Painting, Politics, and Power with Michael Soi

I was drawn into his work immediately because of its familiar color pallet and curious characters. Also the fact that I had just seen one in a bar the weekend before was, no doubt, influential in my curiosity.

Last year I spent 3 months in Kenya, primarily in Nairobi. I was there for a couple of reasons, but since I am an artist meeting other artists and learning about them and their work is, of course, always part of my travel. There are two main residency/art centers in Nairobi: The GoDown Arts Centre and Kuona Trust. It was at The GoDown that I met Michael. He was the studio mate of a contact I had.

Upon entering the studio, I recognized the cartoon-like gestures and the deliberate criticism of the normal happenings of Nairobian nightlife and other goings-on. Being my first time in Kenya, actually in Africa, I wanted to know more about the images/concepts and to gain a better understanding of what it means to be a contemporary artist in Nairobi.

I met and chatted with Michael a few times after that first studio visit, but never felt like I fully understood his work. I thought I would take this opportunity with Freerange to delve a bit deeper into the work with Michael, to hear from his perspective what were/are his motivations in the work, what are his influences, and where he is taking his work in the near future.

Michael Soi 002

NR: In your work you wittily comment on and, in a way, attack everyday activities of ordinary Kenyan citizens. How did you come to use your art work as a vehicle for these social and political commentaries?

MS: It all begun very innocently. It was work that revolved around children as an alternative audience to my work. I used animal characters like pigs and cat. At this moment, they had no meaning as such. it was just plain simple what you see is what you get but over time I looked at these two characters and realised there was a lot of similarities that existed between our politicians and these two animals. Greed and selfishness. I still create work that kids can relate to in a very simple way and at the same time use the characters to address a more serious problem in Kenyan society through my work.

NR: Why is painting now your main medium? And why is this the appropriate medium for your message?

MS: I studied fine art and art history in art school. After graduation I joined kuona trust in 1996. This is when I can say I begun my long career and I basically took an interest in sculpture by default. We were young and broke at this time. So the issue of subject and material was not in our control. We worked on what we had at the moment but honestly, I think after one year I was too engrossed in wood sculpture because I took it up as a challenge and just wanted to see how far I could run away with it. Over time, I realised that this wasn’t telling the story as I wanted it told. This is what got me back to painting in 1998. I had too many ideas on my head and wood was kind of limiting. This is when I decided to take on painting as the instrument that I wanted to use to get my story told.

NR: Your work has been widely shown both internationally and at home in Kenya. Has the reception been different in the various countries? And how has that influenced, if at all, how you approach new work? Basically, who is your target audience and what role do they have in your work?

MS: I have been luck[y] in a way because of a lot of international travel early in my career. By the time I was 30 I had seen a fair portion of this world. It enabled me to engage in a lot of what I want to call cultural dialogue and at the same time, having to work with artists from diverse cultural back grounds and all. My target audience in the people of the city of Nairobi. This work revolves around their everyday kind of setting in all aspects of social life. I will address the issues around graft, matatu’s, commercial sex work and everything that affects them. Over the years, I have to realise that I can get a lot of the inspiration here. The international travel for residencies in places like London, New York, Amsterdam and many other cities I have visited in the course of my career have given me the option of looking at things differently and being able to approach issues from a broader view. It gave me knowledge that i am still downloading up to date in my quest to become a better artist. I don’t know what the role of my work is at the moment. that doesn’t concern me much but the most important thing here is that I have given myself the responsibility of documenting my city and its people visually so that the next generation of Kenyans and anybody else who is interested can look at it 50 years from now and see what Nairobi was up to in the 90’s and in the new millennium.

Michael Soi 003

NR: Can you talk about how you see the role of women in Kenyan society and how that is translated in your work?

MS: I am not a social activist. I am a social commentator. Mostly, the use of women in my work is misunderstood. I believe in equality of the sexes and all. A lot of the work I made revolving around the strip clubs in Nairobi is about power. It has nothing to do with occasional look at a painting of a topless woman just for kick. It is about power in the sense of commercial sex work evolving to a point where the girls don’t have to stand in the streets anymore because there is social media now. Twitter and Facebook have provided a space where the girls will not have to freeze themselves to death by standing street corners and more.

