SUE JACKSON Therapist | Writer | Photographer | Activist

An avid blogger for the last fifteen years, I believe in the power of the word to change the world. I have participated in, and reported on, a range of protests during this period, including the successful East-West Link campaign and, more recently, our wonderful, home-grown Extinction Rebellion (XR). If you believe, like I do, that it is time for ordinary people to rise up in defence of the planet, I encourage you to explore this blog, share it with your networks, and – of course – take action.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Trash's Treasure: An Insider's View of Melbourne's Graffiti Art

Green-eyed goddess

On Wednesday I paid my second visit to an art work in progress on Melbourne's super busy Alexandra Parade. I was keen to see how 'Trash', a young female street artist, was faring with the work commissioned by the hairdressing salon whose wall her goddess adorns.
I've learnt lots from Trash about life as a street artist.
One thing I hadn't realised was that street art coda and language features a Byzantine level of complexity. For example, sometimes 'graffiti art' is used as the general term to cover all sorts of temporary art works. At other times and places, the word 'graffiti art' is avoided at all costs because of its association with illegality and official reprisals, and is replaced by the term 'street art'.
And reprisals are commonplace, according to Trash. Being caught in flagrante delicto after several official warnings, graffiti artists can find themselves in court or even serving prison sentences. One way artists avoid official scrutiny is obviously by working at night in out-of-the-way spots. Another is by being careful about how and if they are photographed. They also typically use a range of different alias or tags to keep officialdom guessing.
I was surprised at one consequence of the illegality of grafitti art. As artists are prohibited from carrying the tools of their trade on public transport, cartage can present a big problem, especially when they are working on a large piece. I couldn't imagine how a woman as slight as Trash managed to carry all her stuff.

Prohibited items: Trash's art equipment on bus seat

Trash has a point when she says that official punishment of graffiti artists is unjust.  As Melbourne is now a Mecca for 'graffiti tourism', which puts dollars into government coffers, you would think that even purely on the basis of self interest officialdom would turn a blind eye. Mike Brown, Melbourne's very own Graffiti Godfather, who argued passionately thirty years ago that 'graffiti kids' should be given a fair go, would certainly have advocated that.
Speaking of dollars, it turns out that being a street artist is not cheap. The equipment above cost around $300. And not even all commissioned works are income-generating. When I asked Trash how she manages to stay afloat financially, she admitted it was difficult. She has relied on a series of 'crap jobs' to support her art practice. 'I do it for love', she said simply.
And some commissioned pieces do pay. The problem with that is hardly a new one. Trash never usually paints women and her preference is for abstract art, but she still accepted the invitation to create the green-eyed goddess. I'm sure even Michaelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci sometimes got sick of painting angels and flayed saints. They might have liked to let their hair down and paint bar scenes or country fairs had they not had to accede to the requests of their patrons. Whatever their personal preferences, sometimes artists just have to follow the money.

Trash at work

In our neighbourhood, local businesses are certainly cashing in on the current love affair with graffiti art. Bakeries, pubs, book shops - all are providing work for young artists, who can of course moonlight and follow their real passions at night. It would be great to think that Leonardo or Michelangelo gave themselves similar license. Perhaps in some dark alley way in Florence or Rome there are as-yet-to-be-discovered graffiti from the great Masters... We can but dream.

What I post about next time will be a surprise - to you and to me.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Dalai Lama in Melbourne

Gyuto monks' labour of love

Last Tuesday afternoon I went to Melbourne's Convention Centre to hear His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, talk on the unexpected theme of 'Beyond Religion'.
Before I say more about him, I first want to acknowledge the supporting acts.
I was lucky enough some years ago to hear the Gyoto monks of Tibet performing. In the dark bluestone amphitheatre at nearby Fairfield park, in their strange yellow-plumed headgear, they chanted in unison to the gum trees and the moon. It was a weird and wonderful experience. But I had no idea the monks were also masters of sand painting.
On Tuesday I stood watching for ages, enthralled, as they collaborated in painstakingly directing tiny trickles of different coloured sands to create a mandala of exquisite beauty before our very eyes.
Then I queued for ages for a security check - what a sad signs of the times - before finally entering the hall. As you can see from the pictures below, my seat in row XX provided a real workout for my camera's zoom.

 Tenzin Choegyal 

Tenzin Choegyal's traditional Tibetan music set the tone beautifully, as did the repartee between Tenzin and Magda Szubanski. At first I thought Magda an odd choice as compere until I was reminded how much the Dalai Lama loves a laugh - often against himself.
Arriving on stage, the first thing he did was share a joke with the Aboriginal Elder who welcomed us to country (sorry, but I didn't catch her name). In thanking her for her gifts, he commented that when recently presented with a handful of earth by representatives of the American First Nations, he had no idea what to do with it or where to put it. He wondered about rubbing it into his scalp, as he demonstrated (below).

