Early morning on Sunday June 5 – World Environment Day – was a cold and wet one for an artist holding an outdoor printmaking event in Melbourne, though not on a scale seen in Paris, where devastating floods forced the Louvre and Orsay museums to shut while staff moved art work to safety.
Still, printmaker Rebecca Mayo, whose work Merri Creek Zeltbahnen features in the RMIT Gallery printmaking exhibition Out of the Matrix, wondered if her outdoor art event would attract an audience.
But come they did, eager to participate. Everyone was offered the chance to help create a public art work, and were handed a calico square Mayo had prepared. She pre-mordanted the fabric squares with letters, and as the cloth was dipped into the boiling vats of Eucalyptus and Melaleuca bark, letters emerged like magic.
“I’ve had this brew of local plants soaking for a month, and the fabric squares are screenprinted with alum so the dye holds. It’s basic chemistry,” Mayo said.
After stirring the vat of fragrant organic dye, and swirling around their cloth square, people were then asked to peg the letters onto two lines, and like a quiz game guess what sentences might appear from the random selection of letters. This delighted the children who loved a wet and messy activity, and merrily took part with adults who had emerged from their warm Sunday sleep-in.
The work revealed itself over the course of the morning, with people coming and going during the two hour event. The artist chatted about her work, explaining the process she used to create her zeltbahn, which was pitched nearby, and had been dyed and screen printed with indigenous and exotic plants of the Merri Creek.
“The Zeltbahn (quarter tent) is a single garment that, when buttoned to the other zeltbahnen creates a shelter for many,” said Mayo.
Rebecca Mayo’s work is positioned as a social practice incorporating weeding, planting, sewing, printing, dyeing, collecting and walking. The original project was triggered by her participation as a volunteer restoration worker at the Merri Creek in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, and she felt the World Environment Day event was a perfect opportunity to share her passion for the area, its restoration work, and her interest in using locally sourced materials.
Asked about the vivid blue on the dyed tent, and she takes those interested to a nearby spot where volunteer workers from Friends of Merri Creek spent the morning planting Australian indigo and other plants.
“I feel guilty – I am usually helping plant, not make art!” she said. She was delighted when a volunteer asked to have their Friends of Merri Creek shirt dyed in the Melaleuca bark.
A hardy few stayed to the very end, when the cloth squares were arranged to reveal two common sayings – with a community-based and ecological friendly themes appropriate for the day:
“Many hands make light work” and “A stitch in time saves nine”.
You can see Rebecca Mayo’s work at the Out of the Matrix printmaking exhibition at RMIT Gallery until Saturday 11 June.