Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Alison Dowell

As I leave the grandkids behind and head towards Rapid Creek and Alison Dowell I contemplate how abstract the world of art can be. I don’t mean abstract in its imagery but how conceptual and intangible the ideas in art can seem. Artistry and its practice seems so removed from ordinary life; as distant as a holiday in Barbados or even a small win in Lotto; you know, enough for me to retire and live a life to which I could become accustomed. But what if art wasn’t so foreign to us? What if it was part of our lives like shopping and cleaning our teeth? We could live in a world where art had the same status as reading and doing sums or using a mobile phone. Imagine a world where every part of our very existence was infused with art, either complete or in the making. And the very presence was as sublime as the ebbing of the tide or as robust as a tropical thunderstorm. Imagine living in a gallery with all the artistic detritus scattered around you like the shrapnel from an IED. And it was normal.

Alison lives in such a world.

As I approach Number 9, buried deep among the courts and circuits of suburban Rapid Creek, there is evidence of Alison’s art leaking from the opened front gates, which gape in a beckoning way, tempting me to enter. I’m hesitant. There is no sign of life. A cluster of chairs is haphazardly arranged in a loose group to my left as if the party has finished and everyone has departed. Out of the corner of my right eye I catch a glimpse of what appears to be a dog perched atop a table, ready to pounce. Its lifeless eyes follow me towards the house. A shark fin disappears behind a pile of boxes. There is a scratching noise behind me and I turn to see a glass eye from an overhanging crocodile peering down from a resting place. Is it guarding a clutch of eggs, I ask myself? I pass by an easel on my way to a distant light and find myself face to face with a disagreeable camp dog looking forlornly at nothing, as they do.

Art and its flotsam is everywhere. Jars of brushes bristle in the dim light, some overhanging tapestry dangles lifelessly in the stifling heat of the tropical afternoon, strange forms stand in clusters like school children in a playground, images and shapes fill every corner. There is barely space for me to move. I step lightly through a myriad of pathways and reach the stairway leading to the overhead verandah. There is still no sign of human inhabitants. A lizard scurries for safety. I wonder if there is room under the rocky refuge for the both of us in case that dog comes to life. Silence. The hand on my watch has stopped moving, I swear. I wait for the next tick.

‘Hello. You must be Tom’. I bring my composure to something resembling confident.

Alison, at 51 (as she reveals later), carries herself well. Her youthfulness has lingered in her manner and voice; her appearance defies chronological classification. I’d be flattering in my guess at her age. We sit, and quickly launch into some introductory conversation. I am pleasantly surprised at her interest in what I do. There is always comfort in talking about oneself. It’s a subject in which we are all expert. Before I get carried away I remind myself of my reason for being here.

Alison’s London accent adds a touch of allure to the conversation that follows. Her education in science adds another layer. But what intrigues me most is Alison’s milieu. As she discusses her art I am aware that she is searching for objects that can add to her conversation as I might search for words in a thesaurus. She points and prods as a painter might construct a canvas. Her hands caress fragments of her surroundings as if she were searching for shapes that would fit into the mosaic of our discourse. Much of these fragments are from other artists, splinters from someone else’s life. Other pieces are collections waiting for an opportunity to fall into a thought process and become a component of the creative practice. There are completed works as well as works in progress, although I find it hard to tell the difference. It’s not to say they look unfinished; just a possibility that they are able to be added to, as one would add to a diary or a library of interesting books.

Alison describes briefly how she might work: selecting objects at arm’s length to satisfy a concept’s fruition; a piece of string or some driftwood, even some wire or a shopping bag. Alison disposes of nothing and utilizes everything. Every component of her surroundings will have some artistic purpose somewhere in the future, if it hasn’t already. And no medium remains untouched. This is the teacher in her. There is evidence of pottery, glass, mosaic, sculpture, and, of course, painting. Alison chats freely and I listen intently. She has strong views on how art should be perceived and even stronger views on how it should be taught. Discipline is evident in her tuitionary style. Skill is her grounding. Expression is important but boundaries need to be set for that expression to be fulfilled. Proficiency is achievable through persistence. She describes how much she enjoys teaching young children; with their undisciplined style, as long as that mode fits within the parameters she sets. She waves a finger at an imaginary child, but smiles gently to soften her demeanor. Never the less, I pay attention for fear of a reprimand. An image of my grade 3 teacher surfaces. There is no room to argue with a shaking finger.

I start taking some pictures, aware of the time passing. There is a brief silence and she turns away momentarily. I sense some awkwardness but it passes. She reveals that this is not a space she opens to public scrutiny. She is a well known artist but people know her for her paintings. Only close friends are privy to her work place. I am made conscious of how private such a place can be. I have feelings associated with the thought of reading someone’s diary or going through their drawers. My sensitivities need to be in place; not easy for someone who is prone to snooping through people’s lives and splattering them over the internet. I remind myself: this is a privilege that needs to be respected.

Alison has a business side as well. She makes ‘a tidy sum’ on her greeting cards. Her scientific training comes to the fore as she describes the research that went into producing and distributing her range of cards. If you spent a week in Darwin you would be hard pressed not to come across her colourful creations on a greeting card rack somewhere along the tourist trail. I am also informed that each and every one of us will buy at least three cards a year, not all from Alison, although there is a strong move tochange that. Apparently someone else is buying my share. Besides, I only have two friends. One of them lives with me and the other might misconstrue my intentions if I sent him a card. Never-the-less, Alison is ensuring that I buy hers if I ever change my mind. And that won’t be my loss.

There is more conversation around the teaching and she shows me the ‘tool kit’ for her next workshop. I am reminded of my thought as I drove here. This is a world of art. Nothing escapes the creative process. In this seemingly haphazard array of boxes and bindings, there is art waiting to happen. There are many projects ‘on the go’ and the material of Alison’s world appears to creep from its temporary resting place to its rightful position in among the textile that makes up her life, guided by her gentle hand, careful and considered eye and inspired by her thoughts, feelings and experiences. There is nothing here that indicates a separate world of domesticity or commercialism. This is truly a world of art and it belongs to Alison Dowell.

Thanks Alison for sharing it with me.

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