When you talk to people about this thing that they do, whether it’s baking bread, or you know, like whatever it is, they say the most incredible… Like, they have these incredible, rich interior worlds around that apparently simple thing of like baking bread, and they say the most gorgeous poetic stuff that you would just never have thought of in regards to baking bread. These worlds inside people. And I guess the intensity of feeling and thought around people’s vocation – that, I really enjoyed.Anna Gleeson, on conducting interviews for Ha Wan Pao
Over the years, I’ve found that Anna’s a very interesting person and am excited to share our chat-like interviews in two parts with you. This one starts from the beginning, through the various pitstops and projects that has led up to now.
Also check out our other chat: Crappy Imperfect: In conversation with Anna Gleeson.
- Australia hometown: a traffic light
- Dresden: nerd no longer
- East Berlin: bleak yet beautiful
- New York City: darkroom – pinhole – paper-pulp
- Japan was its own project
- ART. AUDIENCE. EXHIBITIONS
- Ha Wan Pao, the birth of a community project
Karen Tsui, Where My Heart Leads
Tell us more about you. Who you are, what brought you to where you are now.
So I’m Anna Gleeson. I’m an artist. So what brought me to where I am now is, you want the long version?
1. Australia hometown: a traffic light
Sure. So for a start, I grew up in a small coal mining town where there wasn’t really a big visual art scene, or possibly even a visual arts scene at all. But from early on, I really liked looking at the world, I was really intense about staring out the window during maths class and looking out the window during long car trips. And so my kind of my interesting visual stuff came really early just from sheer enjoyment of looking.
And then I had an art teacher that I really liked in high school, her name was Emma. She was really encouraging. And then I guess I never really thought about being an artist at that age, because it was just so foreign to the world I grew up in – a tiny town.
I remember when we got our first our first traffic lights. (Whoa.)
We used to ask my mom to drive that way through the traffic lights, in case they would turn red. And we would get to stop at them. And that would be so exciting.
We didn’t have a cinema. We didn’t have bookshops. You know, it was just like, but what one thing that we do have was we had this TV station called SBS, which still exists in Australia. And they used to show a lot of really interesting cinema on TV.
So one of the first things I wanted to be when I grew up was a filmmaker because that was one of the only sources of interesting visual culture that was around was watching movies on SBS.
Yeah, so I was like, I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker when it came time to actually go study. There’s a really good film school in Sydney, but they don’t take people straight out of high school. They take people who are already in the film industry.
So I ended up doing this kind of compromise, which is I went to art school in the film department. In the film department it was called Electronic and Temporal Arts. And we did video, video installation, and film. That kind of thing.
And I’ve worked out very quickly that it was not for me, like filmmaking is a real team enterprise and I’m just kind of not a team player.
So I kind of drifted towards the photography studio, which was downstairs from the lab.
I guess before that I also I did in high school an exchange year in Dresden where I went to a high school that was really focused on art and music.
2. Dresden: nerd no longer
What is the style like in Dresden in contrast to where you were growing up?
Yeah, it was just a different world altogether. For me, it felt like I came from this really tiny town where there was nothing going on to Dresden, which is really quite a cultural place.
In my high school in Australia, I was this nerd that like to still talk about art history during recess, and people used to laugh at me for that. And then when I got to Dresden, I was like, not intense enough for how intense they were about…
Yeah, so it was just like, Whoa, was a whole other… For example, I played the violin. And in, my high school in Australia, I tried to keep that a secret. I didn’t want anyone to know I played the violin. When I got to my high school in Dresden, people were like, “You play the violin? Cool! You should join our orchestra!”
Wow, that’s such a contrast.
I was like what!? It was so weird!
So did you join the orchestra?
I did, but I wasn’t good enough for it. Do you know what I mean? It was just like, going from being the only fish in the pond to being in a much bigger pond.
So I guess, in visual style. I can’t really say a lot to the visual style of, I just kind of wasn’t really exposed to too much visual art where I was growing up. So it was more like the contrast between nothing and something.
You studied in Sydney, but then soon after you were living in different cities.
When I graduated, I was really into photography, I moved to Berlin. And I did that just because I already spoke German, because I’d had that exchange year. So I decided to go and have what people call a gap year, I guess, in Berlin. While I was in Berlin, I was taking lots of photographs, I was kind of trimming them in my room to cut down to the piece of the image that I liked, and sticking them in a little book that I made myself, kind of doing that kind of project.
