Winter Art and Archeology

Hoki whakamuri, kia anga whakamua

Look to the past in order to forge the future

Interleaved through my art practice are strands of art history, archeology and floristry. The past is always present, contributing to the original artworks of each season. Art is not created in isolation from the world – it draws on our experiences, knowledge, skills and our community. I like to think of the community in this context as not just the people I share my life with, but also the plants growing all around us.

Over Winter I created artworks in a variety of media – from ephemeral objects with dried flowers and foliage, to digital artworks which borrow elements from past and present. The digital artwork above includes pale pink Camellias from my garden, Morning Glory vine and the fruit of the Lilly Pilly. Somehow art must knit together disparate elements and find ways to communicate and hearten. Generous soft pink Camellias can symbolise longing and one who is missed. Morning Glory flowers are associated with love, transience and death, as they only last a day. These blooms are bruised and fading, but the vine is resilient and will bloom again the next day.

It has been a tough and thorny Winter, as the combined effects of the pandemic and climatic events reverberate through the whenua and communities of Aotearoa. Through the Winter ills of the past months I found myself looking for the things which help in adversity – whether a small joy in the form of a freshly opened Winter bloom or a larger societal shift towards a different pathway for the future. Matariki, which is at Mid Winter and marks the Maori New Year, was observed as a public holiday for the first time this year. A special occasion for reflection and remembrance, it felt like a significant shift for Aotearoa.

Over Winter when the plant world is quieter I create with paint, pixels and dried foliage, learning new techniques and researching my next projects. My art studio is currently being packed up in preparation for some repairs and repainting, and I have been sorting through all sorts of interesting dried foliage and petals. Ideas for future artworks are often sparked by this process when older artworks and collections of materials are revisited. A collection of bracelets – poroporo, made entirely of birch, bindweed and dried flowers was started in the lockdown last year. This collection has slowly been growing and I hope to find somewhere to exhibit these small ephemeral objects as a group in the future. Pictured above is one of these little bracelets, made with dried Kowhai, Kawakawa and Akeake.

Ephemeral artwork asks lots of interesting questions – about where the materials come from, what the materials used to make the artwork are, and what is the impact on the earth’s environment of this type of creativity? These types of artworks also challenge us to think about what art is, how the artwork is valued, how long should it last, how it is recorded and shared, and what happens to it after it is no longer needed.

It has been a pleasure to participate in this year’s Estuary Art and Ecology Art Awards, held at Malcolm Smith Gallery in Uxbridge. In this exhibition artists are “…invited to research and respond to the Tāmaki estuary – to underscore the ecological value of this vital waterway, and to encourage action against its pollution.”

To celebrate the ecosystem of the Tāmaki Estuary I created a garland of foraged foliage, feathers and seagrass from the riverbank. The Tūpare – Garland was filled with Mānawa (Mangroves), Oioi (Rushes), Ureure (Sampire), Karepō (Seagrass), Pōhutukawa foliage, Akeake, Harakeke, and the dune plant Saltbush (Atriplex australasica). Included were feathers found on the shoreline. After the exhibition the garland is to be returned to the riverbank and will become part of the ecosystem life cycle once again. 

Over the years of making art about this urban river I have learned much about the river ecosystem, gaining knowledge and appreciation for the tough and salt tolerant coastal and river plants, unconventionally beautiful and often undervalued and overlooked. Some of the parts of our natural world, such as seagrass meadows, are only just beginning to be understood. They are an important part of the blue carbon cycle but are threatened by pollution and the climate crisis.

Over the past year I have been creating experimental digital artworks, combining my nature printed paintings with scans of fresh foliage, flowers and floristry items. I took the opportunity to make a digital artwork with the Tāmaki Estuary Tūpare – Garland before I dried it, combining multiple scans of the garland with a nature printed painting of Mānawa – Mangroves from the river. It would be interesting to exhibit some of these artworks in a gallery space or perhaps in an immersive space designed specifically for digital artworks.

Winter is ball season, and for many students this event is a celebration of the final year in their high school. It is rather special to create corsages and boutonnières for ball season and to see how they can complete an outfit and enhance an evening. To acknowledge this rite of passage, especially after two years of pandemic disruption, I created an artwork with a Carnation, Rose and Lily of the Valley corsage and boutonnière, sprinkled with the first blossoms of Spring. Carnations – Dianthus have been used in garlands and wreaths since Antiquity. A corsage is a floral decoration or accessory traditionally pinned to a bodice or waist of a dress. In contemporary ball season they are generally constructed as wrist corsages, attached to a bracelet or tied with ribbon to the wrist. There is something very nostalgic and romantic about these old traditions and the way they mark significant milestones in life.

A highlight of Winter for me has been an exhibition of Ancient Greek artefacts from the British Museum, currently on show at Auckland Museum. My artwork and floristry is increasingly influenced by Ancient Greek and Roman depictions of floristry items including wreaths and garlands. Since participating with archeologists specialising in this area in an online presentation last year, I have grown more intrigued by these ancient traditions utilising plants. It is fascinating to explore how these can be rediscovered and reimagined in contemporary art and floristry practices. I’m struck by how powerful the symbolism and meaning attributed to floristry items was in Antiquity. These creations were more than just decorations. For example, simple circlets or horseshoe wreaths of olive leaves called kotinos were created for the winners of Olympic games in Ancient Greece as a sign of victory. Originally these olive branches were apparently cut from sacred wild olive trees in Olympia. Olive leaf crowns were also worn by brides in Ancient Greece, symbolising purity, peace and fertility. The depiction of a single olive branch persists in modern culture as a symbol of peace.

I found this exhibition to be a rich source of imagery and inspiration with many examples of plant inspired artworks, such as the Acorn necklace and perfumed oil flask decorated with flowers pictured below. In addition there were many images of gods and goddesses adorned with crowns of olive, laurel, oak and other leaves in the sculptures and ceramics.

Necklace with acorns and a female head. Terracotta, silver and gold. About 300-100 BCE. Found in Valencia, Spain.

Bath-oil flask, About 100 BCE. Found at Taranto, Puglia, Italy.

Below – Helen of Sparta, bewitched by Aphrodite & about to be abducted by Paris. Situla (bucket), Made in Campania, Italy about 350-340 BCE, attributed to the Parrish Painter.

Below – Dionysis teaching his son Oinopion the art of wine drinking. Amphora – wine jar, painted by Exekias, made in Athens, about 530 BCE. Found at Vulci, Lazio, Italy.

It is an unusual and exciting opportunity to view an exhibition of artefacts of this type in the Southern Hemisphere and the experience will no doubt have a lasting impact on my future art projects.

As Winter comes to an end and transitions into Spring it is uplifting to see blossoms and Magnolias blooming again in my garden and neighbourhood. I’m looking forward to creating some artworks with some of these delicate Spring blooms over the next month.

Aroha, Celeste

Small Troposphere painting, 2009. Atmosphere Carbon Dioxide: 387ppm.

Atmosphere Carbon Dioxide, July 2022: 419 ppm.

(“Parts per million” refers to the number of carbon dioxide molecules per million molecules of dry air.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s