Thoughts From The Grasslands: An Interview With Akka Ballenger Constantin

“Anyone can make art in any form. Everyone has a talent, you just need to make use of it.”


Akka Ballenger Constantin is a fascinating artist. Her twenty-year career spans a broad range of subjects (though her greatest passion seems to be for nature) and mediums. From printmaking, to photography and drawing.

She was Artist in Residence at Playing Fields Studios last year and is currently studying visual arts at CIT.

Two solo exhibitions are happening now. “Permission to disappear” is at the Tootsie Gallery, Yass NSW (January – March) and “Leading Women” at Molonglo Mall, Canberra, ACT in March. 

Part of her mammoth sixty poem collection entitled “Stories From My Grasslands” is featured right here in Jalmurra. A stunning photograph helps capture the image portrayed in each poem.

This week she shares insights on the artistic process (including a few camera tips from a lifelong photographer) and future projects.

You can find links to her poems and a list of her current projects and group exhibitions at the end of this interview.


Let’s talk a little about the process. Such stunning photographs. What cameras do you use? Any other equipment?



I have very limited equipment. It’s only recently that I have made the transition from film photography to the digital realm. I am trained to look for the light first and then make use of it with what I have at hand. I still have all my film cameras but at the moment I use two semi-professional, mid-range crop sensor cameras and I just swap around several lenses. I have an all-rounder, a good old 18mm to 140mm lens and then depending on the occasion I might use a 35mm lens with a f1.8 aperture or a nifty-50. I can only use the 50mm for (very) still subjects, as none of the cameras can focus this lens automatically and my manual focus is not always the best. For a couple of years, a generous friend let me use one of his best lenses, a 105mm macro which I absolutely loved. I don’t think I ever took a bad image with that lens.  Recently, courtesy of Playing Filed Studios here in Canberra, who awarded me with an Artist in Residence, I was able to add my own macro, a 70mm-300mm which also doubles as a long lens and allows me to take wildlife shots as well.

The process: there isn’t really a very structured process in my approach. Sometimes I have a thought in my mind and I want to transpose it in images. Other times I just go out and chase the light. I love bringing out the beauty in the daily mundane. I love how a place can change from minute to minute, season to season. It’s all in the way the light falls over a leaf or a rock. You just need to stop and observe it.

Bottom line: it’s all in the eye. You don’t need the most expensive or the newest gear (one of my cameras is over ten years old) to take good shots. They certainly help with getting the technical details right but nothing can compensate, if one lacks imagination and creativity.



What about software, what is your go to editing program?



I am still old school in that regard and I like to get my images right when I shoot. But depending on the mood I want to convey through my art, I do use Photoshop or even painting and hand drawing. In the past, I loved using Corel Paint – it’s a dream, working with it.  If I could have a wish, I would really like to try the Microsoft Surface or an iPad and pen in the future and try my hand at making digital art.



How do you get the shots? Do you head out with the intention of working/taking photos or does your camera go with you everywhere?



It’s a mix of both. I used to take my camera everywhere, just in case THAT once in a life time shot comes my way. Nowadays it has become a bit impractical, carrying my gear bag everywhere, running around to and from my children’s school, my own school, running errands, rushing to all those extracurricular activities…and as much as I would like to keep my gear in the car, it’s definitely not a good idea; the Australian sun is very hot. If I could afford it, I would love to get one of those mirrorless cameras to carry around in my bag. They take amazing shots but the weight is considerably less.  Luckily, nowadays the phone cameras are not too bad. Last year, I upgraded my phone and it has a Leica lens. I was very impressed with the quality it packs. While I don’t really use it a lot for my artistic projects, I like that during my walks I have a camera handy, if something catches my eye.

There are times when I head out with my cameras looking for specific images. I had a camera ever since I was six years old. And it’s around the same time I learned to write. So for a long while, my brain has been working with both images and words in no particular order. Sometimes I write a poem and then I head out looking for imagery to complement or illustrate the writing. Other times, it may be a scene from the grasslands that speaks to me and makes me write about it. And then there are the times when I just need a break from the daily rush and I like to get lost in the grasslands with my cameras. It’s usually these unplanned, spur of the moment decisions that yield the best images. I don’t go there with an expectation to find a certain thing, and I am receptive to everything around me. My favourite time of day is sunrise; more exactly, the minutes before the sunrise. For a brief moment, I am alone with my thoughts and it feels like I have won prime tickets, witnessing the entire world awaking.



You recorded some of your poems for radio. What was that experience like?