So your year in Berlin was focused on looking and taking photographs, and cataloging your version of Berlin.
Yeah, exactly. Berlin is a really interesting city. And it was at that time changing quite quickly.
3. East Berlin: bleak yet beautiful
What year was this?
It was the year of September 11. So 2001. So I was living in the former Eastern part of Berlin.
And there are these really strange landscapes kind of, you know, abandoned factories and falling down houses, that kind of stuff. They’re really quite bleak, but beautiful, open landscapes, I guess.
So I kind of felt like I was documenting the moment of Berlin the way it was at that time. And just keeping it like a little time capsule sort of thing.
I’s funny how that is seen in your more recent work like the landscapes of Australia or, the project that you did with your daughter?
What’s the project that I did with my daughter?
I mean, her photo book you actually published.
Yeah, yeah. Definitely you can, it still kind of fits.
Recently, I even had an idea of something I wanted to do with photography that I was like, “Oh, am I allowed to go do a photography project?
After all these years and I was like, “Well, yeah, why not? Still got the camera! Who’s going to tell me no, right?”
4. New York City: darkroom – pinhole – paper-pulp
But from there, I moved back to Sydney. Shortly after, I moved to New York. And in New York, I continue to be interested in books. And I did a bunch of internships.
One of them was at the Center for Book Arts. And the other one was at a place called the Dieu Donné Paper Mill. It’s like an amazing paper-making studio where they work with artists, and they make all kinds of art using paper making as their foundation.
It’s really worth looking at their website. As they have some really big names to come through there. They make really beautiful stuff.
And they have a bunch of Master papermakers that are there. The artists come in and go like, “I want to do this!” and they make it happen. I was the intern, I was just hosing stuff down and stuff. But I liked just being around it.
So what did you do at those two internships?
Just like whatever needed doing. Sweep the floor, hose down the paper making felts you know, nothing interesting.
But it really informs your work now too. Because you do the paper pulp work.
Yeah, yeah. And because I did, I had this memory of being in the studio one day when they were couching a really thick piece of paper.
All it means is you lift up this frame and it’s got paper pulp sitting on it and then you kind of couch that onto a felt. It’s like transfer.
I just remember seeing this really thick layer of wet pulp sitting on a felt and it was just like, it just looks yummy!
So yeah, and then I did come back to paper making projects, paper pulp painting, which my husband always says, “Say it Fast Five times!” Paper pulp painting! Paper pulp painting! ….
Did you make art while you were in New York?
I was doing some other stuff. In terms of those internships, It’s like I was learning how to make books at the Center for Book Arts. And at the paper making place I was supposed to have like a one day in the studio in return for my labour, but the studio was too booked and I never got it.
I had built a pinhole camera. And I was taking these really dark street photographs using my pinhole camera and I turned our tiny bathroom into a dark room; I was developing in there. (Wow.)
And what else was I doing? It’s kind of the only project I remember doing during that time, but I was there for like three years or so. So I must have been doing more than that.
How was New York then like when you were there, in contrast to say where you’re from?
It was cold, and people were tough. I was really culture shocked when I arrived there. Like the cold is dreadful.
It felt, for me at the time, it felt like a city full of the world’s best brightest overachievers, who knew exactly what they were doing with their life and I was just there like, “I have No idea what I’m doing with my life.” That’s how I felt in New York was just like, “I’m the only loser here.”
Who was in your circle? Like, who did you hang out with?
Who was in my circle? God, hardly anyone.
You in your dark room and your pinhole camera. *laugh*
I was in my darkroom with my pinhole camera. Yeah.
It was cold out. It wasn’t the best time. I mean, I think New York is a wonderful city, but it wasn’t a wonderful city for me at that time.
I did really enjoy the museums.
Was there a favourite one?
ALL OF THEM.
I used to be at the MOMA a lot. And the Met.
What did you like to see?
I don’t know, I don’t think I can remember.
And I think at that time, I still wasn’t really thinking of myself as an artist, I was trying to think of some other thing that I could do, that would be more sensible, like graphic design or something.
So I wasn’t very rigorous in the way that I looked at art or thought about art.
I would just like go wandering through a museum and probably never read a wall tag. My god, I still do that.
I kind of go galloping through and wait for something to hit me. And then something hits me. I spend a bit more time with that one work, but I don’t. Yeah, anyway. Still like that.
At what point did you realise or decide that you weren’t going to do the practical practical route of a graphic designer or whatever?
