Friday, 13 July 2012

Local Colour: Artist Talk

I've been asked to post a written version of my artist talk from the opening of Local Colour last Saturday. If you couldn't make it to the talk and you'd like to know more about my work and its explorations of place, migration, Impressionism and the changing urban landscape, read on. The talk is reproduced in full below, with links to the work it refers to, where possible.

And a reminder: Saturday 14th July is the last day to see Local Colour at Studio 20/17, and Saturday is tomorrow, so get in quick!

Mel Miller

Local Colour: Artist Talk


Local Colour is a collection of jewellery and objects exploring the significance of place in the everyday, through the observation of seemingly ordinary places. Each work is informed by a specific place at a specific time and season encountered along my daily commute. Moving through these spaces, learning their contours and colours, we learn the feeling of home, of knowing a place. Within the repetition of personal experience, the mundane is transformed into the magical, and background becomes foreground as landscapes are transformed into jewellery objects.


The work here has its origins in a previous project about place that started me thinking seriously about our understanding of place and its role in shaping identity. From 2009 - 2011, I was involved in the project Australian Jewellery Topos, a touring exhibition of eighteen Australian jewellers focusing on ideas of topos, or place, in jewellery. These artists looked at expanded notions of place in four categories: topos of public place, topos of private and personal place, topos of remnant and reject materials of place, and topos of historical and cultural locations. The diverse work resulting from this research on place was shown in an exhibition showcasing Australian contemporary jewellery internationally, in three locations in the Netherlands, the United States and Australia. The book Australian Jewellery Topos: Talking About Place was published to accompany the exhibition. Foggy Day in Parkville (winter, clearing) was one of the works I showed in Australian Jewellery Topos. This is the third in the series of three Foggy Day in Parkville landscape brooches showing abstracted representations of the morning fog lifting over Princes Park, at three points in time over the course of a morning.

Jewellery critic Gaby Dewald talks about modern society becoming increasingly “place-less,” as our lives become ever more nomadic, and circumstances cause us to move away from a specific, unchanging place that we consider home. “Yet the longing for a home, for a sense of identity and a feeling of belonging, the desire to recognise oneself in a particular environment, the longing for familiar rituals and familiar surroundings, still remains.”[1] There is a difference here between the generic concept of space, unbounded and undefined, and personal notions of place, defined by its purpose, meaning or memories through individualised or cultural connections. Place, as opposed to space, is connected with identity.[2]

In our mobile world, we must forge connections with generic spaces, identifying their uniqueness, finding meanings and storing memories here, creating a sense of place by “superimposing meaning onto places that otherwise might become non-places.”[3]  In our place-making efforts, objects of applied art can act as a permanent framework for identity that once may have been provided by a permanent concept of home. The objects we wear, carry or keep in our homes define our individual environments and provide a sense of constancy, familiarity and individuality that contribute to our concepts of identity.  These portable objects make any place a home.[4]

So there are two efforts of place-making happening in this work. There is the effort to create objects with the capacity to individualise and give meaning to a place: a place on the body, in the gallery or in the home.  And there is the effort to create in miniature a signifier of locations I pass by every day, to reveal the meaning hidden in these places and prevent them from becoming “non-places”.  This work is transforming generic space into personal place. Through looking closely at these places and understanding their constantly changing details, I am becoming familiar with, identifying with, a place that is now my home.


My own experience of being a migrant has also informed this work.  These works chronicle the story of the movement through a place that follows movement to a place. The experience of migration is often thought of in general terms as one big move, followed by stasis. But the continual movement through a landscape is how we get to know a new place, and eventually identify with it.

Long after the flight path there are the bike paths, that slow assimilation and understanding, as we keep moving through a new landscape, learning its contours and colours, “becoming native to this place.” The phrase “becoming native to this place” was coined by environmentalist Wes Jackson to refer to the things we do today, in our global, often-migrating society, to forge connections with our local environment.[5] Becoming native to our places means learning the details of our local surroundings, learning to think of a place as our home, even if it is not the place we came from, and thinking of ourselves as belonging to this place. By knowing a place and knowing our place in it, we will cherish and care for it, and we ourselves won’t feel “displaced.”

