Let Loose after Lockdowns and Rekindling Love with the Creative Arts in Marvellous Melbourne

Shakesbear and his Complete Works by artist Cat Rabbit

I could count on my one hand the creative events and exhibitions I’ve been to in the last two years and I know I’m not alone. 

There was attendance at talks, videos and workshops online, but that’s not the same as the sensations experienced walking around, sometimes touching, smelling, hearing and seeing and most importantly feeling the buzz from emotional connections.

Attending events and exhibitions in person triggers memories and ideas and occasionally controversies. If you have someone to share the experience: to reminisce, laugh, cry, debate merits, discuss the impact and celebrate the success, it is a bonus.

Until last Thursday, the “live” events I’ve managed to experience have been with family – and all this year (the least said about 2020 the better!):

  • a Hannah Gadsby Concert at Sydney Myer Music Bowl with daughter Anne enabling great exercise of laughter muscles (February)
  • a fascinating Open House Melbourne discussion on The Great Birrarung Parkland by boat with Indigenous guides sharing their knowledge (March)
  • a tour of the National Trust’s Labassa and the history of the garden with Anne where we managed to dodge showers (May)
  • a wonderful weekend away with my two sisters, to see the Mary Quant Exhibition at Bendigo Art Gallery which happened between lockdowns so didn’t have to be rescheduled (June)
  • a visit to Como for the display of Miniatures and Doll Houses with both Mary Jane and Anne that had been rescheduled (November)

Cat Rabbit: The Soft Library

My good friend Lisa Hill is a prolific book reviewer and alert to events in libraries, writing festivals, bookshops – in fact all things bookish. A few weeks ago she asked if I would like to go with her to The Soft Library , an exhibition by artist Cat Rabbit at the Bayside Gallery, Brighton Town Hall and we booked a date for early December.

Entrance to exhibition

Cat Rabbit is a textile-based artist living in Naarm/Melbourne. Using felt, recycled and vintage fabrics, Cat hand stitches plush sculptural works of her imagined characters and the worlds they might live in. Her work translates to many formats – from children’s books to large-scale felt installations – always with aim of bringing softness and warmth to the viewer.”

Storytime

How could anyone resist an invitation to an exhibition promising softness and warmth – not only after surviving what we hope is the worst of a global pandemic but anytime!

Lisa is a friend who always goes above and beyond – not only did she offer to drive me but also negotiated with the curators to allow us to visit the exhibition before official opening time so we wouldn’t clash with any school or kinder visit because she worried about my severely compromised immune system when most children are still unvaccinated. The Omicron variant in the headlines revealing the Covid pandemic is stubbornly persistent. Athough no lockdowns and eased restrictions, the adage better to be safe than sorry always applies!

The soft library is an extraordinary new project by Melbourne-based textile artist Cat Rabbit. The artist has transformed the Bayside Gallery into a fantastical library run by bears, or ‘libearians’, many of who are famous literary characters. Lovingly made by the artist in felt and fabric, the library houses books and animations and a special giant ‘storytime’ bear who invites visitors to sit and enjoy an audio story. This whimsical and delightful exhibition celebrates the freedom found in play and pays tribute to the library as a place of learning and wonder – a home for the endless possibilities of the imagination.”

Advertising blurb

Many of these Story Box Library titles feature in the Cat Rabbit Exhibition.

An ideal place for an art exhibition on the theme of books

Brighton Town Hall is an imposing building with a history dating back to 1885  when the memorial stone was laid by The Hon Thomas Bent MLA, for the District of Brighton and Mayor of the Borough. (Whenever politician Thomas Bent is mentioned someone always adds ‘Bent by name and bent by nature’ and Lisa beat me to that observation! Mr Bent gained quite a reputation when he ‘served’ the people of Victoria and made himself wealthy.)

Above the memorial stone is a plaque dated 1978 when the restored town hall incorporating the central library was opened. Above that yet another plaque dated 1998, when the building became The Bayside Arts and Cultural Centre – Brighton Town Hall.

The design of the exhibition simulates an art gallery display – there are ‘paintings’ on the wall (all made of felt), there is the obligatory marble-look sculpture of a figurehead (made of felt), and the larger than life Libearian and the professional paraphernalia (cards, date stamp, pad etc) laid out on the desk are all felt. A story-teller sits with stories quietly playing on a loop and a circle of soft cushions await eager listeners.

Lisa and I spent a pleasant hour appreciating the imagination, talent and sense of humour of the artist. It is a display ready-made for children’s activities but paved with richness of detail to delight adults. We recognised authors, exclaiming over the craftsmanship and attention to detail and I thought of the various discussions initiated with the children lucky enough to attend.

There are shelves ‘laden’ with felt tomes – the titles wittily clever. Children are given an activity sheet The Great Detective designed to engage them with the exhibits but also to encourage close observation and attention to detail. They are asked: If you could write a bear themed book, what would it be about? What would the title be? (More than children can have fun with this activity and I mentioned to our hosts there could be fun with homophones as well as homonyms!)

I eventually solved a mystery that had been bugging me – I was sure I had heard of Cat Rabbit, even met her somewhere. When I saw the book Too Much For Turtle on the storytime stand I remembered Cat and the illustrator Isobel Knowles had been a guest author and illustrator for The Mordialloc Writers’ Group several years ago when I was coordinator.