Only like 10 years ago, in Hong Kong. So it took a really long time to get there.
5. Japan was its own project
So from New York, there was a few more stops … It was New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong.
You know, living in Tokyo was kind of its own project. I needed to learn Japanese, and I guess something that’s a really big thing in Japan is the intersection of Craft, Design, Art. And so I kind of was just, interested in that whole thing in Tokyo.
I set up a language exchange with a friend so we would meet every Friday and one week we would speak Japanese, and the next week would speak English. And she used to plan the outing so she would find an exhibition or a shop that we would both be interested in and then a coffee shop nearby. So they were like these really nice little curated visits around Tokyo. And my friend Nobuko – she’s really, really cultured, really tasteful. Yeah, so that was great.
And I just really enjoy, you know, it might be somebody that makes umbrellas by hand one week, and the next week, it might be like a museum show. It was kind of all kinds of stuff.
While I was in Japan, I was doing some print-making, some kind of making books and notebooks. I was still trying to find something that might be sensible to do. And I was like, maybe I can sell notebooks on Etsy or something.
I was trying to make these blank notebooks that had hand-printed covers and sell them on Etsy.
But you know me, I’m really crap at marketing. So that didn’t work. I remember showing them to a friend of mine Emma White, who’s an Australian artist. And she said, “I just feel like, you probably could put something in the books and there would be more interesting.”
I went, “Oh…” So then after that, I did actually make a couple of edition-ed artists books with content.
Content of your art?
Yeah, one of them was a book called Goodbye Shoes, which was about a whole collection of shoes I had and then I had a problem with my foot with a swollen nerve. And I couldn’t wear most of my shoes anymore. I had to wear sensible flat shoes. So I made an image of each of the shoes that I was finding it hard to say goodbye to.
A little bit of text. It was like a little love letter to my shoes that I couldn’t wear anymore.
Which was funny, because then whenever I sold it to someone, it was always a woman that was going, “Oh, I know exactly what you mean. Me too. I can’t get in a heel anymore. It’s heartbreaking.” Somehow that really tapped a nerve of a lot of women.
Are you gonna do reprints for those?
No, I don’t think I am. It’s a long, long time ago.
You know, and I probably still have some of the editions somewhere.
They were actually Gocco-printed. You know what Gocco is?
(Nope.) It’s not in production anymore, but it’s a Japanese – It’s like silk screening for Dummies. But it’s all neat and tiny. You can do it on your kitchen table.
It’s like a little machine that you put that you can burn your own screens and it exists from – in Japan, people like to send each other New Year’s cards. And before personal computers were really a thing, people used to print their own use cards on their kitchen tables. Using these funny little machines.
So yeah, now they don’t do that. (Cool!) I still got mine!
Excellent so you can have that going!
Yeah, the supplies, they’ve become super expensive and like almost collectibles. Like, I still have some of all the supplies. Oh I did actually use them not so long ago. There was a series of spotty fruit prints that I did for Odd One Out that I did use my Gocco for that.
Oh, okay. Cool.
Then what happened was, we moved to Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, because I was lucky enough to be able to get my first studio out of the house randomly, because it had happened that our housing allowance was too big for what we needed for an apartment that we would live in.
So we bought two apartments from one landlord. Lived in one, and I used the other studio. And it was kind of because I just thought, “This is amazing! I can’t believe I’ve got a studio. This is like the dream!” And I thought I’m not going to waste this trying to do something sensible, like graphic design or like illustration or something that clearly is not working anyway, I’m just gonna do what the f**k I want in here! And so that was kind of the beginning of me, I guess identifying as an artist or, just having to admit where you can’t really call this anything except art.
So what was the first project that you put yourself / launched into?
I think I just did a lot of drawing and because I had a lot of space I remember that everything I’d ever made before then had been the size of two hands. And then all of a sudden I was getting these huge pieces of paper and sticking them into the wall and just doing massive drawings, but was all over the place like I was thrashing around just trying anything. I was doing some experimenting with dyeing textiles. I was experimenting with making garments out of knotted fabrics.
It was in that period that I made the paper earrings.
Like I was really just doing anything that seemed fun without asking myself too much where it could fit in the world/ What possible context this makes sense in. I was just like, really – at play.
6. Art, Audience, Exhibitions
So how did you move from play within your studio to showing the works to an audience?
You know, I kind of just did I think.
