Kangaroo Encounters

A kangaroo rests low on four limbs, head alert. Beside it, another rests on its paw. From every wall of the white room, kangaroo eyes scratched out in charcoal and biro stare back. Human-sized felt pouches hang from the ceiling on gum tree branches. When the artist is present, she takes one down and encourages visitors to try crawling into the pouch for themselves. At other times, she sits in a corner and works on an embroidered piece entitled ‘Apology to Roadkill’.

This is Melbourne-based artist Bridget Nicholson, and her exhibition ‘Kangaroo Encounters’ that documents a lifelong preoccupation with the iconic Australian marsupial. Her works are at once familiar and fascinating, encouraging the viewer to study the kangaroo with fresh eyes. I recently had the opportunity to ask Bridget a few questions about her works.

Why did you choose this topic?

Probably because of my early upbringing where, as the child of an Australian diplomat, I moved country every couple of years. In those days (the seventies), Australia was not well known and it always was the kangaroo that people identified as Australian. My father’s role was very much about being Australian and this rubbed off on me – I feel a very strong tie to being ‘Australian’ and so I seek to understand what that means in myself.

A childhood memory of my first day at a new school, Malta, a British School. Comments directed at me were along the lines of ‘Australia, you come from Australia, the place at the bottom of the world where they have kangaroos, animals that hop’, followed by a demonstration, and then peals of laughter as if the whole thing was ridiculous.

At art school I started and ended each day with a 40-minute drive through the countryside surrounding Canberra. It was towards the end of a long drought and each day without fail I would see a dead kangaroo sprawled on the side of the road.

Tapatjatjaka Arts Centre, Central Australia: alone in the place, I wandered around allowing the artworks to seep into me. What struck me was a sense of connectedness embedded in the works; people, landscape, and animals, they all belonged together, were part of the other. There was a collection of kangaroo sculptures (Johnny Young) made of copper wire; the wrapping and tangling of the wire making the form. I tried drawing these kangaroos, drawing from the sculptures, understanding and feeling the form through the wire wrapping. Trying to capture the sense of character both human and animal that imbued these objects.

All these experiences have stayed with me and fuelled my curiosity and questioning of not only my own relationship to the animal, but also a collective relationship: why, what, and how does the way we see and portray the kangaroo relate to us?

Why do you think the kangaroo has become so emblematic of Australia?

I think from the early stages of exploration, newcomers to this country were fascinated by the kangaroo because it was so different to anything people had seen before. It is a unique animal even today when so many animals are known. The story goes that the kangaroo and the emu were chosen for the coat of arms because they are animals that can only move forward and this was a quality that people wanted to apply to the idea of a new nation ‘moving forward’. I also think it has physical qualities which make it easy for humans to connect to; it stands on two legs; the size, although varying across species, is comparable with the human body; their hands are extremely similar to our hands; and they are very expressive animals. Plus they move fast, which is attractive!

A lot of your pieces are in graphite on stone paper. What attracts you to these materials as a means of portraying the kangaroo?

The graphite powder on stone paper came about because I wanted to draw with my hands rather than with an instrument such as a pencil. I wanted to mould the figure with my hands (probably because I am primarily a sculptor!). I was put onto the stone paper by the lovely Luke at St Lukes in Smith Street and it is perfect for two reasons: firstly, because it is beautifully smooth and therefore gives the graphite a softness you can’t achieve on more textured paper. Secondly, it is made from marble dust, a by-product of the marble industry, and I like using organic materials [that are], especially in this case, ‘of the earth’.

You describe your embroidery piece as an ‘Apology to Roadkill’. Could you elaborate on this?

I find roadkill particularly upsetting. There is something inherently careless, and whilst I acknowledge that accidents happen, it says something about human nature to find that once an animal has been killed so quickly and horribly we don’t even take the time to stop and acknowledge or apologise for the taking of life, to perhaps move the body to a better resting place. The bodies are left strewn across the road – there is a lack of care and consideration. Remembering, of course, that this is the animal that we use constantly to represent our nationhood. So I want to do something that will take years; I want to painstakingly create something beautiful to say I am sorry to the thousands of kangaroos who have been dismissed in this way. It is a meditation in some ways - time spent acknowledging that there is something more important than speed.

How did you create your felt pieces and why did you choose this medium?

The felt pieces came from the idea of the kangaroo pouch as a place of security, a nurturing safe place. At the time I made these, I was looking for ways to find home, ways of feeling at home in a foreign environment. Thinking about how we do this, I started with how we draw the environment around us, how we use the patterns, colours, flora and fauna, of place to connect us to a place.

