CRAFT IN FEBRUARY - WEEK FOUR.
No matter how many times it comes around, February never stops being surprisingly short. Like Tom Cruise. Or the career of Chumbawamba. Hopefully you had the chance to get your hands a little dirty this month and make something excellent for you or someone you know. If you did, take a photo and share it on Twitter and Instagram - hashtag #artolympics to share your creations with the world. Those accounts also feature regular inspiration for the monthly theme.
This week's interview goes behind the scenes of Preston Zly shoes to chat with Johanna Preston about evading trends, punk rock shoe design and exactly how a sheet of leather turns into a piece of designer footwear.
The Art Olympics jumps on Skype to chat with one half of Preston Zly and maker of truly beautiful footwear, Johanna Preston.
1:35 pm Melbourne time, 10:35 am Bali time, over a wobbly internet connection. Behind one face, a bedhead and light through stained glass, behind the other, a plain white wall.
Art Olympics: Hi Johanna, thanks for agreeing to have a chat. How long are you in Bali for?
Johanna Preston: We actually moved to Indonesia a few years ago because it’s just not viable to make small runs of shoes in Australia any more. It ends up being $1500 a pair and people just won’t pay that. There’s also no skilled labour in Australia any more. Say 10-15 years ago, there were still a few old timers who knew what they were doing who I could employ, but now they’ve gone. And to do the sort of product that we do, which is really highly skilled and complicated, you just can’t do it with people who’ve got a certificate from RMIT. They just don’t have the skills. So I’d be putting out a second rate product. And it would be much more expensive. So we moved here two years ago, and we go backwards and forwards. We’re heading back to Australia for a couple of weeks in March. It’s really good to be here and to be overseeing every day.
AO: I knew you guys had moved your production to Bali, but I didn’t realise you’d also moved yourself there.
JP: We found that we needed to be here because if you’re not here, things just won’t get done properly. It’s just too hard, if you’re sitting in Australia, hyperventilating every time you get a box back, wondering if it’s going to be done properly or not. So we’ll be here, sweltering all the time.
AO: So at what stage did you wake up one day and go ‘This is what I want to do, and I have to learn how to do it?’
JP: After school, I went to Melbourne University to do an Arts degree and just hated it. I think back in those days there weren’t the career options that there are now. It was much more straight down the line – you were a smart kid at school, so this is what you do. You go to Melbourne Uni, you do Arts, you may do a bit of Law, blah blah. That’s just what you did. So I just did that without questioning. There weren’t the school curriculums to foster anything different. I hated it, and I deferred and went overseas and travelled, and when I came back, I decided that I wanted to be a shoemaker, or maybe a jeweller. And so I started looking round at courses, and it went from there. I was probably in my early twenties.
AO: And at what stage did you meet Petr (Zly) and start working with him?
JP: We were a couple when I was very young, twenty. He convinced me to look into making shoes. By the time I’d finished the course and I was dabbling with making our first collection, Petr was already getting hired to do heel designs with me. He was involved really from the beginning, but it was formalised in around 2000, we decided to change the name to Preston Zly from Johanna Preston.
AO: I’m interested in trends across the whole gamut of Art Olympics areas. I realised, thinking about this interview, that I know very little about how a shoe is made, and the trends that happen in shoemaking and shoe buying. I’m aware generally that ballet flats were a big thing, and then clogs were a big thing, and recently there’s been this fancy RM Williams/Blundstone work boot look. I’m wondering what kind of trends you’re aware of that are happening at the moment, and how you respond to those?
JP: Definitely that sort of work boot, lace-up boot with a white sole thing is very, very big. But I try to steer clear as much as possible from mainstream fashion trends. They come and go so quickly. And you know that if someone like Prada or Miu Miu does something, in about a month, it’s going to be absolutely everywhere. And by the time you get into responding to that sort of fashion, it’s over before it’s even started. So we design really separately from that. I think that often the way we design means that we end up a couple of years ahead of trends. It’s hard to explain. We work with our own design language, which is inspired by various things, and often self-referential as well. We’ll go back to things that we have explored in the past, and re-develop them. We’re really driven by shape, and pushing boundaries. Doing things that are unexpected. It’s very rare that I’ll get a magazine that’s got a whole lot of pictures of shoes that are current and use it for inspiration. We might use it for small details, but in terms of overall aesthetic, we’re much more interested in doing something that is more timeless. And you can only achieve that by really steering clear of mainstream fashion.
AO: I love the fact that one of your bestselling shoes, the Vatican, is based on a fifteenth century Pope’s shoe. You can’t get much more alien from current fashion trends than that, which I love. I have a pair of them, and every time I wear them, people are just so fascinated by them, as a sculptural object as well as a functional piece of footwear. I know that with ‘Towards Wearable Abstraction’, you guys are looking at the shoe as an object as well as a piece of footwear. There’s a podcast called ‘99% Invisible,’ which talks about the design elements that you don’t think about. Recently they were talking about chairs, and how a chair has to be a beautiful piece of art, but it has to become invisible as soon as you sit in it. Stuff like that I find really interesting about design, because so often, especially with footwear, you can have a piece that looks so beautiful but as soon as it goes on a foot, it looks wrong. All the lines don’t work.
JP: Now, we try as much as possible to take photos of shoes on the foot, because they are completely transformed once you put them on the body. It’s interesting you talking about chairs, because the thing about shoes too is that of course they actually have to be really functional. There are real boundaries in terms of what you can design and what you can do and where you can put things. There’s a lot of cheap, whipped-up footwear – every man and his dog is doing a line of shoes to go on the rack with their clothing range, and a lot of them are just not functional, really. I can look at them and say ‘That’s too narrow,’ or ‘That strap’s in the wrong place.’ You look at a lot of shoes through my eyes, and it’s just ‘Oh, that’s not going to work. It won’t be comfortable.’ There are actually quite big design constraints that you have to work within.
AO: It occurred to me that just from the most basic, functional starting point, if you have a piece of leather, I don’t know how you make something stay in the shape that you want to put it in. This is the most naïve, basic question, but how do you get a piece of leather to hold a form?
JP: You have to stretch it over a last. The old ones were made of wood, the new ones are made of plastic. The last works a little bit the way a hat block works. So obviously you make a pattern, and you cut it all out and sew it all up together, with various reinforcements so the seams won’t split, and so that they won’t stretch out of shape once you start wearing them. And then it gets stretched over the last with stiffeners – heel stiffeners and toe puffs, which mean that the heel and toe area keep their form. And they get stretched. Most shoes that people buy would be stretched using big machines, and churned out in their hundreds of thousands, but our shoes are stretched by hand using hand tools, and then glued into place. From there they’ll be stitched in place – a lot of our shoes have stitched soles. It’s about pulling the leather really, really tight and then also using heat to get rid of wrinkles and to get it to stay in place. And then eventually, when the shoes are put together and the soles are on them, the last gets pulled out. And that’s how you make them. It’s complicated. Very difficult.
AO: Absolutely. I think people have a very romantic idea of shoemaking but it sounds like it’s incredibly difficult manual labour.
JP: It is. I don’t do it that often now, but it’s interesting, because it’s a sedentary job, in that it’s sitting down. But if I was to last eight pairs of shoes a day for a week, I would lose weight.
JP: Even though I’m just sitting on a stool and using my hands, it’s so physical that, yeah, I lose weight.
AO: So when you guys are designing now, are you at a point where you can just design without having to physically put things together, or are you still developing lasts and figuring out how the shoe is going to be structured, and then developing the design from there?
JP: It’s different every season. A lot of “designers”, in quotation marks, will work in a very hands-off way. They’ll go to somewhere like Asia, give somebody a couple of scraps of paper with a couple of ideas and then a tear sheet from a magazine and a bit of fabric and say ‘Make this.’ But we still do the whole design process ourselves. We start with a lot of ideas, and from there, we nail it down to what we’re going to do. The designs actually get drawn onto the lasts, and from there, you take a pattern and go into doing mock-ups. For some shoes, it’ll be second nature, and I don’t really have to think about it. I know exactly how to take that design through to the final pattern. But there will always be shoes that I have to think and think and think about how to achieve the best results. There’s a couple of styles in this season where I’ve used a perforated leather, and that’s had to be backed, but I’ve wanted to keep it really soft. So it’s backed, but the lining stops short in the boot. That was quite complicated, working out how to do that, and then working out from the pattern how to put it all together. It depends. Generally, the pattern making process is something for me now that is instinctive. I just do it. I’ve done enough of it that it just flows.