Like I was in there playing and, you know, a lot of what I came up with wasn’t that good. But I didn’t care too much. And at some point, I made something that I was like, “Actually I like this, and I want to show it!”
I kind of still work that way in terms of I just go into my studio, like, no one’s ever gonna see what I do in here, it doesn’t matter, I can do anything. Then if something actually ends up being like, “Oh, this, you know, this is something I want to show it,” then I try to find a place to show it.
So you’ve actually organised quite a lot of your own shows.
Oh, almost all of them. And you know, I’ve been lucky that I haven’t found that that difficult to do. I usually just ask someone I know, who has some space. But as you know, they’ve been in a lot of kind of no- art, not strictly art context, like in a clothes store, or in a coffee shop, or, you know, different places like that, although also in a gallery sometimes.
And it was during that period, when I had that studio that I came up with the idea of publishing Ha Wan Pao.
The idea came from Tokyo, actually. Because there was a neighbourhood in Tokyo, which I don’t remember the name off the top of my head.
But it’s one of the oldest parts of Tokyo that that managed to escape the great fire, the wars. It had all these little wooden houses. This neighbourhood is the place where craft has been kept alive for a really long time.
And I think probably still now you could go to that neighbourhood and find people, hand printing decorative papers, and making traditional Japanese sweets, you know, really old way and like all kinds of ceramics and all kinds of crafts exist and are alive in this neighbourhood. And there’s a real community around that.
Apparently, the community around that came about because this neighbourhood was threatened by development at some point. And a bunch of women in the neighbourhood as part of their activism against the encroaching development, decided to launch a paper. And they went and interviewed all the people in the neighbourhood about the craft they were doing about their history in that area.
Yeah. And so this publication kind of became what the community was built around. It became something that brought people together and had all the different craftsmen be in touch with each other and make connections with one another. And the developers went away at the end.
It didn’t happen while I was there. And I’m not connected to it. It was something that I read about after the fact.
(Reminds me of Tsubame-Sanjo where two Japanese localities linked up to create more community and to promote their craft)
7. Ha Wan Pao, the birth of a community project
But it was just the idea of, you know, I was still quite new in Hong Kong and wanting to build a community. And I thought this is a really nice way to do it.
I have always been much better at a one on one social interaction than a big group. So it just felt like something I could do. So I decided to make it about people who make beautiful things.
Because I wanted something kind of inclusive, and I feel like for me, beautiful things could be a sandwich or a pair of shoes or, you know, could be anything.
And I decided I was going to publish. I think I decided I was going to publish once a month. I published once a month for three months, and then I was like, “Oh god, I’m exhausted.” It was as if I could not keep it up. But I really enjoyed doing it.
I would just like set up an interview with someone and go and record it with my iPhone and then… It was exhausting because I was doing the whole thing – I was doing the interviews, I was editing the interviews, I was designing the layout. I was distributing the thing. So it was kind of it was a lot. (Yeah.) But I did end up keeping publishing it for 10 issues. And it was fun.
Yeah. And people really loved it.
Yeah, people really loved it. And it’s funny, I thought of it as being not art, like something else. But I do have one friend who kind of said, “Yeah, no, I think it is Art.”
She kind of went, I said, “It’s definitely not Art.” And she said, “Yeah, but is it though?” And so, I thought well, yeah, I mean, if I say so, it is, right?
Yeah! Haha. So what did you get out of that experience?
Um, I got out of the house, and out of the studio, which at the time I just needed to do. That’s still something that’s a challenge for me is like I tend to just be a bit of a shut-in.
You know, there was something that I got, which was – when you talk to people about this thing that they do, whether it’s baking bread, or you know, like whatever it is, they say the most incredible… Like, they have these incredible, rich interior worlds around that apparently simple thing of like baking bread, and they say the most gorgeous poetic stuff that you would just never have thought of in regards to baking bread. These worlds inside people. And I guess the intensity of feeling and thought around people’s vocation – that, I really enjoyed.
I used to have these paranoid moments when I was interviewing people were like halfway through the interview, I’d be like, this is so interesting. And I’d be like, “Did I really switch record?”Anna Gleeson
But in the end, what ended up happening was, it was inspiring, and I was like, well, I want to go do my thing. The way all these people are, so yeah, so that was the end of that.
Yeah. And then what was funny also was that I didn’t have a launch party, I was just like, shy, and I was never very good at promoting it or making it into something that would make money, although it always felt like it had potential because people really responded to it, and it got a lot of press.
