Q&A: Jacqueline Gribbin
A wrapped Gilbert Whitley block found in storage.
Jacqueline Gribbin, Cats Whiskers, relief etching, chine colle, 2017
Jacqueline Gribbin, Down in the Weeds, relief etching, 2017
Letterpress boxes in storage
Jacqueline Gribbin’s new exhibition explores the work of icthyologist Gilbert Whitley, an Australian Museum curator of fishes.
IMPRINT: How did you develop an interest in Gilbert Whitley and his letterpress blocks?
JG: A few years ago I was shown a collection of letterpress blocks stored at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. Many were wrapped in faded and yellowing paper with handwritten notes; some were covered in grease or wax. On first viewing, they were obviously forgotten treasures, particularly to a printmaker’s eye.
The blocks originated from the Australian Museum in Sydney, and I discovered that most of them had been created by a Gilbert Whitley who had worked at the museum from 1922-1964. After reading some more into Whitley’s background, I became intrigued enough to visit the Australian Museum to learn more about the blocks and Whitley himself. There began my exploration of the Whitley archives and the origin of the blocks.
IMPRINT: What is it about his works that you felt you wanted to respond to?
JG: My response to the blocks developed and evolved over time. Initially I was responding to the exquisitely detailed drawings of fishes. However, as I looked at more blocks I found different “groupings” such as simple scientific and anatomical drawings of sharks and rays as well as maps of areas around Australia relating to Whitley’s research. There were also old photographic images of fishermen with their catch.
I spent quite a lot of time looking at Whitley’s research papers and books to establish the identities of fish on the blocks. I also observed his original pen and ink drawings, watercolours and sketches. Through my research I began to respond to Gilbert’s character – his obsession with ichthyology and his cheeky sense of humour – as well as finding a scientific and historical context for the blocks.
IMPRINT: How has exposure to Whitley’s work informed your own practice?
JG: As my own work is formed from the environment and nature, creating a body of work with a marine based theme was a natural extension of my usual practice. Having said that however, the marine world was a very new and unknown environment to me, and exploring it through Whitley’s eyes has opened up a whole array of marine environments that I never knew existed. Although Whitley was an ichthyologist and a scientist, it is his character and little anecdotes, which permeate through his books and my work. He loved doodling and sketching, and I think it is this aspect of his character, which has allowed me to approach the creation of the works without feeling constrained to produce a literal response to the marine world.
IMPRINT: Can you describe the links you have developed between Whitley’s experiences and the contemporary world?
JG: In 1934 Whitley gave evidence before the Shark Menace Advisory Committee in NSW. Many of the issues discussed still remain relevant today; we still retain the same repulsion, fear and also admiration of sharks and we are still discussing ways to reduce shark attacks.
Evolving environmental factors, threats to the marine world and more positively, discoveries of new species of fish were Whitley’s experiences, which are still relevant to the world of ichthyology today. Human nature is still the same, and we continue to have the same fears and connections with the sea. This commonality has enabled a contemporary artistic response to Whitley’s work and character.
Relief printing blocks courtesy of the Australian Museum