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“The most exciting thing for me as a kid was to go down to Dad’s shed and just hang out” said Tania Spencer, an artist in The Alternative Archive exhibition.

“I loved playing with metal offcuts and other things that were discarded. I used to pick up the welding rod ends – the little bit that’s leftover when you weld – and take them back to the house. Mum would tell me off because I used to put them under my bed!”

This love for the discarded and industrial materials found within her environment remains at the heart of Tania Spencer’s practice. Based in the Wheatbelt town of Lake Grace, she works mostly with wire and metal, to create large-scale outdoor sculpture, two dimensional wallworks, installation and jewelry.

We had the pleasure of meeting Tania at her home studio, where our conversation flowed through a network of busy workspaces, each with their own purpose and function.

Image credit: Tania Spencer in her home studio. Photography by Duncan Wright.

“I work all through my house, from one end to the other. It was probably in 2018 when I started turning this room into a working studio space. This one is supposed to be my ‘clean’ space” Tania laughed.

Covering a large table was a collection of scrap metal, rusty nails, shells, stones, feathers, seedpods, glass and ceramic fragments, sorted into plastic containers, jar lids and old tins. “These are the sorts of things that inspire me” Tania shared. “Things that I’ve collected ever since I was a kid. There’s something for me about collections of things, something about comparing, ordering and counting.”

In another space, curious forms hung from the roof and despite being constructed in wire, they appeared fluid and full of movement. “Those are my little sample pieces” she said. “They are testing rates of expansion and the patterns of hyperbolic numbers. I love mathematics, numbers, fractal geometry, all of that stuff!”

A large piece made of copper wire floated delicately in the space. “This is inspired by a Eucalyptus Macrocarpa seed pod. I’m making a series of three of these. It’s about human relationships, with each other, and with the environment” she said.

Organic forms like seed pods and leaves, or coral, ribbons of kelp, nudibranchs, and sea-cucumbers, reoccur in Tania’s work. These often small and ephemeral things are reimagined on a macro-scale, translated into wire using various textile techniques.

“I mostly work with knitting stitch, but also lace and crochet. And the small landscapes that I’ve done are actually embroideries. I also use a technique called ‘nalbinding’, an ancient looping stitch.”

Tania’s process is informed by her backgrounds in agriculture and textile manufacturing. “When I left school, heaven knows why, I put art down as my third choice. I got into a Bachelor of Science but decided “I’m not working in the bottom of a hospital in a lab with no windows.” I went and worked in hospitality, retail and in agriculture. But eventually I realised, “I really want to make clothes!”I didn’t have the courage to enroll in a fashion design degree so I found a commercial sewing course and ended up doing that, landing a job at Liz Davenport for a few years. After that I returned to the country.”

“We bought an old bakery and I turned this space into a clothing shop and out the back was the manufacturing space” she said. “I would make garments to fill contracts and take them back to Perth once a week to the designers that had retail shops. It could be anything from lined jackets to beautiful little confirmation dresses, whatever patterns they gave me to make.”

While still working in the shop, Tania began studying art through Curtin University. Completing the course remotely over six years, Tania had the opportunity to travel to Northam, Esperance, Kalgoorlie and Margaret River, being annexed to each of these regional campuses.

“Traveling across the state exposed me to so many different disciplines. For instance, we’d be doing life drawing in a brothel in Kalgoorlie with a belly dancer. Then we’d be down in Midland, doing etching workshops with Barbara Cotter, or installation with Susan Flavell and Andrew Nicholls in Margaret River or at Curtin Bentley, with Brenda Ridgewell in the jewelry studio. It was an interesting way to study that’s for sure!”

The convergence of utility and decoration also fascinates Tania. She shared with us a book on the traditional craft of tinkering, explaining “This is where it all comes from, the Slovakian tinkers, making utilitarian things with wire.”

The Slovakian tinkers were skilled craftspeople who worked and travelled throughout Europe and Russia in the 18th and 19th centuries. Using wire and tin, the tinkers made functional and decorative objects like baskets, tins, sieves, ladles and more. “I would like to go over there one day” Tania said.

This interest in decoration and design was visible in a series of tiny, intricate studies in industrial mesh that Tania began to explore during the COVID lockdowns. “This is what came out of the pandemic and being locked up in a house” she said.

“I’d be watching all the horrifying 24 hour news. The mesh would stay on the kitchen table and I would just cut a small piece off. I started messing with how many different patterns I could come up with. I made hundreds of them.”

“This is a whole new area for me. This work has more formalist tendencies, but there’s also a Middle Eastern influence. One of my units at University was on Islamic art and architecture, that really interests me. It’s that attention to decoration and repetition.”

Tania is always on the road, learning or teaching new skills. “I love to travel for my art. I’m always keen to learn new skills. I recently did some powder coating on the industrial mesh pieces with Kate Sale down at Fremantle Arts Centre.”

She also shares her many skills with others across WA through community and school arts workshops. “That’s the textile nature within the work that I do. It creates a sharing environment” she said.

Alongside practicing full-time, Tania co-runs the Lake Grace Regional Artspace, a community-run artist gallery and workshop which was established to promote Wheatbelt artists. “When we came to Lake Grace, there was little available around arts and culture, so creating an art space for people to meet regularly, hold workshops and exhibit has helped facilitate that.”

Tania adds, “My Pop was a woodworker and my Dad was always making stuff in the shed on the farm, and Mum and Nan were skilled in sewing, knitting and crochet. They all taught me, so I give a lot of credit to my parents and my grandparents for how I make and what I make with.”

She has, however, honed a practice uniquely hers, one that combines traditional crafts with contemporary sculpture, and the materials that hark back to her childhood, hanging out in the shed on the family farm.

Tania Spencer holds a Bachelor of Arts (Arts) and Associate Degree in Fine Art from Curtin University. She has exhibited her work with Sculptures by the Sea nine times and regularly exhibits in solo and group shows.

You can see Tania’s work 40 Babies a Year Born Here in the next tour of The Alternative Archive exhibition at the Town Hall in Kinjarling/Albany from February 2 – March 9 2024 and in Sew + So :: the in-between space at CASM Mandurah, Sculpture by the Sea, Cottesloe in March and in Ghosts of the Wheatbelt, a solo show for IOTA24 at Ellenbrook Gallery in September 2024.