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Hello, and welcome to my art blog from Tasmania, Australia. I've spent time as a plant geneticist, teacher's assistant, painter, glass artist and book illustrator. I'm usually in the studio, the classroom or the lab. If you'd like to see more, please try the links to my folio page or email me at silvergumstudio@yahoo.com.au. Thank you!

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Team project: science meets art in an eco-printed silk field guide to the Tasmanian eucalypts

Friday 23rd March was National Eucalypt Day - not Australia's best-known day of celebration, but a very important day nonetheless.  Where would Australians (human and otherwise) be without our astonishingly diverse, continent-wide, beautiful and unique tree genus?  As part of the nation-wide celebrations, librarians and scientists at the University of Tasmania ran activities and created displays of books, herbarium specimens, live eucalypts, gumnuts, oils, wood, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, and a video of Jeff Wilmott playing Waltzing Matilda on a gum leaf (do check out these links, they're worth it).  My friends and colleagues in the eucalypt research group, Dot and Beck, were organisers and asked me if I'd like to run an activity.  I thought it would be great to introduce people to eco-printing with eucalypt leaves - a perfect group activity combining art and science.  And what better experiment could there be than to attempt to create an eco-printed version of Eucaflip, the very popular field-guide to the Tasmanian eucalypts produced by our resident experts, Robert Wiltshire and Brad Potts? 
Eucaflip features panels with life-sized photos of leaves of all 29 (not counting the recently described E. nebulosa) species of Tasmanian Eucalyptus.  I knew from experience that leaves from a few of these species would produce prints on silk using nothing but their natural dye chemistry, released by heat.  I was very excited at the prospect of testing all the species and getting other people involved.  Dot and Beck put out the call to the School of Natural Sciences, with magnificent results.  On the day, thanks to the generosity and knowledge of eucalypt enthusiasts within the School, we had leafy branches from 25 Tasmanian species.  I cut strips of fine and thick silk to match the size of Eucaflip, and laid out the four lengthwise panels of Eucaflip on four picnic tables outside the Plant Science tea room.  We carried down all the branches and invited interested people to form four teams to create one panel each.

First, for each panel, we laid out leaves on a strip of fine, flat wet silk (I bought recycled Japanese kimono lining silk) to match the species' order and position in Eucaflip.
Setting up leaves on fine silk
Next, we created a sandwich by layering a strip of thicker, textured wet silk on top.  I hoped that the fine silk would receive detailed leaf prints, and the thicker silk would help to prevent bleed-through of dyes.

Making a sandwich with heavy silk on top
We then carefully rolled up the silk sandwich around a piece of dowelling.  I generally just use a stick, but for this project I wanted to maximise the chances of getting precise prints, so a nice wide smooth piece of dowelling gave a better roll-up.

The rollup

I asked the groups to tie up their bundles so they could recognise them later.  Now it was time for me to run home and boil the bundles for over two hours in plain water in two stainless steel saucepans.  I was sorry to miss the eucalypt walk around campus that took place during this time - another popular activity.  I checked the pots anxiously every five minutes, wondering if it would work.  We made the bundles at morning tea, and I was due back at afternoon tea for people to reveal their experimental results.

Well... it worked!  There was great excitement as people unrolled their steaming bundles and matched the leaf prints to the species.  The fine silk took very precise prints.  Some of the series printed much more strongly than others - for example, the alpine white gums, black gums and yellow gums gave lovely red prints.  The peppermints and ashes gave faint, ghostly grey or green prints.
The big reveal

Matching the print to the species

I'm VERY excited.

So is Rob Wiltshire (back right, in blue shirt)

The four panels of Eucaflip, eco-printed onto silk using only natural Eucalyptus leaf chemistry!
I have made the heavier silk strips into a book, with typed herbarium style labels for the species.  I want to make the fine silk prints into  vertical banners.  The School wants to do it all again with EVERY Tasmanian eucalypt species, as a second-year prac.   And I ask myself:  Why stop there?  After all, Australia has about 700 species of Eucalyptus.  Why not join with people around Australia next time, and do them all?
EucaPrint, in the eucalypt lab.  You can see some eucalypt chaff on the bench.

The alpine white gums page
Prints from the black gums and the unique shrub-form alpine yellow gum, Eucalyptus vernicosa

Thank you to everyone who took the excellent photos - I apologise for not crediting them as I am not sure who took which.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Painting in the Victorian high country

Tobacco drying huts near Bright
I've just spent a couple of weeks enjoying a plein air painting workshop, led by watercolourist extraordinaire John Lovett, in the Victorian alps and the region around Bright.  It was lovely to visit this region again - on an earlier trip, I rode the gorgeous rail trail from Bright to Wangaratta, taking in beautiful and historical Beechworth - and this was certainly a much lazier trip with everything organised and no pedalling up hills.  Thank heavens for the latter, because we climbed right up to the fabulous Bogong High Plains, an altitude of about 1800m.  The plains are currently covered with the white skeletons of burnt snowgums, which from a distance make them appear like the flanks of an animal bristling with white fur.  The trip also took in Mt Buffalo, a fascinating environment of dizzying granite escarpments and eucalypt forest.  There were about sixteen of us painting, and while it was my first ever group plein air trip, for some it was a regular lifestyle.  John runs workshops in Antarctica, the Cotswolds, and the USA, and some of the group had been to those and/or to workshops run by other artists, so there was hot discussion at the dinner table about the best teachers and locations.

