Post by Gareth Hart.
I first met Isabel Foster on a Thursday morning, here in the Burrinja foyer, during her recent exhibition. I was instantly enamoured by her. Not only did Isabel meet me with wide eyes, a warm smile and an infectious laugh, but all the while she had what I can only suppose was a 7 meter piece of knitting wrapped all around her, trying to keep it from dragging on the ground. This wasn’t a fashion statement; not a scarf that she was wearing. It was a piece of handcraft that she was working on. The woman is so addicted to wool and craft, that even surrounded by a small entourage of fans, and meeting new people every 30 seconds, she continues to knit and subsequently be tangled up in her own creations.
Isabel, you had me at hello.
A few weeks later, I gratefully accept a warm invitation from Isabel to come and spend some time with her in her own home. We talk at length…..
What was your initial response to the exhibition?
I had my cousins with me, and Julie [daughter] when I arrived. We walked in, and I was walking on air! I didn’t know what I was going to do when I went inside.
I want to know about the exhibition: how you thought it went, what it felt like for you, were you happy?
Well, what would you imagine I felt about it? Have you ever had such a thing happen to you, at this stage in life? What interested me, was the number of people, elderly, who came up to me would have known about me, because I was doing some teaching for people. Teaching them anything they would like to know, but I made sure I wasn’t teaching them anything, I was just demonstrating. And what they got out of that was added to by my knowledge of the hand weavers and spinners guild.
For those who helped me I gave back twice the amount. And I did it with a laugh, and no demanding ‘stand up and weave this way’, salute me, and all that. I didn’t want that. I wanted to be free.
I didn’t take it too seriously. I was doing what I was, because I wanted to, and because I could!
She reaches for a pile of paper near her teacup
This is the list of people who wanted to keep in touch with me through the exhibition. One, two, three, four, five, six. Six pages of people!
Isabel reads me the notes from the first name on the page. And the first one says ‘wants you to talk to the Art Without Borders program, that brings migrant and refugee women together to learn and relearn textile crafts.’
And again, I am left speechless. At the young age of 92, Isabel is being asked things like this. I learn that also a small group of women from a Steiner School came to Isabel’s house and spent some time learning the art of rug hooking. All in a day’s weaving for this amazing lady really.
So, six pages of people want to meet you, all eager to spend time with you. How does that make you feel?
Out of this world!
In a turn of the conversation, Isabel becomes quite reminiscent, we talk about the exhibition bringing her in contact with both friends of her past, and friends anew. Particularly as she lives alone now, in her Caulfield house, crafting away the hours of the day, she does sometimes become taken with a little loneliness.
When I gave my car away, or in fact I sold it, I was getting the rag tag, glaring, tooting and screaming. So I came home and told my husband that I was going to sell my car. So that’s where I started to go downhill, because I couldn’t drive into the guild. Over a period of 4 or 5 years, not being there all the time like I used to be, and talking to everyone, and being cheeky, making the whole caboodle laugh when they didn’t mean to laugh, (I had a ball!) I stopped going in. I also had to give up table tennis, where I was playing against men all the time. They were all men, from Europe, and they had been principles and top champions of the game. Winning everywhere. But that’s another story!
I’ve. Always. Been. Self. Sufficient. (Isabel bangs the table in between words, in emphatic punctuation of each word).
Suddenly, Isabel notices a ring on my finger – a shrimp fork twisted into the shape of a ring. She asks if I could make her a ring out of her husband’s 20cent piece collection. When I tell here, regrettably, that I couldn’t (I have neither the tools, nor the knowledge to do so), she seems deeply offended, exclaiming:
Then you stop and learn! I had to learn everything that I have ever done, without being told.
Isabel’s love for her craft oozes through her, and without even realising, she inspires so many others to dive into her world. But it’s not solo. Isabel holds your hand, guides you, provokes you, laughs with you. She does all of this out of the kindness of her heart. I get the feeling that if Isabel can inspire you, she is happy.
I think one of the most wonderful things that has happened, in my endeavours, is that I was spinning at a sheep show and this woman came up to me: a big strong country woman. And she watched me spinning wool. She told me her and her husband were travelling to northern Queensland to buy some top quality cattle. And she thought it would be a good idea with me pushing her, to do some knitting. I gave here a demonstration, and I taught her to spin on a stick. A whole year later, I am in the same place, doing the same thing, and she stood in front of me in a great big white cable knit jumper. I said ‘did you do that on a stick?’ and she said ‘yes’ – and I could have gone through that, up there (Isabel points to heaven), to think that I taught that person to spin on a stick in 5 minutes! I just couldn’t believe it!
And then there was a time when some big art people were organising a show, in between Richmond and Flinders street in the park. The day was wet. So I arrived with carpet for the floor, a tent to stop wind, my spinning wheel, fleece, yarn. This woman came from Richmond station with two children, with bags of food and shopping, ready to go have lunch. She was coming towards me with her two children. The little girl came up to me, at my spinning wheel, and said ‘oh, could I learn to spin?’. Oh yes, I could teach you. That child picked up the technique so quickly. The mother wanted to go to an exhibition, so they went off, but the little girl stayed with me for a while. She said ‘thank you for teaching me to spin’. So I said: now I want you to do two things for me. I want you to go to your friends, and teach two people to spin on a stick. ‘Oooh yes’ she replied. Now one year later I am in the same place, with the same rain falling, and the mother and little girl came up to me again, and I said ‘how are you?’, and the girl said ‘(panting) I’ve got something to tell you: you told me to go away and teach two people. I went to school and taught my teacher, and then the teacher went and taught the whole school!’. I get very weepy at the thought of her. But that was just a wonderful experience. That teacher was a wonderful person.
As I sit with Isabel, I am not surprised, on any level, that she has inspired so many people through her life: leaving remnants of her love of craft in many corners of the minds and hearts of others.
I could stop now, and no one would know what they are losing: all the things I can still do. I’m very honoured to be invited, for you to take from what I have been saying, what you need.
No Isabel, the honour is all mine.