Health Scares and Creativity

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I haven’t posted in quite a while. Earlier in the year I was really busy rehearsing for a ukulele festival and put other creative activities on the back burner. I stupidly let myself get run down at the beginning  of the flu season, became seriously ill with a respiratory infection and ended up in hospital. Luckily, thanks to the wonderful care and attention of the medical and nursing staff, some powerful medication and a long period of rest, I made a full recovery. This whole episode was a bit of a wake-up call. You never know what is around the corner, so it is important to make the most of life and your creativity while you can. Do not to neglect your artwork, whatever that may be.

Because my energy had been depleted I needed to refresh my creativity and felt that I should try something new. Rather than getting bogged down trying to get a big idea or tackling a large work on canvas, I decided to work on a smaller scale and do works on paper. It would give me the opportunity to revisit coloured pencils, pen, ink and gouache, as well as to learn watercolour properly, something that was never taught when I went to art school. I bought some new paints and materials to supplement those I already had and have been experimenting with mixed media together with watercolour. Change is good for the soul.

Youtube has been a wonderful resource for watercolour lessons and information on paints and other materials. There are so many generous artists who share their knowledge and are entertaining in the process. Wish these had been available when I was at art school.

One thing that really shocked me was the price of water colour paints and materials in Australia, especially water colour paper which needs to be 100% cotton and makes a big difference when learning techniques. I tried to limit the costs by getting one set of paints on Amazon and found some good deals on water colour paper on Fishpond, as well as sourcing some water colour pads made from Italian paper by the local Australian company, Art Spectrum. I only needed to buy a few new brushes as I already had many for gouache. Those few I bought were also made by an Australian company.  Local is always cheaper than imported, especially if you buy from one of your country’s online retailers.

I saved money by using plastic well palettes that I already had for washes and improvised with a porcelain soap dish and some white ceramic tiles left over from our renovations, which are great for mixing smaller quantities of paint or coloured inks and are easy to clean. The larger tile can be used for working on a small sheet of wet watercolour paper. Always keep ceramic tiles or other useful containers for mixing paints.

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I also had some ancient Windsor and Newton pan and tube watercolours from a relative. The tubes had dried up and I cut these open and put the paint in an old theatrical makeup palette so I could use them with the old pans, which I blue tacked into the same container. These are still workable, although not as nice as the new paints. Never discard old watercolours as they can be reconstituted.

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Another thing that I found helpful in revitalising my creativity was reorganising the studio. (For a comparison you can see how it looked in early 2017 by clicking here). It is a good idea to find out what you have so that you don’t waste money on things you don’t really need. I moved the things that I use more often to accessible locations in cupboards and shelves. Those that are not used much were placed on higher shelves or in stacked, vintage suitcases. In one accessible suitcase, under a table, I put all my A3 art paper and pads. a much cheaper alternative to buying a large drawer unit.

The old dollhouse now holds pan paints and inks, coloured pencils and markers, as well as some craft items. Biscuit tins are great storage containers for drawing materials.

I moved my acrylic, oil paint and other brushes from the table onto the white wicker trolley. Making more space on my table surfaces means I have plenty of room for my materials when I am working on something. The tall Ikea trestle table can be used for cutting paper or fabric and is a place for Ellie to work on her projects.

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I still have room for some fun inspirational objects. It is great to be a bit silly and playful in your work space.

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As I’m still finding my feet with watercolours, I don’t want to show any of my early attempts. It is more important to have some fun and enjoy the process without any pressure.

A health scare makes you take stock of your life, especially when you have been lucky and dodged a bullet. Enjoy life and revel in your creativity.

Kat.

In the spirit of the coming Halloween celebration here’s a fun video from one of my favourite 80s Aussie bands, Mental as Anything.

Creative Festive Decorations

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There are so many options for being creative and making your own sustainable and recycled decorations. Using what you can find around your home and garden, as well as previous years’ decorations, stimulates the imagination while saving money and the environment.

This year I decided to do my own take on the popular ladder tree because we had a vintage ladder that an unknown tradesman had left behind and never returned to collect. It is a wonderfully distressed white-painted ladder and all it needed was a clean with mild detergent.  I have seen some beautiful ladder Christmas trees with glass balls hanging down from the inside. Obviously the owners did not have crazy dogs, who could run underneath and smash the balls to pieces.  Because we do have such mad creatures, I wrapped white cord around the outside of the ladder to discourage our two dogs from walking through.  I could hang the decorations from this cord.