The kangaroo appears in the decorative arts and crafts of early European days alongside other plants and animals that were seen to be unique to Australia. That, however, did not seem enough. I needed a physical engagement with place, and this I sought through the making of these kangaroo pouches. They are made from wool, some of which has been washed and carded and some which is just raw fleece. The wool, while having itself this connection to an English heritage, also has this wonderful quality of looking like skin or an animal pelt. It is also a very comforting material; it is strong and has the quality of absorbing light and sound, so when you are inside a pouch the outside world fades.

The pieces are made as one whole, not individual pieces. To make felt you lay the wool out in layers, criss-crossing itself, [and] you then wet it and rub it. The friction causes the scales on the individual fibres to open and then the heat and moisture make it contract and shrink, thus forming a solid tough fabric. To do this I had to work with my whole body. I made them on the floor, then rubbed and stomped on them, then rolled them around and walked dragging them behind me, finally putting them in the bath and jumping on them. It is a strenuous and timely activity. I have made about five large body-sized ones and that is it - I don't have any more in me!

In your opinion, how does art relate to the environment?

In my opinion art is the environment; it is only human thinking that divides and categorises it. For me, plants, animals, landscape are what I want to be immersed in, what I want to explore. I see humans as just part of that.

‘Kangaroo Encounters’ by Bridget Nicholson is on display at the St Helier’s Street Gallery in Abbotsford (next to Cam’s Café in the Convent) until 13th November.

Alex Mullarky

Alex Mullarky is a writer and environmentalist from the UK who has called Melbourne home since 2014. She is a graduate of English Literature and is particularly interested in the connection between language and landscape. 

You can find her on Twitter at @saesteorra

Time + love = the wildlife art of Rachel Hollis.

The wildlife here is just so varied and colorful. Seeing it through British eyes was amazing. I loved it.

In the cities here, the wildlife is almost on your doorstep, you don’t have to go far to get to a National Park. Whereas, you know London – nature seems to be squeezed out of it.

Ian: Last month I was privileged to interview three amazing, up-and-coming wildlife artists about their work. In previous posts, Milly Formby and Kate Cranney talked about their art. This week’s post features the beautiful drawings of Rachel Hollis.

Rachel: I’m really pleased when I’ve drawn something that has a real likeness to what I am trying to illustrate but, at the same time, I’m not trying to get a photo-realist picture.

I want to create something that lets you see the character of what I’m drawing and something that triggers an emotional response in people: something they’ve seen before or that reminds them of their childhood or where they used to live.

Sometimes I think a drawing looks finished but I just know there’s something left that needs to be done. I’ll leave it there for a day or two and I’ll keep looking at it, and then suddenly I’ll think, “hang on, that needs to be changed.” It’ll just stand out.

It’s a feeling. You’ve got to give it a few days to realize it, but once those final details are in, then I know: that’s it.

I’m from the UK originally and we lived in Spain before we came to Australia.

I’ve always had a love for art and nature, but my wildlife drawings didn’t really come to life until I’d traveled more and had been to some stunning places and seen different species of birds and animals. Those experiences really encouraged me to start connecting the two: the wildlife and my art.

It’s only this year that I’ve started drawing wildlife, it’s still quite new for me.

Before I moved to Australia I mostly painted people in watercolor. My wildlife work is mainly in pencil and I haven’t tried wildlife in watercolour yet.

You never stop learning as an artist. You always try new techniques and different types of inspiration. I’m still learning.

When I’ve drawn something that I’m really happy with, I tend to put a little bit more extra time and love into it as well. Whereas if I’m struggling with a piece – I’m enjoying the process but maybe I don’t put as much emotional energy into it. And I think people can see that.

I’d encourage new artists to get out in nature and to find something they really enjoy – whether its birds or insects or anything – something specific that really touches them and moves them, and to use that in their art.

When you put a lot of love and time into something, it works out better.

All illustrations are by Rachel Hollis, used with permission. You can view more of Rachel’s work at her web site. Many thanks to all three artists for their enthusiastic conversation. The original transcript has been edited and condensed to improve readability.

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Beautiful like a blowfly: Kate Cranney’s wildlife art

I love trying to share how surprisingly beautiful ugly things can be – [like] centipedes crawling through the stomach of a dead sheep.

Ian: Last month I was privileged to interview three amazing, up-and-coming wildlife artists about their work. Last week’s post showcased Milly Formby. In this post, Kate Cranney talks about her love of nature and drawing. Stay tuned for next week’s instalment.

Kate: I grew up on a farm in western Queensland. I loved art as a kid, and I always loved being creative. I think the title pages on my projects in primary school were far more elaborate than the contents they held. Mum and dad always encouraged us to look closely at nature: at bower bird nests and cocoons and snake skins.