To know these places in the way I have experienced them and recorded them in this work requires moving through them slowly, with awareness – in my case, this means at bicycle speed.  In a sense it is by chance that I came to know these places and watch them change; it is because I move through the landscape in that particular way. Commuting by any other means would take me on different routes, through different places, with a different type of awareness of my surroundings and at a different speed. The measured speed of a bicycle requires attentiveness to your surroundings, but allows time to notice even small changes in form, colour and light.


The use of everyday, non-precious materials such as the bouncy ball is central to this work. Many of the urban landscapes that form the subject of these works are also made of mundane materials: the scaffolding and construction fences of St Philip and John Streets (under construction), the concrete median in the middle of a road in Glew Street (Flowers to Share), the lawn of an empty lot in a summer of drought in Our Lady Help of Christians (summer, drought). But seeing these places every day, we sometimes catch them in the right light, and something new manifests: something magical and luminous. I look at the empty lot catching the light of the sunset and think twice: seeing an unusual beauty I begin to value this unnoticed place. Suddenly or gradually, these places become the gems of the urban landscape. 

In the same way, I have carefully chosen these bouncy balls with their particular textures, colours and translucencies, and I have set this mundane material as if it were a precious jewel. And look! In this light, it is. It takes on preciousness, it commands attention, and it begins to tell its story. I have chosen these materials because they are the only materials that tell this story. I have found no other materials that convey the unique, unexpected luminosity of these bouncy balls, no other material that can convey in the same way the particular glowing green of Fleming Park after the rain, or the yellowy drought on the lawn of Our Lady Help of Christians School. 

There is magic in finding a preciousness that didn’t seem to be there before. I am taking a material whose defining feature is motion, and even though it lacks physical motion in this context, once it is recognised as a bouncy ball, it encapsulates movement along the commute. In the beginning, before it is a precious jewel, the bouncy ball is a childhood toy. When it reveals its secret identity, it reveals the childlike joy of discovering unexpected beauty. I am cultivating mystery and delight.


As an examination of landscapes these works are informed by the landscape paintings of J M W Turner and an Impressionist concern for the transient effects of colour and light. The term “local colour” has two meanings: the first is “the distinct flavour of a place,” that is, the uniqueness of a particular place that is not found elsewhere.  In Impressionism, the term “local colour” refers to the apparent colour of an object as tinted by light or shadow, as opposed to the actual colour of the object. The Impressionists’ goal was to capture these individual colour changes, with an emphasis on the accurate depiction of light and its changes over time. Claude Monet’s series paintings such as the Rouen Cathedral series exemplify this attempt to record changes of colour and light. This series consists of 31 paintings of the Rouen Cathedral in different seasons, times of day and weather conditions, documenting the dynamic transformations of light through the passage of time.  In my works such as Foggy Day in Parkville, Our Lady Help of Christians, and St Philip and John, I am also looking at changes of light and colour over the passage of time, observing changes of time of day or season.

The late landscape paintings of JMW Turner (such as Rain, Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway (1844) and The Blue Rigi: Lake of Lucerne, Sunrise (1842)) show the artist’s attention focused especially on qualities of colour and light, to the extent that the edges of forms and figures in his landscapes are left undefined in favour of creating an overall impression of the magnificence of the changing effects of light. The Abstract Expressionist Robert Motherwell says of Turner, “The game is not what things look like. The game is organising, as accurately and with as deep discrimination as one can, states of feeling, and states of feeling, when generalised, become questions of light, colour, weight, solidity, airiness, lyricism, whatever.”[6]

The Impressionist landscape painter Albert Sisley has said, “The sky cannot be merely a background.”[7] The Impressionists looked closely at scenes and subjects that were thought to be of little importance. The landscapes I am looking at are usually relegated to the status of “merely a background”: they are just places we pass through, not places we stop and look at. By transforming landscapes into jewellery to be worn on the landscape of the body, background is transformed into foreground; the sky becomes subject matter. In the context of the jewellery piece, these landscapes refuse to be ignored.