I looked through our old decorations and choose silver and white ones and to add more colour found some stars woven from synthetic ribbon left over from a craft project at our local community centre. A pile of these was put out for anyone to take so Ellie and I took a few. Stapled on crochet thread made ties to attach them to the ladder. On the steps I placed some small decorative gift boxes that I had saved, as well as a small tin bucket as a candle holder. Some fun mask earrings also make interesting ornaments. On the top of the ladder a chrome candle hanger was great for displaying a silver star.

Ladder trees are easy to create. Ours was virtually free and I could reuse many of our old ornaments and at the same time find a use for some craft items. As I have been really busy lately, it was very quick to put together and I did not need to run around and buy a lot of new decorations. Most people have a ladder of some sort. Even modern aluminum ones can be made to look great with lights and simple ornaments so they needn’t cost a fortune.

Craft items can be used in a different way to create interesting ornaments. For a table decoration I found a simple round vase and inserted a long colourful cord that I had made by pin knitting with some crochet cotton yarn. On top of the cord I rested a star decoration to create a simple and unique table centrepiece for the festive season. All it took was a bit of imagination.

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The natural world can provide quick and easy trees. Last year our main tree was created from a dead camellia. This year I wanted to keep it simple in the front room so I used three dead branches that I had stored in the roof to make a small tree for the bay window sill. These were placed in a hand-painted vase.  I decided to use mainly red and gold decorations from our collection which goes more with the summer aspect of our festive season in the southern hemisphere.

Many of the ornaments are recycled items. Some are in fact key rings like the red resin hearts, which were gifts from previous Christmas bonbons. It’s good to recycle plastic items. The small gold flowers are from a broken vintage bracelet. The ribbon around the base of the tree was from gift wrapping and the cherry cluster is a brooch. Ribbons are always good to keep for decorating your tree. Any interesting and attractive object can be used as a decoration.

Festive decorating need not be an expensive and stressful exercise. It can be fun and creative, even when you have little time. Just limit yourself to some main decorative items, recycle and use what you have in an interesting way and don’t be afraid to do something different.

Wishing everyone a wonderful festive season where ever you may be and a very happy new year.

Kat

Here’s a photo of a glorious December sunset taken from my studio window.

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Distractions and Culinary Delights

You know the feeling. You start doing something and you find yourself going off of a totally different tangent that leads into different but fascinating territory. This week I was looking for a favorite recipe (flourless chocolate cake) that my mother used to make and found myself looking at an old cookery book that has been in the family for generations. Now I’m not really a cook, Ellie being the one who inherited that creative ability, but I like to eat and am fascinated by unusual dishes of the past and this old book took me on quite a journey.

Cookery For Every Household by Florence B Jack was published in the UK in 1914 just before WWI completely changed the world. It is a reflection of the previous Victorian and Edwardian way of life, where many people still had maids and cooks to do a lot of the domestic duties. Some of the elaborate recipes are heavily influenced by French cuisine and reflect the old style of entertaining of the wealthy. Our copy at same stage lost its original cover and was rebound in red. The book has over 3,000 recipes and is quite a tome. The book is full of line drawings to illustrate the recipes and as well as basic cooking, there are some culinary dishes that seem quite strange by todays standards.

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It is also amazing that cooks could produce such complicated cuisine with gas rings, simple stoves and equipment.

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Here are some illustrations of the latest technology of the time: The electric stove.

I had to laugh at the mention of low electricity rates. Some things were better back in the early 20th century.

Ingenious contraptions were designed to make cooking easier. The Hutchings’ Patent Cooker was a tall steamer which could hold an entire meal to be cooked all at the same time. Imagine having this towering on your stove. I suppose it was the microwave or Thermomix of its day. Great for the busy housewife.

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In complete contrast, the basic meat safe was still in use for storing perishables. This hanging example was very common in Australia to stop ants and other creepy crawlies from getting at the leg of lamb for the Sunday roast.

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Improvisation was encouraged if you did not have the right equipment. If you did not have one of these for straining soup.

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You could do this.

