Meredith Peach basketry blog

Welcome to A Basketmaker's Journeys, the blog of Meredith Peach (aka Meri Peach), an Australian artist using basketry techniques to make sculptural and functional vessels. Meri regularly exhibits, teaches basketry workshops and has held several artist residencies. She also works as an illustrator and biologist. Her website can be found at http://www.sharkchic.com.au/

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Auxlang

While preparing for my latest exhibition, Auxlang, I was looking for a phrase that would express communication in a different way to everyday speaking, and I came across the phrase ‘auxiliary language’, which is abbreviated to auxlang. An auxiliary language is one that is used by two speakers who don’t have a first language in common. For example in Europe, a Russian and a French Speaker might use English as an auxiliary language. I guess sculpture, and art more generally, can be considered an auxiliary language that we use to say things that are difficult to express in words.

The thing with auxlangs, though, is that not being our first language, often people are not as expert as they would like to be in expressing themselves. Sometimes the message that is received is not actually the same as the one that was sent in the first place. This can have amusing results. I remember ages ago when I was studying science, one of my lecturers used to sit on United Nations panels discussing marine issues. Apparently the protocol there was to translate everything into a particular language, transcribe it, and then translate it into the languages of everyone present. Vernacular phrases tended not to survive this process intact. The Professor gave the example of somebody saying in English ‘out of sight, out of mind’, which eventually came back re-translated as ‘invisible idiot’.

Obviously this sort of thing was not quite what the UN was aiming for – indeed misunderstandings like that could have quite serious consequences when it comes to international relations – but when it happens in art, when somebody receives a different message to the one the artist had in mind, I actually think it’s a bonus. It is broadening the range of thoughts that happen in the world. It happens because we have imaginations, because we make associations, things remind us of other things. Two hands thrown up in the air will mean different things to different people, and in different contexts.

I must confess I don’t have a very good understanding of how electronics and modern digital communications work. But I was interested to read recently that the old telephone wire I use in my work, which is PVC coated copper wire, has been replaced by optic fibres in many instances around the world, because it suffers from something called ‘crosstalk’, which is where unintended signals jump between wires and circuits where they’re not supposed to go. It seemed like an appropriate characteristic for the material I am using as an auxlang.

Hands appear in my work quite often. Hands are very powerful signals for us humans. We have a lot of nerve endings in our hands compared to many other places in our bodies, and a great deal of brain space devoted to processing the nerve signals that come from our hands, and to controlling the movements of our hands. We have been wired through evolution to pay attention to what other people are doing with their hands, as well as to their faces. Our survival often depended upon it. Most of us these days spend a good deal of time sending digital signals with our hands – by typing on a computer or a smartphone. Thousands of years ago, people were also spending a good deal of time sending digital signals with their hands and fingers, as they communicated silently while hunting, for instance.

The connection between the digital and the digital has often been on my mind since I started working with telephone wire a few years ago. I was fortunate to acquire a stash of telephone wire from another basketry artist whose son used to work for Telstra and who had lots of offcuts lying around the yard. I was attracted to it because it was waste material, which I always like to work with – a lot of my work is actually about the wastefulness and excesses of modern life. I was also attracted to the wire because of its bright colours, and because of its slenderness, which mean I can use it to draw quite fine lines in the air.

When I draw on paper, it is often with fine lines – similar thickness to the telephone wire actually – so as a medium there is something about it that just feels right to me. Because it’s very slender, it’s not strong enough to hold its shape easily, which makes it necessary to use a lot of it, make a lot of lines, to create a form with enough strength to stand alone – and that also attracts me because I’ve always liked complex, detailed drawings and forms and patterns. I’m also a bit of a scribbler, on paper, which is probably why I like random weaving, which is a kind of directed scribbling.

In this post I have dwelled somewhat upon the subject of misunderstandings. Part of why I make art is that I feel it’s hard to make myself understood a lot of the time – I am the very cliche of the misunderstood artist – but funnily enough I don’t mind if people misunderstand my art. By which I mean, they don’t get what it was that I was trying to say, but will take something different from the work. As long as somebody likes looking at my work, I am happy to take the role of the invisible idiot.

My exhibition is on at Clara Street Gallery, Erskineville, until 25 June 2017.

Creative Blind Alleys With Interesting Scenery

Many years ago, my teacher and sometime mentor, basket maker Virginia Kaiser, recommended the workshops of Ruth Hadlow, textile artist. A few months ago I had the pleasure of following up this recommendation, and did not regret it. Ruth turned out to be a wizard at helping other artists to analyse and develop their own practice. Or in my case, to rediscover something of my mojo.

One of the exercises in Ruth’s workshop involved researching other artists whose work appealed to me, and analysing why I was attracted to those particular works. This exercise made me aware of a couple of things. Firstly, I am attracted to bold graphic lines and contrast. Secondly, I wanted to find a way to marry drawing with my basket making and sculptural work. Drawing was my original passion, from when I was a small child. Much of my youth was spent with a sketchbook on my knee, with the TV on in the background.