Local primary children have participated in workshops with the artist and there is a trolley and shelf with felt books made by Hampton Primary.

There are also gorgeous individual postcards with a QRcode that will take you to digital details of authors and books and the creativity  of the artist. QRcodes throughout the exhibition allow further exploration of authors and books. Technology enhances exhibitions by adding or extending interactive elements.

Brighton Libearian Karyn Siegmann pens a lovely intro to The Soft Library confessing her love of books:

“And where is the one place you could get all the books you wanted to read, and for free? The local library of course. That magical place full of stories and ideas and places to curl up and imagine and think…

Libraries have seen so many changes over the years, but they will always be a place of comfort containing infinite stories, both real and imagined. Libraries house characters you can revisit again and again and stories you can learn different things from no matter how many times you read them. It’s a shared place, but at the same time it’s all yours!”

Most of the authors in the exhibition I’d read or heard of but some of the newer children’s authors I didn’t know. However, the exhibits triggered memories of a time in my life I loved when I regularly dabbled in felt craft. From firsthand experience, I appreciate Cat Rabbit’s amazing talent and the effort and hard work to produce such a showcase. I believe craft as an activity and as works of art gained popularity during lockdowns and I expect to see more exhibitions and also more work at open air markets.

My daughters attended a Steiner stream at primary school and craft and creativity interwoven with all subjects. We made tiny gnomes to help gather gum nuts for maths, wove recorder bags to house music sheets and made various animals for the story cloth when the children sat in a circle to read or listen to stories. Along with other Steiner mums I spent months knitting and sewing to prepare a stall at the annual school fair. 

I still do some craft for particular projects and each Christmas I place a Nativity at the foot of the tree – my tableau made in felt over 20 years ago needs a make-over but will outlast me!

Christmas Nativity

The Soft Library will be open until mid-January.

The festive season has a way of becoming too busy and after a lull of activities for two years Melbourne has a lot on offer, but I hope people make the time to visit the Bayside Gallery which has other exhibitions running as well – you won’t be disappointed.

And if the warm and thoughtful treatment Lisa and I received from the staff is replicated you’ll join their mailing list too!

12 thoughts on “Let Loose after Lockdowns and Rekindling Love with the Creative Arts in Marvellous Melbourne

  1. Mairi, you have done our little excursion proud, it was such a wonderful day. It is so nice to see these photos with your text as a permanent reminder.
    (Your little tally of outings prior to this exceeds mine for 2021 by a country mile. I’ve just looked through my calendar for the year and I’ve been to the pictures twice, and apart from our twice-cancelled two days in Beechworth, that’s it.)
    I will send the link to Susanne at the gallery, I’m sure she will be delighted too.
    Is it ok if I reblog the post on mine?

    Liked by 1 person

        1. True. But you can at least put up a screen reminder about masks being mandatory and you can supervise the staff so that they don’t lie and tell you that they don’t have to wear a mask.

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        2. The best place I’ve been to recently is Gardenworld. A staff member checking you have QR’d and your vaccination status and every few minutes a polite reminder over the intercom about wearing masks, social distancing and hand sanitising plus respect for staff. It is not hard but we live in the age of entitlement and Thatcher’s call that there is no such thing as society has grown exponentially powered by populism. Anti-intellectualism rampant as well as anti-science – who reads the great philosophers anymore when some twat on YouTube or celebrity/influencer on other social media can convince you with a 5 minute self-serving rant they know best. Self-obsession sells products hence some very rich people in the wellness industry and peddling ignorance and personal over community also makes for wealth for the chosen few a la Clive Palmer and Pentecostal Prosperity pushers. 😪

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    1. Thank you for reading. I hope heavy restrictions are not back for you.🤞 We’re going into summer which helps and at least booster shots are now happening when first lot of vaccines were slow to appear. Fingerscrossed we’ll be able to manage this virus like the flu but also people continue to practise good social behaviour and think of others. One of the wake up calls here has been to unlearn “soldier on” which was an effective ad campaign for cough medicine etc encouraging people to continue on to work and school regardless. The exact opposite of our childhood teaching stay at home because “coughs and sneezes spread diseases”! There has been a resistance to mask wearing too especially on public transport which you’d think is a no brainer. 😏No matter the future, life is certainly going to need adjustments. Please take care and stay well.🌻

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  2. Perth is mostly ‘open’. An an interstater I was mostly in isolation until July, but I haven’t been to anything since, nor has anything caught my eye. My grandkids go to a Steiner school, still lots of knitting!

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    1. Thank you for reading Bill – I should have referenced your site again as another book excellent book reviewer with interspersed travelogues! 👏 Hope Perth misses any strict or lengthy lockdowns! I have a friend who works at the uni there who is originally from Melbourne and she often commented how lucky she felt to have minimum disruptions. Don’t volunteer to help with the knitting at your grandkids’ school 🙂 I remember many afternoons in the knitting circle with constant pleas for help:’oops I’ve only got x stitches now’ or ‘I’ve got more stitches than than I should have’ … dyeing the wool and putting it into balls even produced some challenges😂 However, to see the pride in finished products always heart-warming.

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