jungles real & imagined

We Go...
We Go In Search Of Our Dreams, 2017.30x40cm. (12×16″) acrylics and alkyds.

My friends organised a group show while I was in Guatemala, called Gypsies, Vagabonds, and Wild Mad Women (open from 13th April – 7 May at Tactile Arts, Fannie Bay, NT), and included me. When I got back to Darwin in October of last year, I found it so difficult to do the work for it. Of the 7 small canvases I prepared, I only managed to paint 2 in the end. This painting was one of them.

Unlike most of the other things I made for the show, this one practically painted itself. That’s partly because realistic stuff is actually quite easy to paint…I’m not really inventing anything from scratch: trees, plants, jungle backgrounds, lianas, ferns, backpackers…I’ve seen them all, at some point in my life, and know roughly how they ought to look. Putting all these elements together may be a kind of inventing, but I’m really just layering one familiar image on top of another.

The other reason this painting came so easily is that I have fairly recent memories of jungles like this. Kris and I spent 5 months up a river in Guyana, surrounded by riverine jungle…and very little else.

Jungle Trail

I have some photographs from this part of our trip, but looking at them now somehow doesn’t recall the way it felt to be there. That’s the danger of relying on photographs to preserve your memories: very few of the photographs we take do the experience justice. With a camera in hand, I tend not to observe as much of my surroundings…I don’t stop to gaze at one thing, burning it into a complex memory that includes sounds, smells, textures, movement. I am counting on the digital record to reproduce all of that for me, later. But the camera can’t record smells or textures or sound (not mine, not well), and it focuses on no single thing; unless I’ve taken a macro of some flower or other small object, most of my shots of “the jungle” are just a mess to look at: a million leaves, a tangle of branches and vines, every skinny palm tree or rotting log is there, in the poor light that filters down through the canopy. The photographs show everything; and yet, often, show nothing. A green and brown shadowy chaos.

DSC_0206

If I hadn’t spent hours upon hours just paddling around, gazing up at the forest canopy, or walking around with my eyes glued to the forest floor; if I hadn’t taken individual plant specimens home to carefully sketch, or written page upon page of what it was like, at that moment, to be sitting on deck, looking up at canyon walls covered in trees and snaking vines…I would not remember Guyana as vividly as I do.

jungle underpainting

All that actual looking, writing, smelling, touching, sketching paid off. As I painted each layer of this canvas, I heard the whooping bird calls again, the yip-yip-yip of toucans colourful as piñatas; the drawn-out roars of howler monkeys  echoing from deep among the trees; the boiling surface of the murky river, as great fanged arapaimas hunted blindly for the smaller piranhas; the ghostly lights of giant fireflies floating among the buttress-roots of giant trees. I saw again the up-and-down floaty bounce of morpho butterflies—their Dutch Blue wings flashing in and out of sunlit patches. Felt the cool air of the forest floor on my face, and heard the muffled patter of fat raindrops falling through the jungle canopy in a storm.

Jungle Trail

This painting became a doorway back to that world, that time in my life. I got misty eyed quite often, painting this (even though the finished painting is hardly fine art) and the memories flooded me with rapture—How can this wild, primeval memory be mine? How have I deserved to be the owner of such magnificent sensations?—and regret, because I could have spent a decade in that jungle, and still be a stranger to its secrets. I am sorry I could not spend more time…not just in Guyana, but in all of the places we visited and fell in love with.jungle underpainting

Still, to have been there at all is a miracle. I never dreamed I would make it to any place so wild and beautiful. And I have my memories, scented and intricate and rich, tucked inside: a miniature door that I pray will continue to open for me, when I need it, given the right touch, turning the right key.

Echoes of the Mazaruni…

Remember my post Shipwrecks and Sand Shoals? A couple of months after the post went up I got an exciting e-mail from 7-year-old Thom (and his mum, Noemie). Based on the sketches and photos in my post, Thom (who tells me he is “really into wrecks”) made a gorgeous drawing of the wreck.

Thom's drawingAnd then he went into 3D and built a Lego version of the shipwreck.

Thom's Lego wreckThom’s a charming young man, one of maybe three people who immediately recognised that the name of our boat, Kehaar, was taken from the book Watership Down by Richard Adams.

Note: In the book, about rabbits, Kehaar is a blunt old seagull who speaks with an Eastern European accent. He is very knowledgeable about the world, and he often confuses the rabbits by talking about things that they do not understand or cannot comprehend, such as bullets and oceans. Kehaar is the reason our boat is painted black and white (or was, at any rate…right now it’s a patchwork of cheap paints found in South Africa, Brazil and, soon, Venezuela).

This is the most rewarding part of blogging, for me…when something I’ve posted resonates with someone else, spurs them to create a reciprocal work, or to look into the matter further. A lot of the time my posts are just the bare bones…I don’t do as much research as I should, or don’t include everything I’ve gathered about the topic because I worry that it will bore readers.

And then someone like Thom comes along, digests what I’ve published, gets busy (at his beautiful table covered in drawings—Love! We should all draw as freely on our tables…) and hands the idea back to me, imbued with a seven-year-old’s magical enthusiasm…fleshed-out, and given dimension. Thom and Noemie even did an internet search of the shipwreck, looking for more information…but found nothing (neither did Kris, who hunted obsessively for any stories about the Mazaruni and what happened to her). And it thrills me so much that I, schmaltzy sponge cake that I am, get teary-eyed.