Back to the issue of power, my strip club scenes are not about the pole dancer who is nude on the pole. It is always about them men ogling and drooling that surrounds her. One girl told me she doesn’t have to sleep with the men to make her money. All she has to do is give a lap dance for 4 minutes and she makes $7 and at the end of her shift, she has made $200 which is more than what the average 8 to 5 job going Nairobi resident makes in a day. This is power. She uses her body to make her ends meet. She doesn’t have to have sex with the client.

Michael Soi 004

NR: I noticed that almost all of your characters have the same expressionless face. Could you tell me about that decision?

MS: I am still developing my characters. It is an on-going process.

NR: Visually, your paintings remind me of 70s and 80s cartoons like Fat Albert and the Jackson 5ive. Was this a conscious decision? If so, why? If not, do you think that observation is valid? Why or why not?

MS: It came from a point of wanting to make my work self-explanatory. Make it simple as possible. I don’t let western issues influence any of my work…There is a tendency to compare artists from the 3rd world with a master somewhere in the states or Europe. I have created my own subjects and characters to my work. I am me and my art is mine.

NR: This visual aesthetic was very popular in Latin America in the 80s, in particular in Chile. In fact, it was used by the dictatorship, on TV and in music, to keep the people “happy and occupied”. What do you think about the use of entertainment to keep the masses happy and distracted?

MS: It can easily be used as a form of propaganda. And yes, it was used in Chile and to some extend in Argentina and we also see it in drug regions of Mexico where use of art is being used by the cartels. But for me, I think my work belongs to me in the sense that I want to see it as a visual diary of some sort. I am just documenting my city on the things I see and observe every day. it is an attempt to get someone in the west who has not been to this part of the world to know my city. It is stuff that the next generation of Kenyans will look at and see where they came from.

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NR: Could you talk about the method(s) of keeping the masses in line in Kenya?

MS: In Kenya, keep them talking. Use the media for that. Expose one scandal after another. They will keep talking.

NR: From my understanding, corruption in Kenya is widely understood and accepted. What do you seek to accomplish with your work?

MS: I try to address issues of political, religious and moral corruption. Audiences to my work need to look at where they fit in, whatever they do after that is up to them.

NR: And looking at the near future of Kenyan politics, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the elections in March, and how this might play out in your work.

MS: We will just have to wait and see. My take on it….They removed the crocodile from the river and put it in a swimming pool. It still remains a crocodile.

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What’s your take on Michael’s work and the ideas he has presented here? Feel free to comment, or send me an email (nic [at] nicolerademacher [dot] com).

Michael Soi is represented by Ed Cross Fine Art in London and The Little Art Gallery in Nairobi. You can see more of his work at or on his artist Facebook page.

Rikipedia #45 – The Hobbit

We have kindly be granted permission to re-post a selection of Rikipedia articles.  Be warned.

The Hobbit –

The Hobbit, or There, Here, Hey Now, Hey Now and Back Again, better known by its abbreviated title The Hobbits, is a psycho/sexual fantasy novel and children’s book by J. R. R. Tolkien. It was published on 21 September 1937 to wide critical acclaim, being nominated for the Carnegie Medal and awarded a prize from the Petone RSA in the form of a meat pack which was packed with chops, ham steaks, chicken nibbles, sausages for the bbq and a ham hock. The book remains popular and is recognized as a classic and a ‘big tune,bro’ in children’s literature.
Set in a time “Between the Dawn of Færie and the Donuts of Men”,[1] The Hobbit follows the quest of home-loving hobbit Dildo Baggins to win a share of the treasure guarded by the dragon, Smugcunt. Dildo’s journey takes him from light-hearted, slightly inbred, rural surroundings into more sinister territory of the film industry.[2] The story is told in the form of an episodic quest, and most chapters introduce a specific creature, or type of motion capture at 48fps at 2k, of Tolkien’s Wilderland. By accepting the disreputable, romantic, slightly gay and adventurous side of his nature and applying his wits and common sense, Dildo gains a new level of maturity, impotence and per diems after working 4 weeks straight on 2nd unit.[3] The story reaches its big bubbly climax in the Battle of Five Armies, where many of the characters and creatures from earlier chapters re-emerge to engage in cocaine abuse in toilets in Wellington and the surrounding areas [2]

Black magic in the walls, and other things.