Dalai Lama at his toilette

I find it astonishing that such a world-renowned religious figure, and one who has suffered so much, is always so quick to laugh and manages to avoid taking himself seriously. Suggesting that this century belongs to youth, (who were well-represented by the many school children in the audience), he said that he wouldn't be around to see how well they were doing. But even so, he joked, he would be looking down from heaven. Or if he ended up in the 'other place', he would appeal to the authorities there for a few moment's leave to check out humans' progress. When we remember that Buddhists are not theists, and so don't believe in heaven or hell, the flexibility of thinking and the generosity about others' beliefs (and perhaps the gentle prod) implicit in this joke I find amazing. I can't think of a single other religious leader who would say anything like it.
But the Dalai Lama takes a radical stance on religion. He believes that although their philosophical top dressings differ, all the main religions share the same key values, of compassion and forgiveness. He delighted in telling a story about the time he was introduced as a 'good Christian' and congratulated his Catholic priest friend for being 'a good Buddhist'. Although he frames his message of our fundamental sameness in simple terms, the implications are profound. If we were truly compassionate to each other and saw ourselves as the same, there would be no wars.
The Dalai Lama's message, as always, is an optimistic one. He argues that today's young people are sick of violence. And he is a great believer in the power of education. The 21st century, he suggests, will be the 'century of dialogue'.

Looking like an ageing golfer in his visor, His Holiness delights the crowd with his prowess  

I have no doubt that, although he loves informality and is the most human of men, the Dalai Lama is an exceptional person, a holy man - and a visionary. So I was delighted when, as his parting comment, he declared categorically that our present life-style can't continue, that the challenge for the future is to find a more sustainable economy. Ladakh, a close neighbour of Tibet, is the place where the ideas behind the Economics of Happiness crystallised for Helena Norberg Hodge, the theory's originator. So perhaps it's little wonder that His Holiness too sees the need for a total shift in our economic system. But it was still great to hear him say so.
I abstained from the mosh pit at the end, when people descended en masse on His Holiness. Instead, I stood in XX and watched until he finally disappeared offstage.

Monks destroying their handiwork

I knew in advance that, to make the point that everything in life is impermanent, the creators of the mandala would destroy it. So I was prepared - at least intellectually. But watching the monks ritually drag their tiny trowels through their beautiful art work was still distressing. I don't know how they do it - transform those beautiful images of brightly coloured sand, that they had worked so hard on, into a dun-coloured pile on an empty canvass. But I accepted their gift of a pinch of sand, and I'm looking at it now. I have to admit it beats the Christian memento mori of a human skull, which decorates many a Renaissance painting. But still...

In my next I will return to another creative group who also specialise in beautiful temporary art. You guessed it - I'll be back with Melbourne's grafitti artists, this time talking to a rare female graffiti-ist called Trash.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Stick Your Tunnel Up Your Funnel!: Trains Not Toll Roads

Rod Quantock - MC extraordinaire

On Thursday night irrepressible local comedian and community activist, Rod Quantock, brought the Trains Not Toll Roads public meeting to a close in his usual inimitable style. His rallying cry: 'Stick your tunnel up your funnel!' captured the passion of the large crowd, packed into Fitzroy's beautiful Town Hall.

Standing Room Only

This was by no means the first time many of the participants had fought to resist freeway extension and road tunnelling and to redirect spending to public transport. I was thrilled to see a beloved 'blast from the past' group, Melbourne's famous 'connies'. And to witness one of them bailing up passers-by, as they did so often in times past, to argue for ticket sellers aboard trams as fundamental to attracting more commuters.

Raffish Melbourne connie

Paul Mees, an early mainstay of the Public Transport Users Association (PTUA), and someone who has tirelessly fought the good fight, spoke via video link from his sick bed to the delight of the assembled crowd. I am thrilled to have been able to make a personal contribution to this wonderful group's campaign, by providing one of my pictures (below) for their new flyer, that was launched on the night.

Train flying above morning peak hour gridlock on Eastern Freeway 

A most inspiring guest speaker at the meeting was Alannah MacTiernan, the former Minister of Planning and Infrastructure (2001-8) for Western Australian. Alannah's championing of public transport in her home state resulted in the building of a 70-kilometre rail line that has totally transformed the way people travel to and from work. She had to brave powerful opposition, yet said that nowadays the prioritising of public transport is fundamental to ensuring electoral success in W.A.

Alannah MacTiernan - 'You can do it!'

