Meet the maker
The idea of making a material transform into something else holds an ongoing fascination for internationally recognised textile artist Brett Alexander.
And whether it is a ball of paper thread or a reticent first-year art student with little confidence in the validity of their story, Brett finds ultimate satisfaction in facilitating their artistic growth to realise their potential.
"I believe everyone has the potential to make art and that 'making' is an intrinsic human need," he says. "Look at the proliferation of TV lifestyle programs concerned with making food or constructing something or another.
"Many students feel their story isn't valid, but it is, and through material and process they are free to explore and disclose as much of their own narrative as they feel they want to."
Brett is a lecturer in Three Dimensional Studies and coordinator of the Fibres-Textiles Studio and Paper Mill in the School of Creative Art.
Throughout his body of research are recurring and interconnecting threads concerned with the gendered nature of textiles and how masculinity operates within this, as well, the lowly status of craft within the hierarchy of the art world and the lower status of homosexuality in the "sex hierarchy".
Brett is currently weaving these investigations into a PhD thesis on the intersections between queer theory and craft theory and why pursuits such as knitting are highly feminised and how as a male working in this area creates a potential point of rupture in the heteronormative discourse.
Having now started on the theoretical underpinnings of a PhD, he admits to grappling with the fact that "in academia, the object has very little value, it's the text" that is considered of utmost importance.
"Sometimes I think that practice-based research needs to be mindful that the 'supporting' text doesn't negate the need for the object. The creative artifact should allow an alternate or 'new' understanding of the associated theoretical discourse."
Brett, who cites strong evidence to suggest knitting was the "first valium" and points to it now being used in pain management as a form of meditation, has from an early age lost himself in craft practice to deal with the relentless homophobia he experienced at school.
He chose a weaving loom when his parents took him to a local toy store to pick whatever he wanted for his ninth birthday. He still has the loom.
When Brett was in junior high school, his parents took him to tapestry weaving classes run by Larry Beeston. (The "Hunter Tapestry" which graces the wall of the university's Great Hall was designed by Mary Beeston and the weaving carried out by Larry Beeston and Rachel Frecker over a two-year period in the late 1980s).
"The legacy of the Beestons is profound," Brett says. "Larry was a lovely man and an excellent teacher as well as being a male role model in a female dominated discipline."
Another important influence has been internationally renowned installation artist Jutta Feddersen, who was his mentor at university in Newcastle – her passion for fibre art and love of travel proving infectious.
For Brett, his teaching, research and craft practice in paper media and fibre art are inextricably intertwined, resulting in exhibitions and residencies at renowned art, design and craft museums, galleries and festivals throughout Australia and the world.
Brett's research into paper spinning and thread manufacture, for example, has occasioned three artist-in-residencies in Ruzomberok, Slovakia, at one of central Europe's largest commercial paper mills where he had access to all types of materials and levels of commercial production from which to create art.
He has also been involved in several projects in Scandinavia and in September 2013 visited the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, once again to spend three months between the Department of Cultural Conservation and the School of Craft & Design.
"I have always been interested in the Scandinavian aesthetic," Brett says.
"Their textiles are linked to their cultural identity. The practice is embedded in their culture."