And, you know, somehow, I had people around me saying you should be able to make this pay. But I never figured that out. And, you know, if I had been able to make it work as a tiny business, maybe I could have kept it going and hired someone to do this part or that part of it. But, I couldn’t work it out.
Just yet. Yeah.
So from that, did you get a sense of the Hong Kong community?
I did. And it’s like, because I’m still a bit of a shut-in, the people that I knew from having created that project are still the people that I know, or like the basis of the people that I know, in Hong Kong somehow.
I did kind of create the project to get out of the house and talk to people that I like about the kind of stuff I like to talk about, and it really ticked all those boxes for me. It worked. What worked for me, which is the main thing, right?
What are you working on now?
It’s a secret. I never talk about what I’m working on now.
I mean, that said, … But generally what I’m working on now is some paintings, some printmaking, some ceramics, some sculptures. So when you asked me to think about my work as a journey and how I got where I am. I thought, I’ve really gotten where I am by having been completely lost the whole time.
And I’m still… I still go to the studio most days and feel like I’m completely lost. I do not know where I’m going. So I think that’s interesting, because it’s kind of like, you know, that’s not a story you hear very often. You hear this kind of like, you have to have a dream, and you have to go make it happen. It’s just like, I never had a dream. So I’m kind of the opposite of that.
But even when you say you don’t have a dream, per se, I feel there is some underlying kind of ethos or kind of driving theme.
Yeah. there is.
There’s this curiosity. Like, I’ve just been following my curiosity, and I’m still following my curiosity.
Curiosity is the engine for achievement.Sir Ken Robinson
And I feel like it’s also that community thing, because I remember you wanting to kind of create something that would pull together, more artists to kind of exchange and support each other. So I feel the community thing is also something (definitely) not necessarily in the art itself, but kind of in your, in your pursuit of life.
Sure. Yeah. I think that’s definitely something that I want to always build.
And like how you choose to display your art in very unusual places? (Yeah.) Why is that?
So it’s partly because they’re available. So it’s partly just practical, you know, I can do that. There’s no massive hurdle to overcome, I don’t need to have applied six months ago to do it that kind of thing.
And it’s also what you say is that I think art has something to offer people in the broadest sense. I’m not super into the idea of Art about Art, or art who’s only for an Art audience. I mean, I’m fine if people want to do that. And that’s totally cool. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but it’s not my thing.
I like the idea of being accessible. Not that everything that I make is for everyone. But that it’s out in the world, and it might kind of hit anyone in the eye.
I find that idea more exciting than some kind of super refined, white cube space. I like white cube space too. But I think that there’s this, when I was studying towards the end of my time, at art school, I organised a group show of all of the people from the video film department.
And it was at our student gallery, which was in this little kind of like main street of the suburb. It was a shopfront space. We built frames for projection on the inside of the window. And we projected the works onto that front window such that from the outside, it was extremely visible and noticeable from the street.
I just remember it being really exciting because we were getting all these reactions from everybody that walked pass. I remember a bunch of guys in a car that were hanging out the window going, “Oh, that’s f**king sick. That looks awesome!”
You know, it’s just like, and I loved it. I loved the you know, somehow kind of adding humour and excitement and kind of something beautiful.
Yeah, or just the idea that Art can be something that’s robust and that can survive out in the world. And it doesn’t need to be like handled with white gloves and put in a humidity-controlled cube. Yeah, I don’t know. But you know, I love white humidity control cubes also, so *laugh*
So when can we expect to kind of see your art next?
So the best place (to keep an eye out for things) is my Instagram: _annagleeson_
I do want to ask you to share about your drawer of work that you stash away and revisit.
Yeah. So I have this thing where I think sometimes I have an idea for something and I can see it in my head. I’m like, “That’s awesome! I’m going to make it.” Then I make it and it looks nothing like what I thought was going to look like.
When that happens, it can be so disappointing that it’s tempting to go well, that sucked and throw it straight to the recycling. But what I like to do is stick it in a drawer until I’ve forgotten how I expected it to look. And I can look at it with fresh eyes. And I sometimes find that I go back through that drawer and go, “this is actually really great in some other way that I was not intending.” So I found that that’s really useful, because it’s like my own expectations can skew even being able to see something.
Thank you so much for your time.
All images are from Anna Gleeson unless otherwise noted.
Date of interview: 4 December, 2019 via video conferencing.
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