 Alannah made the point that enthusiasm for trains needs to become a mainstream concern; it can't just be a 'inner-city elite's' preoccupation. In view of that comment, it was heartening to see that there were many people from other parts of the city at the meeting. Alannah also pointed out that the actual scale of the changes required are more modest here in Melbourne that they were in W.A.  So she is confident about our prospects.
This optimistic stance was echoed by many other contributors. And the excellent point was made that rather than getting mired down in debates about that no-brainer - the negative impacts of the proposed freeway extensions - a much more effective strategy is to keep the focus on the benefits of train travel.

Adam Bandt, our very own Australian Greens Federal Minister

I was most impressed that Adam Bandt stood in line, amongst community members, to have his say. When his turn came round, he made the point that the freeway extension is by no means a done deal. The government is certainly talking it up, but so far hasn't spent a cent.  (You would have to think that that other huge white elephant - the delsal plant, languishing abandoned in Wonthaggi - must occasionally trouble State politicians' dreams. Surely it must make them wonder about the wisdom of committing massive amounts of public funding to an enterprise that, as oil prices rocket, will inevitably go the same way.)
I was also impressed by the tremendous level of support from local councils. Our mayor, Jackie Fritasky, a long-term supporter of spending on public transport, spoke eloquently. In fact the meeting was a Who's Who of progressive thinkers and pollies. I spotted Greg Barber, Australia's first Greens mayor (right here in Yarra) and now on the Victorian Legislative Council. There was also Mayor Jennifer Yang of Manningham, &&&
On a good day, I can't believe that when some countries are toying with the idea of putting a warning sign on petrol pumps that oil is about to run out, that common sense won't prevail. Especially now that the State Government has such a clear directive about exactly what to do with their tunnel.

Next week His Holiness the Dalai Lama will be in town. I will be there, and will tell you all about it in my next.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Mabo Day, World Environment Day, World Oceans Day: Sorry Queen!

Cape Otway on the wild Southern Ocean

Don't get me wrong. I never say 'no' to a public holiday and I don't have anything personally against the royal octogenarian billionaire. It just seems weird to me that we Australians, a world away from Britain and hopefully from our colonial past, still take the day off to celebrate the Queen's birthday. Yet in the very same week, 3 most important anniversaries - Mabo Day (3 June), World Environment Day (5 June) and World Oceans Day (8 June), went almost unremarked. Perhaps we're not that discerning - after all ours is the only country in the world where everything shuts down for a horse race, but still...
I'd like to talk about the events I think we should be toasting.

Mabo Day honours the lengthy struggle and eventual triumph of Eddie Koiki Mabo, a Torres Strait Islander, who took on the might of the Federal Government over title to his land. On 3 June 1992 (sadly five months after Eddie's death) the High Court of Australia ruled to overturn the theory of Terra Nullius. This self-seeking idea had legitimised colonial land grabs, and its overthrow was a triumph for Indigenous Australia.
In recognition of this, on the tenth anniversary of the High Court's decision, Eddie's widow, his beloved Bonita, called for a national public holiday. Sadly, this request seems to have fallen on deaf ears. But in 2012 the ABC, in association with Blackfella Films, made a tele-movie about Eddie's epic struggle. Simply entitled Mabo, it features Jimi Bani and the wonderful Deborah Mailman in the title roles, and is well worth viewing.

World Environment Day

Marian's oh-so-delicious feijoas

The focus of this year's Environment Day was tackling world waste. I'm rather surprised to be quoting Pope Francis, but he put it very succinctly: 'Throwing food away is like stealing from the table of the poor.'
For weeks now, Marian, a friend from Spanish, has been bringing her delicious surplus feijoas to class. We spend lots of time stuttering over our Spanish, with juice running down our chins. Or sort of. We do eat as many as we can. But there are always others to take home, where they transform easily into luscious crumbles. And I even scored enough last week to take to our neighbourhood food swap. How much better that Marian went to the trouble of harvesting her crop and sharing it with others.
So, if you're not already doing so, next time you have a surfeit of lemons or silverbeet, put them in a box outside your house, as increasing numbers of people in our neighbourhood are doing. You might be sick to death of them, but like Marian's feijoas, they could be a windfall to others.

Merri Creek Fitzroy

This was the scene yesterday, (above) after last weekend's heavy rains, at inner-city Melbourne's Merri Creek. How fortunate we are to have a magnificent, well-tended creek within cooee of our front doors.
And I'm particularly lucky because I'm the Creek's therapist. You heard me right; that's what I said. Perhaps I'm the only person in the world who can make that claim. On second thoughts I have to admit - I'm not exactly therapist to the creek itself. The creek and its surrounds are cared for by a terrific not-for-profit organisation called Merri Creek Management Committee, who for a long time have employed me to support its staff. I have spent many an enlightening hour talking to revegetation experts and native grass specialists about their work. I only hope they have found the sessions as enlightening as I have.

