Industrial Cathedral

Industrial Cathedral
"Industrial Cathedral" charcoal drawing on paper 131 x 131 cm Jane Bennett. This drawing was a finalist in the 1998 Dobell Prize for Drawing (Art Gallery of N.S.W.) ; Finalist in 1998 Blake Prize for Religious Art ; Winner of 1998 Hunter's Hill Open Art Prize

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Time for Safety

"It is with fire that blacksmiths iron subdue
Unto fair form, the image of their thought :
Nor without fire hath any artist wrought
Gold to its utmost purity of hue.
Nay, nor the unmatched phoenix lives anew,
Unless she burn."

Michelangelo, Sonnet 59
 I've finally completed my portrait of Chris forging chisels.

Portrait of "Chris Sulis forging chisels" 
2011-12 oil on canvas 152 x 122cm .
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Portrait of "Chris Sulis forging chisels" 
2011-12 oil on canvas 152 x 122cm.
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  In Renaissance and Baroque paintings, the artist would often paint dark red velvet drapery fluttering behind the subject. The dye used for this colour was extracted from the murex shell. It was prohibitively expensive and difficult to obtain, so using it as a backdrop would emphasise the aura of aristocratic power. Think of the background to Van Dyck's portraits of the pre-Civil War English court or Titian's portraits of the Papacy.
My luxurious crimson curtain is actually the welding screen, but it does give a feeling of the lost glories of the past.
Detail from Portrait of "Chris Sulis forging chisels" 2011-12 oil on canvas 152 x 122cm .
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"Time for Safety" detail from Portrait of "Chris Sulis forging chisels" 2011-12 oil on canvas 152 x 122cm 
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 A decrepit "Time for Safety" sign is propped against the arched window frame. It reminds me more of a late Victorian moralizing wall plaque than an early example of Occupational Health and Safety regulations.
"Time for Safety" detail from Portrait of "Chris Sulis forging chisels" 2011-12 oil on canvas 152 x 122cm with the tools of trade.
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These days people have become risk averse to a ridiculous degree. In doing so they lose the chance to turn their fear into courage.

To paraphrase an old song, there is a time for safety and  there is a time for risk.
 Being an artist is risky. Doing anything interesting is always inherently risky.

Risks aren't always obvious.
The major risk to the blacksmiths isn't their hair catching fire, as they are too skilled. The real threat is that a combination of economic and political conditions could make their entire existence no longer viable.


"Blacksmith forging chisels" 2011-12 oil on canvas 122 x 183cm
$11,000

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janecooperbennett@gmail.com  
I'm now touching up the background of this painting of a different stage of the chisel forging process. This painting shows Euan crouched in the centre as the Massey hammer pounds the point into shape.
I'm very happy with both of these paintings.
So happy that next week I'll enter the painting of Chris in the Archibald Prize and the one of Euan in the Sulman Prize at the Art Gallery of NSW.
I'm not famous and neither are they, so I haven't a prayer with either work.
I'll waste $60 and half a day delivering them, but I feel like entering just for a stir.


Might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.


Unlike most of the entries, these haven't been whipped up just to enter a prize but are part of my normal work. I'm sick of the typical Archibald formula for prize winning entries - a  giant close up of a head, without context or content, painted from a slide projector.
Detail from portrait of "Chris Sulis forging chisels" 
2011-12 oil on canvas 152 x 122cm
$11,000 

 I hadn't originally expected this to be a portrait, but one of a series of paintings of the process of chisel forging. The previous painting showing Euan at the hammer is a very good likeness, but the figure is in the midground, although he is the focus of the whole work. The blacksmiths could not "pose" for me in any formal sense of the word, or even stay still for more than a few seconds as they were very busy working to their deadline. I took an immense risk painting a large full length figure dominating the foreground in a pose that he could not sustain for longer than a few seconds. I had to watch and wait whilst immersing myself in their world.  The more I painted Chris, the more his pose seemed to gather authority and purpose.
As I have painted Chris doing the work that he loves in the place that he loves, this painting will probably be tagged with the pejorative term "genre piece". Yet it tells you more about the thoughts and values of the subject than most Archibald portraits.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The fire within

"What is accomplished by fire is alchemy, whether in the furnace or kitchen stove."

Paracelsus
Fire is still a source of mystery and magic. It is a transforming element as well as a symbol of destruction. The discovery that fire could smelt metal was an immense technical advance in the evolution of humanity.
The smiths had at their command a material that could be cast, moulded, or hammered into a tool, an ornament, a vessel for cooking or storing food or drink, or a weapon.