AO: And when you create a collection, are you generally aware of which shoes are going to be the big sellers, and which ones are going to be the slightly more niche appeal ones, or does it always surprise you which ones are flying off the shelves?
JP: It’s always a surprise. You’ll have a sense of what shoes to back more than others, but you don’t always get it right. It’s hard to know, and it also depends on who’s selling them. And shoes aren’t easy to sell – it’s not something that everybody can do. If they’re not displayed properly, that affects it. A lot of shops, you sell shoes to them and they’ll stick them on the floor underneath some clothes, and it just doesn’t work that way. They have to be at eye level. They’re sculptural objects. People need to be able to pick them up and engage with them that way, and feel the leather. They’re tactile. Definitely in this collection, I know a couple of styles which I will back more than others. That’s not to say that there are a couple of styles that won’t necessarily really surprise me. It’s an experiment each time.
AO: You recently collaborated with New Model Beauty Queen for the ‘Liberty of the Press’ event with Barking Spider Visual Theatre. How collaborative was that process? Did they have any input into how you were using those prints, or was it a matter of ‘This is what we’ve made, go for your life’?
JP: We worked together. They actually produced some prints on leather for us which we picked from the fabrics and the designs that they were doing for the dresses. From there, we were asked to respond to the whole concept of the Press Dress. We responded to it in a way that was a little bit inspired by the punk movement, and how the late punk movement responded to Victorian fashion. So that was where we pushed it, in that direction. I don’t know if that was necessarily noticed by everybody who saw the show, but that was really where we took it. So that they were still quite modern pieces.
AO: In terms of inspiration for you, when it comes to shoemaking, obviously you draw inspiration from a lot of different places, but are there people who are designing and making now who really excite you, or people in history or other eras who really you find yourself obsessing over?
JP: Not so much now. More so in the past. I really, really like Perugia’s shoes – he was a 1930s shoe designer, and they are really, really beautiful. I don’t really have a favourite shoe designer now that I get obsessed about. I love Vivienne Westwood, because I love her irreverence. I love that she came to her career quite late in life. Because fashion is such a churn it out, spit it out industry, and especially in Australia, it’s about youth, it’s about the Next Big Thing, and so I love the longevity that she has created in her career. I suppose also I love the way that her inspiration is often from the past, but she pushes things into the future.
Really, design-wise, I think that we are much more like bowerbirds. We pick up bits and pieces everywhere and create little piles, and then separate them out and sift through. That sort of inspiration can come from anywhere. It can be sitting on my motorbike in bad traffic, and looking at some local woman wearing what can be an awful pair of shoes, but there’s a little detail that draws my eye, that makes me think ‘That’s interesting, that’s something I can work with, that’s something I can develop.’ I’m also interested in finely crafted, beautifully made shoes. There are shoes out there – and I won’t mention names – but that are huge labels, very successful, quite expensive, but it’s just stamped out of a piece of leather. There’s no line, no thought. For us, it always comes back to the make as well. Make and design should fit together like hand in glove. Or foot in shoe.
AO: And in terms of the future, ‘Towards Wearable Abstraction’ has just launched. Do you have a timeline for when you’ll be creating the new collection?
JP: Well the winter collection, which we haven’t named yet, is actually done. We’re in production for that, and we’re finalising lookbooks, so I think the first deliveries for winter will be in the first week of March. So after we get back from Australia, we have to pull our fingers out and start designing next summer. At the moment, I have no idea where that will be going at all. It requires a little bit of relaxing time, to just look around and digest ideas, and then pull it all together. When we get back here at the end of March, we’ll be getting our teeth into summer. Summer was a hard season to design in Australia, because you’d be designing summer in winter, in the middle of the freezing Melbourne cold, and winter in summer. Being here, it’s actually a lot easier to design a summer collection.
AO: Does that mean it’s now harder to do winter?
JP: Not so far. We’ll see. We’ve designed two winter collections here, and it hasn’t been hard so far. I think generally we’re more attuned to designing winter anyway, because you’ve got boots, you’ve got shoes, there’s more you can do with format than there is with sandals. Sandals are really quite difficult, because there are real limits in terms of where you can put things on the foot, so it’s quite a tough range to design. So it definitely works to our advantage, being over here to design a summer collection, definitely. And also, there are things that you can do here that you can’t do in Australia. The summer before this one, which was ‘Tribe’, we used a lot of woven leathers and plaited leathers, and things that you just couldn’t physically do in Australia because it would just be too expensive to consider doing, and also you wouldn’t have the craftspeople who are actually capable of doing the work. So here we can play a lot more with textures and techniques than we could in Australia, which is good.
AO: Fantastic. So we’ve been asking everybody in the interviews to provide a challenge or an exercise for people who are doing the Art Olympics. Do you have anything for people to try out?
JP: Yes. Our challenge is this: Take a picture of five of your pairs of shoes – make sure they are all different types – high heels, low heels, different colours, boots, sandals, etc. They can be on the foot or not. Then print them out on your printer and cut them up into pieces willy nilly. Then get the shoes and put them together to make totally unheard of collage shoes!
AO: That is excellent. Thanks so much for your time, Johanna.
JP: Nice to meet you!
AO: And you! Thanks so much.
Preston Zly shoes can be found on their website, and in person at their salon, at rear 219 Smith St, Fitzroy, Melbourne (enter via the Condell St carpark). They're open Mon - Fri 11 - 6 and Sat 11 - 5.
Sign up to their mailing list and follow them on Facebook - they have some pretty kickass sales with shoes heavily discounted.
Header photo by Sarah Walker.
CRAFT IN FEBRUARY - WEEK TWO & THREE.
One of the lovely things about CRAFT is that hand-made things make the best presents. Whether it be for a birthday, a wedding, an anniversary, a christening, a new baby or for no reason at all, handing over something that you've spent time making is an excellent feeling. Our latest interview is the perfect inspiration for big-hearted craft - she makes presents not only for her friends and loved ones, but for complete strangers!
We hope you've had the chance to make something of your own this week. If you're stuck, go down to the nearest florist or nursery, buy a potted succulent, and then decorate the pot yourself with acrylic or spray paint. It'll take you an afternoon, and at the end of it, you get something beautiful to put on your desk or kitchen table. Easy! There are heaps of super easy flower pot suggestions in this article.
Now, get ready to have your heart grow three sizes, as we sit down with guerrilla kindness craftivist and public artist Sayraphim Lothian, as she talks knitting grannies, leaving presents for strangers and turning the world into a nicer place. Her challenge to you all is one of the best ones yet - get out there and make someone's day!
The Art Olympics heads out in the Summer sun to chat to public artist, craftivist and professional day-maker Sayraphim Lothian.
4:14 pm, in a room packed to the brim with books, musical instruments and hand-made artwork, over a cup of lemongrass and ginger tea, with Trixie the dog licking everyone's hands.
Art Olympics: So can you give us an overview of what you do, and what you call what you do?
Sayraphim Lothian: Okay. So my name is Sayraphim Lothian, and I am a public artist. I work mainly in acts of guerrilla kindness. What I do is make small, soft sculpture artworks to leave out on the streets for people to find and take, to make their day a little brighter, and to hopefully ripple out and make the world a nicer place.
AO: So what was the first piece of public art that you made?
