Anton Veenstra's Textile Blog

my textile career from 1975

A Historical Vantage

Art colleges offering art history courses encourage students to acquaint themselves with the crowded events of the last century. You can see the advantage of this; more and more research is being done, giving us a better, clearer perspective of the great artists and the great moments of the recent past.

Art auction houses structure this by constructing two or more lists of artists on offer: a Picasso, Matisse or Modigliani on the super list; Richter and others on the second list that still suffers from wobble and reappraisal compared to the marble-like monumentality of list one.

I would like to suggest another mode of looking at art. In recent times students have absorbed the feminism of a Greer, the gay liberation of Dennis Altmann, the anti-orientalism of Edward Said. These perspectives need to be absorbed into what was previously mainstream. Encourage the art student to construct a top 10 artists of Australia in 2050 or 2100 and what would the list look like? It would be particularly instructive.

Firstly, I would suggest Emily Kame Kngwarreye, and her occupation of that position would re-write much of our preconceptions of an artist’s life: someone who began painting AT 80 years of age, her various styles of abstraction.

Next, I would add Ian Fairweather, who embodied an admirable blend of European modernist, Asian calligraphic and Australian indigenous abstractions; an Australian bush hermit, our equivalent of Gauguin.

After that, Arthur Boyd, Dobell, Drysdale, Nolan, Gleeson and Jeffery Smart would jostle in the modernist arena alongside Cossington-Smith and Margaret Preston.

Obviously fashion would compete with personal inclination; but all of this is a healthy contribution towards national culture, in the absence of the national colleges of art as undeniable cultural factories of the past.

What I mean by the above simply is that all kinds of scientists and economists do projections for the future based on data collected; artists should behave similarly about our collective culture of the future. We are building it, even as we speak.

Tell me a story then I’ll go to bed

The ABC runs a social commentary show The Drum; today one participant said: ” we use narrative to give a sharp outline to facts or situations”. I’ve been trying to work out why a younger gen was so involved in story telling. In the 1970’s when I was in my 20’s, I think my gen was in a series of waves of change: rock n roll, Vietnam war, environmental protest, assassination of national leaders etc.

It will take many decades to work out fully what is going on here. The generation that has decided on the necessity to have recourse to narratives will need to take the initiative. Mine is a viewpoint that looks back. It reminds me when I studied Medieval literature; my lecturer said the predominant sentiment of the age was that everything worth saying had already been said; all that was left was to say things with an ironic twist. This is not the exact situation with Gen Y and following. However, for instance, in terms of art, someone said recently that since the modernism of the 1900’s, art movements have happened in tiny parallel waves, small variations of what went before. The narrative or a story telling of earlier times is a fecund way of summarising.

Xavier Le Roy Carriage Works

Usually, my attitude to conceptual work is that it is over thought out and manually under worked, which is where, as a textile artist/craftsperson, I like to see a lot of hard, well thought out work happening.

Tonight, on ABC Lateline the current Carriage Works show curated by Xavier Le Roy was presented. It consists of a number of performers who move in the nude, in concert or alone. The viewer is invited to sit at the edge of the performance space and interact with performers. Sub themes have been chosen for that session: what is falling IN or OUT of love like? How do you experience the ageing process?

Suddenly, seeing the confrontational impact of the proximity of a nude performer so close to a viewer made me realise how RAW the experience would be. There was none of that social flitting that conventional galleries and museums invite: posing absurdly with learned behaviour or knowledge. Immediate and unmediated involvement seemed to be demanded of the viewer; this was also controlled by the performer. In a gallery the art work demands a response but without the urgency that these performers generated.

John Kaldor was there promoting the event, comparing it to the impact of nudity in previous eras of cultural experience: all different. For instance, in ancient Greece, nudity was accepted, expected. It would surely have been different in ancient Egypt, also in Rome, in Renaissance times. His reaction was to praise the fusion of dance, performance, sculpture and visual art.

The honesty of the interaction is a factor that needs weighing, the ballet studios in turn of the century Paris where depraved gentlemen were able to abuse underage dancers, the experience conveyed in Degas’ bronze sculptures.

What intrigued me about Xavier’s work is how entrenched it felt within the French cultural corpus: the themes felt like they might have been lead lines of verses from a Baudelaire sonnet; the chorus movement was easily one of the large, semi-abstract Cezanne swimming themed paintings; nothing could have been more French than ageing and love. I look forward to seeing the work in real time.

A Knowledge of Ochres

On SBS the multicultural TV station there was a genealogical program about Adam Goodes, the AFL player who recently suffered racist abuse on the field when he did a victory dance, an Australian version of the NZ haka. This show, Who do you think you are? might have explained some of his fervour in wanting to promote his intense culture.

The search began when he met with his mum, who explained that all she had was two photos, of her mum and dad. He next interviewed a curator at the South Australian Museum who had an extensive system of index cards which illustrated the families of South Australian indigenous families.

