Big cat in the city

By Vita Forest

A giant cat lounging on the grass beneath the jacaranda trees, the train clattering over the elevated tracks behind it.

I’ve been pacing up and down, forward and back, looking at the tiger from every angle, judging the view and judging the heat of the sun, the amount of shade, the location of seats and weighing up whether I will be able to sit there and draw comfortably.  But I want to focus on the tiger’s head, I want to look right into its eyes, so I choose this place, beneath this tree in front of the MCA on the lawn.  The ground is slightly damp, so I look in my backpack and find a scarf.  I drizzle it into a puddle of fabric and it falls from my hand in layers and layers, a spiral on the damp grass.  I sit cross-legged on my fabric seat in the shade of the tree and look across at the tiger.

I remember Quentin’s sketch of this same cat, his use of watercolour, how he caught the vibrant golden yellow.  But I have not brought my paints today.  I will have to catch it another way.  I rummage through my pencil case and find my graphite pencil, 6B – capable of the darkest blacks at the press of my fingers.  I decide to use that.

I map out the figure on my page, lightly drawing in the bulk of the body, the angle of the head.  The tiger’s toes are often obscured by children bouncing on its limbs (before its keeper in an official high-vis vest tells them off) and adults stepping boldly between the tiger’s paws to smile at a camera, to catch the encounter forever, though they have hardly stopped to look, hardly paused to stare up into the eyes of the tiger.

I stroke its face with my pencil and it seems to like that, it rocks back and forth as if dancing, as if moving in time to the clashing cymbals accompanying the lion dancing somewhere out of sight in The Rocks.  Its eyes emerge on my paper, its stripes, the shadows that I notice when the sun bursts through the clouds in a brilliant dazzle.  Is it watching me from those deep streaked eyes, or is it looking over my head to the ferries, or across the bay to the pink gridded pig snuffling beneath the sails of the Opera House?

Does it welcome the rain that splatters my paper, that sends us all running and huddling for a few brief minutes beneath the deep overhand at the entrance to the MCA, that leaves watercolour fireworks, a happy accident amongst Lara’s bright sketch of fighting cockerels?  Perhaps it is a longed-for respite, those fat drops that pit its tight yellow skin, that staccato drumming across its shoulders.

The rain stops as quickly as it starts and I return to stand beneath the shade beneath the tree, the ground too wet to sit on now.  I cradle my sketchbook in my arm and continue to breathe life into the outline on my page.  It’s strange what your mind notices in these moments – the colours of the tiger’s stripes are also found in the carriages and doors of the trains that streak beneath the Cahill Expressway and onto Circular Quay.

And after I have met up with the other sketchers, after we have admired each other’s work and told our stories and taken our photos and said our farewells, after I have caught the train home and made a cup of tea and lain down to rest on the couch, one of my own cats, my Isaboe, casually walks along the length of my body before settling, purring, like a sphinx on my chest, weight on her forelegs, in a pose that mirrors that of the big cat in the city.

See the train in the background?

 

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Fox prints

By Vita Forest

Have you read Margaret Wild’s Fox?  It is a searing tale of friendship, jealousy, temptation, grief and loss.  Did I mention it’s a children’s picture book?

My class has been examining it closely.  Noticing the similes, the use of present tense, the metaphors, the personification, the colours used by the illustrator Ron Brooks, the layout of the pages and the unusual scratchy lettering.

This week,  after a boring old handwriting lesson (“check your pencil grip, stay on the lines, sit up straight, trace slowly and carefully, form your letters in just the right way”) we changed gear to explore how Ron Brooks’ lettering contributed to the story.

He experimented and took some time to get it just right.  Brooks ended up writing the text by hand and using his left hand (he is right handed), hacking out the words, tracing some of the letters over and over, writing them down and then up the sides of pages, on diagonals, in capitals (screaming).  In short, breaking all the handwriting rules.

