Thursday, February 28, 2013

Tuwhare / Hotere

Back when I first launched Jetsam my plan was to begin proceedings with a post about the then-recent passing of Hone Tuwhare. The content of the post would have been brief, unfamiliar as I was and still am, relatively, to Tuwhare’s work. With the death this week of collaborating artist Ralph Hotere it therefore seems fitting that I revisit that early draft, concerned as it was with one of their better-known joint works. As a young Simian I entered Otago University without a firm geographic compass point. When you are new to a large space of buildings, concourses and hallways you make do with what you recognise and stick around with familiar spots, even if you’ve no business being there study-wise. Otago University’s then Hocken Building, monolithic and shaped like two great Brutalist stereo speakers amid bluestone and concrete precincts, was one such place, and indeed in my first year, apart from the odd exhibition at the small Hocken Gallery and foray into the library of the same name, there wasn’t much reason for me to be there. It was an effective short-cut from the banks of the Leith to the Student Union lawn, though, and on rainy days it was a decent enough, if echoing dry spot. On Fridays I’d go there to take a lift to my doomed Anthropology and History tutorials, and visit the gallery on the way out. For the rest of the week I’d be elsewhere. Easily the most box-like of all the building on campus, it seemed especially closed-off and sequestered, and not in the charming way of the university’s other, older buildings and theatres. I never really warmed to it.

 But what I did like, my favourite part of the building in fact, was the triptych hanging in its ground floor entrance; three canvas strips of speckled grey, white and black, like a Dunedin footpath in a February sun shower. At the foot of each banner in the painterly hand of its artist Hotere were the words of Tuwhare’s Rain. As an artist Hotere’s also work never really struck home with me. I used to find him a bit suspect, unnecessarily derivative of ‘better’ artists like Colin McCahon. If that’s a short-sighted judgement then maybe I was jaded at the same time, Hotere’s work being in the late 80s and early 90s as ubiquitous as his presence in the Otago artist community. So familiar as to be taken for granted. I would walk past a lot of his work seeing instead aspects of other artists in the bold streaks of red and white against deep fields of black and brown. Expressions and political concepts condensed into stencilled letters and numerals, spatters of that same palette on vast canvases creating a spectacle, but not really saying anything to me.

 My first encounter with the Hocken building was my first encounter with the poem and the artwork, and for an even younger would-be student fumbling his way through the campus on a day-visit for my final year of school, the encounter resonated fully. I don’t remember much of my seventh form year’s studies – just English (which I’d continue with at Otago) and Art. I still fumble with verse to this day, to be honest, but there in that triptych was for me a perfect and seamless melding of the visual and the figurative; Tuwhare’s raindrops realised in Hotere’s long dappled banners, the verse scrawled as though committed quickly in a stream of senses. That year I’d learned the power of negative space in painting, and though Hotere’s Rain afforded none in its canvas borders, to a small onlooker in a gargantuan concrete building in a new and fascinating place, that space found me. Many times I’d return to that triptych in my time as a student and look up at the hanging above me, and on each viewing, like Tuwhare's voice in the rain, I’d find it again.

I can hear you
making small holes
in the silence

If I were deaf
the pores of my skin
would open to you
and shut

And I
should know you
by the lick of you
if I were blind

the something
special smell of you
when the sun cakes
the ground

the steady
drum-roll sound
you make
when the wind drops

But if I
should not hear
smell or feel or see

you would still
define me
disperse me
wash over me

Hone Tuwhare 1922-2008
Ralph Hotere 1931 - 2013

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Oaken's Twelve: Bombur

At last – finished!

