In biology, regeneration means the ability of living organisms to grow, renew and restore themselves in order to cope with change. Applying this idea to culture implies a process of growth and renewal to create strength, resilience and ultimately a change in culture in response to a changing environment. Over summer it is something I have been thinking and learning about, especially in relation to the role of art in a changing climate. Summer is usually a time of celebration and a chance to take a break from routines. But this summer felt different for me – whilst a break was still much needed, the effects of changing climatic conditions can be felt everywhere, and one cannot look away, or run away from it. Today it is raining, for the first time in a very long while where I live. This summer in parts of New Zealand we have had a relatively short experience of what drought feels like, and recent flooding in the South Island has also caused damage and destruction. This summer we have seen what a changing climate means for our neighbours in Australia, and it is scary and heartbreaking.
Pictured above, a nature printed heart made with kowhai and garden plants. A gift for Patreon supporters, available via my Patreon page: https://www.patreon.com/celestesterling
The pittosporum that I nature printed in the painting above died this summer, exhausted by the long dry spell whilst I was away visiting family. It was our living Christmas tree from a few years ago, a native species which usually copes well with New Zealand conditions. Walking in the bush near our home recently it was clear to me that other endemic species were also struggling with the dry conditions, especially the younger plants and trees with shallower roots. Climate breakdown threatens all species and it is not something happening far way or in the future – the impacts are everywhere, all around us. Species simply can’t adapt fast enough in a world where extreme weather is becoming more frequent.
It will take a while for artists to respond to the terrible bushfire season in Australia, to process the scale of destruction and loss. In my own painting practice I have started some small pictures using Eucalyptus and other Australian plants. Fortunately there are some beautiful gum trees and bottlebrush planted in my local streets. The fragrance of the leaves brings back so many memories of growing up in the Dandenong ranges of Victoria. I will continue making paintings with Australian foliage over the coming months.
One of the only plants in my garden that seems to have thrived recently is some lovely flowering spearmint which attracts many bees. In the artwork below I nature printed a flowering sprig with scented geranium leaves, silver birch and golden yellow chrysanthemums in the background. This painting is a celebration of the abundance of summer, when the natural world is full of bright colour and warmth.
Over summer I photographed some breathtaking flowers and plants. I’ll do another blog post about the amazing New Zealand alpine plants of Aoraki Mt Cook. The gorgeous poppies pictured above are from Wanaka Wastebusters, a fantastic secondhand store and recycling initiative in the South Island, and a great place to stock up on winter clothing. Changes towards more sustainable living are starting in communities around New Zealand which is really heartening to see. Sustainability needs to become the norm not the exception, and something that is built into everything we do. Cultural changes need to go further than just sustainability, which is why the concept of regenerative culture encompasses more than just becoming more sustainable.
Some family have moved to the South Island, which means I will have to travel much further if I want to see them in future, and this poses a big problem for me in terms of reducing emissions. Currently the most economical and fast way to get there is by plane. The train network in New Zealand has been underfunded and neglected for many years – unfortunately roads have taken priority. Travel by road to their new home takes several days and involves a ferry crossing. For many New Zealanders, flying is probably their biggest source of emissions. It is a horrible feeling to be part of a system that is toxic and no longer fit for purpose. It really does need to be much easier for people to be sustainable. The necessary changes to the transport networks and other systems will require leadership and action at a governmental level. In my last blog post I urged people to act, to join their local environmental group, or whatever environment/climate action group that suits them best. Because the changes needed are difficult but urgent, and continued pressure from people on governments and businesses can help create these changes. I don’t think anyone wants to be part of a system that is damaging to our planet and all life on it.
Above – flowering grass tree, Aoraki Mt Cook National Park.
In the art world I was encouraged by the recent announcement by the artistic director of the Serpentine Gallery in London, committing to sustainable curation. I enjoyed visiting the Serpentine Gallery when I lived in London and found it a rich source of inspiration and connection with the contemporary art world. In terms of making my art practise more sustainable I have been exploring the possibility of making artworks available digitally, at a very low cost to people. It seems a better option than sending large artworks around the world. I have been trialling this via Patreon, a subscription service for creators which offers the chance for artists to connect directly with their supporters in order to fund projects and ongoing creative work. The small nature printed painting with carnations (below) is available to my Patreon community.
Sustainable curation and art is an area that I will continue to explore, as it offers the possibility of exhibiting internationally without having to transport artworks or to fly overseas. In theory an exhibition of my nature printed artworks could be held anywhere in the world, and the artworks could be projected on a wall or printed locally at small scale. Sustainable curation is something I will dive deeper into with an upcoming blog post on this topic.
This year is the 10th anniversary of the Twitter Art Exhibit, an charity exhibition of artist’s postcards held in a different country each year. I’m delighted to participate again in the exhibition this year which is in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, USA and benefits Horry County Disabilities and Special Needs. When I think about what sustainable art and curation might be like then exhibitions like this one come to mind. The artworks are available to view online, and the physical artworks are small. They can be transported using existing mail networks. The sort of art exhibitions that the world needs is changing. Not only do they need to be more sustainable, they can also promote kindness, caring and compassion, both towards ourselves, others and towards our planet.
Above: Postcard art for #TAE2020. Nature printed spearmint, geranium and seed heads.
Spring and summer are awash with beautiful flowers here in New Zealand. It is sometimes a struggle to convey the incredible textures, colours and forms of the flowers in paint. I often turn to photography to capture the sheer beauty and variety of the floral world. The colours of certain flowers influence my artworks, especially those that bloom in late summer. Summer is a rich time of both growth and renewal, as plants and trees produce flowers, seeds and fruit. Regeneration in the natural world can be thought of as a cycle with seasonal changes, something which I try to reflect in my artworks. Making art in a changing climate requires a shift in the way nature is viewed and treated, in essence a reconnection with the natural world, and a commitment to respect and care for the world around us.
Celeste Sterling, February 2020.