I’ve been thinking about the chief recently. The last time I saw him, I was sweating and cursing 10 kilos of mouldy plant specimens onto a small plane, taking off the island in Vanuatu after another long trip. He approached me as we were about to board, cuffed me on the side of the head (retribution for needing to be taken home in the island taxi – aka the wheelbarrow – after a kava session the previous night), and handed me a 4-liter plastic container. It was full murky of black liquid, and looked as though it had taken this trip a few times before.

‘There’ll be someone at the airport to collect it’, he said, and made sure I had a mobile number and address if the delivery fell through. ‘Tell him to wash the walls with this thoroughly, every wall, and to get out of the house for four days.’ Under no circumstances was the man to smell the liquid, and if the black magic wasn’t fixed when he got back? ‘Tell him to call me’, said the chief with a chuckle.

The chief was one of the most respected healers on the island, or indeed anywhere in Vanuatu. He’d grown up in the tangle of the island interior, moved with his parents to the mission on the coast, and had seen the first plane land on the rough airstrip (‘we got the hell out of there’, he told me of that day). He’d also become Christian, gone to school and raised a family. He became a healer early on, learning from his father and grandfather, and relying on the diverse medicine cupboard of the local flora. Independently, he had also developed his own techniques of stomach massage to treat all manner of complaints. He freely improvised – one of his best treatments for malaria was introduced by the Americans during the war – and was generous with his treatments. ‘It’s up to me’, he said of his patients, ‘there’s no one else here who can do what I do’.

The chief was also developing a thriving business. Given his position, this isn’t necessarily much of a surprise. The construction of mobile phone towers the year before, however, had been a boon, and he was now getting requests from far and wide. Although most islanders I met could find a bunch of plants to treat simple illnesses, traditional healers like my friend are important. On the one hand, access to hospital care is limited, and aid posts are typically missing basic medicines. On the other, there are a whole host of illnesses recognized on the island that can’t be treated with waetman medicine (as it’s known in the local pidgin) at all. Black magic, curses and witchcraft are all still around and still important, and can only be treated with traditional, kastom medicine. As far as I could tell the status, skill, and connections of the chief gave him a unique niche, and he appeared to be filling it with aplomb.

Despite the success of the enterprise, my friend sometimes appeared worried. The issue was the continuity of his skills, and the problem was finding find anyone to teach them to. He’d often say that formal education has had such an impact in his community that the kids had ‘no space in their heads’ any more. In any case, the values and ethics that the kids picked up in schools meant they didn’t care for communal village living in the first place.

It’s true that old folks railing against the ‘youth these days’ is hardly restricted to Vanuatu. But I think he had a point. Schools on the island are still taught in English and French, and local languages still banned within their walls. This is pretty incongruous – Vanuatu is per capita the most linguistically diverse place on earth, with over 100 languages in a population the size of Hamilton. Local history and social studies are still not taught, and kids typically miss out on all opportunities for learning traditional ways of doing things. The chief reckoned that this was causing the loss of a whole range of culture, knowledge and practice. In a country where land ownership is based on oral histories, where ceremonies mark every important stage of life, and hundreds of different plants are relied on for medicine, this is a pretty big concern.

In reply, the chief and his peers had had come up with a strategy. One of the most interesting things I saw during my time there was a grassroots education movement that aimed to corral the youth into schools of the community’s devising. These schools, kastom schools to the locals, were small and community-based places where the teachers were the elders and the curriculum was local language, medicines and food. They were to be compulsory education for the under 10’s, and in some places they were aiming to enlist everyone in the community under the age of 20 – everyone who they thought had been deprived of their kastom by the ways things had been done recently.

There is much more to say about these – after all, not everyone will share the elders’ vision about the way forward. But I think it’s hard to overstate their importance. For one, the chief and co. were placing their customs on the same level as the formal school, and promoting the importance of the local over the generic and western. The kastom schools are interesting too when you consider they’re a revolutionary way of ‘doing custom’. Teaching culture in a classroom setting is a completely new way of doing things, and is a complete update of what tradition is and where it should exist.