SL: The first piece of public art was a work called ‘For you, stranger.’ There’s a playful theatre company in England called The Agency of Coney – I think they might just be called Coney now – and they had a work called ‘The Loveliness Principle’. As part of that, one of the directors of Coney, a gentleman by the name of Tassos Stevens, came out and ran a bunch of workshops. And one of the things he got us to do was to do some brainstorming around the idea of doing a sneaky nice thing for people with shit jobs. Janitors, or night-time bus drivers, that sort of thing. You had to sit around and think about how you could do something awesome that would make their day, but in an anonymous kind of way. I’d been knitting for a while, and because I didn’t want to end up being an old lady with huge amounts of knitted toys around me, I was making things for friends. So, like, I knitted a dinosaur for a friend of mine who’s obsessed with dinosaurs, and I knitted a K-9 tissue box for a friend of mine who’s obsessed by Doctor Who, and I’d made all of this stuff, and I was sort of going ‘Well, I’ve given these things to all my friends, and they’re probably going to start getting sick of knitted objects pretty soon. What the hell do I do?’ And then Tassos came out, and he was really lovely, and we had lots of chats, and it all sort of crashed like a tidal wave in my head and I went ‘You can do nice things for people as a body of artwork? That’s fucking awesome!’
SL: So I was off and running. I did a work first called ‘A Moment in Yarn’, which was more of a performance piece. It’s a one-on-one piece where I sit down with someone and they tell me a happy memory, or a precious memory, and I translate it into a granny square, crochet a little granny square, with the colours and textures of the wool that tell the story of the memory. And that was really awesome, but then I really wanted to do sneaky nice things for strangers. Because these were all for people I knew. So I was thinking that I wanted to put something out on the streets, to leave for people to find. And I wasn’t quite sure what it would be. And then I was talking to a friend of mine who regularly makes museum displays, those sort of country museums with mannequins that haven’t been changed in twenty years. And he was telling me how he made fake cakes for it, and I’m like ‘How do you make fake cakes?’ And he explained it to me. It’s basically expanding builders’ foam, you know, that you squirt into holes, and Spakfilla for icing, with paint. And I’m like (she gasps). So I started making cupcakes. I made about twenty of them, and thought ‘I’ll try this out. And I took ten into town, with little tags saying ‘For You, Stranger,’ with my Twitter handle on them. And I put them around a couple of street art alleys, and a couple of others places. And as I got on the train to go home, I received a tweet from someone who’d found it, saying ‘Oh my god, I found this thing, it was awesome, it totally made my day!’ And I’m like ‘This is a thing! This is a thing that works, and it’s awesome!’ And so that we me off and running!
AO: There’s this interesting thing about making that anonymous artwork a little bit less anonymous by letting people track what it is and who you are. I was really interested, seeing how that worked with the journals that you were putting out in the city, because people were following your movements, and going out and hunting them. Which kind of really changes the experience, I suppose. It becomes less about people stumbling on them, and becomes more of a treasure hunt.
SL: Yeah, like a scav hunt. I wasn’t prepared for that, actually. That was for Sharing Ink. They were hand-sewn journals, made of hand-made paper, covered in hand-screen printed material from Ink and Spindle. I made thirty of them, and gave them to thirty local artists and writers, and I asked them to inscribe a lovely message in the front, for whoever found them. That was my Masters project, and I’d been doing guerrilla kindness projects under the radar for a while, so I wanted to get a publicist and see how that went. She drummed up a whole heap of publicity for me, and people were commenting on the Facebook and the Twitter. I’d announce the day before where they were going to go. And I’d chosen this time ten cultural institutions, like the NGV and the State Library and stuff. And yeah, what I wasn’t prepared for was that people were starting to stake out the places. I did Flinders St station one day, and there was a girl who’d gotten there about nine o’clock in the morning and just stayed there all day, waiting – and she got one eventually, too!
AO: Imagine if she hadn’t!
SL: The awesome thing was that they were all telling me their stories – ‘I found journal number seventeen and this is how I found it’, which was really awesome. Most of the projects I do get about a one in ten response rate, and Sharing Ink got a one in two response rate.
AO: Oh, wow.
SL: So that’s pretty awesome. But a group of the Metro staff had found this one at Flinders St, and were standing around holding it, and they weren’t sure what to do. And she went up to them and went ‘Oh, oh, can I have that?’ And they were like ‘What is it?’ So she showed them the Facebook page and everything, and they gave it to her, and then she went away, and she was really happy. But I wonder whether they just gave it to her because they thought ‘If we give you this, it’s not our problem any more!’
AO: ‘There’s no paperwork.’
SL: So I got loads of really positive responses, some really touching stuff. One gentleman found one and he took it to dinner that night to friends of his, a mother and daughter, who’d just lost their husband/dad, the week before. And they were exclaiming over it, and saying how wonderful it was, and I thought ‘Wow, that it can cut through that kind of thing.’ But there was one woman who reported back on Facebook – because I don’t come from Melbourne, when I say the NGV, I picture the NGV in Federation Square, and I totally forget about the NGV down St Kilda Rd, right? So I’d said ‘I’m putting it out in the NGV.’ She’d had some kind of car accident, or the tram had broken down – she had this whole tale of woe anyway, and then she got to the gallery just as I was putting them out. I’d put them out, photograph them and then walk away, and then upload them on social media. Then she said on the Facebook, ‘Oh, I’m in the wrong NGV!’ and she came over, and she couldn’t find one. The interesting thing was that one of my friends happened to be in the NGV that day, and she was telling me that she’d seen this woman go up to a security guard and hassle him, saying ‘Have you seen these journals?!’ She was really full on about it. And I assume it’s the same woman, rather than that I managed to piss off two entirely separate women on the same day! That didn’t occur to me. That the hunt might frustrate people. Because I saw it as this really joyous and fun kind of thing, but it did turn into this scav hunt.
And in fact, when I did Journey – ‘Journey: the Kakapo of Christchurch’. I made a bunch of kakapo, which are their indigenous, flightless ground parrots. There’s only 124 – there’s a few more now, but at the time, there were 124 left in the world. So I wanted to make something particularly New Zealand for the guys of Christchurch. There’d been a bit of publicity, not a huge amount, but the very first day, again, I’d tweeted out the night before, saying ‘I’m going to go down City Mall’, and I was also doing workshops. So I had a suitcase full of the workshop stuff, and a big bag full of these kakapo that I was putting out. And as I walked down City Mall, this woman came up to me and said ‘Are you Sayraphim?’ And I’m like ‘Argh! Um! Yes!’ and she’s like ‘Are you putting kakapo out?!’ ‘Yes?!’ And there was this moment of ‘What do I do now?’ Because I didn’t want to just hand her a kakapo, saying ‘Congratulations, you found me.’ But at the same time, because she was there, she was going to end up with a kakapo. So I asked her to help me put out some kakapo, and then I told her to go away for five minutes, and then she had to come back!
SL: That happened a lot in Christchurch, actually. There was one where I was putting it down at a whiskey bar. It was the last one, and I was sitting in the window, and I was like ‘Oh, I’ll just put it on the window ledge.’ So I leant down, to put it on the window ledge, and before I’d even let go, this dude popped his head around the corner and went ‘Can I have that?’ And I’m like ‘Yes, I just need to photograph it!’ It was a strange experience, because I like to think that I fly under the radar a little. But I suppose when I’m sharing where they’re going to go, you’re bound to end up with that kind of thing.
AO: There’s such a different energy, imagining someone sitting down and seeing a thing, and being like ‘What is it? Am I allowed to touch it?’ And then having this experience, and thinking ‘Oh, I think it’s for me!’ There’s something really small and sweet and beautiful about that, in a way that someone being like ‘I will find it! I will find the thing!’ isn’t.
SL: ‘I will hunt you down!’
SL: Totally. And the stuff I really is like is when people just discover it and have either no idea or – there were some people who had heard about the project, but just happened to be in the right place at the right time for the kakapo. That kind of stuff. The scav hunt makes it a slightly different thing. But it is what it is. And you can’t really dictate how people take it, or what people think about it. Because the other thing about making art in public space is that it’s a really interesting and different world than making it for the gallery. I do say this a bit, but when you walk into a gallery, a gallery is a sacred space for art. It’s white, and it’s quiet, and you put your hands behind your back, you don’t touch the work, and you’re all a bit reverent about it. But on the streets, it’s such a different vibe. It’s public space. Although you can argue about how ‘public’ public space is.