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The book contains recipes based on ingredients that are no longer common in modern books. Take for example Fried Smelts. It made me wonder about the smell. Apparently it is a small fish, which smells like a cut cucumber and should be eaten as soon as possible. Yeah it probably smelt if left too long.

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Another unusual dish is Salsifis. These are a root vegetable similar to a parsnip and are either black or white. Taste wise these resemble asparagus. In America they are called Oyster plant because they were thought to taste similar. The drawing of the dish shows that the pureed salsifis were placed in scallop shells to look like seafood complete with lemon segment bow ties.

I noticed that many of the recipes followed a similar line. No food should look like its original form. For instance Stuffed and Baked Cod resembles a pair of eyes. I don’t think that this is any better than having a fish on your plate looking at you. Quite odd.

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Vegetables were presented so that there was no sign of any leaf. With Dressed Spinach the cooked leaves were put through a sieve, then butter and seasoning was added and the dish was decorated with triangular croutons of fried bread and segments of hardboiled egg. Anyone who had an aversion to spinach would never know that this plant was on the plate. Maybe not such a bad idea after all.

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There seem to be a lot of recipes where the food is dressed. Dressed Crab is another example. It involved the complete dissection of the crab then a mixture of the flesh and mayonnaise was put back into the shell with some claws on top to remind the diners that they were eating what was once a crab. No struggling with a naked crab.

Prawns (shrimp) got a similar treatment. In the Prawn Salad it looks like the two garnishes are dancing in a sea of prawn flesh, lettuce and sliced radishes, a reminder of their origin.

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Meat dishes also seemed to disguise the form of the original animal. The traditional Game Pie with its raised pastry case contains a variety of bird meat. The illustrated example is decorated with the feet of birds in the top hole that seems to be saying “let me out of here.” Not very appetizing.

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There seemed to be an obsession with molding things into cylinders or cones so that they became architectural structures like the following example.

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In those days cooking leftovers was a whole art form in itself. These dishes were not merely an afterthought. Here are a couple of extraordinary recipes.

Proper table linen was as elaborate as the food. There were a myriad of ways to fold napkins. Although the bishop’s Mitre seems a bit sober for a jolly night of feasting. Maybe that was the intention to avoid excess.

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To me it is the elaborately decorated desserts of this period that are incredible and make my mouth water. You may not have lived in a castle but you could eat a Castle Pudding (I think it must be a smear of pudding on the page).

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Nothing defines the period like Jellies. Great wobbly mountains of Jelly. The following recipe for Coffee Jelly could still be made today and would certainly liven up a party.

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The name of this dessert says it all. Tipsy Cake is an elaborate form of the classic Trifle. Layers of sponge cake, custard, strawberry or raspberry jam doused with a cup of sherry and decorated with cream and toasted almonds. Yum.

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For those with delusions of grandeur there is always the Princess Cake with it’s pink royal icing.

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Invalid cookery is where things take a down turn. No wonderful desserts if you were sick. It was a drab world of steamed food, soup and broth. The following advice in the book tells the sorry tale.

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Many of the more elaborate recipes found in this book are the type that nowadays would be made by chefs and are not the sort of food you would have everyday, although there are hundreds for normal meals for the ordinary housewife to feed her family.

I think that old cookery books from the past can still inspire and provide useful information for those interested in creative culinary skills. They also tell a story of the lives of our ancestors and the kind of society in which they lived. You often learn something new when you get distracted.

Kat

The Tipping Point

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When you are doing something creative have you noticed sometimes there is a point where everything can suddenly go wrong if you don’t immediately adjust to the situation? I guess this is also echoed in our way of life. In many areas we have reached the tipping point for our planet. This is a good reason for artists to use recycled materials.

I read on a local news site yesterday that China is no longer accepting waste materials from Australia for recycling (link to article). This means all the plastic and paper that was to be sold to China will go into landfill if it cannot be recycled here. Councils are now asking ratepayers to cut down on the amount of waste for their recycling bins. This is the result of sending our problems overseas and not finding a creative solution for recycling large quantities of paper and plastic in our own country. If we are to prevent turning our environment into a tip and being swallowed by mountains of rubbish, it will take a change of mindset for our society, which won’t be easy. At the very least, as artists, we can recycle materials in our work.

