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Two Months on the Calendar

May 8, 2019

Most of the year so far I’ve been quietly writing and teaching, but in the coming months I’m emerging for a few public events, spanning the assorted topics of literary Cocker Spaniels, memoir, astronomy, coffee mugs, and reading. They all seem to fit together quite well in that list but each event is rather different as you’ll see:

Frontispiece image from Flush by Virginia Woolf: courtesy of Rare Books, University of Sydney.

Rare Bites Series: Not an Ordinary Dog: ‘Flush’ by Virginia Woolf 

I’ll be speaking about Flush by Virginia Woolf, the biography of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel Flush, as part of the University of Sydney’s Rare Books “Rare Bites” lunchtime talks on Wednesday 22nd May. I’ll be talking about Flush, the genre of canine memoir, and the copy of the book in the library’s Rare Books collection.

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Other Worlds Zine Fair

Other Worlds Zine Fair is back at Marrickville Town Hall again this year, on Sunday May 26th, 12pm – 4pm. I’ll have a stall there with zines old and new (this is where the coffee mugs come in – the subject of a new split zine by me and Katie Haegele.)

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Thinking with Objects: A memoir workshop with Vanessa Berry

I’ll be presenting a one-day memoir writing workshop at the Sydney Observatory on Saturday 1st June, about using objects and working with museum collections to write memoir. The workshop is in conjunction with the publication of the book Time and Memory, for which I was commissioned to write an essay on the museum’s collection of objects relating to timekeeping and memory.

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Centre for Deep Reading dinner at Paperbark

I’m hosting the CDR fundraising dinner at Paperbark Restaurant on Sunday 23rd June. I’ll be pairing selected readings with the ingredients of a three-course meal designed by chef Joey Astorga, so a multi-sensory reading experience!

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Walking at Bundanon

January 19, 2019

For the first two weeks of January I was an artist in residence at Bundanon, a property on the Shoalhaven River on the NSW south coast, which was the former home of artist Arthur Boyd and his family. It has a long and distinguished artist in residence program and I spent a very happy and productive two weeks writing and thinking and walking during my stay there. This is a story from one of my mornings there.

It was just before dawn and in the eastern sky the morning star was bright above a band of pale golden light on the horizon. I watched the sky through the window for a few minutes, then put on my green coat and pulled on my shoes, and set out. The dew on the grass shone silver in the gathering light as I began my way along the path towards the river.

Kangaroos watch me from the surrounding paddocks, sometimes turning and bounding away, other times standing alert until I pass by. Ahead of me, past the cluster of three striped caravans that are part of the artwork Travelling Colony by Brook Andrew, is the homestead, guarded by the tall, skewed forms of two old bunya pine trees.

The house faces east, towards the dawn and the river. It was built on high ground, far enough away to be protected from the floods which have, since the house was built, more than once drowned the paddocks and lapped at the doorstep. The house and the property it is situated on had been bought by Arthur Boyd in the 1970s, and then, in the 1990s, given as a gift to the Australian people. His intention was to share the landscape that had given him such solace and inspiration, in the hope it would give others some of the same feelings of connection.

Every day I had been going walking, fitting my thoughts to the tempo of my steps and the mood of the place and the moment, as I walked through the forest or by the river. This morning I feel as if I am held in the palm of a gentle hand.

In front of the homestead I unlatch the first gate, which leads to a wide path between two paddocks. Threading the chain back through to secure it behind me, I see that the sky in the west in light now, a pink against a pale blue. Halfway down the path I stop, as kangaroos bounce off across the fields to either side. I balance my phone on top of a fencepost to take a photo, wanting to record this tender morning and the feeling of being in it. I set up the timer, move back a few steps and stand with my green ceramic mug of tea in my left hand, my right by my side, and my body held by the dawn light and the fields.

This is Wodi Wodi country, this stretch of forest and river flats with the Shoalhaven River winding through, moving towards the ocean. The Wodi Wodi clan is one of the Dharawal language group, and in this language, the word for dawn is Bayabula. I try it out, saying it as I walk, its four syllables like the movement of the light as it becomes day.