In short, I think the chief and others like him had designed an open, homegrown challenge to centralised education systems. They’d done this in response to a system that they felt to be profoundly damaging the knowledge and attitudes of the young. ‘We’ve got our own science here’, he told me once, and went on to say each language (there are no less than 17 on this one island) had different ways of doing things, each adapted to the local place. He was also adamant that this science not only shaped the way that things are used, but the way that those speakers see the world.

I got to thinking about all this as I was reading about the Idle No More movement the other day. A surging global protest that took off in the wake of more pig-headed policy from the Canadian government, Idle No More looks like something of an Occupy moment for global indigenous groups. It also seems to inherently reject centralised power and authority over traditional lands and peoples. In this context, the gentle, smart, and effective ways that my friend on Malekula was updating the role of tradition through medicine, education, and business seem especially valuable.

More broadly, I think his projects also promoted a model of development that stresses local solutions for local problems. Diversity of thought, healing, and learning are important threads in the fabric of society in the Pacific, and development and education policy would do well to remember the value of local solutions. This is especially true, I’m sure, if you need the right stuff to scrub black magic out of the walls.

The last of the Grandparents: Becoming the middle generation

Last week my Grannie Janet moved from her house of 31 years to a rest home. What’s more, she’s moved cities after 48 years in the same place. From Central Christchurch to suburban Nelson. Not that it really matters what locale she is in these days as she doesn’t travel far by foot anymore. However she does know the Nelson area well, having emigrated there from England with her family at age 19. It is there she was married and had her only child, my Dad Mike, in 1954. She is now 93-year-old, and can get around with her walker over very short distances, only just. She is very blind, so her view hasn’t changed much from city to city. But it would be dismissive, assuming and unkind to say the move isn’t a big one, or that this kind of change in old age doesn’t make much difference to a person and their family. It really does.

Grannie and Granddaugher

Grannie was very involved with, and attached to her home in Christchurch, in the Avon Loop stretch of the river, which she named Sunset corner. She has a thing for naming houses, which I also like the notion of. Naming homes gives them bit of a personality, or character. As if they are beings in themselves, aside from their inhabitants. Grannie lived in the top right flat of four that she had had architecturally designed and built in 1982. They replaced an old villa that had sat on the site for decades. Despite having sold the three flats to other people, Grannie still thought of the surrounding grounds as hers. A botanist by profession, she was very keen to utilise every patch of soil on the section and did so with passion and care. Sometimes to the annoyance of her neighbours when she insisted on being party to the planting they did in their own fenced off plots. But over all, she had great relationships with her neighbours over the years, and participated in her wider community along Oxford Terrace, as an active member of the Avon Loop Planning Association.

Grannie has always had an interest in things botanical, as the daughter of a daffodil grower in Evesham, England. She formalised her knowledge and passion as a young women when studying a Diploma of Horticulture at Massey University in the first intake that allowed women on the course. She went on to work as a plant science demonstrator at Lincoln college in he 60’s and 70’s, and studied again, towards Landscape architecture after that. She was a member of the Botanical Society, Alpine Garden Society and a friend of the Botanic Gardens.

Along with several other community members, Grannie was really passionate about facilitating the reinstatement of native plants along the riverbank in the Avon Loop, and planting larger stabilising trees. She convinced the Christchurch City Council to plant two groups of Scenecio Greyii shrubs, who’s silvery colour shows up in car headlights around corners, to prevent cars running off the road.

My other grandparents, Elsie and Jack Locke, lived six doors down from her, so our whole family has a strong attachment to the Avon Loop area, and at the moment we are all quietly mourning Grannie leaving her home in our own ways, which for many people, and us particularly, spells the end of an era. I have been surprised by how much this change has affected me. She has lived at Sunset Corner our entire lives.  For my siblings and I, Grannie’s home was the last bastion of unchanged childhood normality, or familiarity we had. This is because in post earthquake Christchurch, almost every facet of our childhood stories and remembered landscapes have been changed in some way. The home we were born and raised in will be rebuilt and sold, the entire stretch of river that runs from that house to Grannies is severely damaged. The Avon Loop community has been red-zoned and largely abandoned as I write, which includes my parents home, our current family base. So old age or not, Grannie had to leave her place, which while still live-able sits on a potentially dangerous tilt, and the red-zoning means the entire Avon Loop must move on.