Since much of my recent work involves plastic bags, I decided to find a way of drawing on them. I began scribbling and doodling on plastic bags with a well-known brand of ‘permanent’ marker. I immediately liked the way the bright colours of the packaging contrasted with the black. The need to make the branding unrecognisable dictated the design to some extent, resulting in lots of black areas.

I could hardly believe this idea had never occurred to me before. My head was bursting with inspiration. The possibilities of expressing myself with drawing, while making baskets, while upcycling plastic packaging… some kind of creative nirvana seemed to be opening up before me.

Firstly, I made a couple of ‘vintage style’ baskets, inspired by my first basket, a gift from my Great Aunty Olly. This was another long-term goal realised – to revive this form of basket (traditionally made with postcards, greeting cards and the like), but breathe new life into it.

vintage style basket

Vintage basket by my great aunty Olly, circa 1974.

Vintage style basket

‘Vintage style’ basket by Meri Peach, 2016.

vintage style basket

The base of the ‘vintage style’ basket.

Vintage Style Basket (interior detail)

The inside of the ‘vintage style’ basket.

Next I made a wall piece, using cat food sachets stitched together on the sewing machine. Originally this was going to be a 3D piece, but I decided I liked it flat. Since taking this photo, I have extended the piece and added a random weave frame in telephone wire, so that the flat illustrated area is suspended in weaving.

wall piece made from illustrated plastic packaging stitched together

Drawing on plastic packaging with ‘permanent’ marker.

At the same time, in a burst of gardening creativity, I had planted a box of seedlings and labelled them with permanent marker on strips of old plastic. A couple of months later, it was time to replant the seedlings in the garden, but the labels had become unreadable because the writing had faded. I was appalled. So much for ‘permanent’ marker! I was also alarmed. Was the same thing going to happen to all the artwork I had put so many hours into? Admittedly the seedlings had been out in direct sunlight the whole time, but still I would have expected a greater lifespan from so-called permanent marker.

I googled the problem, as you do. It turned out many other people have also found that ‘permanent’ does not mean ‘forever’. It is difficult to predict what the lifespan of my artwork might be, but it seems likely that in a few decades, perhaps a few years or even months, my artwork will fade, and all my efforts to cover up the branding on the plastic packaging will be undone. The marks will last longer if I keep the artwork away from sunlight, but I cannot in good conscience sell work that may change and deteriorate at an unpredictable rate.

So these pieces will be exhibited, but not for sale, in an upcoming exhibition named ‘Aftermath’ (a group show with the wonderful artists Flora Friedmann and Glenese Keavney; Timeless Textiles Gallery, Newcastle, Australia, in March 2017). I hope to write more on that soon.

Meanwhile, the quest to combine drawing and basketry continues.

Basketry NSW is now an Incorporated Association

When I first started making baskets, I was very keen to find a group of like-minded people to work with. One of the great joys of basketry is the social aspect; it is easy to make baskets and chat at the same time, unlike some other art forms.

Basketry groups have existed in other Australian states for quite some time, but I could find nothing in NSW until my friend Glenese started hosting a group at her home in 2006. Over time this group has grown and flourished, and now we have reached the time to become a formal association.

Basketry NSW Inc is joining a stable of art and craft groups based at Primrose Park, Cremorne, in the northern suburbs of Sydney. For details of meetings and membership, see http://www.primrose-park.com.au/Basketry/basketry.html. The group also has a Facebook page at

http://www.facebook.com/BasketryNSW

When I first experimented with basketry from reclaimed materials

Much of my work relates to aspects of nature and human relationships with nature. I think about things from a biologist’s perspective as well as an artist’s. In the last few years, though, the materials for my work have moved away from the natural and towards the synthetic – reclaimed plastics and the like. I am not the only artist working with such materials, but perhaps my motivation is a little different to most. Here is the story of how I started including plastic in my baskets.

It was 2008, and I was doing an Artist Residency at Primrose Park Art and Craft Centre, a former sewerage works in a northern suburb of Sydney. Outside the studio door was a large grassed playing field stretching down to the harbour shore. This had once been a coastal wetland, but had been “reclaimed” (i.e. filled in) using landfill covered with turf. At the time I was also working as an environmental educator at Sydney Olympic Park, another area where wetlands had been destroyed by this “land reclamation” process. I use the inverted commas because I don’t like the term. “Wetland destruction” would be more apt. Anyhow, I had some background knowledge of how these parks were originally constructed.

In the past couple of hundred years Australians have often used coastal wetlands as rubbish dumps, and plenty of rubbish would probably have been included in the landfill used to raise up the playing field of Primrose Park. I was thinking about all the layers of stuff that might lie just underneath the grassy surface, and how I could represent these in my basketry work. It occurred to me that I might as well use exactly the same materials that were under the park; a combination of organic and synthetic. So I began to include strips of plastic, leather, fabric, metal, etc, in coiled baskets along with the usual plant fibres. Here are some pictures of the baskets I made during this time.