Unfinished painting of "Chris, the blacksmith of Wrought Artworks, forging chisels" 2011-12 oil painting on canvas 183 x 122cm
$11,000


I started this large (183 x 122cm) canvas of the blacksmith Chris Sulis quenching a chisel late last year. This is how the canvas looked when I displayed it at the recent ATP Open Day on Saturday 25th February 2012.
I was interrupted in the progress of this large canvas by having to prepare for 3 major solo exhibitions in less than 4 months. Most artists hold only 1 solo show every 2 years so this totally disrupted the progress of my painting. 

I hate displaying unfinished paintings, but I did so at the ATP Open Day as I thought that it would give the audience a useful insight into the painting process. They would see me starting a variety of small canvases, compare these cryptic squiggles to the half finished ones, and then be able to see  finished works in the exhibition in Bay 12. One man thought that I was using one of the small canvases as a palette, until an image of Guido hammering  started to appear from the cloud of brushstrokes!
A close up detail of the unfinished painting of Chris. He is quenching one of a seemingly endless pile of chisels, which have to be reforged and sharpened weekly.
$11,000
On Monday I decided it was about time to complete the large canvas. It was certainly worth finishing, but it was a large, complex and ambitious work, full of perspective and lighting problems. I hadn't been able to spend much time painting large scale works this year due to my punishing exhibition schedule, so I felt a bit rusty. And the blacksmiths can't stop to model, however much they might like to - they are very busy!
Unfinished painting of "Chris, the blacksmith of Wrought Artworks, forging chisels" 2011-12 oil painting on canvas 183 x 122cm
$11,000
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 This shows my large painting as it was on Tuesday mid-morning.
Chris is working the Massey steam hammer in the background. He will stay in this tense crouch for about 30 seconds - and this will be the longest that he will stay still all day!

Every Tuesday, a pile of 100 - 150 chisels arrive to be reforged, sharpened and picked up the next Tuesday. Some of them have been bent into "J" shaped giant fishhooks and need a combination of heating, hammering on both the traditional anvil and the heritage Massey air hammer and even angle grinding. They are described as "chisels","points" or "tapping bars" - I don't know which of these terms is correct (if any!). Apparently these points are attached to jackhammers. One of the blacksmiths estimated that during his apprenticeship he would have reforged about 1,000 of these in a week.
They have mixed feelings about this task - it seems repetitive and neverending but they love using the old -fashioned machinery.
I have similar feelings - it is so exciting to paint this, but it is incredibly noisy and afterwards I feel drained and exhausted.
The pounding of the Massey hammer can be heard even through earmuffs, and there is a small yet fierce furnace heating the points that makes this an uncomfortable place to work on such a humid day.

Unfinished painting of "Chris, the blacksmith of Wrought Artworks, forging chisels" 2011-12 oil painting on canvas 183 x 122cm
$11,000

This is how my painting looked after the Tuesday forging session. My next post will show further progress.
I'm grateful to Julie from "Sydney Eye" who has now posted several articles featuring my series of paintings of Wrought Artworks. The most recent are :
En plein air with street cred
The Village smithy 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The slow return from the fire

On the ATP Open Day I had to be in 3 places at once.
I was to exhibit my paintings of Eveleigh in the Exhibition Hall and simultaneously paint while the blacksmiths of Wrought Artworks gave their forging demonstrations.
I would be displaying 38 paintings on 20 easels in the Exhibition Hall.This included 2 works on paper framed under glass, that were so large that they could only just be crammed into my station wagon. Some of the paintings were from my home in the north-western suburbs and some at the Frances Keevil Gallery in Double Bay.
In addition to this, I was exhibiting another 8 paintings of the blacksmiths in Bay 1/2, as well as some large half finished canvases. I also needed to bring my French box easel, palette and paint so that I could give the onlookers an insight into the process of painting from life.
The 20 easels required a separate journey, as I have learnt the hard way that trying to transport paintings and easels in the one trip always ends in tears.   Unfortunately all of the deliveries and all the setting up of the exhibition had to be on Friday, the day before, so this resulted in 5 trips.

Jane Bennett, industrial heritage artist at the Australian Technology Park Open Day, Eveleigh
With my team of helpers, Ron, Fay and Tony!
On the Open Day I was helped by the directors of the Frances Keevil Gallery, Frances Keevil and Lynn Westacott, who both came along to look after the exhibition and stayed to pack up and deliver works back to the gallery.
I also received a great deal of help from a most unexpected source. A couple of weeks before, I had been invited to talk about my work at the inner-western Sydney branch of Rotary. Despite my total cluelessness about Powerpoint ( I managed to disconnect my laptop, but I fortunately had brought some canvases with me in case I messed up the technology), I must have done something right. Fay Thurlow, Ron Bottrill and Tony Bastow from Rotary all turned up, full of enthusiasm and energy.
I was so grateful for this as it freed me to be able to paint as well as exhibit my work.
I think the relief and gratitude showed in my face as I painted!
Jane Bennett, industrial heritage artist at the Australian Technology Park Open Day, Eveleigh
This shows me starting a medium size canvas of the blacksmiths hand forging and hammering. 
Chris Sulis, dreadlocks flying, is a whirl of action in the background.

