Thursday, January 21, 2016

Colour in a dead garden

One of six stories behind the 'In the Garden' interviews from the 2015-16 Summer Series of Talking Plants on ABC Radio National (copied from ABC RN homepage).

Colour in a dead garden (inside the artist's studio)

Friday 8 January 2016 9:31AM
Tim Entwisle
Les Musgrave has won many accolades for his garden in the NSW Southern Highlands. Meanwhile, his wife Elaine, a botanical artist, has created something more unusual: an indoor garden populated entirely by dead and dying plants.Tim Entwisle takes a look inside her studio.
Elaine and Les Musgrave have a gorgeous garden in the Southern Highlands, about 100 kilometres south of Sydney. In a region with a reputation for beautiful gardens, Les has created something particularly attractive, with lots of colour, exotic perfumes and sweeping vistas.
But I was visiting for the other Musgrave garden, which is inside an artist's studio that used to be a horse stable. It's a garden full of dead plants.
I see something and I've just got to paint it.
Elaine, a botanical artist with more than 20 years experience, attracts as many accolades for her paintings as Les gets for his garden landscape. They open their garden and studio to the public each year.
You'll be able to see some of Elaine's artworks in an upcoming florilegium—a collection of paintings of plants from a particular place, in this case Royal Botanic Garden Sydney. The project started 10 years ago, when I was executive director of the Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust, and includes work by artists from Australia and overseas. A book will be published in March 2016, accompanied by an exhibition at the Museum of Sydney.
Elaine's four contributions to the florilegium were all painted in the adapted stable. 'If you look around my studio, there are a lot of dead things,' she says. And indeed there are. Many of the plants arrive fresh from the living garden before slowly decaying as Elaine paints their particulars.
I look at one with curling brown leaves and Elaine explains she can still get vital information for her painting from this specimen.  The way she arranges the leaves and the general composition depends on botanical accuracy and a common reference point. She can always chase up a fresh leaf from outside for the finer detail.
Sometimes fresh material isn't needed at all. Artichoke flowers, says Elaine, become more beautiful as they dry. 'I didn't realise the seeds keep popping out,' she says. 'They fly around the studio.'
The individual seeds look like insects or spiders, and cling to any unswept surface. There are some on the bookcase, which Elaine says have been there three years. And she avoids dusting a shelf that is now home to an odd assortment of plant detritus: chestnuts from a garden across the road, banksia cones, and the seed heads of poppies and Formosa lilies.
'I love dead and dying subjects—anything to do with fungi and seed pods,' says Elaine. That said, she does paint in a whole variety of colours. 'I don't do a lot of yellow,' she confesses. 'I see something and I've just got to paint it.'
Elaine says she likes to paint fruits and vegetables. I ask her why. 'They don't move as much as flowers.'
I hadn't thought about it this way, but time moves at a different pace for a botanical artist. For us, a flower is pretty static and looks the same for at least as long as we look at it. The artist, staring at it minute by minute, day after day, sees it turn towards the light, flop over and lose petals one by one.
Elaine prefers to work on one plant, and one painting, at a time, but often has many on the brush. A couple of weeks ago, friends phoned to say they had a Chatham Island forget-me-not (Myosotidium hortensia) in flower, so Elaine dropped everything (metaphorically) and started on this rare plant. She had a leaf and a flowering stem to work from, plus lots of photos and some quick colour charts prepared from the freshly picked blooms. The leaf has lasted well, but the flowers are now gone.
Interestingly (at least to me) the plant she had to 'drop' was the giant honey flower (Melianthus major), a common plant and a weed in New Zealand.
Through the studio window you can see her husband's living garden creations, all blue and white flowers. Les has also created a 'not green' garden with lots of burgundy and other coloured plants (he does allow a few of the lighter or softer greens in, but clearly enjoys playing with colour). Elaine herself prefers muted shades. She is particularly fond of trying to recreate the many kinds of green she sees in the plant world—something like the Inuit's many kinds of snow, I presume.
By the door are some dried hydrangea flowers, and next to them a large painting of the same but with more colour. Only slightly more, though: soft browns, mauves, purples and greens, all captured as the flowers dried. Elaine says she likes to watch and paint flowers as they fade. Odd perhaps, but I can see from her studio garden that there is plenty to like in dead and dying plants.

A gardening show with a twist. Talking Plants is a witty and at times provocative discussion show on all things botanical.

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