We looked at the book again and focused on the writing, looking not at what it said but how it said it.  The kids had a play on little whiteboards, swapping their usual writing hands, using capitals where they should have used lowercase, reversing their letters, looking away when they wrote, turning their boards upside down, writing over and over in the same space.  Then they chose a piece of coloured paper, a handful of oil pastels and went away to make their marks as one of the three characters – half-blind, trusting Dog, griefing, wary Magpie or sly, jealous, lonely Fox.  The stipulation – they could only write the name of their character, nothing more, nothing less.

Miss Sadie, rather cheeky and daring, stared me in the face and screwed up her paper into a ball.  I stared back at her and said, “Yes!  If you are Fox, that might be just what you would do.”  (They have witnessed one of their classmates do this same action on a rather regular basis when he is distressed and in the midst of a meltdown).  Suddenly, there was scrunching, there was ripping, there was smudging, there was scraping.  Some of them wrote their character’s name just once, others repeated the lines over and over and over again.

Another happy accident occurred when I handed out some black mounting paper that I had cut in half to what I thought was a good size to frame their work.  It turned out it was too small.  “Stick it on an angle,” I advised.  And the artworks looked better than they would have with a neat black border.

The next day, we sat in a circle and held up the artworks for others to see.  The students went around the circle and explained what they did, how they did it and why.  Amongst the “I did it coz that’s what I felt like” there were some gems.  Kelly left space around Magpie’s name because she was left all alone.   Sharni wrote Dog’s name without looking at the paper because Dog was blind and Lana ripped away a piece of Fox’s signature because his heart was broken in two.

Don’t tell me kids can’t understand difficult stories…

Fire stick

By Vita Forest

We had met at the cafe near the station and looked at sketches  from previous occasions – Neil’s idyllic rainforest scene, drawn and coloured on an iPad, Tomas’ panorama of Cockatoo Island in scratchy blank ink  and Fiorella’s book of treasures – page after page of details  – a chair, a gnarled stump, a delicate tree fern.

We had drunk our coffees and teas and set off to find our own sweet subjects – what would catch our eyes today?  I love meeting up again in a few hours time and seeing howal though we all start at the same spot, our eyes take us in all sorts of different directions.

I started with a tree, an old twisted dead thing whose bark twisted over the trunk.  Whose trunk was scarred with the stumpy remains of branches from long ago and pocked and grooved with deep fissures.  I like a tree with character.  I also  liked that I could fit the whole tree on my page, composition being something I’m trying to improve on.  So I got out my trusty graphite lead and shaved it to a point with my knife and sat cross-legged on the grass and drew that tree in the shade of another tree, a living tree whose leaves shaded me from the hot sun.  Ants crawled along my knee and a breeze swept through carrying with it the smell of smoke.

Sydney is burning.  Parts of it.  The autumn so far has been summer hot and the bush fire season has extended.  We have hardly had any rain and there’s lots of dry branches and leaves turning into brittle fuel on the ground.

When I finished my drawing of the tree, I walked further into the park and along a path that edged a gully.  Down one side of the gully they had done some back-burning.  Possibly yesterday.  The smell of smoke hung in the air and here and there little scribbles of grey smoke rose from still smouldering coals.  The other side of the gully was still a lush green but this side looked scorched and barren.

I put my bag down on the path (away from the blackened leaves beside it) and began to draw this surreal scene.  There would not be too many opportunities to draw the effects of fire.

I hope.

I noticed that the fire must have scorched over the earth and then been extinguished almost immediately.  There were trees with one side of their trunks burned, the other side spared.  There were piles of charcoaled grass but here and there a stem of fern still stood (though it was blacked and shriveled as if drawn in ink).  I stood and drew the stand of rocks beneath the trees, the charred remains of strappy grass and the flaky ash that had crumbled over the soil.  Pedestrians marched past, some turning to look down the slope, a few stopping to snap a couple of photos.