It is timely however, as her ailing health has made it untenable for her to live by herself. She began needing home help in 2004 following a 3rd hip operation and had come increasingly dependent on the home help and my parent’s daily assistance. But it was the earthquakes bought up the conversation that would have otherwise been very hard to broach. Due to the red zoning, the solution was not debatable. She had to leave.

For many months Grannie felt she was being unjustly thrown out of her home, which many elderly think as they are being shifted into a rest home. However Grannie’s resentment was aimed at the government’s post quake re-zoning plans, until she accepted that her health also necessitated the move. She is at peace with the shift now, but sad all the same. She has said to me a number of times that she is devastated to leave the home she had hoped to live out her days in, to leave my parents and move city. And like the rest of the community, heartbroken that it has all come to an end in such an abrupt and unexpected manor.

She has had remarkable innings however, a widower since 1954, Grannie has remained in her home far longer than most would at her age with her abilities. Her support has had a lot to do with it, but Grannie is also very stoic, fiercely independence and stubborn, which all help to keep one in their own home. I am very thankful that she remained there for the first 3 years of my daughter’s life, and I hope that she will have some memories of Great-Grannie at Sunset Corner.

Never again will we buzz the buzzer at Grannies and walk up the stairs to her living area to find her dozing in her chair, looking out over the cherry tree to the river. Grannie was a woman of habit and routine, and we will miss seeing her move slowly around her home, finding her way about, and gathering things to entertain her great-grandaughter during visits, or to make herself her daily cup-of-soup lunch. We will endeavor to keep the lemon drink cordial recipe alive, and in supply in her rest home. I have made it myself several times, but it is never quite the same as hers. Perhaps I need more habit and routine to get it just right.

Now that all her daily business is taken care of from morning to night in the home, I look forward to visiting Grannie in her new room and spending more time talking about family and listening to her old stories, than fussing about in her kitchen getting everything wrong and disrupting her routine.  She is a social woman, and will really enjoy the company there, and will no doubt have some more calories with each mouthful as well, cup-a-soups haven’t really cut the mustard all these years.

All this change has got me thinking about becoming the middle generation, as my parents have become the Grandparents, and Grannie travels towards the end of her road. This change is a major milestone in her life, and ours. She has left her home, which has prompted lots of reflection and discussion in our family. For me it has provided an opportunity to really think about her life. Of everything she has done and achieved. And most of all, her place in our family and the importance she holds as our oldest, most fragile and senior member. It is a nice time to think and talk together, while she is still around, because now one knows how much time is left.

Go well Grannie. See you in Nelson.

Grannie and Granddaugher





On Building Stories and Creating Cities

I’m a planning professional by degree and career, but when I talk about urban planning I’m not talking solely about the work that goes on in a professional office.  What I’m actually referring to is every action of every inhabitant of a city, because whether or not it is our direct intent, it is our collective actions that shape our communities.  Planning is not just a resource consent or a district plan, it’s an interactive communicative activity.  Our local and national identities stem from core stories that give meaning to our collective lives.  By telling stories about our past and our present our intention is to shape the future.[i]

Story telling is not a passive experience, stories tell as much about the teller as the teller tells about events. In any situation there is only one set of events that occur, yet everyone who is present will tell the story differently based on their experiences and personal biases.  Stories provide details that can clarify problems and opportunities.  They provide descriptions of character, they invoke values and they raise questions. [ii]  Stories are not merely told, they are created.  When we tell a story about ourselves we are drawing on our past behaviours and on others’ characterizations of ourselves.  In re-telling our stories we are reproducing ourselves and our behaviours. [iii]   In choosing which stories to tell we are defining our personal characteristics and shaping our own lives.

A professor of mine who was involved in the post-Katrina reconstruction of New Orleans talked to us about how it was those personal characteristics of all the key players that really mattered.  He said that over and over again he saw examples of the right kind of person, or unfortunately the wrong, make an enormous difference because their actions would have ripple effects.  He said that this happened even at the very lowest levels.  And what I understood is that it’s not so much that individuals and their actions can make a difference, it’s that individuals and their actions are what make a difference.  Which is heavy because it applies to all of us and it’s something that we have to be aware of all the time.  But don’t let it scare you, don’t let it weigh you down – let it excite you!