As the fattest Dwarf (Tolkien pulls no punches), Bombur cuts quite the figure, but is largely (oops) taken to be something of a figure of fun by all and sundry. I’ve found, though, as I’ve worked on the character, that far from being a cut-out stereotype ‘Billy Bunter’ figure, there’s a lot going on with this member of the team. True, some of it was edited out of the final draft – chiefly, Bombur’s own membership of what Rateliff assumes was a sort of ‘hearth guard’ of Thorin’s, along with his brother Bofur and cousin Bifur. And then there’s the small matter of Bombur post-Quest, as described in The Council of Elrond in The Fellowship of the Ring; not only does Bombur survive the battle of Five Armies, but grows in esteem and size in the years that pass, to the point that by the time Gimli and Gloin relate his status to Bilbo at Rivendell we learn that Bombur requires the strength of six stout Dwarves to carry him everywhere, due no doubt to both his age and his increased girth. And yet, like Ori (much abused by the new movie trilogy so far, as I argued earlier), he’s chosen by Thorin as a representative and compatriot in the Quest for Erebor. Why?

Well, it’s evidently not for comic relief. Nor for brains (Bombur is outwitted by Bilbo on the slopes of the Lonely Mountain – an easy feat given the Hobbit’s appealing to the Dwarf’s base desire for sleep), nor does it appear to be for his cooking skills – which are given no description of any kind in the book. The movie adaptation has a go at two of these three reasons, mind, with the main character beats of Stephen Hunter’s Obelix-like Bombur so far given to food and size-based visual slapstick (he’s yet to speak, although we can be sure he’s likely to before long in the movies), and of course afforded a giant ladle as a weapon because... well, because ladles = food! It’s funny, right?!

It’s more than a tad obvious is what I think, as is the early design notion of the movie to have Bombur’s various beard-jewelry contain morsels and snacks for the journey, the Dwarf being his own private quartermaster. I think it’s a lazy fall-back on characterisation, and the only thing I liked about the early Bombur concept sketches was one showing a drum (his musical instrument at Bag End) secured on his backpack, back in the days when the Company was conceived to be more of a band of travelers.  To be fair, even Tolkien abandons that notion early on in his story, and Bombur seems to be one of the least-likely to adapt to life on the road going by the blundering way he journeys through Mirkwood.

And yet, as we hear, Bombur survives. We also read in Roast Mutton that he is a pretty ferocious fighter, so it’s fitting that he should have a weapon more befitting a Dwarven warrior than a big spoon. Because of this, and to fit the earlier hearth-guard idea, I decided mid-conversion to remove the branch prop and waterskin I’d made and give Bombur his own Dwarven quarterstaff, which he might use as a walking stick on his journey as well. I think it also puts him in the company of some pretty fine stout fellows as well, notably Friar Tuck, and why not?The whole figure is almost 50:50 (if not more) green stuff and original plastic figure, the original of which is the same as Nori. If I perspired over giving Nori a bespoke hood to distinguish him from the then-similarly posed Bombur then I had no idea of the lengths I’d go to with the latter figure to further distinguish their silhouettes. Part of the story you can no doubt infer from my work in progress pics; the rest is some rather tentative explorations of how to realise in three dimensions the anatomy of fuller-figured people (and I should really acknowledge the movie as a positive influence here). It’s not just size and shape, but weight, gravity, movement and locomotion, and the dynamics of clothing and physique. Bombur’s a hefty boy, there’s no other way to address this than to do him justice, so I’m glad I did my best and took the time on him. I think I learned a lot.

For the record Bombur has green-stuff assistance with his belly, thighs and outer clothing, his left arm and right hand, his extra hair braid and beard (of course – bifurcated to improve from front-on the impression of his protruding abdomen), and I redid his satchel and gave him a small purse, and made an extension of his cloak because I reckoned that at the size I’d made him, his earlier cloak would have given him scant covering indeed. His staff is the same toothpick and green stuff creation as done for Bifur and Bofur, his knife is from scrap plastic, and his left hand is from a plastic Travelling Uruk-Hai. And so, with a new pose wiping some sweat from his brow as he joins his fellow Company, here’s Bombur.

Colour-wise I’ve found it hard to move away from the red hair of the movie Bombur – it just seems to fit, even if it owes a little to the aforementioned cartoon Obelix. In keeping I gave him a mix of warm ochre and browns to tie him in with Bifur and Bofur, and greys to allow a transition with another tricky cloak colour – Tolkien describes it as “pale green”, which is to say not light green, but something more washed out and less vivid. I have a straight bottle green in GW’s old Snot Green acrylic, but couldn’t make it work alongside the other colours, nor could find some appealing colours to coordinate it with, and so a mix of Fortress Grey with Catachan Green was the answer.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

In a Hole in the Ground there Lived...

