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The Piercing Eyes of Paris

Mar 28, 2024
Article by Daisy Baker

Locking eyes with a surreal creature during a Parisian puppetry festival thousands of kilometres from her Tassie home, artist Fran Reeve-Palmer felt a captivating moment of connection that she won’t forget. “They looked into my eyes for a really long time and it was like they knew everything that I was thinking and feeling and all that it’s taken to get to this point,” she says. Fran enjoyed a three-month artist residency program late last year at Cité Internationale des Arts complex, exploring object-based theatre.

She frequented one particular performance at The World Festival of Puppet Theatres and after several days of holding her gaze from afar, one of the creatures held out their hand and beckoned her closer. Each masked performer embodied a human experience, for instance the concept of romance. The characters performed in front of a set, occasionally standing at the barrier dividing them from onlookers, staring deeply into the strangers’ eyes.

“It really captivated me,” she says excitedly.

This inspired Fran to develop her own performance, similarly exploring the power of eye contact, which she performed during a festival open day and plans to develop further on her home turf.

Fran’s masked otherworldly character personified softness, kindness and sharing, both giving and receivingenergy from the audience.

“It creates this opportunity to really surrender to a moment of engagement that you don’t normally get,” she says. “It’s not just looking, it’s being really present behind your eyes while you’re there and choosing not to disassociate.

“You’re being stared at by 35 people and you’re in a costume, looking intensely into someone’s eyes. Every human instinct is saying ‘don’t be doing that’, which is really funny to choose to do that kind of performance when I [usually] find it so hard looking into people’s eyes. It’s like therapy,” she laughs.

While in Paris, Fran deviated from her usual large-scale felted faces, instead gleaning inspiration from other artists, attending festivals, and ‘chasing serotonin’.

She now grapples with how to weave together the various threads of puppetry, felted work, explorations of gravity and circus performance going forward. “I have so many different interests but they all centre around character development and portrayal. It’s a matter of giving each medium its moment, it’s a bit of a tricky dance.”

Growing up in Deloraine, Tasmania’s fibre arts capital, Fran took an interest in felting and was particularly drawn to local artist Selki.

“I saw her work and was very inspired – it always gave me that excited kind of feeling,” she says with a joyous wiggle.

Skip forward to 2022, Fran began creating felted sculptures during her honours year. Using sheep or alpaca wool and a barbed felting needle, she laboriously tangles layers of fibres to resemble a face.

Her largest work to date featured in the RISE exhibition at QVMAG last year, which showcased emerging artists. It was more than a metre in diameter, and took a month to create. Her usual faces, about dinner plate size, take about 10 hours of consistent work, throughout which an expression emerges.

“Whatever I am feeling at that time I often will literally push into the fibres.” Some faces are intensely focused, some are peaceful, others are full of rage. When we speak it’s been two weeks since Fran’s return from Paris, a rich learning experience she says she’ll unravel for years to come.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about how to reconcile the version of me that was in Paris and the version of me that is here,” she says.

This was her first solo trip overseas, during which she discovered a quieter and slower-moving self, while grappling with loneliness.

Fran likens the return to the daily juggle of life, work and creation in Hobart to the aftermath of a meditation retreat.

“It’s a process of figuring out how to hold that feeling.”

PHOTO FRAN REEVE-PALMER

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