The long and the short of it is that Goodes was able to meet with two elders, one from each side of his family, each of whom were able to address the ancestors on his behalf. The second began to paint Goodes’ face ceremonially with ochres: three equidistant white vertical stripes on his forehead, next yellow stripes in between, then orange, all of the above capped with a rainbow of red on the hairline, then some mauve near the ears.

It reminded me of a time in the 1970’s when a yoga teacher took us on an extended bushwalk through the National park from Cronulla to Sutherland; at one point was a waterhole where a deposit of red ochre had accumulated. This had been an indigenous site of ceremony; he invited us to paint ourselves with the material; it was a fierce colour, but when dried it became a wonderful gold. Better still, when the ochre was dry I looked around and immediately felt a calm affinity with my surroundings, whereas before, I had felt alienated and apart in this landscape, even though I am Australian-born.

There is so far we have still to go in improving cultural relations; South Australia of course has the jump on eastern states as it was never a penal colony.

Earth Air Fire Water

Valerie Kirk has recently proposed an international exchange project based on the four elements.

In the first Tamworth Textile Triennial I saw the very inspiring grid of small plein air woven tapestries by Cresside Collette. I decided that that was an excellent starting point to engage with this project. Here are five of the grid of nine works I would like to propose.





A Question of Attribution

Don’t like chat or gossip, says the fictional version of HM. Give me FACTS.

This is a wonderful short play. The double entendres, and none of them dubious, are a splendidly woven rope. Sir Anthony Blunt was a friend of Burgess and Philby at Cambridge, both homosexuals, who were illegal at the time, and Marxists. He lived a double life, the unravelling of which this play portrays. “How do you define a fake?” asks HM. “An enigma”> “That is what I would call the sophisticated version”.

What I cannot swallow is the quality of intelligence that Queen Elizabeth is shown to possess. Philip is an an off stage reference. In this play he adds a mere passing comment; in the film The Queen he is irritably macho. But like her portraitl by Helen Mirren in the film The Queen, here Prunella Scales is complex and astute. As part of the republican movement in Australia I find this fiction necessarily over-respectful within British culture.

This play shows Sir Anthony Blunt about to be publicly unmasked, stripped of his title and reputation. “Keeping out of mischief” is how the Queen describes the preferred state of grace for his underling. Meanwhile, we are looking at a Titan of dubious attribution, a metaphor for his life. It might have been an episode of Antiques Roadshow.

The Diver About to Dive


The latest in my series about Matthew Mitcham, out gay Australian diver, who won a gold Olympic medal for diving.  My ongoing interest in the paintings of Klimt contributed the gold patterning, moderated by my interest in the textile work of Dick Landis and Herman Scholten (Beyond craft: the art fabric by Mildred Constantine and Jack Lenor Larsen}; also the tapestry of contemporary Michael Rohde.

The figure is poised between air and water, my depiction of Mitcham is balanced between representational and abstraction, a legacy since Van Gogh and Cezanne.

Woven tapestry, 27 cms H X 25 cms W, cotton warps 8pi, cotton, wool, linen, synthetic wefts, 2015.

something new

Tonight, on SBS the multicultural TV station a presenter interviewed Baroness Susan Greenfield in the UK about the effects of social media on metal processes. She analysed Facebook, not always positively, as a fragile dynamic that people entered, not knowing all that they might encounter. She described the experience as infantile, a combination of the unknown and the predictable, that is to say making contact with one’s friends.

This explanation struck me as akin to a view of the creative process. Any number of social commentators from Carl Gustav Jung onwards have described artists as exhibiting an element of the irrational. Jung’s descriptions to my ears however sound fixed. My experience of the creative has much in common with Greenfield’s dynamic: one wakes up having had intriguing dreams. It is possible to play a breakfast game of recognizing where certain elements of dreams originated. Next, activities suggest themselves, unbidden, upon the merest inspection of what is laid out on an easel in the studio.

At every point of the process things suggest themselves; at this stage in my career it seems likely that in the past holding onto an idea for a work of art was a recipe for misguided self discipline. Creating art seems a harmonious dialogue between having an idea and listening to a steady stream of subconscious suggestions. While, like most Australians, I am addicted to Facebook, the above version of the creative process is not entirely unstructured or irrational.

Recently, at the Ian Potter Museum in Melbourne, I gave a talk with the curator, Suzette Wearne, of the show More Love Hours which featured four of my works as well as twelve other artist/craftspersons. The show attempted to wrestle with new ways of combining crafts and presenting them as a type of fine artistry. For my part, I described a crucial moment at the end of my academic career, having completed my Bachelor of Arts, when I experienced what I saw as “verbal overload”. However, years of having written poetry contributed a critical faculty, an ability to assess images, each one, separately, and combine them effectively. Perhaps this amounts to a recent version of the Romantic artists, William Blake for instance, who in his day contrived to forge an innovative combination of running verse and illustration.

While, however, one might compare Facebook and the benefits of the creative process, one thing is certain; every age has its perils. Every generation of teenagers feels its own particular version of alienation; only something as personally transformative as creativity enables people to endure change, to grow appropriately.

