Textile artist and local resident Clare Plug spent two weeks in Antarctica in 2006 as part of an artists in residence program co-sponsored by Antarctic New Zealand and Creative New Zealand. The results of her experience comprise Look South, an exhibition of contemporary art quilts, now on view at the Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery.
From Scott Base in the Ross Sea region, Plug explored numerous sites and features on the continent. She accompanied scientists sampling ice cores at McMurdo Sound. She visited the rough hewn huts that sheltered Antarctica’s early explorers. And she was awestruck by the Dry Valleys, a unique region free of ice and human intervention. These and other encounters provided grist for Look South.
“Antarctica” says Clare, was an overwhelming experience. “It was hard to limit myself to what lay beneath my feet. There was just so much to work with and so many ideas buzzing around in my head. I knew I needed to work on several fronts.”
Look South is a distillation of broad themes: the challenges and heroism of Antarctica’s early 20th century explorers and the ideals that empowered them; the continent’s global significance as a scientific research and environmental “early warning” station; and, inevitably, the power and vulnerability of the implacable landscape.
This is not your grandmother’s quilt show. Look South is a striking and powerfully affective installation. Dark hued textile compositions stand out against pale walls. Translucent white banners hang motionless from the ceiling, zigzagging through the Gallery’s open space. Sounds of polar wind, bird calls, and footsteps on ice play from a quiet soundtrack.
The quilts were completed during the 30 months since Plug returned from Antarctica. Honing her fellowship experiences into a coherent creative vision and finding the means to express it was a gradual and, at times, uncertain process. The crucial starting point came from a single, encompassing inspiration:
Clare was captivated by the historic huts—now preserved as a museum. There she found photos, artifacts and, most importantly, flags and banners from Robert Scott’s ill-fated mission. Symbols of heritage, triumph and commemoration, these served also as navigational tools and signals of warning, danger and distress. In the tattered textiles, Plug gleaned a visual and thematic reference point from which to develop the works for Look South.
Flags and banners figure prominently in the exhibition. Simultaneously dignified and ethereal, the gauzy Hanging Banners bring to the exhibition a spirit of celebration and triumph while invoking ideas of heritage and national identity. Plug’s use of the flag motif, on the other hand, signifies something more ominous. Flags—as crucial to human activity on the continent now as they were in Scott’s day—appear full size but frayed and unredeemable in large, oblong quilts entitled Ice Crack 2 and Warning. In Polar Dreams 2 the faded remnants of actual Antarctic marker flags are superimposed over mattress ticking like that used on beds in the old huts. It is an interesting juxtaposition: one fabric an icon of domestic practicality and the homey facts of sleep, or, in this case, probably exhaustion. The other, a frayed remainder of the explorer’s confrontation with an unrelenting frontier.
While in Antarctica, Clare had neither dye facilities, nor materials or time to produce substantial work. Instead, she experimented with various small textile samples & badges. Once back home, having established the symbolic banner—and the notion of signifiers—as a conceptual starting point, Claire revisited the possibility of the badges. She developed a series of simple icons…crosses, triangles, circles, squares, and rectangles… to create a consistent, symbolic narrative that runs throughout the works. Their graphic simplicity belies multi-layered meanings.
Shrouded, for example, is a spare, white muslin quilt bearing an equally spare white Greek cross at its center. Less obvious are the four stitch lines running diagonally from corner to corner creating large triangles: signifiers of mountains and cairns. With a pure and understated simplicity, this quilt offers a quiet homage to the terrible Erebus crash.
Among the extraordinary landscapes Clare encountered, the Dry Valleys were particularly dramatic. In a related series of rectangular quilts, she uses circles and squares to notify us of the immeasurable importance of one of the world’s most profound and undisturbed terrains. The circle’s regularity is inevitably man made, like sampling cores or the round view through a microscope. Its presence in this work declares the vital importance of scientific research to document and forewarn us of the fragility of natural systems. Squares—also not of nature—denote the accessories of human exploration: huts, sledges, storage boxes, and flags.
Plug’s mastery of abstraction, used to profound effect throughout Look South, is the outcome of a longstanding interest in the power of design. Since her early days of patch working, she was drawn to the implicit abstraction inherent in of many of the traditional designs of her craft, especially the pinwheel motif typical in American quilting. “They were very evocative and stylized, and I thought that was very powerful because you could convey an idea with such a simplified pattern.”
In conversation at Thorps Coffee House a few days after the Look South opening, Plug reveals that her Antarctic experience actually predates the 2006 fellowship. She had applied to Antarctica New Zealand’s Artists in Antarctica program in 2004 but her proposal was not accepted. “If I hadn’t made it in 2006, I wouldn’t have seen it as a failure. I learned so much about grant writing and about Antarctica in the process of preparing the proposal; there was so much in my head. Even if I couldn’t go I was going to stage an exhibition ‘Antarctica in my Mind.’”
Of course this is tongue in cheek. But it hints at the unstated passion, resourcefulness, and determination that has taken Claire Plug from casual “hobby sewing” in early adulthood to being one of New Zealand’s most recognized textile artists.
It was a slow evolution, encouraged, says Plug, more by happenstance and unexpected opportunity than by deliberate design. Plug didn’t see her first quilt until after graduating from university with an honors degree in zoology. An OE took her to the United States and the county fairs with their ubiquitous home baked pies and colorful quilts. Subsequent travel to England landed her a housekeeping job at a rural homestead and plenty of time for hand work: “Traditional stuff. Placemats for my mum.” With the help of books, magazines and the occasional workshop, Clare set about improving her skills. “Every year I would set a new challenge for myself. One year it was to use no straight lines. Another year it was to use no patchwork….”
Facing possible redundancy from her government job in the mid 1980’s, Clare stumbled into an opportunity to enroll in a “redundancy training” program in Craft and Design at EIT. This was her first formal art training. Fiber arts was not part of the curriculum. But her exposure to printmaking, painting, woodwork, slab clay and other mediums encouraged new understanding and innovation in her textile work.
Clare committed herself to quilting full time after the EIT training. “Back then, I was excited and naive. I had no idea what the journey I was commencing would hold, or how slow my progress would actually be!” Plug soon found herself out of synch with New Zealand’s more traditional quilt making community. All but her most conservative work was being rejected from local and national exhibitions.
“But those rejections made me open to other opportunities.” A friend told her about an exhibition of modern quilts at the Manley Art Gallery in Sydney. Clare’s innovative submission was not only accepted, it sold on the opening night. That experience opened her eyes to the opportunities available overseas. At the annual Ohio Quilt Surface Design Symposium, which Plug attended seven times, she explored textile art with Nancy Crowe, Ned Wert, and other leading innovators and educators who were radically redefining the medium.
Now that the Artists in Antarctica fellowship is completed, Clare’s first task is to “reboot and get a job.” But her work has taken an important leap forward. “It’s now more substantial, more multi-layered.” Antarctica will remain a significant source of inspiration for some time to come.
At the Museum, walking though her exhibition, Plug explains that various aspects of her quilt making process are invariably unpredictable, leading to unexpected results…sometimes fatal, but, more often than not, highly effective. “Happy accidents, some people call them. But I had a teacher who told me ‘no, it’s a gift,’ so when something like this happens,” referring to striking, accidental drops of white shining like light or snow against a night black background, “I always think ‘gift’.”
“I know it’s not very business like,” Plug says, “but I’m not one of those people with a master plan. The world changes so fast, how can you possibly know what’s possible?” Yet somehow Clare Plug has managed to arrive at the right place at the right time and, in so doing, continues to push the craft of quilting decisively into the realm of modern art.