AO: That was something I was going to ask you about, because we’re socialised to be like ‘Don’t touch things you’re not meant to touch, don’t touch people you’re not meant to touch, look down, be polite, be reverent.’ I like that what you’re doing is kind of taking back the publicness of public space. I think we so rarely get an opportunity to interact with our environment in a way that isn’t viewed as graffiti. Graffiti is about physically taking back public space –
SL: It’s a sort of ‘I woz ere’ kind of thing. Yeah, the other thing about working in public space is that people feel it’s much more theirs. If you put a work out and they decide to tag it or destroy it or throw it away, you have to be okay with that. Because you’re putting it in their space. It’s like if you went and put something in their house and then walked away, and then got all upset because they moved it from the mantelpiece to the bottom draw somewhere. There’s an immediacy with the feedback in public that I think you don’t so much get in a gallery. Which is interesting, because I’m about to do my first solo show in – god – twelve years or so? In an actual gallery, you know, the white walls, track lighting. That’ll be an interesting experience as well because I’m so used to putting stuff out on the street. So hopefully nothing will go missing, which will be a new and interesting experience too!
AO: I remember you talking about the John Bracks work you did for White Night –
SL: Yeah, John Bracks, 'Collins Street, 5 pm'.
AO: I have memories of you saying that you put it up and people were just taking them.
SL: I made about thirty figures for it. And I cable tied them along the fence of the Melbourne Town Hall. I really love that Bracks 5 pm, and it was one of my first experiences of Melbourne art – art made in Melbourne, about Melbourne. The first experience I had of Melbourne art was my year eleven art teacher, who was very emotional, and had been giving up cigarettes for about ten years. She showed us a picture of 'Vault' – Yellow Peril, and she cried while she was telling us about the injustices that had been done to it. That was my first experience of Melbourne art!
SL: But yeah, I’ve always loved the John Bracks one, so I did some research and figured the direction they were going. They were all heading to Spencer Street. So I put them all in the right direction. Because I’m such a geek, I researched all the different buildings, because I really wanted to put it right where they were, but it’s an amalgam of Collins Street, so I decided that the town hall was good enough. My idea was that people would stand in front of it and take photos, and then they could be the guys at the front, and that worked really well. I’ve got some great photos of people – because they were a bit lower than head height, they were sort of at stomach height, so people were crouching down a bit to be at the right height, which was pretty cool. But we were also running a game for Pop-Up Playground, so I didn’t stand there all night. I was going back and forth past it. And at around 11 o’clock, they started going missing. Which I was okay with, because I’ve put stuff out on the streets so often, you’ve got to expect that stuff’s going to go missing. And if you’re really precious about the stuff you’re putting out on the streets, I think you’ve got the wrong attitude! I remember one of the people in my Public Art Masters was horrified when they’d put something out on the streets, and someone had tagged it. ‘How dare they! It’s art!’ And I was like ‘Okay, well I’m sure you’ll learn a lesson from this. Or not. Whatever.’ So they started going missing, and I was like ‘Well, that’s okay. Because the more stuff that goes missing, the less I have to bring home.’ Because our house is quite full of art and books!
AO: How big were the figures?
SL: About twenty, twenty-five centimetres? One of the times I went past, they were getting more skew-wiff as people were trying to tug on them. They were sewn and then cable-tied, but clearly if you yanked on them hard enough, you got one. I went past at one stage, and there was just the head. So someone had yanked on it, but I like to think it’s a good indication of my sewing skills that they’d actually ripped it in half instead of off! And it was leaking all the stuffing out of the belly, and it looked a bit sad, so I pulled it off, and then I noticed that the legs were down behind the fence. So someone had yanked and gone ‘Argh!’ and threw it over the fence.
SL: I think I put about thirty out, and there was only about ten left when I came to take them off. Which was great, because I’d been running around for twelve hours. The last thing you want to do is carefully uninstall thirty artworks!
AO: I feel like the most visible pieces of public art that people know about is the whole yarn-bombing phenomenon, which really rocketed around the globe. I’ve noticed recently, I was in Carlton, and I was looking at a post that had been yarn-bombed probably three years ago, and it just looked so sad! All the colour had rained out, and it was all mouldy from being rained on.
SL: And all torn. But I think that’s an interesting evolution of the work, rather than a situation where it’s beautiful for about three weeks and then it gets taken down. When yarn-bombing started, yarn-bombers prided themselves – and this is a sweeping generalisation – on up-keeping as well. Going back and patching things up. It’s a lot of work! I like the idea behind yarn-bombing. This is where the public space idea comes in. Public space isn’t usually our public space at all. If you just think about advertising, if you walk into town, the amount of advertising that screams at you is just phenomenal. And you sort of get lost in ‘Buy this, buy this, this is how you’re supposed to look, lose weight, get a better job.’ And so it can be very difficult to find yourself in all of that. So street artists go out and they paint big things, and they’re taking back that bit of public space. Yarn-bombing is a low barrier to entry, to start personalising your urban environment. It’s a really simple thing to do, to knit or crochet a tiny little square and then stitch it to a tree, and then stand back and go ‘I just made that tiny bit of my environment more beautiful.’ And I think that’s a really powerful thing. It starts to show you that you have the power to change things. And I’m not saying that you can change everything – one person can’t change our asylum seeker policy. But if more people do it, and more people do it, then that change starts to build and grow. And so I think it’s a really powerful tool for that.
I shared a photo of a yarnbomb on social media the other day and someone came back to me saying "I can't help but think that it would have been better if they'd just knitted blankets for the homeless" which is a pretty common idea about yarn bombing, but I think it's totally erroneous - it misunderstands the thought process behind yarn bombing. It's like saying "artists should stop making art and instead volunteer at soup kitchens." Street art is a legitimate art form no matter what media it's created in but for some reason people single out yarn bombing for this idea that it's a waste of time that could be spent on charitable causes. No one goes to MTC and says "yeah, but why don't the actors go teach drama to underprivileged kids in remote areas instead of doing this?" Maybe it's cause craft is still seen by some as on old lady activity, and that it's so often used as a charity activity that it's breaking people's understanding of it by coming across it in the street. I'm not sure but it's so weird you never hear that complaint aimed at any other art form!
At the same time, I would hope that yarn-bombers start with a small cosy around a tree, or a sign, and then move on to go ‘Well, what else can I do? How else can I change the environment?’ Some people are happy just knitting cosies over and over again, and more power to them. I think it’s great, because what other thing have you ever heard of that grannies will go out and do to change the environment around them? And then you can use it for protesting and stuff. Like the Knitting Nannas Against Gas up in New South Wales.
AO: I haven’t heard about them.
SL: They’re awesome. They’re an undulating group of older ladies, and all sorts of other people as well, and they go out and protest mining and corporate greed. And what they do is, they go out, and they knit. And they have cakes! It’s an old lady picnic as protest.
AO: So instead of chaining yourself to a tree –
SL: You just sit and knit! It’s awesome, because it totally baffles cops and people who are against the protest. If there’s someone shouty waving a placard around, the cops go ‘Well, we’ll arrest them.’ But they’re little old nannas! And they’re knitting! And they’re having cups of tea and they’re having a lovely time and a chat. It baffles people, because it’s not a traditional form of protest.
AO: So what other pieces of public art, or public artists, have engaged and excited you recently?
SL: A number of street artists. I’ve always been interested in looking around me, looking at the streets, and when I came to Melbourne, and there’s all this street art, it’s awesome, because there’s just so much to look at. I think Guerrilla Kindness in a way is about encouraging people to look around them, or rewarding those people who do look around them. Some of the street artists really inspire me. I’ve got a number of them working as part of this exhibition, which is really awesome. One of the reasons that I started really being interested in street art, was when I started noticing women street artists. I know there are women street artists who also do the giant tags or the giant murals, but starting to see women portraying themselves on the walls was a really empowering moment. Going ‘That’s me. I can recognise myself in that.’ There’s an artist named Suki who is just phenomenal. In fact (she shows her forearm). She’s knitting! It’s a paste-up of a woman who’s knitting. Come on, how cool is that? So yeah, finding women street artists doing interesting work was a moment for me.