Prokovief’s Peter and the Wolf, #2

A polypytch of 5 panels, from top left, Peter, the bird, “look out”, grandfather and the wolf, 58 cms H X 40 cms W, woven tapestry, cotton warp 8 pi, cotton wool silk and synthetic wefts. Peter 17 cms H X 16 cms W. Bird 17 cms H X 14.5 cms W. Look out 13.5 cms H X 15 cms W. Grandfather 21 cms H X 21 cms W. Wolf 14.5 cms H X 14.5 cms W.

A playful rendition of Prokovief’s melodies. like anecdotes on a modernist opera stage.


new contemporary crafts

During the AFL season we watch the huge banners through which footballers crash at the beginning of their events. We are left to speculate as to the composition of that craftsmanship, the sewing of those huge, impressive floating banners. Of course they are made of paper, but the illusion persists, intentionally. Likewise, in both Sydney and Melbourne, when the annual Gay, Lesbian, Queer festivals recur, costumes have been assembled, banners constructed, covered with sparkle and glitter, skills have been learned where necessary, as required. Woven tapestry, by comparison, like other fine crafts, traditionally involve a ten year apprenticeship.

Antiques Roadshow, the UK show that appraises antiques, manages to find such artifacts from the past, sewn, as the author of the Subversive Stitch, Rozsika Parker tells us, by neither gender exclusively. As a result merit and media cannot be equated with gender. Around the walls of the exhibition of More Love Hours are an impressively eclectic group of objects, the expression of artists reacting to contemporary circumstances. The crafts these artists make use of relate to the past but also launch into the void that is the future tense.

I grew up in the countryside of central Queensland; my mother taught me to cook and sew; our home had cushions ornamented with Slovenian embroidery and rugs that were flat, patterned tapestry. At James Cook Uni, Townsville and then Macquarie Uni, Sydney I completed a Bachelor of Arts and Diploma of Education; the poetry I had written through the latter part of high school and six years of essay writing amounted to cerebral overload. At an end of year summer camp I watched a primary school teacher perform tablet weaving on a cardboard loom; I felt drawn to do likewise. At home I taught myself to weave tapestry.This photo was scanned by Remba Imaging. I was impelled towards a physical craft, away from years of expressing myself solely by means of the written and spoken word. I also learned macrame and patchwork. Finally, I collected some buttons and created button mosaic; in some areas, pyramid shapes, the underlying intent being to affirm the materiality of the idea.

From the first, the inspiration was painterly: Van Gogh, Gauguin and Derain. Lately, the grid of ordered patterns that weaving affords intersecting with abstracted representation led to examining Klimt’s golden abstract patterns; also a contemporary US tapestry weaver Michael F Rohde, who uses the abstraction that Chuck Close developed with paint. Exploiting these visual ideas through the slower medium of woven tapestry melds craft and art, to the betterment of both, a sobering discipline.

In the late 1970’s I visited the Museum of Modern Art in Rome; there was a collage of felt pieces by Fortunato Depero; nearby, in the Vatican Museum, were pieces designed by Matisse for the church at Vence, a chasuable and altar pieces; in both instances the artists made effortless use of multiple craft media. It would be interesting to research whether the artists sub-contracted the textile completion of their projects, or whether they personally acquired the necessary skills.

Depero waistcoat.


By comparison, although it was a frame of reference, the conceptual work of Michelangelo Pistoletto, founder of arte povera, used in his 1967 Muretto di straci (Rag Wall) bricks wrapped with rags, seemed to be based on incidental combination. Mike Kelley’s show More Love Hours creates such a lush tapestry with discarded rag toys. The most recent version of arte povera is to be found in Boltanski’s Dispersion, where heaps of rags are left on the gallery floor and the viewer is invited to remove a sample, perhaps an unconscious proof of having attended the event.

This photo was scanned by Remba Imaging.

Two Sydney friends of mine, antique collectors, having donated their collection of “depression craft” to the Powerhouse Museum, objects such as discarded lingerie that had been torn as strips and woven into domestic rugs, drew my attention to these objects. Looking at them gave me an insight into the possible transformation of the buttons I had collected into images of my personal life, the experience of being a refugee, portraits of my parents, two self portraits, images that allowed me to regain ownership and self awareness after incarceration and integration.

There are themes and there is process. The ambivalence in making use of buttons is that there is a uniformity in the distance between the holes where the thread need to go; this enables the craftsperson to combine wilfully, luxuriously, matt and lustrous shell. It has become a language of craft.

Having experienced Gay Liberation and US gay tourism, 1980’s disco culture and eventually the first Aids victims my use of buttons could be seen as a response to the horror of Karposi’s Sarcoma. As Izhar Patkin, an Israeli/US artist put it, “It’s not something I could say in words,” he continued. “It was something I did in a painting.” We are still reacting to the great events of our age, by means of, as T.S. Eliot put it, crumbling technologies: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins”.



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