Featured photograph is by Conny Harris, with Elizabeth Perey.
The first thing I saw was a scarf.
Or rather, a photograph of one, delicate, exquisitely patterned, with a graceful drape that could only have been silk. It was lifting in a breeze, the corners held proudly and tenderly by a woman. Weirdly, she seemed to be standing on a beach ….
This was my introduction to Deborah Wace, botanical artist, printmaker, ecological activist, naturalist …
and some other surprising things.
Early this year I was invited to visit Deb in her Hobart studio. I headed off, expecting to hear about botanical drawing and the process of printing onto silk.
What I found left my head spinning.
“I am my work.”
Deborah is energetic, erudite and devoted to her work. For her, the roles of artist, naturalist and activist are not separate categories, but integrated strands of the same process. And her connection to her work is profound.
“I am my work. It flows out of me and it comes from a deep love of place and a real respect for these plants.” (This and all unattributed quotes are from a conversation on 21st February, 2018)
When Deb speaks of her connection to her work and her plants, she does it in the most personal terms.
“These orchids – this one here is about seven centimetres tall, but in my work I am showing it the size of the human. It’s the same height as your body. You look it in the eye and somehow it gives a different perspective on them. Because they’re so highly evolved, they’re so outrageously lovely.”
Deb speaks of
“the frank wanton nature of Tasmanian native orchids … They are so resilient and fragile, flamboyant and strange. Their tubers are edible and their flowers so sensual. In my work I am exploring the sexual allure between orchid and insect.” From Tasmania Geographic
“These plants that we tread on, that we disregard”
Deb’s work begins in the wild areas of Tasmania, the buttongrass plains and heathlands, near Lune River, or around Recherche Bay or in the Tarkine.
Here she seeks out the tiniest, most fragile plants, the kind of plants that walkers and other visitors might miss.
“I look down and through layer on layer of diversity to the ferns and orchids a few inches high. Macro to micro is dizzying and quite mesmerizing. (From Deb’s website)
If there are sufficient numbers, Deb will collect a specimen, otherwise she will take photographs. (Deb only collects with permissions and from private land by invitation, unless with clearance from the Threatened Species Unit of the Tas Dept PIPWE )
“These orchids have got me in their lure”
One thread of Deb’s work is to create large-scale dry point etchings of Tasmanian orchids.
It’s a process of endless fascination.
“Print making is like a rabbit hole. You can go down and spread out into infinite little journeys. That’s what’s so fascinating about it.”
Deb will study the plant under a microscope and draw it several times, under illumination and magnification, during which process she forms an intimate relationship.
“I secretly think these orchids have got me in their lure.”
Eventually Deb will etch a large drawing onto a Drypoint plate, partly copying her previous drawings and partly letting herself go and working freehand. This stage of the process uses a fine steel etching needle.
“Drypoint is like drawing a line in sand. You create a burr that holds the ink. It is this luscious lovely method where you can print a line drawing, or you can print it like a dark gothic landscape … Look at this one! I love that chiaroscuro.”
A meditation on form
Over the years Deb has created a large collection of dried and pressed plants. Some are mounted in float glass box frames. She will also draw them or create prints directly from the plants. These can be transferred onto fine cotton rag paper or onto a substrate to make adhesive wall friezes.
Brian Ritchie of MONA has spoken of the hyper-realism, vision and energy of the work and of Deborah’s ability to reveal the essence of plants and “project their spirit to the viewer.”
More recently Deb has been printing her work onto fabric. She has made garments in fine cottons and is now concentrating on a collection of silk scarves. These are featured on her website. Please treat yourself and have a look.
“People can love them on their body. For you to wear something on your body, you’ve really chosen that piece. You want to have it there. It’s a walking advertisement of that work. It moves and the plants have their own life.”
The scarves are carefully edged by an Iranian refugee who in her own country was a bridal seamstress. Every work comes with a card providing a taxonomic index listing the species involved, with information pointing to a fact sheet available from the Tasmanian Botanical Gardens (where Deb works as a volunteer in the orchid conservation project).
“An immersively beautiful thing to do”
Recently Deb went down to the sea. In the Recherche Bay area, she began prowling the shore at low tide and collecting seaweed and pressing her specimens onto blotting paper. As we talked Deb carefully lifted out page after page of glorious pattern and colour.
“Getting them to display is the hard bit. Lifting them out of the water. I did it on a bit of found oyster basket. Lifting them and getting them onto the paper and teasing it out – they’re really quite hard to press. Imagine them on beautiful blouses and dresses – the colours. The light through them.”
Deb will find a way to capture the colours with photographs and print.
“I love that sort of Dendritic look. I love it. It’s a meditation on form and it’s a very immersively beautiful thing to do.”
We look over the seaweeds, their vibrant colours and intricate patterns, commenting with delight and surprise while we talk about Deborah’s work.
Protecting Valuable Plants
Part of Deb’s motivation in making this work is to develop a platform from which she can talk about precious plants, what attracts her to them and why it’s important that we care for them.
“Habitat loss is so rife in Tasmania and throughout the world. Their place is valuable and they shouldn’t be denied that place just because they’re small.”
“Part of me just wants to give them their day in the sun, get them up on people’s walls so people will want to know more about them and respect them and start to understand more about our shared place in the ecosystem – these plants that we tread on, that we disregard.”
One plant featured on fabric is Lomatia tasmanica, or “King’s lomatia” (after Tasmanian naturalist, Deny King). This is a critically endangered endemic plant that only occurs in two tiny locations of Tasmania’s Southwest National Park.