I’m also interested in people who do their own versions of guerrilla kindness. And there’s a number of street artists who do it as well. They’ll paint little canvases and put them out for free. One of the other street artists I’m really inspired by is Barek, who is a Brisbane artist, but who comes down to Melbourne on a regular basis. And he does a lot of hand-drawn paste-ups. He doesn’t print anything, it’s all hand-drawn. So everything is unique, which I totally admire, that dedication. I really like the whimsical stuff. He does little trolls and foxes and spirits, that kind of thing, which adds an element of joy to the streets, which is what I’m trying to do as well.
AO looks at two pieces of paper stuck to the book-case.
AO: I love these pieces of paper that are stuck here, and I have no idea what they mean. ‘Trollz B’ Trollin'.’ ‘Diabolical Robot Art.’
SL: They’re the street artists I’m making for Craffti. So that’s all their street art names.
AO: ‘Trollz B’ Trollin'’ is great.
SL: Trollz B’ Trollin' is awesome. He draws these grumpy little trolls that have protest signs of things like ‘Unfuck the world!’ They’re awesome.
AO: So you’re taking pieces of street art, and making sewn versions of them?
SL: Yes. I’m crafting bits of street art. Most of them are 3D soft sculpture. So translating them from 2D into 3D pieces. Then there’s a couple of other ones. There’s an embroidery piece there, which is a detail of an Astrotwitch work. She makes amazing, beautiful paintings of queer people, and sometimes they go up into the streets, and sometimes they’re in galleries. She has a lot of writing on them, and that one was particularly beautiful, so I’ve just taken that little bit out. Everything else is the whole work, but I just wanted that little bit of detail. It just looks like an embroidery sampler.
AO: So you contacted all those artists. Did you get them to pick which work they wanted you to do?
SL: No, I wandered around a lot on the streets, and went on the hashtag #streetartmelbourne and #melbournestreetart on Instagram. Instagram’s been really useful for this! And picked pieces that I thought would work really well in 3D. And then I contacted the artists to say ‘Hey, I’m doing this exhibition, I want to make a piece of yours in 3D. This is the piece I want to make.’ So I’d let them know which one it was. I’d wait for their reply, and most of them came back and said ‘That sounds awesome!’ Some of them didn’t reply, in which case I decided that they probably weren’t interested, so I’m not going to make theirs, because obviously I’m not going to do it without permission. I also invited the artists to put in a work as well, so the exhibition will be the 3D soft sculpture piece, a photo of the original artwork that I’m basing it on, and then a piece by the artist as well, which they can sell. And they can choose whatever they want to put it.
It was interesting to try and figure out which ones I wanted to make, actually, because soft sculpture can be viewed really simply as toys. And I really wanted to make sure that I was making interesting ones, but not too cute ones. So, the street artist Psalm does this super cute little bubble people, and they would translate awesomely as 3D, but I think it’s an interesting thing to make soft versions of graffiti which is seen as hardcore. The subversiveness of Psalm’s little bubble people is that they’re already subverting the idea of street art, because they’re these ridiculously cute little guys. They’ve got little ties, and little briefcases. I thought that they didn’t need subverting any further, because he’d taken it as far as it could go that way anyway. It was a really interesting selection process. There’s a couple that I really love where I thought ‘It’s just not going to work in 3D.’ Or ‘It’s going to be too cute.’ So I didn’t do those.
AO: In terms of giving people something to play with this month, I feel like just saying ‘Go out and put something in the world and don’t expect to get it back’ is a really great thing to do.
SL: Yeah, that’d be awesome! Making something as a sneaky gift for somebody else. It doesn’t have to be totally anonymous - I put my name on my work. I wanted to invite people to get in contact if they wanted to, but without trying to make it an obligation. I think one of the things that’s important to remember when making work on the street is that you may never hear back from it. If I get a one in ten response rate, it means that nine out of ten, I’ve got no idea what happened to them. And they might have been thrown away, or they might have just fallen on the ground and been swept away with the trash. But it might also mean that somebody has found it, and it has made their day, but they’re just not the sort of person to get in contact, or they might be shy. Whatever. So you can’t think the worst of ‘Oh, nine of them have ended up in the trash.’ But you also don’t have to put your name on them. They can be sneaky gifts of kindness. So yeah, that’s my challenge! Go out and make niceness in the world!
AO: Doing that feels so good. Years and years ago, some friends and I got some strips of paper and wrote ‘Open me’ on them, and inside, they had a little message. Some of them were like ‘Have a lovely day’, ‘Your hair looks great.’ My favourite one said ‘Consider this permission.’
SL: Oh, nice! Can I borrow that?
AO: Of course! And we put them all over the city. Some of them in places on rooftops that were illegal to get into and probably no-one would ever find them. But we’d put stuff down a street, and for the most part kept moving –
SL: Just run like hell!
AO: But we saw a couple of people get them. There was this man who was busking, and he went inside, and we put one in his music stand. He opened it, and saw us walking away, and yelled out ‘Thanks! That’s really lovely!’ There was this great feeling of ‘We could make someone’s day!’
AO: It’s so simple and so empowering.
SL: I love it. I really do love hearing back from people, but I don’t mind when I don’t. So many people in Christchurch and for Sharing Ink as well, came back with these amazing stories of how they’d had this terribly tragic day, and they’d just found this at exactly the right moment. And I can’t figure out whether everybody has tragicness and they just don’t talk about it a lot of the time, or whether somehow these things find the people who really need them at that moment. It’s often surprising to me just how touched people are by the work. Which is lovely. I think it’s about how much time you put into things as well. Like, the little cupcakes are awesome, and I always get a ‘Oh, great!’ But that’s sort of it. But the things that have more meaning, like the kakapo, or the Sharing Ink, you get paragraphs of their stories, and how they found it, and what was going on.
AO: I think part of the joy of discovering those is, as you were saying before, because we’re so saturated with advertising, and because advertisers are getting so sneaky, with viral campaigns and finding new ways to access people, I think there’s a lot of coming across something new and presuming that it’s a scam, or that someone’s trying to get you to buy something. And when it really is just a gift, it’s so lovely. You expect someone to be trying to get something from you.
SL: One of the things that I really liked about when I was first exploring the idea of it, is that in a world where so much of it is advertising shouting at you, and it’s very impersonal, because really, it’s shouting the same thing at everyone, it’s so nice to have this tiny one-on-one interaction. I really like that it’s strangers as well. Because I do nice things for my friends, because they’re my friends, and that’s what you do. But it’s nice to be able to do nice things for total strangers just because. There’s something really human about that. And really connecting. And that’s what I really like about craft. Because I’ve spent so much time knitting this thing, and it’s run through my hands so many times while I’ve been embroidering it. I think that you sort of get a sense of that, when you pick something up, that you don’t when picking up something manufactured, or going into a store to buy something manufactured.
AO: Absolutely. Thanks so much, Sayra. That’s excellent.
CRAFT IN FEBRUARY - WEEK ONE.
The year barrels on, and we're into February already! This month's theme is CRAFT, and it's a big one. From furniture to decor to jewellery to gifts, it's a great opportunity to get your hands dirty and to liven up your belongings. Got an old stool that's seen better days? Sand it down and repaint it! Canvas shoes looking a bit tired? Grab a Sharpie and add new patterns! Got some beads and twine sitting around? Make your own necklace and feel fancy!
This month, Etsy and Pinterest are great places to start. Frankie Magazine's DIY tag has some great crafty inspiration, and even Buzzfeed, home of endlessly pointless lists and quizzes, has quite a good DIY section, if you wade through the nonsense. This list of crafty ways to use spray paint is particularly good.
Now, take some time to read this week's interview with maker, designer and professional problem-solver Luc Favre, as he talks recycling, rage hammering and going full Dexter with hundreds of litres of fake blood.
The Art Olympics sits down to chat with maker and designer Luc Favre, fresh out of NIDA and ready to rock.
4:24 pm, on a Fitzroy sofa, as the sun sets, surrounded by handmade masks and glasses of iced water.
Art Olympics: So, Luc Favre. Tell me about what you do. How did you get into making things?