Working with Art Sound FM was a great experience. I was commissioned to do what I love most. I wrote a suite of sixty poems in four languages; I called it “Stories From My Grasslands” because in time I came to recognise the grasslands as my headspace. The place where I go where I need to think or to find myself. We recorded these poems and we decided to make video clips with the many images I have taken over the last 3 or 4 years. The radio segment I wrote for was called “Senior Memories” and upon learning that many of our listeners were home bound, or in aged care facilities, we decided to take the grasslands to them through these videos. I was quite nervous; I never thought I have a good voice for radio but everyone was very supportive. I particularly loved working with Brian, the producer, who was very encouraging and accommodating. I enjoyed the natural way he shared his knowledge, giving me a quick crash course in modern digital radio ins and outs.



‘Songs From My Grasslands,’ music set to your poetry composed by Harvey Welsh, is out. How did that collaboration happen?



This came about in a very fortuitous way. It’s probably one of the best collaborations I have had in years. It is one of those moments when all the right stars align.

I love music, but I cannot put two notes together, unfortunately. I was very honoured when composer Harvey Welsh asked me to work with him. I already knew Harvey and the magic of his music. When I was writing the last poems to be recorded for the radio segment, I was listening to a new music CD Harvey and a mutual friend composed; and that inspired me in many ways.

Therefore, it was a logical step to let Harvey choose the poems he’d like to compose music to. In my own artistic practice, I love to mix the senses — much the same way French symbolist poets did. Whether it’s words, music, drawings, paintings, or photography, I believe they all work together really well. Collaborating with Harvey was a bit like that. We didn’t talk much about this project – we didn’t have this need to have a formal talk and set stages of progressions or decide which poems we will use. Our collaboration was intuitive; I always felt he understood the poems the way I wrote them and interestingly enough, he chose my favourite ones, without me ever telling him that. And after he was done with the music, he felt inspired to respond with paintings as well. That’s when we decided to launch a CD and make an exhibition as well. We were very lucky that the team at Ginninderry has been supporting our artistic journey all the way through.

And our collaboration won’t stop here, I am sure.

[Preview or buy the album on Bandcamp]

“New ideas are what keeps a city young—not just in art, but generally. Allowing new ideas to mature and develop means in a way, shaping new directions for the future.If we all did the same old, life would be so boring.”



What are you working on now?



I have this joke with my close friends, that I have only one head and too many ideas. I always seem to be working on one thing or another.

At the moment, I am preparing a double exhibition for “A Hat of Many Dreams” a project that I have been working on for the last 3 years. It is a collection of portraits and stories of the people next door; they are the ones who make Canberra such a unique place.

This year (2018) I have enrolled to study visual arts; that in itself is a huge challenge. I am learning many new techniques and I am aiming to develop and improve my skills. I am slowly building a new portfolio to reflect my other artistic pursuits as well. I am particularly drawn to printmaking; it has been very rewarding to learn in a proper hands-on studio environment, alongside fellow artists that I respect very much, and under the guidance of highly skilled teachers.

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@planetakka on Twitter


Exhibition List



2019

  • “Permission To Disappear” – Tootsie Gallery, Yass NSW (January – March) 


  • “Leading Women” – Molonglo Mall, Canberra, ACT (March)


  • “postcards from the sky” – Belconnen Arts Centre Canberra, ACT


  • “Many Streams” – M16 Art Space Canberra, ACT (March)


  • 2018

  • Twitter Art Exhibit, an International art exhibition held at Strathnairn Arts Association, Canberra ACT (April)


  • “Songs From my Grasslands” – Photography and Mixed Media Exhibition and CD launch at Ginninderry Link Building, Canberra, ACT (April -May)


  • “A Hat of Many Dreams” – Individual photo exhibition hosted simultaneously by two venues, Strathnairn Arts Association and the Link building, Ginninderry development, Canberra ACT (23 August – 25 September)


  • Annual Members Exhibition – Strathnairn Arts Association, Canberra ACT (September – October)

    2017

  • “Anthotypes” exhibition at “Canberra Wise Women Design” event, part of Design Canberra Festival, ACT


  • “Anthology” – Collective alternative photography exhibition at Belconnen Community Services ACT


  • Annual Members Exhibition – Strathnair Arts Association, ACT


  • “Traces” Belconnen Arts Centre ACT


  • Read Akka’s Poems In Jalmurra:

    Blank
    Traces of Green
    The Second Sun
    Life Line
    Avant L' Hiver
    Trees Dreaming
    The Rain


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