Once I am through the second gate at the end of the paddocks I am on the path that runs alongside the river. I can see, in glimpses through the trees, its slow brown expanse. A side path cuts down the hill towards the beach, and soon I am standing on the wet sand of a low tide, watching mist curl up off the water. Every so often a fish jumps up from it, flips and plunges back under the surface.

On the other side of the river is a steep, forested hill, and from here comes the sounds of birds, trilling, cawing, piping, a spectrum of sound from sweet to raucous. I sit by the side of the river and listen to them, waiting for the sun, risen now, but still hidden behind the hill. First to catch the sun is the tops of the trees on the Bundanon headland, at the place called Haunted Point. The canopy glows. Then, slowly, a bright seam edges up over the horizon, and light spreads across the entire scene, the wide river, the steeply forested hills, the rocky outcrop of Pulpit Rock, like a furrowed forehead, that I recognised from Arthur Boyd’s paintings.

When I first encountered Boyd’s paintings, as a teenager learning about Australian painting in high school, they affected me strongly. They were both spontaneous and deliberate: a knot or a slash of paint could so readily be a tree or a rock or a figure. The landscapes had such a strong mood to them that it seemed that more than observe them, Boyd had felt them in order to paint them.

Arthur Boyd’s studio

Some of his paintings positioned mythic figures in the landscape of the Shoalhaven – Susannah, Narcissus – channelling the landscape’s drama and energy. He also painted river scenes of bathers and waterskiiers, the cockatoos above the trees, the pink light and the golden light and the bright sun which turns the sky a smooth blue, so the trees and rocks are reflected clearly in the river’s surface. It is like that now, the water a mirror.

The sun has risen, the day will be hot and bright, and I will go back to the house and spend it writing. But for now I sit by the river, listening to the birds, waiting for the next fish to jump. It soon comes, flipping up like a sudden idea or a burst or feeling, flashing silver in the daylight, for a moment, before disappearing back under the surface of the water.

 

Thank you to the Bundanon Trust for selecting me for the 2019 Artists in Residence program. 

The D’harawal dictionary can be found at Frances Bodkin’s D’harawal Dreaming Stories.

This Year

December 1, 2018

It is the first of December today, and outside the day looks lush, the trees bright green, branches swaying in time with the breeze that is coming in through the window and across my arms. I’m in the gloom of the house, no matter how much I might feel the urge to be otherwise, combing through the details of the year that’s almost passed. To do this I am scrolling through the 5000 photographs that I have taken this year. Surely with that many photographs there is little more that needs to be recorded, yet they are only ever a partial summary. I turn, too, to the journals I’ve kept this year, and flip back to the start.

2018 Journals

At the turn of the year I had been on a railway bridge in Erskineville handing out sparklers to the people around me as we struggled to see the new year’s eve fireworks over the top of the city buildings. In some ways I have indeed continued to do this for the rest of the year, as I’ve given regular talks about Mirror Sydney and the book has made its way into the world. At a time when Sydney churns with change, and becomes more ever-more difficult to live in as it does, it felt good to encourage paying close attention to its smaller, quieter, stranger places.

At Better Read Than Dead, Newtown (photo by Better Read Than Dead)

One of the joys of writing a book like Mirror Sydney is making public the feelings and ideas that the city brings about within me, and finding that others share, or have their own versions of, these connections. I’ve felt thankful to have my book so well-received and to have met so many other people who share a belief that the city’s stories, big and small, are worth recording, in the myriad and varied ways that we are able to do so. Some of my favourite reviews and commentary on Mirror Sydney from this year can be found in the Sydney Review of Books, Westerly, Plumwood Mountain and in the profile on me and my work in Neighbourhood.

Speaking about binishells and Mirror Sydney at Berkelouw Books Mona Vale in March.

 

With Mark Mordue and Ross Gibson at the State Library of NSW in March for “The City Rewritten”

 

With Fiona Wright, Ashleigh Young, and Nick Tapper of Giramondo Publishing, at Gleebooks in May, for “The Art of the Essay”

Much of my writing this year has been affiliated with Mirror Sydney in some way, whether it be on the Mirror Sydney blog or companion articles such as “Underground Albums” for the SL magazine, for which I was also the cover star, in a lovely photograph taken by Joy Lai at the CTA bar in Martin Place.