Thanks for the photos, Thom! I’ll keep my eye out for more wrecks as we go, and be sure to send you whatever I find!

Guyana : : A Last Look Around

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spiral ginger

Spiral Ginger

The last botanical drawing I did in Guyana before we sailed away…somehow I failed to upload it to my Botany, Baby post. A common plant, even in Asia where I come from, but that’s no reason not to draw it. I enjoyed doing the leaves on this one…

Embroidery in Guyana : : Naomi Drakes

Naomi Drakes
It was our penultimate day in Guyana, and I was walking among the stalls inside the public market in Bartica. Glancing to one side, I barely registered a woman sitting in one of the stalls, a large embroidery hoop in her hands. I had gone several metres past when it hit me: she’s embroidering! I turned right around and went back.
Naomi Drakes
Naomi Drakes is 32 years old, a single mom with an 11-year-old son. Her family runs several stalls within the Bartica market; Naomi and her sister run a stall selling haircare products, fashion accessories and, by the looks of it, they do minor alteration work using two sewing machines, as well.
Naomi Drakes
I asked Naomi if she would consent to a short interview and some pictures of herself and her work, and returned the following day with a camera. I tried to shoot a video of the interview, but the gloomy, greenish atmosphere inside the poorly-lit market produced a very poor video, and the ear-splitting roar of the town’s power station, which is next door to the market, drowned out her voice. So I have had to content myself with a few photos and some stills from the video.

I found Naomi to be a confident, articulate, and industrious young woman. On days when business is quiet at the stall, rather than gossip with her neighbours or kill time on her phone, the enterprising lady does her embroidery. Her large pieces (average size of her pieces is about 30 cm. in diameter (a foot) adorn bedroom pillowcases and decorative ‘towels’ (draped over furniture and such, not the kind used to dry things). Her work is popular, and she has quite a lot of orders from locals in Bartica. She leaves her embroidery projects at work, because she knows that if she took them home, she’d want to do nothing else, so clearly she enjoys embroidery.
Naomi Drakes
Her designs come from things she sees in books, or sometimes she might ask a friend who knows how to draw to design something for her. I asked her what her favorite stitch was, but she couldn’t pick one…she knows many, and each one is good for achieving a particular look. She learned embroidery from her mother, but is the only one of her sisters who pursued it seriously. Embroidery floss is expensive in Bartica, so she gets her materials from Georgetown.
Naomi Drakes
How much does she sell her work for? A pair of pillowcases with a matching design, plus all the sewing and ruffles that she adds with her sewing machine, goes for G$ 3,500.00. That’s US$17.50. I was horrified. “And the towels?” I asked… “the towels are G$2,000.00 (US$10.00) each, if I supply all the materials. Apparently, if a customer brings her own fabric for Naomi to embroider, it is cheaper. Each embroidery takes between 5 days and a week to stitch.

I protested that this was much too cheap for the amount of work she puts into each embroidery, but she reasoned that she would be sitting in the market all day, anyway, and a pair of pillow cases brings her an extra, unexpected G$3,500.00 on top of what she earns by running the stall. Fair enough, I suppose.
Naomi Drakes
I bought a pair of her pillow cases. All her other finished work were orders that she couldn’t sell to me, and she had nothing else finished. It being our final day in Guyana (we had already cleared out with immigration, we were departing that evening) I couldn’t wait for her to finish something else. A shame, as I would have loved to conduct subsequent interviews, maybe shoot a video at her home on a Sunday (or at least somewhere with better light, away from the noise of the power station.)  Only one of the pillow cases had been sewn up, the other embroidery was on an unfinished piece of fabric. “That’s fine,” I told her, “there’s no way I will use your embroidery as a mere pillow case, anyway! It’s too nice for that!”
Naomi Drakes
I had noticed her broken wooden embroidery hoop, the day before, and so I left her a parting gift of one of my good plastic hoops…just an 8-inch hoop, not quite as big as the 12″ hoop she had been using, but I thought it might help her to tension her fabric better (if you look at the photos of her work, you’ll notice that her fabric is badly puckered and distorted by the tension of her stitches.)
Naomi Drakes
I asked Naomi to write her postal address down for me, and I look forward to corresponding with her when I get back to Australia, maybe send her some embroidery goodies, books and such, because, despite the very different sort of work that we do, I felt such a kinship with this remarkable young woman who, in a money-and-gold-crazed mining town, and with very limited resources, has managed to nurture a serious love for the craft.

Jungle trials, er, trails

Jungle Trail
We explored the nature trails on Baganara Island…the resort keeps these trails cleared, and there are a few old but informative labels on some of the trees and such.
Jungle Trail
Jungle Trail
Kris went often, in all weather; I enjoyed the trails until it rained…then the paths became little creeks of squishy leaf mold and mud, and the wildlife—insects, small snakes, frogs—would be swimming around my feet.
Jungle Trail
I am just so not an “Outdoors Person”, even though I love looking at nature. Something about having my feet ankle deep in mud, sucking my flip-flops off my feet, and the rain soaking my backpack and endangering my camera gear, that I find so stressful. (I blame my mother, who had a phobia of mud, and instilled the same fears in me…)

Jungle Trail