Over the weekend two great completions happened to my free time. Firstly, and most recently, my model of Bombur, appropriately hefty and now more green stuff than original figure, is at last ready for undercoating. I've a good feeling about this one, and that's all I have to say about that.

The other significant completion is that on Saturday morning in bed I completed reading Watership Down. Regular readers will know that my memories of the film adaptation are reliably traumatic, and even a recent playing of a video for Bright Eyes was... troubling. The original novel was something I’d never considered reading until it was recommended to me years ago by my brother, who singled out the mythological aspects of the story, the bits that I’d not remembered from the movie. This reading was inspired by my recent posting on the film, and was, I hesitate to add, anticipated as a mild form of therapy. It was read in small bites - the last twenty minutes of the day, occasional bus rides into work, and that's all. After a spell in bed last week the book kicked in properly however, and I was through it quickly. And what did I think?

Well, I truly loved it.

Watership Down is now one of the most enjoyable and satisfying novels I've read, although it pains me slightly that I've read this possibly a little late in life, knowing the effect it had on me now has to be different from the effect it would have had on my younger self. Nevertheless I found the novel well-wrought, moving, evocative of a passed time and, thanks actually to dim memories from the movie, in places as tense as hell. Not recalling which of the rabbits lived or died (and the movie departs from the novel in places, as it turns out) in this aspect meant that more was at stake, and reading it with an adult sensibility and a certain degree of leisure allowed me to think about the story and the rabbits’ world more. I’m not surprised the book has survived as it seems to have – the story of its discovery and publication seems similar to that of J K Rowling’s first acceptance of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and yes, there’s an element of Tolkien in here as you’d expect – a story created to entertain the author’s children grows in the telling, and like The Hobbit it has quite the cast, each with their roles significant or small – quietly I think Adams succeeds here where Tolkien didn’t with his Hobbit cast. I had clear favourites among them – even the villains; some I championed, some I fretted over and still see where the story could have been expanded without diluting the core of it all, Hazel’s personal quest. I guess Richard Adams may have thought the same when he briefly returned to Watership’s world in a late follow-up of smaller tales and myths, without falling to the temptation to sequel-ise.

It’s a very clever book – literary in its epigrams for each chapter (opening with Cassandra’s doomed prophecy from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon gave it a big and chilling tick from me), and of course its pedigree is secure: it’s The Aeneid, but told in such a loose way it is more robust, evidently allowing numerous interpretations from different audiences. I appreciated the refreshing, almost Semitic creation story and tales of Elahrairah, the lapine trickster god, and the myth cycle’s matter-of-fact duality, a world dominated by the polar forces of Frith the sun and Inle, its lack. There’s no good or evil in the rabbit world, nor justice, and wickedness and selfishness are accepted and evaded as any number of the hrair, the thousand enemies of rabbitkind. Finally, there’s to me a sense of the elegy in dam’s telling, the story opening as it does with the threat of the countryside’s subdivision and (as later horrifically described) carving up by men and machines. The idyllic English countryside seems to have been more easily imagined in the Seventies, in the decade before urban sprawl condemned this world, exhaustively and sensorally detailed with the lives of plant and beast, to islands. Animals killed to suit the lives of men, as one character relates it.

So, with some relief and gratitude I’ve enjoyed returning to Watership Down, and may return again soon. A lot of the joy of reading this was in appreciating the book close to 'fresh', despite my reservations, and the experience offered as many moments of relief and catharsis as it did moments of real despair. It's a book I will certainly buy and, yes, hope to introduce to Jet Junior once he's old enough.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Oaken's Twelve: Bombur WIP

Oh, big boy. What an ordeal you're turning out to be.

 My third pass at Bombur, frustrated by a brief visit to the Arena of the Unwell (a 24 hour gastro thing), and Wellington's extended and very warm weather, which made pushing green stuff around late at night just that little less easy (the putty was too soft and sticky to hold its shape.)

As usual, I found things so much easier after a few days and returning almost to scratch...