Welcome to the blog of the Tasmanian branch of the Children's Book Council of Australia!

Sunday 11 November 2012

Open Spaces spark wondrous Imaginings! by Christina Booth

Bruce Whatley

Australian Society of Authors Open Spaces Retreat for Picture Book Creators, Sydney, 2012.

When we think of a retreat the word quiet springs to mind: personal, solitary time to work, reflect and consolidate. You might even have time to be guided by another, take long strolls to clear and sort your mind.

So what happens when a group of picture book creators meet in Sydney for a retreat? Plenty, but a lot of what we traditionally consider retreat essentials are reinvented and not a lot of quiet is had!

Picture book authors and illustrators (not unlike most authors and artisans) are cave dwelling creatures that work mostly in isolation and solitude. The ticking deadlines are our constant companions and the niggling domestic routine often oversteps its boundaries into the creative caves we have established, so when a retreat for picture book creators is offered then we must expect the unexpected, rules to be broken or adapted and noise and mess to be created.

What a treat. The ASA (Australian society of Author) invited us to move into the wonderful Hughenden Hotel in Woollahra, Sydney (near Paddington) to join them for a four day retreat of treats and experiences we could never achieve by ourselves.

We started on Thursday at lunch time. We were an awkward gathering of some strangers and old friends rabbiting around portfolios and samples and making small talk, nervously wondering what the next few days would bring and how much of our creative souls we were going to have to share. 

Twelve of us poured over the work of others, ‘oohing’ and ‘ahhing’, recognising pieces from books old and new and putting faces to the names of those who have them on covers.

We began the sessions by introducing ourselves, our work and what we wanted to achieve from the weekend. What inspiration and wonder, it was hard not to feel a bit overwhelmed by the talent before us.

Then the work began. Hard work? We were thrown into the creative pit of art supplies, provided by Micador and told to PLAY! All afternoon, with someone sitting beside us to talk to, and talk we did. We drew with textas, crayons, painted, rubbed and coloured and experimented with goodies we had only admired on the art shop shelves, what joy.

After a quick freshen up and the removal of crayon from under fingernails we braved the heat (it was over thirty degrees for this Tasmanian who had left Tassie trembling in her jumper and coat) and we headed to the piano lounge for a gathering of Sydney ASA members and guests for pre-dinner nibbles drinks and a book launch. How spoilt was I? Part of the program was the launch of my new book with Amanda Niland, ‘I Wish There Were Dinosaurs.’ The launch was wonderful, the honours done by the talented Libby Gleeson. Very apt as she has been a great encourager on my journey as an author and had also tutored Amanda.

Off for a lovely dinner followed by guest speaker Tohby Riddle who shared the process and journey of creating his book ‘Unforgotten.’ The only negative was a visit from a very large huntsman who decided to walk across the wall behind Tohby during the talk making it hard for those of us arachnophobes in the audience to look up at the power point presentation).

Friday was an early start. Early breakfast (6.30 am)put on by the hotel to accommodate our busy schedule and then we were off to catch a bus. Laurine acted as Miss Clavel and had us all safely travelling to Bondi to walk the shoreline and experience the Sculptures by the Sea exhibition. We went early to avoid the crowds which were shoulder to shoulder by midday. We now understood the early start. For someone unfamiliar with most parts of Sydney I felt like a wild schoolgirl let off her leash. What beautiful beaches and scenery (including one or two life guards) and amazing sculptures, something I recommend you all to see.

Fish and chips by the beach then a bus trip back to the hotel ready for a drawing lesson from Bruce Whatley (or should I say Dr. Bruce). Bruce studied the effects of right brained drawing for his PHD and we were treated to a session of drawing with our other hand. Seeing as not all retreaters were illustrators this threw up a decent challenge but fun was had by all and much was learned about how much better our wobbly hands are compared to our preferred hand. If fun is measured by mess then the fact that a lot of us looked like chimney sweeps by the end was a good indication of a great afternoon.
Collaboration times were scheduled throughout the progam and they went from quiet, reserved discussions and the nervous handing over of ideas and manuscripts to a full group show and tell session by the end of the weekend. As we grew to know and trust each other with our ‘babies’ we entered into great discussions of hope and potential for our work. Brainstorming characters, solving lumps and bumps in texts and generally encouraging each other in our journeys we solved niggling problems, started our new story ideas and boosted each other’s creativity. Whilst every activity we did was wonderful, this aspect of the weekend was perhaps the most rewarding.

Saturday saw a few of us up early for a stroll to the Paddington markets. Then back to the hotel to catch a ferry of taxi’s to visit the Brett Whitely studio. Palpitations. He might not be everyone’s cup of tea but he’s one of my favourite artists and it was almost too surreal to find myself viewing an exhibition of his works in his personal space, sitting and watching a DVD about his life and work in his sitting room and reading his rants, raves and quotes scribbled in-between magazine cuttings and personal photos adorning his studio walls. When I first heard we were going, I turned very Victorian and felt quite faint. (I am still curious as to whether the set of false teeth adhered to his painting belong to the owner of the brain, also attached to the same painting).

Another taxi ride to Kirribilli Park overlooking the harbour for a gourmet picnic lunch (Miss Clavel still had us safely together) and a time to explore the wonderful rescue work of Wendy Whitely. The gardens are spectacular and are full of wonderful birdlife and curiosities, all created out of an old railway yard that was/is disused. Wendy is preparing for the inevitable battle that they will one day want it back but it has become a favourite place for Sydneysiders to enjoy, relax in and as happened on the day we visited, get married in. Wendy was there, busy working with her volunteers and stopped to chat with us as we ate lunch. Some more collaboration work in the dappled shade at the bottom of the garden and then a walk to the ferry for a ride from Luna Park to the Circular Quay added to our journey.

We then caught a bus home to the hotel and a revisit of the markets before a very special visit to the second Dr Seuss Gallery in the world. We were surrounded by the very wonderful and colourful world of Dr Seuss prints and were all tempted to make a purchase but alas, they were a little out of our reach. 

We can dream however.

Back to the hotel, freshened up and in our colourful gear we headed back to the piano bar for Tapas, Spanish spiced wine and our last night of sharing and collaboration. We were treated (again, as she played for us on Friday also) to the beautiful violin renditions of Fiona Stewart (illustrator of Sally Odger’s Bush Lullaby), such a talented lady, professional musician, sculptor and illustrator extraordinaire. We were also joined by the passionate and lovely Susanne Gervay (hotel owner and author) for a number of the get-togethers.

Sadly, such gatherings must come to an end and after packing and a last collaboration time over breakfast on Sunday, we said our farewells and headed home.

Quiet we were not, in solitude we did not find ourselves but filled to the brim, inspired, motivated, engaged and raring to go we are.

Thanks to the ASA, especially Miss Clavel (Laurine Croasdale) and to Ann James for organising a most memorable and fantastic four days. Something that will help light up our lonely little caves and keep us inspired.

Strangers no more.

Until next year....

Christina at her book launch

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