Mel Telfer: Flinders Island artist & maker

This is the first in a series of posts about the artists and makers on Flinders Island.  Please indulge me as I introduce myself as the first maker!

Tell us a little about yourself:

My partner grew up on Flinders and always wanted to come home again. When our girls were young we moved here, and it’s been fantastic for them to grow up in this incredible community. When I was a child we moved around a fair bit, which I think has contributed to my restless nature. Every few years I seem to move house, change jobs or find another way to shake up my daily life!

I spent my primary school years on Kangaroo Island in SA, on my grandpa’s soldier settler farm. We grew most of our own food back then, including making our own butter and bacon. Farming in that area seemed to have fallen in a bit of a hole in the 80s, so my parents did all this from necessity, not from lifestyle choice. As I kid I wasn’t aware of the economics, but loved helping milk the cow and pick the apricots from our extensive orchard.  And apparently we liked wild woolly handmade hats:

Mel as a child on the Leyland tractor

We moved to Tassie when I was 10, and I went to a high school with a fabulous Outdoor Ed program which exposed me to sports and activities I hadn’t contemplated before.  This encouraged me to step out of my quiet shyness and into physically and emotionally challenging situations.  Why would I play netball when I could go rock climbing, or kayaking, or skiing?  Non-competitive sports inspired me to improve my own results instead of comparing myself or my team with others.

After Year 12 I took myself across the country to Perth, WA for uni.  The BSc went well; the BVMS not so well!  I think I got a little distracted by creative pursuits and dreams.  After bumming around for a few years in various jobs (like packing chickens at Steggles, and teaching rock climbing at summer camp in North Carolina) I took myself back to uni to add a GradDipEd to my BSc. Eventually I settled down, had a couple of fabulous girls, then made the move back to Tassie with dreams of growing our own food.  (Those Kangaroo Island years were pretty influential apparently.  Wish we had the Leyland again!)

Now that we’ve built a cosy, light-filled house on Flinders I feel I have a settled home base, so I keep myself busy by always trying to learn new skills instead of looking over the next horizon. Currently I seem to be dividing my time between learning website building, leatherwork and linocut.

How did the idea for the Swamphen come about?

My friend Helen and I felt it was high time Flinders had somewhere for local creatives to display and sell their knitting, their woodwork, whatever. The local art gallery is awesome for those who have enough stuff for a month-long dedicated exhibition, but if you only make five chopping boards a year you don’t have many options for connecting them with appreciative customers. Enter: The Purple Swamphen, where locals can make one thing or 50 things, any time of year, and have the opportunity to sell them.

Helen & Mel, founders of The Purple Swamphen

What do you make?

Whatever the situation calls for!  I’ve been knitting and sewing for a long time, but also dabble in upholstery and music.  Since moving to Flinders I’ve discovered I have a tenor voice, and have taught myself bass guitar and keyboard (as that’s what various island bands have needed to fill out their sounds).

For the Swamphen I do sewing and screen printing (aside from website building, accounting, social media… heheheh).  I’ve also fallen for linocutting in a heavy way.  The challenge of showing light, shade and texture with a single ink colour has become an obsession.

Mel Telfer linocut of da Vinci's skull illustration
Inspired by a da Vinci illustration from 1489, Mel explored shade and texture in linocut.

What inspires you to create?

If we’re talking about specific pieces my inspiration could come from anywhere. It’s pretty random. But my inspiration to *create* probably comes from my inability to sit still, and my belief that making things is part of being human.  

The overlap between science and art has gone under my radar for too long, even though I always loved drawing the dissections in my first uni degree.  I always had it in my head that people were either Arty or Sciencey.  It’s been really freeing to break those fences down.  Leonardo da Vinci is such an inspiration in that regard!  I’m learning not to pigeonhole myself, or others, and if I can pass that on to my girls I’ll be a very happy parent 🙂

Are there any directions you’d like to go in creatively?

Oh, where do I stop? I’m constantly pulled in a thousand directions, which makes it hard to focus. At the moment I’d like to explore lino & screen printing further, combining the two perhaps.  I love the process of lino cutting but not so much the lino printing, so transferring linocuts to screenprints seems a natural way of bringing those ideas out. I’d also like to use my stash of wallaby leather, and fabric, and yarn, and…

Does living on Flinders impact positively / negatively on your creative process?

Tough one. It’s definitely hard to be spontaneous here: if I need printing ink or linen thread I can’t just nip down the shop and buy some. That’s probably why I have the equivalent of two rooms full of craft supplies (whoops). But the light, the scenery, and the support of the community all far outweigh any negatives. I don’t think I’d be running a shop, or carving lino, or playing music if I lived anywhere else. I’d probably be overwhelmed by inspiration and possibilities if I lived near art supply shops and live music venues, and would never get anything done!

What’s your response to someone who says “I’m not artistic at all” ?

Pffft. Everyone has something creative that they can do, and are probably pretty decent at. It might be gardening, or cooking, or sewing, or whatever. But all of those things require creative decisions.

The only difference between me and someone who says they can’t knit is the fifteen years I’ve spent teaching myself how to do it. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that everyone was a beginner once. But if you’re keen you’ll find the thing that floats your boat, and you’ll be inspired to practise and learn more. One day you’ll discover that you’re actually bloody good at it, simply by looking at how far you’ve come.

Where can we see more of your creations?

I’m on instagram as ink.bone.feather, where I’m currently mashing up linocut with my fascination with the natural world.

cape barren goose linocut

Well that got wordier than I expected!  It’s pretty rare for me to share so much about myself publicly, so thanks for reading 🙂  I’ll post more tales of our artists over time.  In the meantime, follow the Swampy on instagram or sign up for (very) occasional email updates!  Cheers, Mel xx