Art and Ecology

Winter is waning and Spring flowers are appearing everywhere. The pervasive sweet smell of Jasmine flowers blooming in the wild backyard is a reminder to me to write an artist blog about the Winter months of June, July and August. Winter & Matariki is a reflective and quieter time in my art making year. Following the seasons, it feels befitting to pause a little in Winter, to think about and research the next projects and to make sure that these are in harmony with what is happening in nature and the direction of my artistic practice.

Over Winter I experimented with nature printing Violas and Pansies, which are descended from European wildflowers. I am very fond of these humble and colourful blooms. I also pressed and dried a few to use in future projects. Like many flowers, Pansies have some historical symbolism associated with them. In Victorian England they signified loving thoughts and admiration. Pansies were also the symbol of the Free Thinkers Society:

“…a group of people who decided to adopt a mode of thought that was free from societal constraints, expectations, emotions or religious dogma. In it’s highest form it is based on pure logic and reason. They adopted the pansy as its symbol because the word pansy is from the verb pensée in French meaning to think.”

A thoughtful flower, suited to a time of introspection. Pictured above is a detail of a nature printed artwork in orange and dusty rose tones for my Patreon subscribers with Violas, Pansies, Jasmine and Camellias.

As an artist it is important to explore new directions, to push oneself into unfamiliar territory and also to play! Sometimes this can be challenging for both artists and audiences. I don’t ever deliberately set out to make artworks which are confronting and make people uncomfortable. When this does occasionally happen, it is perhaps, a side effect of making artworks which deal with difficult topics.

One of the areas I have been exploring over the past few years involves the coastal ecology of the Tāmaki River, a large urban estuary near to where I live in Auckland. People sometimes find this type of artwork a little different and challenging, as the coastal plants are not conventionally “beautiful” and the river itself has suffered from a large amount of pollution over the past decades. Riverside and estuary plants may not be as pretty as the other plants I work with but they are fascinating for other reasons. They are uniquely evolved to tolerate salt water and the extremes of coastal conditions. The more I learn about them the more I appreciate their unique adaptations and forms. This year it was good to return to the Estuary Art and Ecology exhibition at Uxbridge Arts & Culture in Howick, after having to postpone my 2020 project on this topic. This annual exhibition provides artists the opportunity to respond to the ecology of the Tāmaki Estuary.

Instead of a nature printed painting this year I created an artwork using floristry techniques. Haratua (May) is made from coastal plants, seaweed and feathers. A symbolic, ephemeral and wearable artwork, inspired by seasonal floral crowns and buttonholes made to celebrate important events. Haratua was designed to celebrate an event which may occur in the future: the recognition of the Tāmaki River as a living entity with legal rights. It is intended to be returned to the riverbank upon completion of the exhibition. I aimed to evoke the unique coastal ecosystem of the estuary in this artwork.

For me, this artwork is a step towards making artworks which are closer to being truly ecological. These may not look like conventional artworks. One must firstly create art which does not have a large environmental footprint and is ultimately not damaging to ecosystems. Ecological art is broader in its scope, as it is aimed at preservation, restoration and revitalisation of ecosystems. It is an area I am slowly exploring and researching in my art practice. Ecological art prompts me to think deeply about how art could actively contribute to the preservation and creation of natural ecosystems in my local neighbourhood.

The 2021 exhibition at Uxbridge is curated by Francis McWhannell and includes a thoughtful range of artworks responding to the ecology of the Tāmaki Estuary here in Aotearoa. It was lovely to attend the opening and to speak with the curator and other artists. With so much disruption since early 2020 it felt like a privilege to attend an exhibition opening during a pandemic. I made an unwired wrist corsage with gorgeous Carnations, Pieris and Flannel flowers to celebrate.

📸 Thanks to Maddy South at Uxbridge for the photo from the exhibition opening.

Winter painting this year was also a good chance to experiment with nature printing Erlicheer flowers with garden plants including Corokia and Geraniums. The season for these bulbs is so fleeting that I always wish for more time to develop the paintings further. Nature printing teaches me patience as one has to wait until the following year to pick up on this strand again.

Over the colder months I learnt to work with dried flowers and foliage, to expand the type of floristry and artworks that I can create with these materials. My studio has been filling with a number of small wreaths including this small half wreath with dried Hydrangeas, Wattle and Eucalyptus, designed to mark the Matariki season. Making wreaths with dried plants and flowers feels like a natural evolution from the abstract paintings I created in previous years, which often featured spheres and circles.

One of the highlights of Winter for me was a visit to the Auckland Botanic Gardens in late July. These gardens are full of treasures, and I was richly rewarded with gorgeous Magnolias, Hellebores and Camellias, the first of the Spring bulbs and the interesting Proteas, Leucadendrons and Flannel flowers of the African gardens. It would be good to have the opportunity to create some artworks inspired by their beautiful collection of plants, a project to consider for the future. I’ll finish my Winter blog with some photography of these plants and flowers, including the wonderfully named Honey Tulip Magnolia.

Aroha from Aotearoa, Celeste

Ecological art is an art genre and artistic practice that seeks to preserve, remediate and/or vitalize the life forms, resources and ecology of Earth, by applying the principles of ecosystems to living species and their habitats throughout the lithosphereatmospherebiosphere, and hydrosphere, including wilderness, rural, suburban and urban locations. It is a distinct genre from Environmental art in that it involves functional ecological systems-restoration, as well as socially engaged, activist, community-based interventions.”