voyaged the world in their series of engineless yachts and were towed into almost every harbour, including Australia’s; they are regaled for their choices and their voyages and have received many achievement awards.

“Homemade boat”: As any world-girdling explorer, stunt-person or cave diver will tell you, you must be responsible for your own equipment and its preparation. There is likely no factory-made, mass-produced vessel that would be suitable for Mr Larsen’s purposes, and let us remember that his life depends upon the integrity and the fitness for purpose of his craft. He appears to have designed and hand-built a craft that has successfully taken him around the world. How many people can claim that badge of honour? The answer lies upon the library shelves, with a small but valiant range of books describing the achievement. Please do read Joshua Slocum’s “Sailing Alone around the World” (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/6317/6317-h/6317-h.htm) – the true story of an astounding human being who stands tall as the first in his field to prepare his own craft and sail the world.

“Mr Larsen’s boat did not contain communication equipment, electronic navigation instruments, an engine or a toilet and his sails were in poor condition.”: Research into the nature of Mr Larsen’s epic undertaking and the manner in which he has performed it may show that he has wisely chosen the most dependable technologies and methods that have been proven throughout the ages. Indeed, if he had made himself dependent upon modern communications and navigation equipment (which often fails upon small craft due to salt-water damage etc and requires flawless performance of battery, wiring and charging systems), he may not have succeeded as far as he already has across many tens of thousands of ocean miles.

Likewise, engines on small vessels are disproportionately heavy and space-consuming (space that is better used for essential supplies) and often they are used for only a few hours – if at all – when circling the globe over many years. After all, you can always ask for a tow for the last few metres if you really need it? In this case, at your own peril it seems – you will be judged.

As for the reference to no toilet, a marine toilet (“head”) is a system of flaps, valves and underwater through-hull fittings that regularly fail and can sink a vessel very effectively – ask any marine insurance company. Nothing is safer or more wisely chosen in Mr Larsen’s case than a bucket; please refer to the hard-won wisdom of such circumnavigators as the aforementioned Slocum and Pardey, who extol the “bucket and chuck-it” approach themselves. However of course, if one is pottering about in-shore, it may be more polite and would certainly comply with local regulations to use a marine waste management storage system, but that is an entirely different matter.

Indeed, ask any experienced hard-nosed world cruiser – Mr Larsen seems to have made all the right choices, but he may yet be held up as a reckless fool. The fuller picture may reveal an experienced, intrepid adventurer of integrity and independence who has already achieved epic voyages with a minimum or no outside assistance – who among us is capable of these feats of human endeavour? Therein lies a much bigger and braver story to be told.

I put to you, are these not the very people we – eventually – hold up as heroes?

Kind Regards,
Dene Waring | Creative Director
www.earthstory.com.au
www.linkedin.com/in/denewaring


Dear Mr. Waring,

Thank you so much for this lovely piece of writing, it was a beautiful thing to wake up to and read with my morning coffee. I have forwarded it along to Kris as I’m sure it will gladden him, and probably give him a few new ways in which to express himself (English is only his fifth language. He is perfectly competent, but not eloquent) should he ever need to ‘defend’ himself against any authorities who might try to prevent him from leaving Hawaii on the grounds of being incapable of sailing.

You absolutely “get it”, and this gives me hope that others who may have read yesterday’s little breakout of sneering news reports got it, too. Not that it matters whether the fickle cheerers-and-jeerers of the internet get it or not…heavens, no!

Kris is one of those unusual people who refuses to surrender his dreams, no matter how daunting they may seem at the outset or how much society disapproves of them. He’s had to fight his way through so many things in his life—not just to fulfill big dreams, but to enjoy ordinary privileges that others take for granted, such as being a legal citizen in a democratic country—that he’s acquired an interesting set of survival tactics and characteristics, among which are the calculated elimination of anything remotely superfluous to the goal or purpose (his personal interpretation of Occam’s razor), the readiness to put up with the inconveniences that such a pared-down lifestyle entails, and the tough skin one needs to face the onslaught of criticism that the world is quick to heap upon someone who simply sticks to his own path.

Fortunately, yesterday’s media scrum has had no impact on Kris, whatsoever. He is engrossed in stocking up on food and water, the authorities have granted him 10 days waived visa privileges (he only asked for 10…if he wants more, they told him, “Just ask.”) and weather maps for the next leg of the trip. What others say he can or can’t do isn’t his problem…in fact, he quite enjoys playing the “gormless idiot” in the presence of scandalised, angry “proper sailors”. It makes them feel good about themselves, they pronounce him a lost cause, and swagger off with a ripping good story to tell The Boys back at the yacht club…leaving him alone to get on with his plans. This is preferable to being “Likeable”, perhaps eliciting some condescending pity, and having the guy install himself as mentor and advisor, getting in the way while Kris is trying to work and get his boat back out on the ocean as quickly as possible! Mention these men to him, half an hour after they’ve gone, and his eyes take a minute to focus: “What men?” It’s as if the thing had never happened.

