Updated: Aug 24, 2021
Nature has truly demonstrated an awesome power in 2020 and there may be more to come.
Usually, when I consider nature, I think about its beauty, its infinite uniqueness, its colours and hues. Plant shapes seem organic, yet on inspection, are incredibly mathematical, logical and structural. More intricate than architecture humans try to create by replicating laws of nature. If you've never looked deeply at a bloom's petal formation, you've missed the perfect symmetry created by nature. Cut open an apple, and witness nature's geometry. From spores, to pollen, and seeds, flora’s life cycles are immensely hearty and incredibly delicate at the same time. In my neighbourhood over the last few weeks I’ve been mesmerised by what occurs when the sun stays longer and higher in the sky. A signal of spring's arrival, I come across an overnight burst of flowers and buds that beckon bees and birds to their sweet, hidden nectars.
I often look to nature as inspiration for my paintings and art. In fact, my Flora Invades Life series is all about pretty leaves, flowers, fruit and birds. But there is something more complex in nature, and this series is my way of paying homage to its power.
This year we have seen the potency of nature at its harshest. We humans, I think, like to believe we control nature, but as 2020 has revealed over and over this year, we have very little control once nature decides to exert itself. Nature doesn't recognise our man-made boundaries. No matter what defences we put up, it finds a way to get through. A virus that is harmless to its primary host finds a way to unleash itself on a more susceptible and unsuspecting host. A spark in a bush, given air and fuel, has no respect for property rights once it roars as fire. Hurricanes greedily harness forces generated from humanity's careless energy consumption and unleash themselves above oceans and land. A neglected garden becomes overrun by sprawling opportunists we call weeds. Nature is both hearty and unrelenting.
I walk my dog Hope every afternoon. We sometimes walk down a particular street in our neighbourhood lined with magnificent trees called Hills weeping figs. These trees were planted around 1950, and over the years they've been pruned to accommodate the various poles and wires that run from street to house, and back again. Rather than reaching their branches to the sky, these trees have been forced into a symbiotic relationship with the wires. Growing in a "Y" shape, their limbs stretch wide across and interlock with others of their kind on the street creating a natural tunnel over the road below. It’s an amazing sight, but one easily missed if you’re not looking up, or worse, watching an iPhone screen instead.
I try to express this complexity in my paintings. This one looks like a group of pleasant sunflowers from a distance. But come closer and you'll see what lies underneath. As I've written about previously, my paintings begin as a composite of layers. I have a final subject in mind, but I begin by creating a surface, layered with various mediums and materials, which I partially destroy and rebuild again.
There are two things at play for me here: the emotional and the physical.
The physical is easy to see. In nature, there are always layers hidden beneath a surface. Peel back the leathery skin of a pomegranate to find caverns of tissue filled with ruby red seeds that burst bloody juice when crushed by your fingers. Reach into a carefully trimmed rosemary bush and find a tangle of bristly branches where all manner of creatures, from spiders to snakes make their home. Even a lavender shrub hides the unsightly water meter that a city official occasionally parts to read.
What lies beneath is at play in these paintings. If you peer closely, you'll see opposing colours under coats of paint. Look and you'll see barbed wire woven in between the leaves of a gum tree. Rub your hand over the canvas to feel the impression of bricks or netting, or just an organic undulation of paint. There are swirls and patterns where they don't seem to belong. But then again, examine a leaf and discover intricate designs that aren’t visible from a distance either.
Deeper is the emotional layer. Every canvas is personal to me. So even though the viewer may never see an element I applied in the initial layers of my piece, it's there for me, and I think about it each time I work that canvas. My Pomegranate Nightingales has a verse of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet written across it from top to bottom. Juliet pleads for Romeo to come back to bed because the bird song they hear is the evening nightingale. But Romeo knows it’s really the morning lark at dawn, and he needs to be on his way. The birds here are merely silhouettes, so they could be either. The viewer won’t see this verse on the canvas except for maybe a word or letter here and there.
I painted Sunflowers during a Covid surge in the States. The numbers were growing in every measurement. Newspapers published articles and stories of sadness, fear and anxiety for
months. The bad news was unrelenting and my mood was dark. So, I turned to an old favourite, the sunflower. Sunflowers (like Birds of Paradise, I think) have personality, with their golden-maned heads, tilting this way and that. I envisioned a trio of flowers, calming and comforting each other. Hidden underneath, however, there are those newspaper headlines, images and tallies of a global pandemic. Look closely to see them. My Sunflowers don’t mean to conceal the statistics, (although my paint brush tried), rather, for me, nature has a special ability to soothe and console. And sunflowers always make me smile.
Calm to subdue the chaos.