Luc Favre: I started making things almost by mistake, I guess, through getting involved with various student theatre productions at Monash as a designer, and then finding that as I designed things, they needed to be made, of course, and I tended to also be that person. I decided that I really enjoyed designing and making, so I decided I’d have a better go of it and try to get some formal training. The props course at NIDA appealed to me, because I figured that the more I know how to make things, the better I’ll be able to design things.
AO: The whole time I’ve known you, which is a long time now – I’ve known you for nearly ten years. We’re so old.
AO: But the whole time I’ve known you, you’ve always been very creative, but also very practical and very determined to fix things. You’ve always been very good with your hands. I remember you telling me that when you were a kid and you got angry, your dad used to get you to hammer nails into wood, is that right?
LF: It was my mum, actually. I was probably an awful child to raise, I think. Mum and dad often tell me that they didn’t actually know whether or not to tell me that I shouldn’t put metal objects into a power point, or to just ignore it. Because they were like ‘If we tell him not to do it, he’ll definitely do it. However, if we don’t tell him not to do it, he might just do it anyway.’ Because I was always exploring things, and – some of those stories they tell me, I sound like an absolute ratbag. I’d also throw these horrible tantrums. I once threw a tantrum because my mum, in a desperate act of trying to get some positive reinforcement, called me a good boy. I turned around with pure anger in my eyes and yelled ‘I’m not a good boy! I’m Luc!’ So yeah, tantrum city. But mum found that when I was in a tantrum, she could send me outside with a box of nails and a piece of wood, and I’d just hammer them in, and then after a while I’d just be calmly hammering in nails, like ‘Oh yeah, I can do this!’ There was this time when a carpenter came over and I was hammering nails, and he turned to her and was like ‘How’s he doing that?’ This tiny little kid hammering nails in perfectly. All those tantrums, that’s how.
AO: You do something in rage often enough, and when you’re not angry it’s really easy.
AO: So tell me about getting into NIDA. I remember that you had to make a donkey mask, for Bottom in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ I have one of the ones you made, this cane mask, but that wasn’t the first one you did, was it?
LF: I decided to make this latex mask, and was like ‘This is great. This is a method I’ve never done before, I’ll be able to do something really quite good, because I can base it off a sculpt and do a mould and cast it,’ and so I thought it’d work out really well. But once I’d done it, my ability to paint latex was very limited, and so it just looked like a Halloween mask that you’d get from whichever $2 bargain store down the road. And I mean, that is an achievement, but it didn’t look nice, it didn’t look aesthetically pleasing in any theatrical way. And then functionally, vision was limited and all this other kind of stuff. So I kind of went back to the drawing board, and then came up with this cane idea through research of various different cultures with their different masks. I also was inspired by my long-time designer crush, Julie Taymor, and some of the stuff that she did in 'The Lion King'. And so I made this whole other one. But I didn’t want to throw away the latex one, because it showed a whole different range of skills. So I came in with that one first, and they were like ‘That’s good, but the visibility’s not great, you can’t hear the actor well through that mask, and I was like ‘Yeah. That’s why I made this other one.’
LF: ‘I was aware that it always looked like painted latex, so here’s this other one I made with full visibility, no problem with audibility or anything like that.’
AO: That’s great. I feel like that’s a great task to set as a challenge for a designer, because making the character of Bottom functional on stage is always such an issue. Every production I’ve seen of 'A Midsummer Night’s Dream', either you can’t hear the actor, or you can’t see their expression, or they just look really stupid. So finding an elegant design solution to that particular challenge is a really great baseline for a designer because you’re probably going to come across it at some point.
So let’s talk about masks. Because obviously, you used a mask to get into NIDA, and then you came out with this suite of masks when you finished. So, the very first masks that you made when we were doing shows at uni were a plaster base with Magiclay over the top?
LF: Yep. So Magiclay is a paper pulp-based, air-drying clay.
AO: So it’s mouldable in the same kind of way as plasticine?
LF: A very soft sort of plasticine. It sort of has the consistency of marshmallows.
AO: And then it dries and you can paint it. So you’ve now worked with plastic, you’ve worked with resin, you’ve worked with wood, you’ve worked with leather. Say someone’s like ‘Okay, well, I’m going to try out making a mask this month’, what medium would you recommend as something really straightforward?
LF: Papier mâché is very, very straightforward. And you can get a really nice finish. The Day of the Dead mask is primarily papier mâché.
AO: My memories of mask-making, from that time, and generally from when I was younger, involved a lot of lying on the floor with straws up your nose. Is that part of the process still?
LF: The straws are gone.
LF: There are two ways of doing it. I would generally use alginate, which is a seaweed-based goopy substance that sets on the skin, to make a negative mould wrapped in a harder mother mould to keep its shape, and then use plaster to create a positive cast of the face. But that process is quite laborious and stressful, so another thing you can do is get either a premade mask - you can buy them in most costume shops – or you could buy a pre-made cast. So you can get these generic faces which should fit most people. And then you can build up features with plasticine, to make the shape more similar to the person who’ll be wearing it, or to emphasise features – build up ridges and cheekbones and what not, and then papier mâché over the top of it.
AO: It’s been so long since I’ve used papier mâché. So, you tear strips of newspaper or other light paper, and then you put it in water? With…glue?
LF: It’s PVA. And water, mixed together. And you just take each strip, dunk it in, put it on, wipe a little bit of it off, otherwise you’ll just have a mountain of goop.
AO: Also while you were at NIDA, you made some pretty incredible jewellery. I was surprised to find that you’d hand-cut a lot of this stuff, especially the ring based on the Hokusai illustration. Because I was like ‘Oh, it’s probably been done with one of those laser cutting machines that the kids are so fond of.’ What’s it done with?
LF: It’s a jewellery saw. They are tiny little saws with tiny little saw blades which break all the time. Like, all the time. I don’t know how many I broke just on this ‘Great Wave’ ring. I probably broke seven, more, blades on that. You just get them in a pack and just go for it. However, if you have access to a laser cutter, that’s an equally good way of doing things.
AO: Well, there’s websites now where you can basically just send in a Photoshop document, or even just a JPEG –
LF: Illustrator is a commonly accepted one as well.
AO: And they’ll cut it for you. It’s quite cheap, as far as I’m aware.
LF: Yep. 3D printing, as well.
AO: I was going to ask about that. Because obviously the lovely thing about 3D printing is that there’s no waste involved – it only uses as much material as it takes to create the thing. Is that right?
LF: Ye-es. Unless of course you repeatedly stuff up the thing. My experience has been that, depending on the quality of the 3D printer of course, you may end up making about five or seven of these things while you’re calibrating and figuring out the problems. Lots of things can go wrong unfortunately. It’s not the magical solution to all of my problems that I’d dreamed that it would be. I’d expected to be like ‘Ah, I’ll just put it in the 3D printer, and voila, magic!’ They are getting more and more developed, though. They’re working on using different materials. They’re working towards being able to print artificial organs, made out of the same tissue as the person who they’re making it for, so there’ll be zero rejection of the organs. It’s definitely a very interesting field, and one that’s got a lot of prospects and opportunities.
AO: And so when you’re looking for inspiration, or information, what are your go-to resources?
LF: You should definitely visit Instructables, which is an entire website where a whole bunch of different people have gone ‘Oh, this is how I did’ – insert whatever it is, whether it’s making a mask, making some kind of cosplay outfit, furniture – anything you can think of. Some are very simple. But a lot are detailed with photos and videos. It’s my first go-to when I’m confronted with something I don’t know how to do. And the other one which I recommend for everyone is This to That. It’s very simple. It’s sole purpose is you put in This, which might be wood, and then That, which might be leather or whatever, and then it tells you how to glue them together.
LF: So it tells you which glue to use. You’d be amazed how inefficient hot glue and PVA can be when used in the wrong circumstance. And I think people always go to those to, thinking ‘Hot glue will fix everything, superglue will fix everything!’ And there are some things that those just aren’t made for. And you can save yourself a lot of trouble and do a much nicer job.