Many local artists and designers have already been using recycled items to create works of art and are trying to make a difference no matter how small. It is also good for the soul to turn rubbish and junk into something beautiful, as well as unique. Here is a link to an exhibition Turning Trash to Treasure held at the South Melbourne Market in September 2017.

Reusing old materials is a source of inspiration and often requires a lot of rethinking when you run into difficulties. Ellie and I have been learning to make paper from old cotton rags and clothing for use in artwork. We have been having problems with making a very fine pulp, as mentioned in recent posts. This requires breaking down the cut-up rags in the washing machine and repeated processing in the blender.

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It is quite time-consuming so we decided to mix this with a pulp made from shredded computer documents and other paper of a reasonable quality. We found out that if you add calcium carbonate powder, also known as whiting or chalk, this will make an acid free pulp (here are the instructions: How to make Acid Free Paper). We bought some from our local art supply shop as it is used in printmaking. We have also decided to size the paper with a clear artist’s gesso after drying rather than adding starch to the pulp.

 

Papermaking is a really good way to use up old paper rather than putting this in the recycling bin. Last weekend we started making paper with paper pulp on its own to get a feel for the process. This was totally different from the cotton pulp. The first day that we tried this the pulp was a bit lumpy and so some of the sheets were a little thick. When dried this it looked like the recycled molded cardboard used to separate wine bottles in the carton, which was not what we were going for.

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We had also obtained a smaller A5 mold and deckle to make cards, which was easy to use and required less pulp. As the lumps disappeared from the pulp mix the paper became thinner and smoother.

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When we began doing this outside under some sun umbrellas it was quite warm. Just as we were starting to get the hang of the process the sky darkened and there was the sound of distant thunder. With the storm getting closer it was quite hard to concentrate. Not wanting to be stuck outside with lightning imminent we hurriedly packed up and put the paper in the press under the car port then dried it flat inside. After drying the paper was pressed under a pile of heavy books because it had curled a bit.

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The next day it was even hotter and we decided to continue the process under the car port just in case the weather changed. The pulp had softened even more and was a better texture. Because it was thinner we had to be careful when getting it off the deckle. The cleaning cloths that we use for separating the paper sheets need to be really wet or the paper won’t come off the deckle. The hot weather didn’t help and we had a lot of disasters before getting this right. If you sponge the back of this once it is upside down on the cloth the paper comes off more easily.

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We noticed that there was a variation in thickness of the paper but it was better than the day before. If the pulp mixture became too thin the paper was more likely to fall apart when transferring it to the cloth so it was necessary to add more pulp when this was starting to happen. You had to watch out for this tipping point to avoid failure.

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When we had finished we pressed the sheets between our plywood boards with bricks on top and dried them by pegging the backing cloths on a drying rack. This worked better than trying to dry them flat on a surface. Some sheets are better than others but we can experiment with the sizing on some or use them for collage so nothing is wasted and we can always re-pulp sheets that are too horrible.

 

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Next we are going to try some shredded magazines together with recycled computer paper to see if we can make some interesting decorative paper. After we have reprocessed some of the colored fabric we can include a small quantity of this fibre in the mix.

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Individually we might only be using a relatively small amount of recycled material but it’s better than doing nothing. It’s a pity that more local manufacturers are not doing their own recycling of plastics and paper for their products. So much has been done overseas and now that this is no longer sustainable we will all have to be aware of the amount we consume and how to cut this down. This will not be easy so the more people who can come up with creative ways to reuse recyclables, as in artwork, hopefully we can avoid the tipping point.

Kat

There are quite a lot of songs with “Paper” in the title. I love this one from the sixties, Paper Tiger, performed by Sue Thompson. It’s a live version but she is miming and obviously enjoying herself.

Setbacks and Learning Curves

 

When you teach yourself something new it does not always go to plan. While you might be trained in a related field this does not mean that you will be able to do a new technique well at the beginning. Often you learn things by trial and error. There are bound to be technical difficulties from a lack of knowledge and not having the best equipment for the job, so you spend a lot of time trying to overcome these issues as best you can. It can be a big learning curve.

As I have said in the last two posts, Ellie and I are teaching our selves how to make rag paper. This all sounded very straightforward in “how to do” articles on the net. So we jumped in, bought the basic equipment, prepared the materials and started to make paper outside under the car port. That’s when we discovered this was not as easy as it looked.

