Under the Strawberry Snowball Tree, Whangarei Quarry Gardens October 2019
Tropical plants and spring blooms have been the focus of my artworks this season. In October I travelled to Northland and made artworks with foliage from the beautiful sub-tropical Whangarei Quarry Gardens. Pictured above is a painting made from a wonderfully named tree from Madagascar, the Strawberry Snowball tree (Dombeya cacuminum), which has lovely strawberry coloured flowers. The flowers turn a golden honey brown colour after they fall to the ground. Sitting under this tree with a view over the small lake at the Quarry Gardens was the starting point for this artwork.
The large green leaves and flowers of this tropical tree are perfect for nature printing, the technique I use to build up an image. When making an artwork I try to use as few leaves and flowers as possible to minimise both waste and impact on plants. I’ve started examining all aspects of my artistic process with environmental sustainability in mind and I’m making changes where necessary to minimise any negative environmental impact. Working with plants one is always aware of how perfectly the circular systems of nature sustain and nourish life. We have a lot to learn about incorporating these processes into how we design everything in our societies.
There is another tree near the Strawberry Snowball tree which also features in the artworks I created in Whangarei. The Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa) is significant in Buddhism and this one also overlooks the man made lake at the gardens. I made two artworks using Bodhi tree leaves and some of the foliage surrounding the tree, including scented geraniums with delightfully frilled leaves. Making these artworks with tropical species felt like a special experience and I’m grateful to have had the chance to create art with these trees.
Another area that inspired me was the Garden of Five Senses near the entrance to the Quarry Gardens. Working with fragrant plants is always so calming, I think it does influence the artwork as I always find myself creating very gentle and softly coloured paintings when nature printing with these types of plants. French lavender and geraniums feature in one of these artworks (detail pictured below). I scan the smaller A4 artworks which sometimes produces mixed results – it can “bleach” the image, making it paler than in reality. However, this scanning process does reveal many of the small details in the images. Fine art prints of some of these artworks will be available from Corokia Studio over the coming weeks.
Whilst in Whangarei I hired a studio at the Quarry Arts Centre near the gardens. This collection of art studios, art gallery and a co-op store is a great resource for the local community and it was a good opportunity for me to meet some of the artists working in Whangarei. It was interesting to look around the studios and spot the various ceramic sculptures dotted around the gardens. One of the plants growing at the Quarry Arts Centre ended up in an art work of mine of course (detail below). The local environment always influences the choice of not just plants but also the colours and expressive aspects of the artworks.
I am hoping to have more opportunities in the future to work with tropical plants and trees. My fascination with tropical plants began many years ago and was fuelled by travels – to Hawaii when younger, and much later, a visit to the Daintree rainforest in Queensland. Sixteen years ago I had the great privilege of visiting Costa Rica in Central America, travelling solo and in need of some time in nature. This was a life-changing experience and I was fortunate to visit some of the protected rainforests there including the Manuel Antonio National Park, Cahuita and the Cloud Forest of Monteverde. It is one thing to see a potted Peace Lily in a office or home – quite another to see it growing in its native habitat and part of a wider biodiverse ecosystem.
Bloodwood, Cahuita National Park, Costa Rica 2003
Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica 2003
Monteverde Cloud Forest, Costa Rica 2003
La Colina, Monteverde, Costa Rica 2003
I have been thinking about rainforests a lot recently, especially due to recent news reports of increased clearing of the Amazonian rainforest regions and the impact of this and other human activities on the world’s climate. This thinking has influenced my artworks and I have started a series of small works focussing on single leaves with the theme of climate change and the impacts on the biosphere. Working with plants one is acutely aware of how many species are becoming endangered. Increasingly there are endemic New Zealand species which I cannot nature print with due to their scarcity and vulnerability. These species may not survive in the future due to deforestation and climate change.
I started making paintings that were directly about climate change in 2009. It was a long process to find a way to translate some of my thinking and research in this area into a visual language. It wasn’t until I started nature printing that I felt that I had found the right pathway to do this. The issues that I was deeply concerned about in 2009 are even more urgent ten years later.