“Reclamation” and “Persistence” were the first baskets I made this way. I used different coloured materials to refer to different chemical layers in the sediment; black for areas without oxygen, red for areas rich in iron, white for deposits of calcium carbonate from marine creatures, yellow for sulfur compounds. The layers aren’t necessarily arranged in a biologically realistic manner – a bit of artistic licence was involved, as I wanted to create an aesthetically appealing gradation of colours. In “Persistence”, the rim is made from knotweed, one of the many weeds flourishing in the bushland around Primrose Park. Representations of its roots reach down through the layers of the basket.

For those interested in the technical details of basketry, the coiling method used here was not a traditional one. I have disguised the stitches so that the baskets look almost like they were randomly woven rather than coiled. I used nylon fishing line for the stitching material, and made the stitches diagonally through the tightly twisted core materials, so that the stitches are almost indistinguishable from the other materials. Finally the random weave rim was stitched on top, and the “roots” stitched onto the outside.

Weaving a giant bird’s nest with pre-schoolers

Recently I taught basket weaving to a group of pre-school students. They wanted to make a giant bird’s nest for their school art exhibition. First I wove a broad frame for them to weave on, using 5 mm cane to make a shallow bowl about 1.5 metres in diameter. On the first day I taught the youngest children who were 3-4 years old. For this group I cut lengths of 4 mm rattan cane about 50-60 cm long, and we also used whole Cordyline australis leaves.

About 5 students at a time sat around the nest and learned the basics of weaving. I was astonished at how adept they were, having expected children so young to struggle with the technique. On the second day, with 4-5 year old students, we used 3 mm cane and rattan peel. By this time the holes in the basket were smaller, and it would have been too difficult to use thicker cane.

As well as the cane, we had a variety of recycled materials such as packing tape and baling twine, which some of the children found easier to use than the cane. They also liked the bright colours, and we talked about how birds will use whatever they can find in their nests, and how some birds (like bower birds) prefer certain colours. We finished off the nest by weaving and tying soft woolen pieces on the inside.

Artist residency at Sturt

Having originally intended to write this blog chronologically, I find I am too impatient to talk about the present! So this section of the blog is about my recent adventures, and later on I will revisit the past. It’s OK for movie-makers to jump around in time, so I don’t see why bloggers can’t do it.

For the past couple of months I have been an Artist in Residence at Sturt Craft Centre, Mittagong, Australia. My studio is in the Weave Room, surrounded by loom weavers. I am working with both recycled and natural plant materials, making pieces for exhibitions (including my first solo show, planned for next year). Sometimes I combine the recycled and the natural… sometimes I go fully for one or the other.

This recently made “Sunset Basket” combines plant materials with telephone wire and onion bags.

“Journey to the surface of the earth” combines Cordyline australis with chip wrappers and telephone wire.

This is my fourth artist residency, and I find it’s a great way to focus the mind and bring forth a cohesive body of work. The themes that are currently occupying/ obsessing me are to do with human impacts on the natural world. Since the materials I work with often comprise the contents of rubbish heaps or street litter, I am making pieces that refer to the ultimate fate of plastic bags etc. They end up blowing around in the street like autumn leaves, or accumulating in the ocean where they break down (into tiny particles, but this is not the same thing as biodegrading). How will these tiny plastic particles affect the health of the small organisms that ingest them? Whether or not they then migrate up the food chain is something that scientists are only just beginning to study. It is disturbing to think about.

I first started using plastics while doing another artist residency at the site of a former landfill area. More on that later.

Some of the pieces I am making are essentialy sea monsters arising from my imaginings about the dangers of plastic in the ocean. Like the sea monsters of old, they may ultimately prove to be mythical creatures. I hope so.

“Disenchantment under the sea” is made from the plastic wrap that newspapers are delivered in. This plastic comes in different colours in different parts of Australia.

“Leviathan”… a plastic sea monster.

Plastic as a material is interesting to work with in basketry. Plastic bags don’t have fibres, so lack the structural strength of plant materials… but on the other hand they are stretchy, shiny, colourful, and need no special preparation. I avoid using recently made biodegradable plastics, as I want my work to last a long time. After peak oil really kicks in, whenever that may be, perhaps items made from old style plastic bags will become rare, desirable and expensive!

In conclusion, since the plastic bag has threatened to kill off the traditional basket for most of the last century, I enjoy the irony of a plastic bag ending its useful life as a basket.

Early days

This blog has started off in a very retrospective vein. I will get around to talking about the present day eventually, but as the blog is called a basket maker’s “journeys” (that word so much beloved of reality TV shows), I first want to describe my early days of basket making.

Several months and several experiments after making my first random weave baskets, I discovered that an expert basket maker, Virginia Kaiser, was offering basketry workshops nearby. I attended two of Virginia’s workshops and began to learn some proper techniques, and to understand and harness the urge that led me to make those first baskets. I bought every basketry book I could find and began to teach myself other techniques. I started collecting and experimenting with many different plant materials.

In 2004 I sold my first basket through a local gift shop. Here is a photo of that basket, which I called “Busting Loose”. It was made from inflorescences (flower stalks) of the Bangalow palm tree.