Connection with History
Deb’s work is also inspired by a connection with history. In 1792 and 1793 botanist Jacques Labillardière arrived at Recherche Bay on the expedition commanded by Rear Admiral Bruni D’Entrecasteaux. With other botanists and assisted by gardener Félix Delahaye, he collected almost 5000 plant specimens. After many trials, Labillardière wrote up his findings and, between 1804 and 1807 he published Novae Hollandiae Plantarum Specimen, the first general description of the flora of Australia.
“This is a beautiful collection of works that details what and where and how he found these specimens. This is first science for Australia.”
Recently Deb did an arts residency at Recherche Bay in the very locality where the D’Entrecasteaux expedition collected their specimens.
“This is a good story”
Deb is enchanted by the idea of filming fabrics in gorgeous locations. During her residency at Recherche Bay, she was joined by a friend, filmmaker Joe Shemesh of Storm Front Films. Together they took fabrics and “drowned” them in Black Swan Lagoon.
“They developed like a photograph going under and then … the spangling of the wind on the water, the light … I was flicking bits of water on it and then these little tiny fishes were exploring the fabric and the fabric was moving in the water and it was so gorgeous.”
Joe is documenting Deb’s practice and her work, creating a contemporary record of a contemporary artist, but for Deb this also draws a connection back to the historical record.
“It’s a way of making real what these people were doing. Because we were on that beach exactly 225 years to the day that they were having this friendly meeting with the Lyloquonny people, making these incredible discoveries of how a society can live there in harmony and it wasn’t about rape and pillage. There’s an extremely painful history and part of the healing that needs to take place is to tell the good stories. This is a good story. And I’m a good story.”
Starting with Shoeboxes
Deborah grew up in Canberra. Her father was Nigel Wace, an Oxford educated British botanist and geographer, working at ANU. In 1956, in a parallel that is not lost on Deborah, Nigel had participated in the Gough Island Scientific Survey, a joint Oxford-Cambridge expedition, studying the natural history of a remote island in the Tristan da Cunha group in the south Atlantic. As a child, Deborah was used to talking with academics and botanists, and collecting plants and seedpods with her father.
“Everywhere we went as a family was a field trip. … I’ve always been an amateur botanist. Even as a child. Every shoe box I would re-compartmentalise to hold my collection of gumnuts and leaves and interesting things. I would make flying cranes as mobiles. I had heads and eyes and wings and bodies and feet and legs. You’d have to tiptoe through my room to get around them.”
But while she was immersed in science, Deb’s inclination was always artistic. She went to the Canberra School of Art where she studied printing under Jorg Schmeiser, whom she describes as “one of the preeminent print makers of our time. A really beautiful man.”
Through Song and Protest
After a bike tour of Tasmania, Deb decided to move to the Lune River area, where her partner lived. She quickly became involved in singing groups and was drawn into activity aimed at protecting the area from logging.
(This long process eventually led to many donations, including a significant one by Dick Smith, which allowed the establishment of the Recherche Bay Reserve, now managed by the Tasmanian Land Conservancy.)
With Paddy Prosser and Anna Spinaze (on cello), Deb formed the Recherche Baybes (see photo at top of article), writing and performing songs of satire and history to add colour and energy to the campaign. Deb dressed as Louise Giradin, a woman who posed as a man to become steward on the D’Entrecasteaux expedition to Recherche Bay.
“She was a purser disguised as a man, so we thought here’s a ripping yarn. I’m wearing pantaloons and buckled boots and a polonaise skirt and a broad sword and a bodice from Carmody Lane London.”
Singing is still an important part of Deb’s activism. You can see some of Deb’s gorgeous singing here.
Her experience as a performer might help to explain why Deb can so easily and eloquently expound upon her work. At one point while we are talking she illustrates this part of her life by effortlessly breaking into song.
Deb lived at Lune River for over twenty years, collecting specimens, making art, growing food and raising a family.
“So I have all these networks that spring from performance and art and even though I’ve been living in the bush for a long time I’ve kept up those networks. Now when I’m really stepping up and stepping out I do feel supported by my Tasmanian community and my father’s academic community.”
In 2017, Deborah was awarded a Churchill fellowship* to travel to the UK, France and Florence to study the French botanical record, especially the Labillardière collection, which is spread over many different locations, and to develop artwork and fabric design based on what she finds.
“It’s not just about going into these institutions where the collections are held, it’s about looking at the plates, the engravings – all the dust in the corners of the archives and also the fabric in the fashion houses … I’ll be bringing forward a new body of work on fabric.”
She will be accompanied by Joe Shemesh who will film what she is doing (wherever this is allowed) and help create a daily record of her research.
“I am going back to Europe to bring back and democratise these early collections which have been taken to Europe and hidden away. I want to put them right in front of people, for people to wear and have in their lives and know more about our history. I reckon Winston would love that.”
There were around 60 Tasmanians competing for the Churchill fellowship that year. But Deborah felt good about her interview.
“I heard little bells go off. I thought, here I am. I am right in the centre of what I’m doing.”
I am not surprised she won either. It is almost impossible not to be swept away by this vibrant artist.
I can picture her, enthralling the eight judges with her wide knowledge and her deep connection to her work, communicating her passion. She would have leant in to them, showed them her plants and her extraordinary fabrics, she would have used her rich voice to draw them in.
It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that she had broken into song.
*The Churchill Fellowship is awarded by The Churchill Trust based in Canberra. It aims to perpetrate and honour the memory of Sir Winston Churchill by awarding fellowhsips for Australians to travel overseas to conduct research in a chosen field. Applicants need to demonstrate that their work will be of benefit to Australia and to display a willingness to share their findings with the Australian community.