 

 

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First sheet out of mould

 

Firstly we had not made enough pulp to completely fill the tub to make a lot of sheets. The pulp in two colours that we had made in the blender was too coarse and the process was closer to felting wool than paper making, which I have done before. You could plug up any holes in sheets with bits of pulp before taking them off the mold just like you can when making felt. We did not panic when things went wrong but had a good laugh about our shortcomings. The results were quite decorative and can be used in collage but they are not suitable for writing or drawing upon. We had to go back to the drawing board and work out how to make finer paper.

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Texture rag paper once dried

That’s when we discovered that professional hand-made paper makers use a machine called a Hollander Beater (great name) and the smallest models are AU$2,000 plus, which is way above our budget. As we want the paper for our own use and do not want go into major production this would be an expensive investment. This was all a bit disheartening but barriers always make me more determined to find a solution. First we thought of using cotton linter (cotton waste from the ginning process) rather than rags, but could not find an Australian supplier for small quantities and it is just too expensive to buy from overseas if shipped here at all (crafters in the US are spoilt for choice). You could use cotton balls but that is hardly recycling and you would need an awful lot.

Ellie went back onto the net and did a lot of research and came across a suggestion from someone who had the same dilemma (click on this link). If you do not have a Hollander beater use a washing machine to break down the cut up rags, as well as a clothes dryer if you own one. The one-inch square rag pieces are placed in fine mesh lingerie bags and the machine set to a heavy-duty hot water wash cycle with some sodium bicarbonate. Pretty much the opposite of what you should do if you want to preserve your clothes. You would not need to boil up the rag pieces if you put them in the washing machine.

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Cotton rag squares ready for washing machine

We tried this out and the cloth became much more fibrous, and was easier to pulp in the blender. You need to do small quantities at a time or risk burning out the motor. We have quite a powerful one and need to wear ear protectors or risk going deaf from the high sound levels. Any lumpy bits of pulp can be cut up and put back into the blender to break them down. We have decided to process a lot of rag material then go back to making the paper. The pulp can be dried for storage and the warm water added when you begin the paper making. We hope that we have better luck with the next batch.

The downside of all this is that it is quite time-consuming. It would be much easier to make paper from shredded computer documents, but this is not acid free or archival. I think I will concentrate on making decorative cotton paper first until I get the hang of it. You can also press the paper dry with an iron to make it smoother or put the newly made paper between smooth cloths or felt before it is pressed. We used Chux cleaning cloths, which give the paper texture.

Sometimes in the initial stages of learning a new skill you are unaware of the pit falls. In some ways this is just as well because you might not try something new if you think it is going to be too hard and the challenge to find solutions is good for your creativity. And if you don’t have all the right equipment there is usually an alternative. It might not produce perfect results but it could also lead to some very creative work that makes the most of imperfection.

Ellie and I will see where this leads. Whatever the results of our rag papermaking we will be able to use it in our artwork to trigger our imaginations. Experimentation does make life and art more interesting.

Kat

For those of you wondering what on earth is a Hollander Beater, here is a very short video of a paper maker demonstrating this machine and the pulp it produces.

Getting rid of the Annoying Stuff

Isn’t it funny how we put up with things that annoy us for ages before doing something about it? It can be an object that you use everyday, a process with an aggravating glitch or just something that keeps getting in your way. Often these are just irritations but sometimes an inefficient item can even damage your health. Whatever the level of frustration anything that continually bugs you is energy sucker and rather that put up with it you’ll have less stress if you use your creativity to eliminate the problem.

Minor irritations usually just require a bit of creative thinking to make them disappear. Before we had our kitchen renovations, we had nowhere to put our trays. Many were too wide to fit in a cupboard so these were stuck against the wall at the end of a bench and would fall over all the time and send something else flying. Drove us crazy. When we bought some metal shelves to hold a small dishwasher and the microwave there was room for the trays but no way to stop them from falling over.

Ellie and I went looking for a solution and found an old wooden Bookmaker’s Stand in a vintage shop. Bookmakers would stand on this small wooden platform at country race meetings and the punters would place their bets. Fortunes must have been made and lost on this stand. There were spaces between the slats and when you put down one of the folding legs, it became an angled rack for our trays. Problem solved and it had a great story as well.