AO: In terms of waste, I know that’s a thing that you, especially through your time at NIDA, were thinking of a lot, especially in terms of theatre, because theatre is a space where the waste is just extraordinary. Things are designed to be used for a certain period of time, and then thrown away. I know that when you were doing polystyrene sculpting, you were trying to find alternate methods of doing that that weren’t so bad for the environment. Can you think of any craft components that people use regularly that are best avoided, because it’s wasteful to produce, or harmful?
LF: There’s heaps of stuff that’s bad.
(Luc's partner, Jess, has wandered in with an empty laundry basket).
Jess Chiodo-Reidy: Polystyrene would be number one, right?
LF: Polystyrene is pretty awful. All plastics. They don’t decompose. The sea is just littered with toxic plastic waste. I mean, it’s really bad! There’s all these animals, choking on plastic, and we’re like ‘Oh yeah, I got more shopping bags!’ and ‘Oh yeah, we’ll just make more!’
There’s a huge list of things you shouldn’t use. Like, don’t use new timber that isn’t FSC approved – they’re the forestry people who sign off on whether it’s been ethically harvested. It’s sort of a never-ending hole that you can fall into when you start to look at the best ways to make things ethically. I think recycling is definitely the best way. If you can find a place that has a whole bunch of junk, go there.
AO: I know Reverse Art Truck in Ringwood is really good. They have excess stock from various different places and companies. A lot of schools use it when they’re doing art stuff. It’s great, you go in and they give you a bag, and you fill it up for some insanely cheap price, like ten dollars.
LF: I’ve got a certificate, actually, somewhere, that you made me for one of my birthdays, that says ‘IOU a trip to Reverse Art Truck.’
AO: We should go!
LF: We should totally go!
JCR: There’s Reverse Garbage in Sydney.
LF: They have so much random kinds of junk. Lots of material, there’s doors, a whole lot of crazy bric-a-brac, a whole bunch of containers, woods, carpet. All those kind of weird things that make their way into the craft sections of primary schools. And otherwise, scrap yards. Op shops are great. There’s so much more fun to be had in reinventing an old thing than in just going out, buying new materials. There are endless possibilities. Especially if you’re worried about having the same kind of look that everybody else does. Just go to this probably last of its kind object in an op shop, and make something completely different and your own out of it! And it’ll be the only one of its kind in the world. And that’s amazing.
AO: I wanted to talk about your nickname. You’ve got this superhero alter ego called ‘Safety Favre’, which basically comes from the fact that you tend to be the only person in the room actually paying attention to any OH&S issues. And the person who’s keeping a level head in a crisis. Like I remember, years ago, you were doing that welding course. And my main takeaway from that was that you stopped a guy from being on fire, and everyone thought that you were amazing. Do you remember that?
LF: No, what happened?
AO: There was some guy who’d set his pant leg on fire. And everyone panicked, and you put out the fire. And everyone was like –
JCR: ‘Safety Favre!’
AO: Safety Favre! Do you not remember that?
LF: I don’t remember that at all!
AO: See, you’re so heroic, you don’t even remember your own heroism! And didn’t you recently put out a person on fire? Or a thing? I swear I’m not making this up.
JCR: My pizza box.
LF: Yeah, Jess nearly set fire to our house. That was fun.
AO: No, there was a person! A workshop!
LF: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah! I was in a workshop doing oxy welding – oxyacetylene welding, and with that type of welding there is an actual flame that comes out of the torch. This is actually my own fault. I was lighting the torch, and I just so happened to, as I was doing that, cross the jet of the torch with a leak that was coming out of the gas canister.
AO: Oh my god! So you created…a flame thrower?
LF: Well, it was just sort of spurting directly out of this gas canister. And I was thinking ‘Oh god, we’re all going to blow up.’
AO: So the gas canister was on fire?
LF: Spewing fire out.
AO: Oh, great.
JCR: And the way you told the story was that you had your flame facing forwards, and then, all of a sudden, it was going sideways. Are you were like ‘Why is that happening?’
LF: Yeah! Exactly. It started up, and it was going straight ahead of me, and then it started sort of making a direct tangent from my own flame. The reason it was partly my own fault was that I should have had it facing as far away from the canister as possible.
JCR: However –
LF: However, it shouldn’t have been leaking gas.
LF: So this thing is spewing fire, and I’m thinking ‘Oh god, it’s like ten seconds before it somehow works its way into the canister and explodes!’
JCR: Did you think you were going to die?
AO: Wow. How many other people were there?
LF: There were five other people. But I don’t know how significant this explosion would have been. I’m sure there are safety factors put in place there. But I didn’t take any chances. Got a fire extinguisher, put it out. Meanwhile, everybody around me was just kind of still sort of frozen and in a state of ‘Oh god.’ So yeah. I don’t know how close I came to death. But probably very.
AO: Oh god, that’s horrifying!
LF: No, no, I’m probably exaggerating. I’d love to talk to somebody who maintains these gas cylinders.
JCR: And they’d be like ‘Oh no, that would have been catastrophic.’
AO: ‘You would have blown up the suburb.’
LF: They probably would have been like ‘Oh, no, of course not. That happens all the time, that’s why we have this special valve in here, to make sure fire can never, ever get into the gas canister.’ I would have been like ‘Oh, thank god.’ I hope that exists!
AO: So, let’s talk scale. What is the biggest thing you’ve ever made?
JCR: Captain Baghands?
AO: Oh yes! That’s a great thing to talk about!
LF: That is a good thing to talk about, actually.
LF: ‘Captain Baghands and the Age of Cardboard’ was this play I did at Student Theatre with two guys named Ben Marshall and Zack Pretlove. They had this amazing idea – this is actually the first time I ever designed anything for a play.
AO: And it was the biggest set in the world!
LF: Yeah! They were kind enough to approach me with this crazy idea they had, which was this choose your own adventure play set in a world made entirely out of cardboard. And so it was set in this weird fantasy era of swords and shields and armour –
JCR: Kind of like ‘Game of Thrones’?
LF: Absolutely. A cardboard Game of Thrones choose your own adventure play. It was so funny. It was one of those rare moments when a play is exactly that, just playtime. For the audience, for the actors, for everyone. It was very fun.
AO: I remember walking through the corridor at Student Theatre, and there just being cardboard everywhere. You couldn’t see the walls, you couldn’t see the floor, and it was just you and Ben and Zack just sitting, holding scissors, with these wild eyes, saying ‘I’ve given myself so many cardboard cuts!’
LF: And no sleep, because the scale of this thing was ridiculous! Because everything was cardboard, it means that all the costumes were cardboard, all the weapons were cardboard, all the characters were cardboard! We made dragons out of cardboard, there was the dreaded Draobdrac, which was this massive two legged robot beast, which required – I think I managed to get it down to two people to operate it. It was this massive puppet with reversed legs so the knees went backwards. It kind of looked a lot like those big robots from Star Wars – essentially a giant box on these two legs, moving in the same way as those Star Wars AT-ATs,.
AO: I remember that it was defeated by figuring out that it’s name was ‘cardboard’ backwards. And the audience was like ‘Of course it is! Draobdrac!’
LF: It was great. I wish there was a video of that somewhere. Because the amount of work that went into that! And then some nights, it was never even seen! Because it was a choose your own adventure, a third of the show never happened! Every time! Oh, god.
AO: Where did all that cardboard come from?
LF: I think part of it was donated from Visy. The people who used to run it were these big patrons of the arts, and they’d given these giant sheets to Student Theatre, which had stayed there for years and years. And then I got onto it, and used the whole thing up in one go. Also all the used cardboard boxes we could get our hands on.
AO: I like that the start of your design career started from this place of recycling and eco friendliness, and now you’ve come back to that point again.
LF: Apart from that, the biggest thing I’ve ever made was probably the vast quantities of blood I had to make for this one play at NIDA. I think we were using up 20 litres per show. It was the Greeks. There were ten performances requiring blood, so I was, at all times, just cooking up blood.
JCR: We found blood on our bed sheets. In our house.
LF: I had to cook this stuff as well, because I found the cheapest method, which isn’t necessarily the most efficient or practical method. The blood budget for this show was insane.
JCR: Our house smelled of chocolate sauce for weeks.
LF: I’ve never spent so much money on anything.