Cussonia, Whangarei Quarry Gardens, 2019. (Cussonia, Iresine and Geranium)
Recently I have expanded my art making beyond traditional paintings on paper and canvas. A small project that I completed coinciding with New Zealand Fashion Week was a good chance to experiment in this way. Sustainability is a big challenge for the fashion industry – in particular contemporary fast fashion has been identified as a major source of wastage and pollution. Finding alternatives to this cycle is really important if we are to make positive changes to remedy this situation. During Fashion Week I attended the Sustainable Fashion show and wore an upcycled thrift shop dress which I nature printed with lavender and other garden plants. Upcycling is when you transform an old item of clothing to enhance and extend its use and value. Using what we already have in a creative way is one step we can take to reduce consumption and use existing resources more wisely. I really enjoyed the process of transforming this dress and I’m planning to upcycle another old item of clothing from my local Dove hospice shop over summer.
Looking at my art through the lens of environmental impact is a really thought-provoking exercise. It covers all aspects of my creative practise – the paints I use, the watercolour and printmaking papers, the tools I use for photography and promotion, and the scale of the artworks. This is a process that will involve close examination of the companies who provide my art materials and how those items are packaged.
I believe that many artists have neglected to consider the impact of their art making in terms of sustainability and environmental impact. This is something that will have to change – the art world is not exempt from making changes to improve in this area. In fact, looking at the art world in terms of environmental impact is a sobering exercise. Suddenly the international Biennales and Art Fairs seem incredibly wasteful and the environmental cost of shipping large artworks (and people!) around the world is difficult to justify. I think back to the last art fair I attended and some of the artworks on display – large artworks made of synthetic resin, sprawling canvases and some artworks made from plastics. In hindsight many of the artworks were definitely not environmentally friendly.
So how can art be more beneficial to the environment and less wasteful? This is something I have been thinking a lot about over the past weeks. I think in terms of objects it would involve smaller scale artworks that can be easily transported and use less resources in their production. Perhaps it also involves digital artworks that can be shared easily without shipping the physical artworks worldwide. Transitory artworks made from natural materials that can be returned to the environment without harmful effects are another example of a type of art that is better for the planet. How to fund this type of art making is another challenge for artists. I’ve been trialling Patreon as a possible way to fund some of these types of projects – so far without success – but with time perhaps this offers a better solution for artists attempting to work towards a more sustainable approach. Ultimately I don’t think it is enough any more just to make more objects – in a time of climate crisis artists will need to be more proactive and reconsider their whole art making processes.
With these thoughts in mind and after reflection on my own art making I have launched a new social art project aimed at making a positive difference in my local environment. The goal of the #tamakiriverart project is to clean rubbish from the shores of Tamaki Estuary in Auckland, New Zealand. You can photograph rubbish collected from the estuary shores, arrange it in a creative way or make something from it. Simply tag the image #tamakiriverart and I will add it to the collection on the @ecologicalarts Instagram page. Please remove any rubbish that you collect and dispose of properly! Anyone in the community or visiting the estuary can participate (although they will need to have access to Instagram at this stage). Children can ask their parents to email me or post a photograph for them if they wish to participate. A big thank you to the local cubs and leaders who have helped make a start on this project this week.
Plastic tree branch and reeds, Tahuna Torea Nature Reserve
Spring is a busy time in the plant world and in my studio. If you like my artworks and would like to see more updates between blog posts you can follow me on Facebook @celestesterlingartist and on Instagram @celestesterling
You can also help me make more art! As an independent female artist it is always a challenge to thrive. You can help me do this by purchasing fine art prints from Corokia Studio on Felt NZ.
I’m also on Patreon, which is monthly subscription service for artists. It offers a way for creators to get some regular income for all the amazing work they do. On my Patreon page people can access regular patron-only posts about my art work – the making of it and the inspiration behind it – and I offer downloadable digital art prints (usually one a month) exclusively for Patrons. Patrons can select what level of support they wish to provide – it can be as little as US$1 per month. Currently all my art making is self funded. I would like to continue making art and with support this is possible.
Celeste Sterling, October 2019