I stood on the side of the path and remembered my dreams of fires and my concern one time that saw me taking my keys and walking outside at midnight – just to make sure I couldn’t really smell the building burning.  And later I sat on a seat with Fiorella, swapping stories and showing each other the contents of our pencil cases and talking about the plants that need fire to germinate.

And I remembered peering down that charred slope and seeing a kookaburra dive into the ashy dirt and snatch up a lizard as a cloud of smoke slowly rose around it.

There is life there yet.

Homework sentences

By Vita Forest

Actually not by Vita Forest – these are a selection of homework sentences from my class this week…  (the main focus were words that change their form completely when a plural is made).

Men are different to women because they get head lice more often and have bigger feet.”

“Twins are very similar to each other.”

“One man wearing a bright orange shirt stood out in a group of men wearing black uniforms.”

“A teaspoon and a tablespoon have a similar shape.”

“The climate in Sydney is really hot and there is a bit of lighting (sic).”

“I watched some similar YouTube clips they were all about this dude that jumped off London Bridge.”

“Most people in my class don’t have lice.”

Thank goodness for that…

Everyday more geckos

By Vita Forest

For the last two weeks

A strange phenomena

A gang of geckos in my classroom.

They march up the walls

Keeping watch over the rubbish bin.

They peer at the whiteboard

Their sticky toes hugging the frame.

Some particularly curious ones watch me work at my computer

They must tell their friends –

Everyday more geckos.

And on the back wall by a Boy table and under the Indigenous language map

An army has appeared

Everyday more geckos

One clings to the clock and listens to its tock

They crawl up the windows

Every size, every colour, every pattern

When will it end?

Everyday more geckos.

Mobile Tales 8: in which Christabel becomes aware of an unusual weather system

By Vita Forest

One fine, balmy morning (was there really any other kind?) Christabel La Mouse peered out from The Good Ship Possession, through the far distant headlands of The Doorway and into The Kitchen.  There was strange metallic box therein to which she was often alerted by the rumbling and humming it made.  She believed it was called The Refrigerator.

The Refrigerator was a cheerful thing that kept up a steady stream of conversation.  Unfortunately, the language was quite unknown to Christabel, so she had to make do with sending a cheery wave its way and the occasional call of “Yoo Hoo!”  It was unclear whether The Refrigerator was aware of such communications, but it seemed happy enough as it gurgled and hummed and droned and whirred.

And happy it should be, for it seemed to be the home of much of the food in The Kitchen, and in particular, The Cheese.  Many was the time that Christabel would be distracted from her lookout post by the flash of light that signalled the opening of The Refrigerator and the accompanying waft of cheddar or parmesan.

But on this particular fine and balmy morning, Christabel was aware of a cloud of white that was buzzing over the pewter grey surface of The Refrigerator.  It shimmered as if alive.  Whatever could it be?


Her curiosity was piqued, necessitating this myopic mouse to withdraw her spyglass from its case and place it up to her right eye.  She twisted its segmented body this way and that, until the shimmering cloud sharpened into focus and to her astonishment turned into a cloud of words!  A cloud of words!  Whoever had heard of such a thing!  (It was true that her own vessel was formed from the pages of a novel but a cloud of words?  Was there really weather systems created by language?  Storms of similes?  Gentle patterings of adjectives?  A sudden flash of metaphor??)

As she watched, one of The Humans stood in front of The Refrigerator and peeled small rectangles from inside the cloud and arranged them in lines floating above it.

Was it a message?  She waited patiently until a number of words were thus arranged (and also for the large head to move out of the way so she could see).

What did it say?  Christabel swung the spyglass from right to left and read:

shadow ship soar over a smooth lazy lake

How lovely!  Then

watch above though

stop the spray heave & rip & blow

Wise advice indeed.  Then

live sweet summer honey music

It only needed an exclamation mark…

And there it ended.


Christabel felt like clapping, The Refrigerator gurgled and from the depths of The Kitchen, the kettle boiled.

How wonderful it was to discover new delights to monitor from her ship on the ceiling!   The world was certainly full of wonder.