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Brittany’s ‘Back to Earth’ keeps curiosity afloat

Newtown-based artist Brittany Johnson launched her first solo exhibition at the Orchard Gallery in Redfern in October as part of Sydney Craft Week. All her ceramics, baskets and textiles sold, and she donated a proportion of sales proceeds to SisterWorks, a Melbourne non-profit which empowers refugees, asylum seekers and migrants through work and entrepreneurship. In this Q&A she muses on play, plants, clay and botanical-dyed textiles.

The theme of Sydney Craft Week (October 11 to October 20) in 2019 is play. How pivotal is play in your creative practice?
I think if you are someone who spends their time creating and making objects as I do, play is a natural constant. Being creative is all about thinking outside the box and playing with new ideas, exploring concepts and having fun (and sometimes failure!), trying out new techniques to find what works best in whatever stage of your practice you are in. It can at times be an exhaustive process, but I think it’s important to keep your curiosity afloat and enjoy the process of play when creating.

Tell us about one piece in your solo exhibition Back to Earth and the experience it was drawn from …
I have a fondness for the Lomandra grass baskets. I loved working with that particular grass. It has such a fine, delicate look about it but it is also fiercely strong and keeps it’s form really well. Once the grass has been harvested, I strip each blade into five thin strips and it takes me ages but I find the process very relaxing and thoughtful. When I first learnt to use Lomandra, I was going through a difficult breakup at the time, and weaving these baskets became my mental sanctuary. I don’t really like to plan too much how my baskets will turn out, I think my subconscious always knows what direction the piece will take but I try not to overthink it because I know I will become critical which, as all artists know, definitely dampens the joy when creating!

Your show’s title Back to Earth, hints at a detachment from the nature. How does creating your art help you to reconnect with the natural world?
I have always felt quite detached from the Australian landscape even though I grew up in quite rural surroundings in Queensland. I’m not sure why but as a child I was never particularly interested in the outdoors. I always felt there was something a bit wrong with me for not having an interest in bushwalking and hiking the local mountains like my friends were always doing. Then, when I was 16, I moved to Sydney and felt that detachment from nature even more because I went from living in a house with gumtrees in the backyard to living in an apartment in the Eastern suburbs. Eventually I moved to Newtown and now live in a tiny house with a tiny backyard but there is a giant gumtree in my neighbour’s backyard that pulls my mind back to Queensland whenever I look at it.

I completed a Diploma of Fine Arts in Ceramics at Gymea TAFE which I loved but wasn’t really sure if I could take my career in any direction related to it so I chose to then study Jewellery Manufacturing at Enmore TAFE which was an amazing experience but I did find my hands missing the touch of clay so this exhibition was really my delving back into the world of ceramics after taking almost a two-year break. I also took up basket weaving this year, really just for my mental health, as I find the practice quite meditative. The action of repetitive weaving techniques and foraging for plants to use is a mindful experience and, through learning about different plants and their properties, I found myself connecting deeper with nature. Learning about different plants led to learning about natural dyes and the techniques used to create different colours and prints on natural fibres. In a short time, I found myself collecting fallen eucalyptus leaves, sticks, petals dropped from flowers, seed pods and anything else that inspired me and that I felt would contribute to my practice. With learning comes respect which has led me to an appreciation and connection to the natural world which I would not have developed had my creative journey not led me here.

How do some materials and textures you’ve used in pieces in your show convey a feeling or emotion?
The work in my show relies heavily on the textures and the touch senses when interacting with the works. The botanical-dyed textiles are all silk which give the graceful, soft, fluttery quality to the prints. I chose silk for practical reasons – it helps the inks come out of the botanicals and adheres to the fibres in the silk material – but also to create the illusion of delicate moth wings and fine leaves swaying in the wind. The clays I used in the ceramics are a mixture of stonewares and porcelains wanting to show varying landscapes of the earth – the porcelain is bright white and smooth like a pebble whereas the stoneware was brown and earthy with lots of rough sand in it like the rugged texture of the land where I grew up in Central Queensland. When it comes to the baskets in my show, the materials are foraged from various sources – grasses, plants, sticks, seaweed, seed pods and many other things I have found on my foraging journeys.

What is the most fun/playfulness you’ve had in your creative journey over the last year?
Definitely attending the annual Fibre Arts Festival at Yandina on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. It was an amazing three-day retreat over the October long weekend. I was lucky enough to attend as a scholarship recipient which was a massive blessing because it was one of the best experiences of my life. It’s a retreat for all lovers of the fibre arts – be that basketry, weaving, macrame, felting, crocheting, eco-dyeing and many other forms. Over the long weekend you attend different workshops, artist talks, yoga and meditation, bushwalks and many other beautiful things. It was an extremely inspiring weekend and a lovely opportunity to meet other creatives. I highly recommend it to anyone wanting to delve deeper into their creative energy. Whether you’re new to fibre arts, or you’ve been creating for years, I can guarantee you will learn a lot and create lasting connections.

How might aspiring artists and others access spontaneity and playfulness or cultivate freedom and joy in the moment?
To be honest, I don’t think spontaneity and playfulness is always easy to grasp when you’re working because although you’re doing something creative, at the end of the day it’s work, and you have an end goal in mind. I am constantly inspired by many things, whether that’s images on Pinterest, going for a walk in nature or just flicking through an art book. This is my go-to technique whenever I’m feeling stuck for ideas or things aren’t working quite how I want them to. Creating is about problem-solving and with problems there can be opportunities. Some of the best parts of my works have come about because there was a problem and it forced me to change the direction of the piece. It can be difficult at times to adapt your idea but that is where play and spontaneity come back to the forefront.

The Sydney Craft Week festival offers 37 exhibitions, 57 workshops and 13 markets. What are one or two events you would like to attend this year and why?
I plan on catching A Handmade Life (October 24–November 3) exhibition at the Chrissie Cotter Gallery. The exhibition explores the work of inner west artists Meryl Blundell, Gill Brooks, Ro Cook, Lorraine Evans, Kim Davies and Romana Toson with the work ranging from jewellery and textile pieces to wall art. I’ve trained as a jeweller, so I’m definitely excited to see what other local artists are doing in their practice and see how they too are responding to the ever-changing scene of Sydney’s art culture. The other exhibition I am keen to attend is Odette Ireland’s In My Nature. The show is influenced by Alexander Calder’s mobiles through ceramic and mixed media sculptures. The work has been beautifully assembled and crafted to perfection and it has a very ethereal quality to it. I can’t wait!

What are two exhibitions or workshops you would recommend to other festival goers?
I would love to do the Totes Playful workshop by Nicole Robbins happening at the Bridget Kennedy Space. Nicole will be teaching how to upcycle and decorate your old tote bag through using basketry techniques to replace handles, add decoration etc. I love learning new techniques when it comes to basket weaving and it’s a sustainable alternative to just throwing the old bag away. The other workshop I’ve got my eye on is the Glassblowing in Spring class with Mark Elliot Glass. I’ve always wanted to delve into working with glass and I think this workshop would be a great introduction as you learn how to sculpt or blow glass into a variety of objects and learn all about the basic techniques of working with borosilicate glass.

Coming up at the Orchard Gallery
On November 23 the Orchard Gallery will host an exhibition of drawings by Adrian Spry and Andrew Collis. Both artists enjoy the simplicity and immediacy of drawing, and their works include landscapes, figures and abstraction. A proportion of sales proceeds will go to Aspect (Autism Spectrum Australia). Drawings opens at 5pm, with live music by guitarist Denny Kesic. The Orchard Gallery is located at 56a Raglan Street, Waterloo.

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