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A tool or a piece of equipment or a process that causes physical pain definitely needs to be changed. I have been cutting up lots of old clothes for rag paper-making, which is a great way to recycle and eliminate more clutter, but have found that I don’t have the right scissors for the job. I have sharpened and tried the various ones we have in the house but they all cause hand and wrist strain from repeated use. As I don’t want to get RSI in my right hand I have looked online for ergonomic scissors and there are several options, although some are quite expensive. I will probably go for the medium price range. Looks like it will be money well spent because RSI is worse.

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In the meantime changing the working method has helped. Ripping the fabric into long strips, rather that cutting reduces the use of scissors and I only have to cut the strips into small pieces. Rethinking a process is a good way to solve a problem.

Quick fixes are often all that is needed when something is bugging you. I always have duct tape, Blu-tack, wire, bulldog clips, pegs and metal hooks handy when a temporary solution is all that is required. These can be used in all kinds of situations to hold or hang items around the house and garden or for use in creative work. As well as the usual types of tools, jeweler’s pliers are invaluable for fixing fiddly things, like jewelry or bending fine wire. Of course there are times when you need to consult an expert. If a problem involves electrical or plumbing repairs DIY is probably not the safest way to go. A bad situation could escalate into an awful scene from a sitcom.

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When you don’t have a lot of space for your creative work anything that gets in the way becomes an annoyance. At the moment we have a folding clothes rack in the studio for drying towels and sheets inside during the winter as we don’t have room for a clothes dryer. This has been bugging me because it takes up a lot of space. As it is summer I have folded it up and it feels much more roomy. I don’t want to put it up again in this spot so I need to find a solution to this problem. I’m still mulling about it but I’m sure an idea will come to me. Some resolutions take longer than others.

The thing is there are always solutions to problems if you put your mind to it. Irritations can inspire original ideas and are a great incentive for all types of creativity and you’ll feel a lot better when you make them go away.

Kat

In the spirit of fixing stuff here’s the wonderful David Byrne with Broken Things.

Relighting the Creative Fire

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Often at the end of the year you can feel a bit jaded after the craziness of the silly season and need of a break. It is good to use the holiday period to refresh yourself so that you can begin the New Year feeling inspired again. That creative fire needs to be rekindled.

We are lucky in Australia that our New Year holidays occur in summertime and can get outside in the fresh air and enjoy nature. It is a time to try to unwind, read some good books, do some easy exercises and enjoy great food. Once you are sufficiently chilled out it is easier to let the juices start flowing again and come up with plans and ideas for future projects.

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Over the break Ellie and I have been doing just that, clearing our heads and discussing creative ideas. As we have a lot of old cotton clothing that is only suitable for rags we decided to have a go at rag paper making so that we have some interesting paper for art and craft projects. Paper can be really expensive, especially acid free and interesting textured paper. It is also a good way to recycle old cotton and linen.

You don’t require lots of equipment for making paper and can do this in the laundry or any wet area with a sink and bench. You just need a deckle (wire screen) and a larger mold (frame) to fit tightly around this. You could make these yourselves (click here for “how to” instructions) or find an inexpensive kit online. We have gone with the latter option and are waiting on delivery.

An old blender will turn small pieces of rag into pulp. Also you would need a large plastic basin in which to mix the rag pulp then dip the deckle to capture the fibres, which form the paper sheets. Pieces of plywood are good to use as a paper press either weighted down by heavy books or feet and any flat surface can be used to dry the sheets. Here is a good website which shows the basics of papermaking with all kinds of suggestions for equipment and materials (click here).

I can’t wait for the kit to arrive and to start experimenting will different textures and types of pulp. Then there is the creative joy of using the finished paper in an art project. I hope to share the process in this blog when we have something to show.

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We had a lovely New Year’s Eve out in the garden. Because it was a cool night and everything was green from recent rain we lit a fire in the metal fire pit, as well as some candles. The dogs were fascinated by the sparklers and barked and tried to bite these as soon as you stuck them in the ground. It was a very noisy process. They did not seem phased by the large booms coming from the city fireworks because they were with us. I took some photos of their antics. Some of them were in focus!

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I hope you are also fired up to do more creative projects in 2018 and feel reinvigorated from the holiday season.

Kat

Here’s the wonderful Pointer Sisters doing Fire