To quote art critic Jules Laforgue, “An Impressionist work cannot…be an accurate transcription, but rather, ‘the record of the response of a certain unique sensibility to a moment in time which can never be exactly reproduced.’” [8] In creating a visual record of these specific times and places, I am building an individualised response to a moment in time that can never be exactly reproduced. Even if the physical properties of the place itself do not change, the light of a certain time of day, the season, the weather – all of these factors are in constant motion and the place as I have seen it on a particular day exists only in this object.

Once the light has changed, only the memory of this place at this moment can remain. But it is precisely that memory that reveals something new. A moment in the past combines with the present, upon passing through this place again, and together these layers of experience and memory become a unique concept of place.  Memory researcher David Lowenthal writes, “Memory diminishes original experiences only when we expect them to be duplicated. Its transformations can enhance them.”[9] My aim is not to create a duplicate, a photographic representation of the vacant lot, the apartment block under construction, but a “record of the response” to the encounter with this place, an object which reveals their picturesque peculiarities when seen in the right light.


As I continue to navigate this landscape, the landscape is in a state of constant flux. In fact, many of these places no longer exist in the same form at all. During the time these works were made over the past two years, the decade-long drought broke, and oddly, as soon as the rain started, everywhere you looked apartment buildings began to grow. The grounds of Our Lady Help of Christians turned out to be a vacant lot, and is now an apartment complex with new streets running through it: Mary Moodie Way and Bill Barry Close, which at this time is a street sign without a street. The small grassy median on Glew Street that someone had turned into a garden with a hand painted wooden sign reading “Flowers to Share” was demolished when the No Right Turn restriction was eliminated. Fleming Park is still intact, but its sunsets are now blocked by a 7-story concrete apartment block, whose tall walls and tiny windows show up in Fleming Park (spring, sunset).

And then one day I caught a glimpse of that eyesore of an apartment block from the other side, at a particular time of day when the weather was just right, and the grey of the wet concrete walls had become a canvas for the sunset.  So it has become something else in my landscape, as the details of the changing light transform the scene. And in the end we find that after all, “in the right light, at the right time, everything is extraordinary.”[10]

[1] Dewald, Gaby. “Intimate Place(s) – Private Sphere as a Point of Departure”, in Gaspar, Monica and Jonsson, Love (Ed.), Think Tank Edition03, 2006: Place(s), Gmuden, 2006. p. 21.
[2] Den Besten, Liesbeth. “Making Places”, in Gaspar, Monica and Jonsson, Love (Ed.), Think Tank Edition03, 2006: Place(s), Gmuden, 2006. p. 14.  
[3] Den Besten, Liesbeth. “Making Places”, in Gaspar, Monica and Jonsson, Love (Ed.), Think Tank Edition03, 2006: Place(s), Gmuden, 2006. p. 16.
[4] Dewald, Gaby. “Intimate Place(s) – Private Sphere as a Point of Departure”, in Gaspar, Monica and Jonsson, Love (Ed.), Think Tank Edition03, 2006: Place(s), Gmuden, 2006. p. 21.
[5] McDonough, William, and Braungart, Michael. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, North Point Press, New York, 2002.
[6] Venning, Barry. Turner. Phaidon, London, 2003.
[7] Gage, John. Colour in Turner: Poetry and Truth, Littlehampton Book Services, London, 1969.
[8] Gage, John. Colour in Turner: Poetry and Truth, Littlehampton Book Services, London, 1969.  
[9] Lowenthal, David. The Past is a Foreign Country, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1985. p. 210.
[10] Aaron Rose, artist and filmmaker


  1. Congratulations on your exhibition Mel, and thank you so much for posting the artist talk. Really enjoyed reading it. Cheers, Inari

  2. Thanks, Inari. Glad you enjoyed it!