I have a story that I like about Christchurch because it’s about the All Blacks and I’ve loved them ever since I was a student in Dunedin.  I’ve been following them for about ten years now so I know that nobody deserved that cup more than they did.  But what interested me the most about the All Blacks winning was an interview with Richie McCaw where he said that after the earthquakes normal wasn’t normal anymore.   He said that in every aspect of his daily life he was forced to look at things a bit differently.  He explained that instead of it being an obstacle it became a strength because he also started looking at his game and his team a bit differently.  And when he applied this new mindset to his captaincy he was able to take his team to higher levels than ever before.  So this is just one example of how the story of the city affected one of its inhabitants, whose personal story then affected the city. Because whether or not you are a big rugby fan I can tell you that the atmosphere in Hagley Park was pure magic when they won, and that is now a part of the story of this city.

So now that we know that our cities and even our lives are built on stories, let’s look at how stories are created.  Author Margot Livesy tells us to look for what she calls ‘the hidden machinery.’  She advises aspiring writers to read all that is good for the good of your soul, and then learn to read as a writer and search out the ‘hidden machinery,’ which is the business of art to conceal and the business of the apprentice to comprehend.[iv]  To find these building blocks you have to read the work that’s not so good, and read work that’s in progress.  You have to read your own work as if it were someone else’s.  She tells us to admit our judgments, because few writers get steadily better but many get unsteadily so.

I find myself experiencing cities in the same way.  I enjoy what’s good about them for the good of my soul, and there’s so much to enjoy in cities!  I love pedestrian precincts with quirky little bars, cafes and boutiques; I love architecture and art galleries.  I love street fashion and fine dining, street food and high fashion.  Public transportation, I love taking the metro in Paris or the El train in Chicago.  People watching, public parks, talking to strangers, public libraries.  Live music, live comedy, nightlong dance parties in industrial districts; all of the wild and unpredictable things that happen in cities, I love it!  But then I can’t help but experience the city as a planner.  I take note of the urban design, I educate myself on the policies, I listen to and watch for the stories being told.  I try to piece together exactly what it is that makes that city work.  What is it exactly that makes it such an exciting and dynamic place to be?  Or maybe I’m in a city that’s not so nice and in that case I try to figure out what specifically it is about that city that doesn’t work.  And as I explore and experience my new home, Christchurch, I remind myself that few cities get steadily better, but many get unsteadily so.

So where does this ‘hidden machinery’ come from?  Where do we get the inspiration for the building blocks that we use to build our stories and create our cities?  Author Susan Power tells us that instead of writing what we know, we should write what we need to know.  She says that if she relied solely on firsthand experience then she would stick to her journal and never imagine herself in another’s shoes.  But in fiction anything is possible, there are no boundaries, there are no rules, except to make it work.[v]  In planning as well, there are no boundaries that will hold us back.  There are some rules of course, but they are flexible, they are only there to ‘make it work’.  We don’t have to rely solely on what we’ve experienced firsthand, we have a multitude of examples from across the world that we can imagine for ourselves and create in our own way.  And as planners, or even as human beings, I think it does us good to imagine ourselves in other people’s shoes, to think about what their life might be like and about how our work and our actions might affect them.  And hopefully they’ll do the same for us.

James Alan McPherson is a professor at the Iowa Writers Institute, which is pretty much the creative writing program in the states, and he reminds us that the humanities are untidy.  He says the purpose is not closure along a single line of inquiry as we might find in the sciences, but illuminations that are hard won because they can only be discovered in the midst of life.[vi]  And life is also untidy, there is never a single right answer or single right way of doing things.  But McPherson reminds us that if we remain alert we may begin to see the meaning of events, the character of other human beings, and become more generous, wise, and effective in our actions.  McPherson says that what he enjoys most about teaching writing workshops is the range of backgrounds in his students. He says physics majors discuss theories of causality with religion majors; medical doctors learn mythology from classmates educated in the classics; engineers and music majors learn that technology and music derive from the same idiom.  Film students help lawyers master the essentials of narrative pacing.  He observes that stories encourage abstraction and recombination at a time when our society is becoming increasingly technological and trite.[vii] Despite his many accomplishments McPherson is also quite humble, because he says that best of all is that he as a teacher gains wider knowledge from this diverse body of students.  Cities that are designed with their core stories in mind and that allow space for a multitude of stories to be told will by their very nature provide their inhabitants with a similar space to thrive and to grow.

