11 June 2013

Cresside Collette weaves a distinctive tapestry

Collette is not a common name in Sri Lanka and it became even less common post 1956 for historical reasons many have written about.  There’s one Collette who was so in-your-face that it is hard to forget, at least in the case of Sri Lankans interested in politics, journalism and art.  Aubrey. 

This is why there’s a ‘market’, still, for a story about that much respected cartoonist. This is why there was a sizable audience when Cresside Collette spoke about her father recently.  Some individuals are like that.  Their relevancy outlives them.  There’s still a lot to learn from Collette’s cartoons and that’s not for cartoonists and art students alone but the general public. 
Children carry parental genes and you see gene-trace in what they do. And yet, children are not all ‘parental product’ and nothing else; they evolve, learn different things, travel to places their parents have never heard of, make their own lives and craft their own philosophies.  Cresside Collette is Aubrey’s daughter, yes, but she has her own story, father-wrought and father-free.

She grew up in an environment where drawing and painting were encouraged; her father after all had an in-house studio.  She remembers Swarnee Jayawardena, her Art teacher at Bishop’s College, an artist in her own right, as a great nurturing and encouraging influence. 
Cresside’s mother Joan Gratiaen was a journalist who later re-invented herself as a copywriter at Grant’s Advertising under Reggie Candappa.  She was clearly a woman of great courage, for she left Sri Lanka in 1962 along with Cresside and her brother to settle down in Australia.  She was determined to educate her children.  In Australia Cresside was able to study Graphic Art, a field not unrelated to her passion, making wall hangings.  In 1971 she held her first exhibition of wall hangings, in Melbourne.  In 1976 the State Government of Victoria set up the Victoria Tapestry Workshop and Cresside was one of the founder weavers, one of five, chosen after 20 applicants were whittled down to 12.  That Tapestry Workshop, according to Cresside is still a very important part of Victoria’s art heritage. 

She worked there for around 15 years, off and on, but found time to complete a post graduate degree at the Edinburgh College of Art, which at the time was the only university that accommodated tapestry artists. 
After she became a mother, Cresside had to fit work around her children, but still managed to do a Masters at Monash, again in a Tapestry Department.  Throughout this time, she tutored at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, teaching drawing, life drawing and tapestry weaving.  She was attached to RMIT until 2010. 

As of now, Cresside has held over 25 solo exhibitions and some of her work is displayed in her website, www.cressidecollette.com. 
Where did this passion for weaving come from?  Cresside attributes it to watching her grandmother and grandaunts who were heavily into crotchet and embroidery.  The visual, she admitted, meant a lot to her. 

‘There’s a seductive quality to this exercise since one creates it from bottom up.  I “draw” with wool and cotton and my work is “representation”.  This medium helps add the extra dimension.  You get depth of color and texture.  There’s a certain richness that you can’t get with drawing or painting.’
Any art form fascinates those less acquainted with it.  There is precision required in transferring mind-image on to canvass, but the discipline and tenderness of fingers is that much greater, clearly, in tapestry making.  ‘Re-drawing’ on canvas what has been captured in photograph is clearly an art, but it is clearly harder to weave a photograph, so to speak.  Cresside recreates landscapes, sometimes she works outside in the en pleinair or in the open air mode, much like 19th Century painters.  She ‘paints’ with thread the same kinds of landscapes of course, but her versatility becomes apparent when one peruses the range of subjects, natural and created.  Technology allows 3-D representation but there’s added character or rather the emphasis of certain traits in a subject that an artist can derive.  She does it with thread. 

Cresside says she was lucky.  She was lucky to get a break with the Victoria Tapestry Workshop.  She was lucky, she says, to have had the opportunity to travel and study abroad.  ‘Sri Lanka’, though, was  an untouched subject for more than 40 years, perhaps due to work, studies and bringing up children.  In 2006 she had to write about landscapes.  That was a spark.
‘I surprised myself.  Something innate came out.  I found myself casting back to the expansive landscapes of Sri Lanka that I remembered.’ 

She returned in 2009 and ‘found intensely like-minded people’ which has since been the ‘draw card’.  Now she visits every year, working round a schedule of teaching in France and running her own tapestry tours to the UK and France.  She is currently trying to put together a textile tour of Sri Lanka for a travel agency in Canberra. 
What of her father?  That’s the inevitable question from a Sri Lankan. 

‘I have strong impressions.  Since 1956 I only saw him on Saturdays.  I have pleasant memories.  He had a very busy life, but he took me to the zoo, the museum, the beach and to art exhibitions.   I felt I knew him.  Gentle.  Bit of a dreamer.  He stared into space a lot.  He would drop me at one place and go somewhere else to pick me up.’
She didn’t see him for 26 years.

‘When I re-met him, in 2006, he was familiar.  I found by accident that I had a half-sister who worked in the same building.  I didn’t know what to do, but my boss said I would be mad not to talk to her and to ask about my father.  I feel that had I not taken the initiative we might have never met.  He kept a lot to himself.  But when we met, everything came together, all the threads, his and mine, our lives.’
Art critics will have a different story to tell about Cresside Collette.  A more informed, detailed and nuanced narrative which includes her art journey with and without greats in her field and how, perhaps, she lays out warmth, softness and hard lifelines as she plays with texture and color.  All we can tell when we zoom in on a photograph of something she’s done is that there’s a union between an amazing imagination, a powerful creative force and tenderness in work, a spirituality in fact that complements the eloquence.   She is an accomplished universal who is Sri Lankan as much by birth as by ways of expression and being.  Her father’s name is Aubrey Collette.  Cresside Collette is not a cartoonist, though.  She is not framed by her father or his work.  She uses a different canvas, different instruments and medium.  She is a different kind of artist.