JCR: Remember when we went to the supermarket and bought, like, fifty-seven bottles of Cottees chocolate sauce? And we were at the checkout, with like, twenty-five gazillion or however many bottles of sauce, a whole bunch of packets of gelatine, and, like, some apples.
JCR: It’s worth mentioning that this blood needed to be edible and washable from costumes.
AO: Were the costumes white, as well?
LF: And the set was white, involving couches –
JCR: Carpet –
LF: White flooring, all this kind of stuff. The problem was, we were told that there wasn’t going to be blood on the carpet at all. So I was like ‘Great, that’s one thing I don’t have to worry about!’ And then, when I finally saw a rehearsal of this scene, there was a person dragging the body of the person they’d just killed. The person coming in is meant to be completely bloodied, as are the two people that she’s killed, and she drags the first body onto the carpet, which, of course, has been completely covered in blood. Another person dies from various axe wounds, once again, completely covered in blood, over a sofa, onto the carpet –
LF: She then walks on the carpet herself, with her bloodied feet, and then drops
the murder weapon, which is once again covered in blood, on the carpet – oh god! Are you serious?
JCR: They wanted a bathtub full of blood.
LF: Which I worked out would have cost about $300 a night. And that, over the entire season, was more than my entire budget. So, everything’s white. Everything’s white. And it has to wash out of everything, including all the costumes, the set – everything. And then in another scene, it’s thrown directly into peoples’ faces –
JCR: All over the walls. And in was in three acts, too. So at the end of the second act, after there was the blood all over the carpet and everything, the audience left, and twenty minutes later, had to return to a stark white room again.
AO: Oh my god.
LF: So it had to be done quickly.
AO: That’s incredible.
LF: And then the final act involves the most amount of blood. Where blood is literally thrown in buckets over people. And the entire chorus, their costume is underwear – skin coloured underwear, and blood.
LF: Like, they’re head to toe blood. In their hair, all over their faces. So I had to make this low-irritation, sticky blood that wouldn’t drip directly off them onto the floor, because then it was a slip hazard – it was just, it was just a nightmare! Trying to get this thing done! And the toxicity thing, because it had to be all over them, and it had to be thrown in buckets at their faces –
JCR: So that’s going to get in some holes.
LF: While they’re screaming!
JCR: That’s right!
LF: I really felt for these poor actors.
JCR: They would have just been so cold! Being nude in blood for a whole act.
LF: I heated up the blood! I went and microwaved blood! Because they were naked! In liquid!
AO: And what’s the smallest thing you’ve ever made?
LF: A wasp. A freakin’ wasp!
AO: For what?
LF: This was another play. And there was a scene where this one character – this was for a play called ‘Punk Rock’, which I did in my first year at NIDA. I was then an assistant, and I got all the odd jobs that my supervisor felt I was capable of, and more importantly, didn’t want to do.
LF: So there was this one scene where one of the boys goes and kills a wasp and then terrorises one of the girls by waving it in front of her face. ‘Dead wasp, dead wasp!’ So they were like ‘We need a wasp.’ And I knew when they told me, I was sitting there going ‘This thing is never, ever going to be seen! I have to make this tiny little object which will be held in a hand, and thrust in someone’s face, that the audience will never, ever be able to see!’ But I did it. Using epoxy resin and a wire frame that I constructed, I made these separate parts of the body, and I painted it in yellow and black –
JCR: Surely you could have just used, like, a button or something!
LF: Absolutely. But I made this incredibly precise little wasp, to scale.
JCR: Did it have wings?
LF: Yes, it did.
LF: I made little wings for it out of tiny chicken wire. All of these materials were things that I’d found around the workshop.
AO: Did they appreciate it?
LF: Oh, look, I think the actors definitely appreciated it. But I think there was also just an element of them being like ‘…Why did you do this?’
JCR: I remember when I saw the play, Luc was tormented about this wasp, and I was like ‘I’ll look out for the wasp, I’m sure it’s great.’ And I was looking for it, and he was like ‘Did you see the wasp?!’ and I was like ‘…I did not. I did not see the wasp.’
LF: And I was like ‘Ha! Ha! Vindicated! I did waste all my time! Look who’s laughing now!’
AO: And so in terms of people who excite and inspire you, Julie Taymor is obviously one. Who else is amazing?
LF: Two men that I’ve worked with in the past, when I was finding my feet – Jason Lehane, from Monash Uni Student Theatre, and Peter Turley, from the Alexander Theatre, definitely were a big source of inspiration for me, giving me the chance to use tools that I had never used before –
JCR: Was not qualified to use…
LF: Trusting me to use tools that I’d never used before, and teaching me how to use them. Donating a whole lot of their time and resources and everything to help me accomplish things where, in typical fashion, I’d bitten off more than I could chew.
AO: Certainly with Jason, he’s really excited when people want to learn stuff, because I think, so often, kids come to Student Theatre and go ‘I can use a power drill!’ And he spends so much time pulling badly threaded screws out of flats and being like ‘Why. Why?’ And so when you’re like ‘Please teach me how to use a saw’, he’s like ‘Oh, thank god.’
LF: And Peter Turley is just one of those people who’s just continually giving their time and expertise. He’s worked at the ABC, he’s worked on films, he’s worked in England. Jason said it best when he told me once that Peter Turley would have forgotten more than most people would have learned in their lifetime. He’s one of these great repositories of wisdom – I don’t think you can use that phrase any more.
AO: Since Tony Abbott? He’s a great suppository of wisdom.
LF: But yeah. He’s just an amazing mind, and an amazing maker.
Someone I'm currently very into is this guy, Bob Potts, who makes these just impossibly beautiful kinetic sculptures that actually blow my mind. Definitely watch the videos on his website.
But my favourite inspiration of all time has to be Leonardo da Vinci. Since I was about 5 I wanted desperately to be him. The way his mind worked just doesn't seem humanly possible, the things he invented and made – just amazing. Oh, and Heron of Alexandria, also so cool. Among many very theatrical creations, he pretty much invented steam power over 1500 years before the Industrial Revolution
I think that's the great thing about makers and craft, there's so much inspiration coming from so many different times and places. Every made thing has a story: how was it made? Who made it? What advances and circumstances were required for its creation? I was talking with someone the other day about how humans worked out that if they rubbed sticks together in a certain way they could create fire – what?!
AO: I think I was there for this conversation. It is ridiculous, isn’t it.
LF: Right. How did that happen? Nelly the Neanderthal has nothing better to do that twist a stick into some other wood for a period of time over kindling and hey presto, we have fire? What!? I think we theorised that whoever it was must have been trying to drill a hole or something, but what are the chances?
AO: And finally, do you have a challenge or an exercise for people to play with?
LF: I would say, give yourself a challenge, use some recycled materials. Maybe even restore something. You don’t have to make something from scratch. You just need to see what’s wrong with it and fix that. Upcycling and recycling are great places to start.
With most of the things I do, whether they’re carvings or sculptures or anything really, if they’re 3D, I’ll often just get a piece of plasticine and sculpt it. And then it’ll give me an idea of what this’ll be like in three dimensions. It’ll help you figure out problems that’ll happen. Straight off the bat, get a piece of plasticine, get a pencil and piece of paper and figure out what you want to do. Try to do it from different angles. That would be my tip.
JCR: That’s a good one, because it’s really odd how we live in a 3D world, but we really struggle to convert 2D into 3D. So that’s a really good exercise.
LF: So draw it, draw it from different angles, model it. If nothing else, it gives you an appreciation for just getting your hands involved. You’ll get to know the shape of the thing you want to create. And at the end of the day, if you just like it as-is, that’s fine! You’ve crafted something anyway! Just have a go.
And don’t worry about starting too big or fancy. You can craft with basically anything. Lego and Meccano are really fun places to start. I was thinking of trying to make a Lego spaceship that Marc – my older brother – and I used to make a lot when we were little. But honestly, if you don't feel confident with various tools you absolutely don't have to use them: make a collage, do some knitting, make a sculpture out of something edible, bake a sculpture! Just have a play. I think we forget how much fun playing with our hands can be.
AO: Thanks Luc. That’s ace.
Photos by Sarah Walker, except where otherwise credited.