For most of my career, the timber frames on which I paint in enamel have been constructed by a Brisbane-based master artisan, Graham Reynolds. He began hand-crafting them for me in 2002, when I sought a smoother surface than canvas. I have written briefly about him in this blog before.I've known Graham and his wife, Katrina, since the beginning of my career and our friendship has endured despite a couple of storms. It's among the few I've maintained within the art world. When I visited him, this week, Graham was dressed like a country gentleman: tucked-in chambray shirt, pressed moleskin trousers and leather boots polished to a rich, burnished shine. He took me through his large workshop to show me some of the more intriguing projects he had in hand. A huge pane of glass, made 150 years ago, was being buffed of scratches and re-mirrored. As his fingers trailed through the oxide dust, he explained how the glass had been made. Nearby, an aproned craftsman was sanding smooth a frame before spending the next six weeks hand-carving intricate patterns into it. Other rooms accommodated spray painting booths, imposing mechanical devices and more craftspeople working at benches. Some were hand-gilding frames before tinting them with a specially mixed, hand-painted stain. Around them, ornate antique frames leaned against walls, awaiting repair or refurbishment. Many of Australia's best-known artists have their work framed here, including Jeffrey Smart, Ray Crooke, Lawrence Daws, and Margaret Olley. As Graham noted, somewhat ruefully, they're about the only artists who can afford his work nowadays. Most of his clients are museums, national or international galleries, and wealthy private collectors. You can't just walk into the workshop off the street. The few clients that visit are greeted by a locked door and an intercom. There's no shopfront – the building is non-descript and anonymous – and the business isn't listed in the Yellow Pages. It has no web presence. Its reputation is such it doesn't need any of them.
Sadly, Graham will be retiring in a year's time. His workshop will be sold and no-one will continue the tradition of highly regarded craftsmanship and specialisation that he has established. He will keep his archives – in themselves, a trove of Australian art history – and specialised materials and continue to make frames, but probably only for himself and a few favoured clients.Over the past couple of years, I have tried to have frames constructed in Sydney, closer to my studios. I've used professional carpenters and joiners but by and large, the results were useless. Nevertheless, I've still wanted to work out a reliable methodology for myself, one I could teach others, wherever I happened to be. Being entirely reliant on one person in one location to supply an essential component of my work was expensive, inconvenient and when I'm travelling, entirely unworkable. Graham offered to teach me how to do it.Upstairs, above his workshop, Graham offered me coffee in a cup with a saucer and we sat at a table strewn with books on framing and art. It's more like a parlour than a shop. In a fatherly manner, he described the basics of how I might go about building a standard frame for my work that would, as he put it, last longer than I would. He advised on the best types of woods and joins and gave me the name of the glue I should use, where to buy it and how it should be applied and clamped while drying. Heavy duty glue is preferable as eventually, nails and staples either dissolve or show through. We discussed how to strengthen corners and prevent warping.As Graham saw it, the work was simple, really. It just needed the correct materials and a formula to put them together. His instruction was generous and empowering. I want to be responsible for all aspects of my work – and not just because it's easier, more efficient and less stressful. It enhances what I do, as well as who I am, as an artist and connects me directly to a centuries-old tradition of the artist as consummate craftsman, a master of all the elements of their 'trade', from the assemblage of the frame to the fabric of the brushes and the chemistry of the paint.