I also worked with the Powerhouse Museum on the book Time and Memory, which was published in October: my essay “Time Machines” forms part of the book, alongside an essay by Samuel Wagan Watson and essays by museum curators such as Matthew Connell. As part of the project I also interviewed Joyce Thomson, who worked in the Sydney telephone switchboard at the GPO in the 1950s, reading the time live over the telephone.

With the Curator of Sydney Observatory Andrew Jacob atop Sydney Observatory’s Time Ball tower. Photo: Matthew Connell, MAAS

This year the artist Tom Carment painted a portrait of me, “The Observant Vanessa Berry” that was exhibited in the Archibald Prize Salon des Refusés. Here’s the painting taking shape:

 

I’ve also been involved with the Centre for Deep Reading this year, hosting the fundraising dinner at Alfie’s Kitchen ahead of the Winter Reading Retreat.

Reading at the Centre for Deep Readings fundraising dinner.

Among all this I haven’t forgotten my roots, and had a grand time at the Festival of the Photocopier and Other Worlds Zine fairs, and made a couple of zines, Disposable Camera, and Marrickville.

At the Festival of the Photocopier Zine Fair in February, Melbourne Town Hall.

The bright, green day outside calls me, and so I will say farewell for you, dear readers, for 2018. It has been a quiet year on VB World the blog, but a rich one for VB World in real life: in 2019 I will try to bring the two a little closer. Mirror Sydney will continue, as will my Instagram.  Thank you for your support and interest this year and I look forward to sharing new projects with you in the next one.

In Goulds Books, a Newtown institution, which closed in September 2018.

See you in the new year

🌱🌱🌱🌱

From Here to There: Australian Artists and Walking

July 23, 2018

In mid-July I visited Lismore, on Wiyabal land, to speak at an event for the exhibition From Here to There: Australian Artists and Walking, curated by Sharne Wolff and Jane Denison. I was one of the essayists who contributed to the catalogue, writing about the connection between walking, art, life and landscape.

The exhibition presented walking in different ways, directly and indirectly, but always as a deliberate practice used to engage with the world outside the artist’s studio. Noel McKenna‘s New York diaries were collections of observations made while walking, often including encounters with creatures, whether they be Miss Jasmine the museum cat, or the Long Island Big Duck.

A different kind of observation was involved in Rebecca Gallo’s collection of roadside debris, found during walks in Lismore during her residency for the exhibition. Collecting these scraps and shreds as she went, in the studio she set them into a new kind of life, as a mobile where wedges of newspaper, rusty bolts, scraps of plastic, and a flattered dried toad spin in a slow dance.

I too was eager to go out walking in Lismore. I hadn’t been to the town since, 1997, when I was there visiting zine friends of mine: it was so long ago I was still practically a teenager. My only memories of the town were looking at framed photographs of past floods in a city cafe, and sitting on the porch of my friend Lee’s house, a memory that is tinged green from the enclosure of the surrounding trees.

This time, my guides to the town were: a late-1960s postcard of the town taken from a lookout in Lismore Heights; a map Simon drew me of his remembered Lismore of the 1990s, and my host from Southern Cross University who I spoke with at the gallery, Associate Professor John Page. Here are some of the places they led me.

The same scene but much more green, 50 years later from the Claude Riley Memorial Lookout.

Lismore houses, raised up for protection in floods. Rainbow steps, banana trees. John and I walked around the low-lying areas near the river, where everything around felt verdant, and he told me stories of past floods and town characters.

A polite bus shelter.

Past amusements live on at the skating rink.

The beautiful Tropicana Fruit shop on Keen Street, with the sign for its previous incarnation as the Wonder Bar.

Gentlemen’s Fashions and George Gooley’s.

 

An important feature of Simon’s 1990s map: the cedar log outside City Hall.

no cordial

A strong warning for some not-so-strong drink.

The walker.

(Thank you to John, Sharne, Jane, SCU and the Lismore Regional Gallery for having me visit.)