Growing up on a farm during the drought, there were lots of carcasses and flyblown sheep and dead fish in the dams. Maybe I was a little insensitive to, you know, how gross that might seem to other people, but I was always curious about that stuff. It was intriguing: seeing centipedes crawling through the stomach of a dead sheep.

I moved to Melbourne to study art but then I missed science so much that I changed my degree to a Masters of Botany. My artwork is focused on insects and fish; I do fine ink drawings with collage and watercolour. I started drawing with ink when I was taking public transport to uni. I couldn’t study on the ferry and bus or I’d get car-sick, so I drew.

I enjoy doing works that are aesthetically pleasing and educational as well. I’m working on a series called “Drawn to Science”. I’ll interview a research scientist and then do a drawing of their study subject. Recently I’ve been working on a project on insect ecology. Flies are beaut-i-ful underneath a microscope: they have metallic greens and blues and patterned wings. They’re stunning.

My favourite type of drawing is when I don’t know what I’m going to do before I start. Suddenly I’ll draw something and it’ll be something that I saw yesterday without realizing it. I think I store up memories of things that I’ve seen.

Paul Klee said, “drawing is taking a line for a walk” and I love the spontaneity of that. In a similar vein, I think the joy in creating makes it far easier for me to part with the work because I know that I had such a lovely time with that piece of paper.

You can draw wherever you are – when you’re on the side of a road in the middle of nowhere when you’re traveling. I always make sure I have access to pen and paper so that it’s always there.

I’m so happy to have art as part of my life now. It’s a core part of me. I squeeze it in – in the corners of the week. If I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t be nearly as happy.

All illustrations are by Kate Cranney, used with permission. You can view more of Kate’s work at her web site. Many thanks to all three artists for their enthusiastic conversation. The original transcript has been edited and condensed to improve readability.

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Drawing the essence of a bird: the art of Milly Formby

Last month I was privileged to interview three amazing, up-and-coming wildlife artists about their work. “Interview” is perhaps too strong a word as the three artists prompted more insights from each other than I did. Over the next few weeks, all three stories will be published at Wild Melbourne. This post features Milly Formby, who grew up in West Gippsland and now lives and draws in Perth.

I’m always going down to the Swan River here, and I love just walking along the sand and feeling the sand between my toes and walking in the water and looking at the reflection of the light on the water, and the shells and the colours, and wishing that I could capture every tiny little bit of it on paper.

But you can’t, you have to process that somehow, and I process it in my artwork.

I’d probably describe myself as a zoological illustrator. My artwork is inspired by nature and the world I see around me, especially bird life. I work with pencils on paper mainly but I’ve tried all types of media.

When I’m drawing a bird, I guess I’m trying to capture some kind of essence of the bird. I’m trying to capture a moment. I see a lot of beauty in the world around me and I want to capture that and share it with people.

I started drawing when I was in primary school but I didn’t take it seriously until I was about 16. I did an art degree and worked as a weaver for a while and then went on to science.

It wasn’t until I did my zoology degree that I had this light bulb moment and realized, “Oh I love animals and I really miss being creative,” and I put the two together. That’s what I’m working towards now; building up my folio so I can do this as my job. It would be amazing to be a full-time artist.

I think people connect with nature really easily. Kids love going to the park and the zoo and seeing animals. As we get older we lose that a bit but people often re-connect with nature through art. When you’re an artist you’re able to draw people’s attention to all those beautiful details.

I couldn’t tell you how many hours I put into a picture. When I’m doing something I’m passionate about, time doesn’t matter.

I went through this incredible creative block for a while because I felt like everything I did had to be perfect. It wasn’t until I was able to let that go, and say, “You know what, I just don’t care, I’m just going to do what I enjoy,” that things started to flow.

It’s a really satisfying experience to create something and then go: “Oh wow. I did that – wow”. You kind of surprise yourself.

I have a real desire for my art to be used in science communication and to promote the conservation of birds. I’ve donated some of my work to Birdlife Australia to use in field guides and greeting cards. I love that they can use my work to raise money because I’m so passionate about conservation.

I have a quote that I’ve stuck on the wall of my studio and it says: “The doing is the thing.” It just reminds me to sit down and “to do” because that’s what it’s about. It’s not about the finished product – it’s a wonderful bonus that you end up with this beautiful artwork at the end of it, but it’s not what it’s about. It’s about the process.

All illustrations are by Milly Formby, used with permission. You can view more of Milly’s work at her web site. Many thanks to all three artists for their enthusiastic conversation. The original transcript has been edited and condensed to improve readability.

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