Of course, there have also been some very kind people at each port. Regardless of what they privately thought of the boat and its skipper, they withheld judgement and took the time to get to know Kris a little bit, and found him to be a man of intelligence and integrity. Also, they helped in very practical, concrete ways: shared a lift to the supermarket, a quick tow to the wharf in a crowded or windless harbour, tips on where to find things or how to get into the city from the marina. So much more valuable and appreciated than any lecture on sailing!

Unless someone tries to prevent him from sailing onward, he will be quite content, living in his head, making his plans, ignoring the internet. The world will think what it thinks, but you are right: whatever anyone says of his chosen path, he has just sailed most of the way round the world—from Australia to Hawaii—has spent the past 4 years exploring Africa (on bicycle) and South America (on foot), has acquired fluent Spanish as his 8th language, and collected a treasure trove of stories, friends, and unique experiences from all the countries visited along the way. On a budget, I might add, of a few hundred dollars a month. Thanks to a home-built boat that requires no maintenance he can’t do, himself, using materials that can be found in even the smallest Third-World towns, that can take a pounding, and that isn’t worth anything to thieves or pirates but the scrap steel it is made of.

He is that rare thing in these hobbled times: a free man.

I am so grateful that you seem to have intuited all of this—reading with a desire to understand, rather than to judge or label—with nothing but the internet as your source of information…a good indication of the narrow-mindedness and mean-spiritedness of yesterday’s twaddle-mongers, who had access to the same information you did, and managed to do no more than spin straw into horse shit.

With fond regards from us both,
Nat (and Kris)

Felíz año nuevo, cariños!

There can be a weird lag between video and audio, but it’s a catchy little tune and, well, Intentalo Carito can’t make anything that I don’t adore…

6 from the ‘archives’

January 15 :: Green ManAnother six from deep within my flickr albums. It was fun to see some of these again, I’d forgotten I ever made them.

journal pagesNoodle doodles, and an embroidered postcard from my impulsive foodie trip to Malaysia, 2012.

Noodles are actually really good to doodle…
Happiness is Laksa...
journal pageMini eco’s pixel pop-up valentine card, given a rustic look with some brown drawing pen on Japanese wood-grain paper…

Hunk of wood-burning love

cut paper GypsyAn assemblage of cut patterned papers. From a drawing of he great Nijinsky, actually, by maybe Erté? I forget the artist. My bad.

IcarusIcarus, a collagraph made in a printmaking class at the Charles Darwin University, ca. 2009…

Mining a past self

Carpet page

self-reliance noun Reliance on one’s own powers and resources rather than on those of others

Creative blocks have a way of rendering the past worthless, negating every worthy thing I’ve ever done and leaving a dusty vacancy in my mind…there, where my bright ideas and little a-ha! moments used to live and proliferate in joyful, wild fecundity.

I wake up in the morning on my day off; a breeze is blowing, the air is light-flooded and the hours are pillowy as fresh clay, just waiting to be molded in my hands.  I clear some space at the desk, have (almost) all my art materials neatly grouped and within reach, and make a big pot of coffee to sustain me through a whole day of Making & Doing. I set out to make a little something, exercise a bit of creativity; I essay a few tentative marks with one material—no, that’s turned out wrong. I try another—Eek! Then another—Now that looks really crap! What a mess! What the hell is going on?!

I’m confused. Somewhere in my memory bank I seem to recall that I was okay with acrylic paints (Why else would I have 90 tubes of the stuff?) Or colored pencils. Or pen and ink. I was reasonably proficient. They used to respond to my touch. They used to perform tricks at my command. Fun ideas and confident forms used to rise unbidden and splendid, in abundance, under these very fingertips!

Didn’t they? I begin to mistrust my memories. Was I actually ever creative? Did I really make anything worthwhile? Did I really have good ideas of my own, at any time, or have I just imagined them all?

Habagat Garden: title page

Here’s where a ten-year-old Flickr photo account is invaluable.