At the core of any livable city lies the ability to accommodate diverse and locally grounded lifestyles and practices.  The residents are the authority when it comes to understanding a community and policy makers should draw on their expertise.  Institutional processes must make space for stories, creating a ‘sense of place’ that is shaped by the environment, culture, and history.  Policy makers too often ignore this elusive ‘sense of place’ but community is capital, people are willing to pay for it.[viii]  The value of a strong sense of place varies from economic contribution as a tourism draw to the aesthetic value of good design, to the emotional value of a place as part of the regional identity.  Beyond the monetary boost of a tourism visit, there is economic value rooted in the presence of the established local population, whose locational decision is based on their perception of, and ties to their community.

For those who call Christchurch home, as I do, remember that stories are our heritage and our legacy.  Our personal stories are a powerful contribution to building our community because it takes more than infrastructure and policy to create a city.  If you work professionally with the rebuild, your contribution is not relegated to your office.  If you don’t work professionally with the rebuild, you are still accountable for the future of this city.  We are actively building our community every day by indulging in our hobbies and by being a friend, family member, or neighbour.  Share your interests, learn about the interests of others, enjoy the time that you spend with those close to you, speak candidly about what is important to you, and listen when others do the same.  There are no boundaries that will hold us back, all we have to do is imagine the future as we’d like it to be, and create it in our own way.

Dedicated to Andy Isserman, who taught me that stories can be found in even the most mundane facts and figures and who never stopped telling stories of his own.


[i] Throgmorton, James. Inventing ‘the Greatest’: Constructing Louisville’s

Future out of Story and Clay.  Planning Theory 6:3 (2007), pp. 237-262.

[ii] Forester, John. Dealing with Differences: Dramas of Mediating Public Disputes Oxford University Press. 2009.

[iii] Sandercock, Leonie. 2003. Out of the Closet: The Importance of Stories and Storytelling in Planning Practice. Planning Theory & Practice 4:1 (2003), pp. 11-28.

[iv] Livesy, Margot “The Hidden Machinery.”  Frank Conroy, eds. The Eleventh Draft: Craft And The Writing Life From The Iowa Writers’ Workshop. New York : HarperCollins, 1999. Print.

[v] Power, Susan “The Wise Fool.”  Frank Conroy, eds. The Eleventh Draft: Craft And The Writing Life From The Iowa Writers’ Workshop. New York : HarperCollins, 1999. Print.

[vi] McPherson, James Alan “Workshopping Lucius Mummius.”  Frank Conroy, eds. The Eleventh Draft: Craft And The Writing Life From The Iowa Writers’ Workshop. New York : HarperCollins, 1999. Print.

[vii] Ibid.

8 Bolton, Roger. 1992. ‘Place prosperity vs. people prosperity’ revisited: An old issue with a new angle. Urban Studies 29: 185?203.

Hi Suburbia, nice to meet you.

Moving house is always a big deal. Even if you’ve moved five times in the last year, there always seems to be a ridiculous amount of things you have that you don’t particularly need – little pink teddy bear that’s missing an ear but is super cute so you just have to keep it, check. If you’ve not moved house at all in your entire lifetime, say twenty something years, you’ll find that you’ve got a whole heap of this random junk, as well as the occasional necessity (bed, fridge etc.) that all needs to be transported. Add all that random junk up, times it by seven, slot it right in the middle of pre-Christmas preparation, and what you have is exactly what my family and I just dealt with. Big deal? More like ordeal.

As well as dealing with the thousands of tons of sentimental crap that needed to be moved, smack bang in the middle of the Christmas shopping-rush period, the many changes that my family of seven and I would come to endure as a result of the move certainly came as a shock, whether they were anticipated or not.

Moving from one suburb to the next may involve all the typical moving processes; boxing things up, throwing them in the moving van, un-boxing things. But all in all it’s basically the same, similar streets, similar houses, similar surroundings. Moving from rural lands of forest goodness to outer suburbia however, is a whole different kettle of fish. Sure moving to the heart of the city or even inner suburbia would’ve been a whole other level of change, but hey, give a girl a break, this move was surely big enough – we have footpaths and public transport now, woah!

