in conversation with Georgia Dee
The first day of autumn in Canberra – warm and sunny, with just a touch of chill to the breeze blowing through the city – set the perfect scene for a conversation with Jenni Kemarre Martiniello, a prolific Canberran artist whose varied career has spanned both decades and continents.
On this bright Monday afternoon, I found myself at Canberra Glassworks: a converted gallery and workshop space rising out of the dusty gravel car parks of Kingston foreshore. Fifty years after the doors closed on Kingston Power House, they reopened in 2007 on Canberra Glassworks, breathing new life into the cavernous, warehouse-like space. The largest dedicated glass studio facility in Australia, the Glassworks is a haven for students, artists and visitors alike, leading the way in glass art, craft, and design.
After a warm greeting, we walked through the workshop spaces to Kemarre Martiniello’s studio, weaving our way between machines and artists buried in their craft. Her studio is a colourful, bustling space full of works-in-progress, completed glass objects, glass materials, and a cacophony of ideas, designs and notes scattered throughout.
We settled down to chat in the Red Room – a communal room adjacent to the workshop – our talk accompanied by the gentle, ever-present noise of artists at work next door.
Our conversation began with a discussion of community and the importance of heritage. When asked about key questions that drive her practice, Kemarre Martiniello responded:
I’m Aboriginal, so my first obligation is to community and heritage. Where your average artist would just have great ideas, for me there’s always an obligation to refer in some way to community, country, and heritage, and to enrich that. The work that I do couldn’t exist if our traditional practices of weaving, carving and mark making didn’t exist, so it’s a direct extension of that even though I’ve appropriated contemporary mediums – such as glass – to do it. It falls into that category of cultural continuation.
"I'm using a contemporary medium as a vehicle for cultural continuity and to refer back to heritage."
Naturally, our location facilitated one of our key points: how she began working with glass in the first place, a process she described as having some curious steps.
I have always been an artist, right from the time I was a kid. In the early 1980s I completed a degree in visual art at Canberra School of Art in Sculpture. While I was working and raising a family, I kept my artistic hand in by doing some printmaking, textiles, and lots of drawing. In 2007, a group of us had our own Indigenous artists group. We were watching this building [Canberra Glassworks] being converted from the old powerhouse to a glass artists’ facility, and decided we’d like to have a go at that! But before that stage, there were little things along the way; I went to an international poet’s workshop in Tuscany in 2001, and went to Venice and Murano on the way home. In Murano I saw glass blowers at work and fell in love with absolutely stunning glass work.
Then in 2005 or 2006, Corning Museum of Glass in America brought their huge semi-trailer mobile glass studio to tour Australia through festivals and shows, which was magnificent! I saw them at the Canberra Folk Festival. They offered: ‘If anyone in the audience wants to give us a design, we’ll look at the designs tonight and pick several to make tomorrow,’ and they picked one of my designs. So, all these little steps lead you to things. I think if the universe has something in mind for you to be developing, it just puts these little trails, like breadcrumbs for birds, to lead you to where you’re supposed to be.
One of the many beautiful things about Kemarre Martiniello’s practice is the way it weaves – literally – different techniques, cultures and ideas together. Building off a series of traditional Italian glass-making techniques, she creates intricate weaving patterns full of movement and life, emblematic of her culture.
I use glass canes. There are several cane techniques, one of them in particular which is a special technique developed in Murano. It’s making glass canes and combining them to make patterns in glass. I’ve taken that technique and instead use it to create weaving in glass.
"It departs from the traditional Italian use of canes; they do it for the beauty of the canes themselves, whereas I use canes as a means to evoke a traditional, utilitarian object that is woven but is incredibly beautiful in itself. "
There’s a strong emphasis on teamwork and collaboration throughout this artist’s work. Glassmaking is a community-based, collaborative practice; an artist’s work often involves a helping hand from colleagues.
"The glass community is a very strong collaborative community."
For example, when I first started wanting to weave glass – which you can’t do, you can only invoke weaving – I talked to a number of artists, and showed them images of what I wanted to create in glass, asking: ‘Can it be done? How would I do it?’ They were fantastic. There were three or four artists here, with decades of experience, who all thought about it and came back and said: ‘well, you could try this, and you could try that, or possibly this way, or maybe that way.’ We went into the hotshop and tried different things until we found things that worked. They were the first eel traps, and the first fish traps; and it’s just developed from there.
"Collaboration is having a team, and I've been really lucky because I've been able to keep almost the same team together since 2011. There's a back and forth collaboration all the way through making a piece."
When asked about her team, Kemarre Martiniello sings their praises:
I did actually learn glass blowing, but I have a team to do it because their skill is amazing; they can do in an hour what would take me four hours! You have to have a team in glassblowing, because you simply don’t have enough hands. There are lots of things that you are doing in working on a piece, someone is blowing, somebody’s turning it, somebody’s got the flame on it, and somebody else is using the jack, tweezers or corks for shaping. Our normal team is three of us for the smaller pieces, but for the really large pieces that are a metre or so long, we have a team of between five and seven, depending on the complexity. It’s great, there’s a real community spirit.
The natural environment is an intrinsic part of Kemarre Martiniello’s practice.