Don’t go looking to be inspired by Others on the internet. This tactic almost never works when you have a creative block, because the block is caused by a faltering of self-confidence, and seeing the thousands upon thousands of wonderful things that others are making will only make you feel like dog shit. You’ll find yourself believing that it’s all been done before, and better. Worst possible outcome is that you may fall in love with something by someone else so much that you succumb to imitating it. Imitation is an important step in the learning process for artists, but you keep these copies to yourself, as exercises and lessons in technique, palettes, whatever. But you don’t post it on Instagram, hoping to boost your views and harvest a load of praise that was never meant for you, because when people “love” your copy, they are really loving the original artist’s work. Plus there is the strong likelihood that you will be found out, and the public shaming over one little image will damage your integrity so much that following up with 20 genuine works still might not be able to clear the wreckage.

Instead, turn to the one person you can copy, admire, strip-mine, and expand upon without fear of a public shaming or self-loathing: Yourself.

I MISS IT.I was doing precisely this, this morning. Stumped for ideas, paralysed with self-doubt, and feeling as though I had never made a mark or anything good in my life—so alien and disappointing were my attempts at making anything, last week—I browsed through my own Flickr albums of sketchbook pages, visual journals, embroidered work, soft sculptures, clay, hand-bound books, paper art, mail art, paintings, drawings.

Twenty years of photographs…a couple roomfuls of things created, ideas given form, stories documented. Hundreds of thousands of minutes, frozen in time and pinned to a surface or trapped in material.

Peril of The Orient (dimsim)

Just for fun, I’ve embedded half a dozen images, here. I think I will try to do this, at least once a week,  on my blog…just to air the images out a bit. They’ve been sitting, unlooked at, in my sleepy Flickr account, for several years. It’s nice to see them out and about (on my sleepy blog!) again. Every image recalls a time in my life, a story—however small—of who I was at the time, and what was engaging me. It’s good to be reminded that my life has not been a desert…that, although I never really took these ideas further or managed to make them my career or make a living out of them, I have spent a fair bit of my time doing something that brought me joy, making things that made me happy, and quite a few things that went on to make other people happy (as I browsed the images, I asked myself where it had gone to…a surprising number of finished paintings, books, and embroideries, have gone to friends or to delighted new owners who found them in my (also sleepy, dusty) Etsy shop.

the secret flowering of the Italian language

Some of these images may even go on to  inspire new work! Though I am notoriously hostile to the idea of repeating myself.

Even if they don’t serve as springboards for something else, though, they inspire just by showing me that, yes, I have had the ideas and drive to make things before. Yes, some of the things I have made have received such an enthusiastic response from others that I can hardly believe the stats.

And if I managed to do it once, I am reassured by these old images that I can do it, again.

Rapeseed: The nightmare with a gift in its hands, Part I

A map that everyone can understand

Marquesas Islands

French Polynesia’s Marquesas Islands in the Pacific Ocean.  An island group so small, in relation to the bigger picture, that when you zoom in to see the islands, their relation to the rest of the world disappears, and they sit surrounded by a screen of blue…

This delightful image reminds me of this excerpt from Lewis Carrol’s The Hunting of The Snark (a poem that every sailor should read and possess a copy of, on board):

He had bought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.

“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
“They are merely conventional signs!

“Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank:
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best–
A perfect and absolute blank!”

On a bigger map, these islands of myth and legend, beloved of sailors, dreamers, and an ailing, suffering Paul Gauguin, apparently sit—wonderfully, unimaginably—isolated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. At this scale, they disappear—words, shapes, everything—from the map, completely, and we have to rely on Google’s red balloon to determine their existence.

Screen shot 2017-10-26 at 9.49.16 AM

In the poetic imagination, The Marquesas are so remote from the rest of the world, that when Paul Gauguin—plagued by all sorts of illnesses, going blind, abandoned by his vahines, and dependent on laudanum and morphine to ease his suffering—told his art-collector friend (and, later, biographer), George Daniel de Monfreid, that he wished to return to Europe, Monfreid dissuaded him:

In returning you will risk damaging that process of incubation which is taking place in the public’s appreciation of you. At present you are a unique and legendary artist, sending to us from the remote South Seas disconcerting and inimitable works which are the definitive creations of a great man who, in a way, has already gone from this world. Your enemies – and like all who upset the mediocrities you have many enemies – are silent; but they dare not attack you, do not even think of it. You are so far away. You should not return… You are already as unassailable as all the great dead; you already belong to the history of art.

 — George Daniel Monfreid, Letter to Paul Gauguin circa October 1902

Kris finally got through the Panama Canal on the 17th of September, after countless leads, agents, options, fly-by-night freight carriers and whatnot… and he did not even spend a whole day on the other side…

Eager to finally make his way back home, he weighed anchor the same evening. His first stop, The Marquesas…

As remote as they are, The Marquesas signify, happily for me, the slow but dogged approach of my Beloved.