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The blacksmith in the background is Chris Sulis, who is also the subject of the very large half finished canvas displayed next to me in the photo below.
Jane Bennett, industrial heritage artist at the Australian Technology Park Open Day, Eveleigh
Art and life. 
I'm starting a canvas of Chris hand forging, next to my giant canvas portrait of Chris forging chisels on the Massey steam hammer.

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Jane Bennett, industrial heritage artist at the Australian Technology Park Open Day, Eveleigh
No makeup, no sleep for 2 days, no breakfast and totally knackered! But finally all the hard work of preparation is over and I can relax and get back to painting.
 On my easel is the start of my painting of one of the furnaces, while on my table is a quick study of the master blacksmith, Guido Gouvernor, hammering.

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I quickly started the largest spare canvas that I had. As well as giving the onlookers something to see, it helps just to break the ice. It's important for me to start quickly - to get something on the canvas even if I later paint out every mark I make. If I sit there deliberating too long I can get paralysed with fear that I will make the wrong brushstroke and make a fool of myself in public. There is no time for fear or second thoughts on a day like this.
I have to make every moment count. I make cryptic scribbly marks in paint on a dozen small canvases at my feet, as I try to commit the nonchalant balletic grace of the blacksmiths to memory. They are swift and economical with their movements, as only men who are waving around large pieces of red hot metal in a confined space can be.
 Their gestures sometimes bring to mind echoes of half forgotten classical poses from art history. The tense crouch of quenching a chisel in a trough is briefly transformed into the stance of a Roman about to spear a dying Gaul.
Although their movements are swift, once I pick up the rhythm and sequence of their routine I can isolate gestures that will make interesting paintings
The blacksmiths rarely fire their furnaces now. Most of their work involves welding rather than traditional blacksmithing techniques. This is as much a treat for them as it is for their audience.
There were 2 locations to paint on the Open Day. At the northern end of the Blacksmith's enclosure, Guido and Chris had lit a furnace for a more or less continuous demonstration of hand forging and hammering techniques. About every 2 hours they would open the gates to let people in for the spectacular steam hammer forging sessions. I would then carefully balance my brushes on my palette and scamper past the barriers just in time to set up. I spent all day running from one site to the other in a sort of mad artistic relay race. 
I find painting in these circumstances exhilarating, as much sport as art.

Jane Bennett, industrial heritage artist at the Australian Technology Park Open Day, Eveleigh
This was painted during the first steam hammer forging demonstration. 
I have just started a small canvas of the master blacksmith, Guido Gouvernor with Chris Sulis at the Massey steam hammer. Guido (wearing a festive pair of bright red earmuffs) is in the foreground.
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Jane Bennett, industrial heritage artist at the Australian Technology Park Open Day, Eveleigh
This shows the same canvas after the next forging demonstration. I have painted in the face and arms of Chris, who is holding the object being forged.
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In the afternoon, I visited my exhibition in Bay 12, and was very impressed with the way that it had been arranged by my friends.

exhibition of paintings by Jane Bennett, industrial heritage artist at the Australian Technology Park Open Day, Eveleigh
Some visitors in front of my painting of the 
"BHP Goods Yard, Newcastle" 1998.
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exhibition of paintings by Jane Bennett, industrial heritage artist at the Australian Technology Park Open Day, Eveleigh
A young train buff taking photos of my paintings of the lamp trikes of the Paint Shop of North Eveleigh.
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One of the features of the Open Day was the inaugural Eveleigh Film Festival. The photo below shows two of the heroes of my favourite railway film "Darling Island Shunters". Darling Island  was ending its days a a working goods yard, just as I was starting to be serious about my project of painting Pyrmont.
I'm so glad that I had included a tiny little painting of the Darling Island Goods Yard which I had painted in the 1980s, and a book of photos of my other paintings of Pyrmont. 
They also used to ride the ancient lamp trikes that I had painted in the canvases behind them.

exhibition of paintings by Jane Bennett, industrial heritage artist at the Australian Technology Park Open Day, Eveleigh
"Darling Island Shunters"

   I have just read Julie's wonderful post about the Open Day Singing the body electric.The Walt Whitman poem chosen to accompany her photos has always been one of my favourite pieces of writing. It manages to put into words the feelings that I have when I paint far better than I ever could.