Guest Voices: Something Old, Something New...
This is our fourth post in our Guest Voices series. Check out the earlier pieces:
This week’s piece is by Wellington writer Megan Dunn. You can read her recent great essay ‘Submerging Artist’ on The Pantograph Punch.
Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue
In November I spent a Friday morning at The Dowse looking around the exhibitions and the collection as part of the Guest Voices project. I usually review art exhibitions but for this project I thought I’d do a little something-something different and give more of a 360 degree report on what I saw.
“What’s the best selling item?” I asked, browsing one of the jewelry cabinets in MINE, the small shop, based in the reception area at The Dowse.
“The books to do with our exhibitions,” the receptionist said, “like Home Sewn.”
Curated by New Zealand fashion designer Doris de Pont, Home Sewn was a touring exhibition from the New Zealand Fashion Museum. Home Sewn has now moved on from The Dowse but it was very popular with the local community and even though I’m no sewer I can understand why. Home Sewn captured the DIY skill and ingenuity of generations of New Zealanders who couldn’t afford to import high fashions from overseas, but could afford to make their own. And of course the dresses on display were fantastic. The day I visited the book was out of stock.
Fashions have changed, but nostalgia was a key part of Home Sewn’s charm. I was particularly taken with this zesty day dress. I could imagine wearing it to a Seventies themed cocktail party – some back yard affair in the burbs’; all the party goers (including myself) aspiring to look like extras from Boogie Nights but not quite making the cut.
The dress was made in 1969 by Raymond Dunn and loaned to Home Sewn by daughter, Richelle Williams. Dunn had no formal training but was the chief sewer in their family whipping up fantastic frocks for his wife and daughters. He was involved for many years with Dunedin theatre both as a set designer and performer and had originally trained as a window dresser. He’s a man after my own heart; I’m an ex-visual merchandiser too. Raymond worked alongside his wife for the most of their married life. They started their own company, KimRick Millinery, in 1954 and then went on to become leather workers for Playboy Fashions in the 1970s.
Playboy Fashions in Dunedin? I can only hope Raymond Dunn was a distant relative. However, given that I struggle to replace a button on a sleeve it seems unlikely. Raymond Dunn’s legacy lives on, his daughters, Richelle and Kim, continue to sew today.
How does one assess the finesse of a scone? Whilst at the Dowse I had to fill in a survey. Sounds bureaucratic, but the survey was short and it was about scones. The survey asked such questions as: more cheese? Just right? Frances Speer had made the scones and they were circulated in the staff room with the survey. Frances is the manager of the new LITTLE cafe, due to open shortly in the Little Theatre. I imagine scones may feature on the menu. To whet your appetite for LITTLE have a look at Frances’ blog aptly titled, cake is for breakfast.
And Frances, I’m sorry, but on the day I forgot to hand in my survey:
N.B. The cheese scone is my snack of choice. I have eaten scones in multiple cafes around wellington including Floriditas, Arthurs and the Mojo on Willis Street, where the scones are laced with chilli. Basically, I know what I’m talking about.
Upstairs in the Blumhardt Gallery at The Dowse is Rohan Wealleans embroidery Family Tree. Wealleans is not an artist known for autobiography. Nor for embroidery. Family Tree is a singular work in his oeuvre.
“I got the idea around 2001,” Wealleans says, “Just thinking that I did not know what my family lineage was and that it did not bother me. I came up with pattern based on my limited knowledge of family tree diagrams, gleaned from third or fourth form social studies. But I think I did it wrong, I think mine might be upside down.”
Family Tree is soft. Yet blunt. The tree stretches in a triangular pattern across the creamy canvas. The stitching is rough-hewn. At the start of the embroidery is one unnamed branch – the artist – and from this shoot two familiar lines: Mum and Dad. Family Tree quickly reaches into the unknown, those nameless ancestors never met, often known only through sepia photographs; the thicket of the past. Wealleans ancestors remain anonymous. They exist as a complicated network of Mums and Dads: Mum’s Mum, Dad’s Dad, Mum’s Mum’s Mum. Dad’s Dad’s Dad. A lineage of echoes.
Wealleans’ embroidery reminds me of the evolution of my own taste; my artistic genealogy. An embroidery of The Tree of Life hangs on the wall of the bathroom at my Dad’s house in Lyall Bay. I like looking at The Tree of Life when I visit. The tree is an ancient motif that transcends cultures. Is that why it soothes me? A similar embroidery hung on the wall above my bed when I was little. Of course I don’t remember this embroidery but I’ve seen it in old photos. Sometimes I wonder how much of taste is hereditary?
Rohan Wealleans Family Tree is not for sale. How could it be? The lovely little flowers are barely more than buds, the stitches rudimentary. “I just made up the flowers to make it prettier,” he said.
The flowers do make it prettier. Family Tree is a tender work, sketchy and funny but also melancholy. I thought about my own tenuous knowledge. Who indeed was Dad’s Dad’s Dad’s Dad? Or Mum’s Mum’s Mum? Family Tree also made me consider the responsibility and weight of parenthood. Personal identity often disappears under the mantle ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad.’ As a teenager I was intrigued but also slightly repelled by my mother’s Christian name. Wealleans' Family Tree evokes the anonymonity of parenthood: love given and received.
Family Tree is one of the works featured in Man Made, an exhibition of textiles by twelve contemporary male artists curated by Sian Van Dyk.
“I have never shown Family Tree before,” Wealleans said. “I never finished it and the way I was making it was all wrong. It took me at least twice as long as it should have due to the fact I was using very thick canvas and pulling a big knot through for every stroke that I’d tied to the end of the needle. That’s probably why I never did anything else like it.”
Family Tree is one of a kind. I would dearly love to have it hanging in my home, above my bed. The touching thing about Rohan Wealleans Family Tree is that it could belong equally to you or to me.
Man Made runs until 16 February.
Blue – your toy elephant – is currently on display at The Dowse as one of the animals featured in the exhibition Menagerie: Exotic Animals in Aotearoa. No-one (except you) knows Blue’s story. Is he an African elephant? Is he from the Orient? Is he a she? Did he arrive in New Zealand by boat? Was he kept in your trunk, on top of your folded trousers and handkerchiefs? Even though he has wheels he did not mean to run away. Blue is now a permanent resident at the Petone Settlers Museum. He has many friends there, including this cow.
But it is not the same as being at home. Blue is waiting for you to come and collect him. He is very patient. Like all elephants he has an excellent memory. Blue will recognize you immediately.
Menagerie: Exotic Animals in Aotearoa runs until 16 February.
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‘Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue’ was written by Megan Dunn in December 2013.