Take away thousands of acres of home-grown national forest, and replace it with bus stops, shopping centres and paved drive ways, and you’re only beginning to understand the drastic changes we began to face, and would eventually begin to become accustomed to.

Don’t get me wrong, my family and I are not country hicks, we had iPhones and wireless internet (albeit a much slower download speed than now), and spent as much time in the city as any other suburban chap …We just drove an hour and a half home each night, instead of jumping on a five-minute tram ride.

We moved from the mountain top town known as Toolangi, home of a mere 300 or so, to the lovely and lively suburb that is Chirnside Park. At 33kms northeast of Melbourne CBD, the drive home from the city is now less than half it used to be. Because of this, my petrol tank is now smiling as big as it ever could, however, my stereo is not. Instead of being able to fit in a solid three albums worth of listening on the trip, I’m now lucky to fit in one. But hey, I’ve got all this spare time in the day now, music listening has been engaged at other times of the day when I’m not in the car. Furthermore, if I’m feeling like a drink or two, a big night out or just a few sneaky bevvo’s after work, never fear, public transport is actually an option now. Rather than a 20 minute drive from the nearest bus stop, or a good half hour from the train, buses stop just at the end of our street and the train station is at a walking length away (would be a considerably long drunken stagger home, but doable nonetheless). The options of drunken trips home have increased tenfold! Add to this the next option that my house is now located in a general enough area that my sober friends can drop me off or pick me up, and it really does seem a dream come true. Nothing says summertime fun like the possibility of actually being able to drink 24/7 – if only my stomach and head would uphold their sides of the deal.

Delivered pizza is also a thing now. Whether it be during aforementioned drunken times or when dealing with the hangover/laziness the next morning, pizza delivered right to my door (on which said door also has a doorbell!), how did I cope without this for so long?!

However, while it may have all seemed like glory and riches and all the nice things in the beginning, this little forest girl has certainly found many a downside to living in good old Chirnside Park, 3116.

With the population of close to ten thousand, whenever you go anywhere you’re bound to see someone. No longer can I quickly run out to the car (which is now to be parked on the street) in my undies without someone catching a glimpse of my mostly nakedness, nor can I go for a run around the block without my red-faced sweaty self being spotted by an onlooker – and not the kind of onlooker or passer-by that’s okay, it’s always the kind you’d rather not see in that state. Go for a run in old T Town and the only people you’d see were farmer Bob driving past in his tractor or old lady Karen riding on her horse with her dog trailing behind. You’d stop for a heavily-panting filled chat and continue on your way. People from the country don’t mind if you’re hot or sweaty or half out of breath, hell most of the time you’re invited round for ‘scones when you’re done running deary’, or asked to tell your old man about some kind of machinery you can never quite remember the name of. But here in the outer eastern ‘burbs that kind of communication doesn’t exist, because instead of encountering the old lovely types, it’s douche bags in fully sick commodores ready for a chat – awesome.

The people just aren’t the same in Chirny, as they call it, and I am yet to decide if this is good or bad. Now that shops are conveniently located at a one minute drive away rather than 20, I no longer have to run next door to ask Rosa if she has a spare egg when I’m half way through a cake recipe and realise I don’t have enough. However, I no longer have to deal with crazy Mike next door thinking it’s okay to cut away his blackberries and throw them over the fence – yes mate, I see you, and no, you’re not getting your bi-carb soda back.

Although my family and I are yet to determine which of our new neighbours are bat shit crazy (there’s always one nuthouse) the difference between night time here and back home is already obvious. Dogs bark constantly, the sounds of police and ambulance sirens regularly drive by, hoons do their thing, and parties are held. Sleep is not an option, much, at all, ever.

I miss the birds at home, I miss not being able to have a conversation in my backyard without someone next door hearing it, I miss seeing certain people and certain things, I miss the parties! (You can’t have a party here that’s anything like a good old bush doof rave cave) But mostly, I miss my car keys. I’ve lost them more in the last three weeks than I have my entire life. You see, here in the suburbs we lock our cars, did you know? (and the house too!)