World Oceans Day

Byron Bay along the South Pacific Ocean

Earlier this year, sitting up on Walgan hill, the sacred place of the Bunjalong nation, I was overwhelmed by the beautiful view below of northern New South Wales' Byron Bay and the South Pacific Ocean. Walgan's huge ancient middens, full of shells and skeletons of birds and fish, were a reminder of how bounteous the ocean has always been and for how long. And watching the hordes of swimmers, surfers and sailors, I was struck with how much fun and joy oceans bring to human lives. It's unthinkable that we should ever take them for granted or destroy the very thing we love. World Oceans Day reminds us to sign those petitions and to go into bat for our oceans wherever we can. We have no time to lose.

In my next post I'll be reporting on the Trains not Tollroads extravaganza to be held at the Fitzroy Town Hall next Thursday night (13 June). Organisers hope the venue will be packed to the rafters with protestors against the government's proposed monstrous extensions to the freeway system. I'll be there with camera in hand and heart in mouth. Please join us if you posssibly can.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Graffiti Godfather: Mike Brown

Mike Brown and art work - Fitzroy wall (1980s)

The tussle about whether graffiti is 'art' or 'vandalism' probably dates as far back as Pompeii and Herculaneum. That's where the world's first known graffiti was unearthed. Ancient Roman graffiti-ists tended to specialise in lewdness. One of my favourite examples, discovered in a Herculaneum bar, featured a drawing of a penis, with sign attached imploring: 'Handle with Care!'
I recall exactly the first time I ever considered the possibility that graffiti could be art. It was way back in the 1980s, when, standing at my front gate, I spotted a man I knew by sight riding by. He looked carefree, as if he had all the time in the world, and was helmet-less (which is against the law in Australia).
In answer to my question about the identity of the tall, skinny, balding, bearded cyclist, my neighbour replied: 'He's Mike Brown...he lives around the corner. He's the crazy artist who loves graffiti'. Later checking out his images on the wall (above), I found myself smiling and pondering. The artist, a life-long exponent of 'art for the people', would have been pleased with my reaction. It was exactly what he was after, and the reason he originally championed graffiti, becoming the first established Australian artist to do so.

Painted on wall of his neighbour's house in North Fitzroy in 1990

The other morning I checked out what is possibly the last remaining example of Mike Brown's graffiti art still remaining in our neighbourhood. Even though it was painted over twenty years ago, it is still in good shape, perhaps because Yarra Council had the foresight in 2003 to award it Heritage status. Many Councillors recognise that Fitzroy's graffiti art has become part of our cultural landscape and of course it is also proving an increasing national, and even international, tourist attraction. But in true Mike Brown tradition, ordinary people get a say in assessing graffiti art's merit, with the council offering a service to residents to have unwanted tags or unappealing graffiti removed from their properties speedily and free of charge.
But back to the artist. Mike Brown was a firm believer that 'art should expand and engulf everyday life.' The ancient fridge that was centre stage in his modest kitchen exemplifies that philosophy:

Mike Brown's fridge with improvised handle

I too have an old fridge, decorated with a collage of pamphlets, reminders, fridge magnets and posters, documenting the history of our family's unfolding interests. The kids are endlessly at me to get rid of this ancient monument, even citing - a particularly low blow - its undoubtedly poor environmental credentials. But Mike Brown's devotion to his model has strengthened my determination to hang on to mine until its very last whir. Even if my kids don't, I'm sure the artist would understand my attachment to our family's own example of 'spontaneous' art...
In keeping with this notion that art should engulf everyday life, once in the dining room of the Heide homestead, where he was staying at the time, Brown initiated 'an irresistible lava flow of paint covering everything in its path.' The holland blind (below) is my favourite example of the objects that stood in the lava's way:

Holland Blind - 'It ain't necessarily so'

Mike Brown died over 15 years ago now. He was farewelled at his beloved Heide by many admirers and friends, who decorated his casket (below) in fitting style:

Mike Brown: eternal anarchist

I often wonder what the artist would make of the exuberance, variety and sheer expanse of today's street art. As someone who ran 'Aerosol Art' workshops and even wrote a letter to The Age in 1987 entitled: 'Support Graffiti Kids in the Struggle for Artistic Freedom', I'm sure he'd thoroughly approve. After all, modern 'graffiti kids' are following in his footsteps.
If you'd like to learn more about Mike Brown and see further examples of his work, you are in luck. The Heide Museum of Modern Art in Bulleen is hosting an exhibition entitled 'The Sometimes Chaotic World of Mike Brown' until 13 October. I thoroughly recommend it to you.
Next time I think I'll post about 3 big events scheduled for this coming week. None of them is the Queen's birthday.