Other Worlds and a Marrickville Map

May 26, 2018

For Other Worlds this year, I decided to keep things local, and make a map of Marrickville, where the fair is to be held, in the Town Hall. I’ve never lived in Marrickville myself, but it is a place I know well, have spent much time in and moving through. It’s a capacious suburb, full of details that connect to its many threads of stories, as Gadigal Land, as a place with a strong migrant community, especially for people from Greek and Vietnamese backgrounds, and as a place with a rich creative community.

Like the maps included in Mirror Sydney, the Marrickville map collects some of the suburbs landmarks, connecting them with their stories and each other. It hopefully opens out into many other stories, as it triggers the memories of people who have had an association with Marrickville, or a place like it, in their life. The accompanying guidebook suggests some alternative readings of these places, and how they might figure in the dream-life of the suburb.

Visit me at Other Worlds, Sunday 27th May, 12pm – 5pm, or buy a copy of the Marrickville zine and map on Etsy.

Poster by Haein Kim

 

Disposable Camera

January 31, 2018

Has it really been 5 years since I’ve published a Disposable Camera? It seems so. I had recently been wondering if disposable cameras still existed, but then one day I was on the train in Sydney, passing through Circular Quay station, which gives you a postcard view of the harbour. As I looked out towards the harbour, a teenage boy on the other side of the carriage took a photo through the window with a disposable camera. I heard the snap of the shutter and the rasping sound of the film being wound on. They still exist, I thought, maybe it’s time to reinstate my own Disposable Camera. Soon after this day I cut some paper into quarters, unboxed the Olivetti Valentine, began to type and let the words lead me.

This new Disposable Camera is about a specific memory object, that being a koala souvenir that once lived alongside me, and now lives in my thoughts. I’ll be debuting it at the zine fair for the Festival of the Photocopier in Melbourne on February 11th at the Melbourne Town Hall. I’ve also listed it on Etsy, for those elsewhere or eager.

Ursula Le Guin’s Blue Moon Over Thurman Street

January 24, 2018

This morning I heard the news of Ursula Le Guin’s death, or perhaps it is more accurate to say I saw it: her face, and the covers of her books, and images in tribute on social media. Le Guin wrote immersively of fantasy worlds. The islands of Earthsea floated in their ocean, but also in her readers’ imaginations. Transferred between this world and ours was her wisdom.

A few years ago I found a different kind of Ursula le Guin book, the nonfiction book Blue Moon Over Thurman Street, written in collaboration with photographer Roger Dorband. The book was $1 and I’d found it poked in among the cookbooks and outdated travel guides of the nonfiction shelf of a Salvation Army op shop. I first had to check it was the Ursula Le Guin, because it was so unlike the books she is known for. It was a book that, in photographs and poetry, told the story of a street: Thurman Street in Portland, Oregon, where Le Guin lived.

“To walk a street is to be told a story,” she writes in the introduction. Over the decades she’d walked along Thurman Street – a long straight street of 45 blocks, which starts at the river and ends in the forest of Macleay Park – she noticed its daily changes and then its larger ones, as the gentrification of the late 1980s took hold. But she wanted to capture “not the losses and gains but the permanence” of the place. She worked with photographer Roger Dorband, responding to his photographs. Some photos she’d asked him to take, others he took as he walked Thurman Street. “Roger’s Thurman Street is bluer and darker and bleaker than mine; it has more cars and more power lines. My street has more kids, cats, dogs and housewives than his.” Together, they documented the moments through which, Le Guin writes, is “the only way to catch permanence”.

It’s a book with a light touch, for all the depth of place and time it covers. Le Guin’s handwritten texts alongside the photos are like captured thoughts, and interspersed with them are stories from neighbours, and sections from the Bhagavad Gita, “which in its austere tenderness acknowledges all chance and change, including them in stillness”. Additionally, Dorband’s notes on the photographs at the end of the book tell the stories of how they came into being, take us into the energy of each moment.

I’ll look through this book today, with its shadows and windows and people caught mid-step, and think about Le Guin walking here throughout her long life, her thoughts in the moment, or in worlds elsewhere.