The traditional woven objects that I’m giving expression to in glass are made with reeds and grasses from the natural environment. Part of my research is questioning ‘What are the different plants in different traditional areas, what colours are they, how do they age over time?’ When we pull the canes, most of them are opaque and overlaid with a translucent colour, because the colour bars I use come from a European palette. If I want more traditional Australian plant colours, I’ve got to combine colours. It took about two years to get the colour right just for pandanas. There’s a lot of experimentation because every time you heat the glass, it changes colour. And if you use those canes again before you combine them in an object, that means even more colour variation. I use up to six to twelve colours in the one object, so it doesn’t matter too much because you’re looking at changes and variations that happen in the environment anyway. It actually keeps it visually very alive.
Although the majority of her practice is glasswork, she is a skilled mixed-media artist and plans on incorporating different materials into her work more regularly. A residency at Ready-Cut Cottage in Gudgenby Valley, Namadgi at the end of 2020 allowed the artist space and time to explore these possibilities.
I collected lots of natural reeds, dried them, and experimented with them, because I’m beginning to incorporate some actual woven fibre with the glass in the finished pieces. I’ve done it a couple of times before, in the odd piece, but now I’m looking at how I could do that maybe a little more consistently. I’m doing some experiments with other mediums, and I’ve got to work up to how I translate that into glass. We’ll just wait for the inspiration to dawn.
And dawn it did; the residency in Namadgi, associated with Craft ACT, resulted in a series of spectacular works on display as part of the exhibition Between Earth and Sky.
2020 was a difficult, unpredictable year for many; artists were no exception. The physical world slowed down, accompanied by the digital world speeding up. Life moved from in-person to online – the ‘exhibition tour’ video above proves this point – and people had to adapt. We discussed the impacts of COVID-19, both positive and negative, on the arts community:
A lot of practices relied on galleries or public commissions, and public commissions sort of died in that period because you couldn’t go onsite and do things. The performing arts, for example, are bound to the public space of the stage and the theatre and audiences, and everything just completely stopped for them. I know people in the performing arts who still practice, but it’s not income-making. Income for everybody in the arts, including the visual artists, has been very restricted, and unfortunately Jobkeeper and Jobseeker haven’t worked for a lot of artists, because Centrelink doesn’t recognise a whole lot of the conditions that apply to artists, so we can fall through the cracks.
"Art exists outside of their structure."
Canberra Glassworks stayed open for artists, but like many other arts spaces, it closed to the public.
They only closed the hotshop because it’s a team environment. Glassworks was great – they had distancing, and disinfecting stations everywhere – but most artists actually chose to stay home and work at home if they could. I would come in about a third as much as I used to, and I would do coldwork on the machines. Most people were thinking the same thing – I’d come in and there might be only six of us around this huge building. I started thinking about how I could use coldworking as added design in pieces, so it expanded that, in a sense. Also, when you’re an artist, home gets really chaotic; you gradually accumulate boxes of stuff! I needed to sort things out, and reorganise.
"During COVID, just having some quiet time to sit, think, write notes, and do some sketches was really valuable."
In some ways, the opportunity to slow down was a blessing in disguise:
When you’re in the process of making, you get into this rhythm, and sometimes it’s in overdrive and you’re just constantly in the process of making. You don’t take the time to stop. Ending last year with the residency in Namadgi was another quiet time just to sit, stop, and think. The valley wasn’t touched in the bushfires, but all the mountains around it were, so there were these incredible contrasts. It gave me some other ideas about what to do.
The wider aim of the Canberra Brasilia project encourages reflection on how these two cities are similar, different, or anything in between.
Both Canberra and Brasilia are new cities, which makes it very interesting when you contrast other places to them. In a way, new cities mean new beginnings; you have organisations and people with new visions and ideas, which is great. On the other side of that, I suppose it’s like two teenagers, wanting to be given credibility as adults. Canberra has a grand plan to be one of the world’s major creative cities by 2050; they’re working consistently towards it.
Brasilia is interesting; I think there’s dichotomies because the population of Brasilia is massive compared to Canberra. Canberra has a very left-thinking government with a commitment to the environment, whereas the overwhelming political climate in Brazil is conservative, which impacts hugely on the arts. Conservatives, no matter where they are, don’t really support the arts, so it’s up to people at the grassroots to do their thing and survive as best they can. So I think artists here possibly have more opportunity for support than the artists in Brasilia have.
"We've been lucky in Canberra; we've always had some solid support for the arts."
Nationally, we’ve got the Australia Council for the Arts, also the equivalent of ArtsACT in every state and territory, and we have philanthropic organisations that also support the arts. Canberra and Brasilia both have open futures, in terms of what we want to create. And being a creative place to start with is a pretty good start; we just need to keep it going.
Jenni Kemarre Martiniello is a Canberra-based artist participating in Experiences of Artists in Community, a collaborative research and story-telling project. This project has been developed to contribute to a larger collaborative research and curatorial project investigating the material and social history of collaborative community arts in Canberra (Into the Heart: Curating Community Art and Cultural History of Canberra) as well as to assist ANU Masters students completing the course HUMN8034: Collaborative Curating and Story Telling in their research.