Granite boulders on a hot day at Mt Buffalo
I wasn't sure I'd like painting watercolour plein air.  You can't take much with you, as you have to carry it, and you can't change your water much.  John solves these problems by using strict limitations - for this trip, we painted almost everything with a palette of ultramarine, alizarin or rose, and quinacridone gold (a colour I've never used before, but a very useful one).  We had to start and finish a painting in less than two hours (although some tweaks back in the motel room were allowed).  After an initial struggle, I found that painting on the spot really lent authenticity to the result.  On the day we painted at Mt Buffalo, it was so hot and dry that the paint literally dried as I applied it to the paper.  This gave it quite a different look.  On a wetter day, it looked softer and bloomier.

There were cries of despair as rain fell on the Bogong High Plains and created 'cauliflowers' in people's perfect paint washes.  I decided to embrace the cauliflower and use it in this painting of heathland flowers.  We were actually just over the road from some rangers spraying weeds, but painting can edit these things out.
Heathland flowers in the Bogong High Plains
Boulders in the Bogong High Plains

Cope Hut, Bogong High Plains

I enjoyed the natural scenery days above the town days when we tackled historical buildings.  I would start out keen but droop with boredom at the 30-minute mark.  However, we had some fine draughtswomen with an eye for architecture who produced marvellously detailed paintings of civic architecture and cottages.  I tended instead to fall for the trees, flowers and odd details surrounding the buildings.  (I'd have loved to add people, but so little time, so much to do!)

Fantasy rendering of a Beechworth cottage
Tea Towel
We had critique sessions in which John would consider how one painting from each person could be improved - a very efficient way of learning from your own and other people's work.  An excellent and positive teacher who never utters the words, 'This painting is a disaster,'  John patiently finds something good to say and then, producing a roll of black or white tape, sticks bits onto the painting to show where a deep shadow or bright highlight is needed to focus the viewer's eye.  Before this workshop, I was happily oblivious to the necessity of a focal point, although I did often wonder why different bits of my paintings were always fighting with each other for dominance.  I now recognise the pleasant relaxation induced by a focal point that announces, 'I'm the boss and you can look at the other bits later.'  I have left some of John's black tape on this painting, and I'm also supposed to get rid of those blue leaves on the right hand side that draw the viewer's eye away from the focal point, which was supposed to be the rocks, before I fell for that big eucalypt...
Boulders, eucalypts and black sticky tape

Would I go on another plein air painting trip?  You bet.  Sign me up.  With good company, someone to handle the boring logistics of travel, and the chance to be immersed in landscape, shape and colour ... I think I might be hooked.  But meanwhile, this Friday is Eucalyptus Day and there are art activities afoot - about which, more later.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Exhibition at Kingston LINC in February

Please drop by and see my exhibition of illustrated poems at the very nice Kingston LINC in February (starts 1st Feb, ends 28th Feb.)  The poems are mostly funny and short, and were written by Ray Kelley (thanks, Dad!) and myself.  The illustrations are all new, as I've done them specially for the exhibition.  The three shown here are for the poems Such Darling Dodos, A Bit Thick, and Please Vacate the Boardwalk for the Wombat (this last is rather a long ballad about the hazards of Tasmanian bushwalking, too long to fit in the display cabinet, but I hope to fit the picture in.) 

My work will be in the foyer cabinet and there will be works by other illustrators on display around the library, including some lovely pictures by my friend, Andrea Potter.

Here's a taster of one of the poems:

Wake in Fright

Into my midnight roof the bison drill
Their hooves in a stampede to wake the dead;
And I'm the one dead to the world, until
They jolt me from my bed.

"It's not a herd of beasts, it's only one,"
My wife assures me, as I quake in fear.
"To reach his tree he has to take a run --
It's just our possum, dear."

Ray Kelley

Sunday, July 2, 2017

National Tree Days: 28th and 30th July

Australia's National Tree Day is coming on Sunday 30th July, preceded by Schools Tree Day on Friday 28th July. 

National Tree Day brings together communities to plant and care for trees, particularly native vegetation.  You can join a pre-existing event, register an event, enter a schools competition and/or share Tree Day stories.  You can even take a photo of your dog with a tree to enter the 'Dogs Love Trees' competition.  Get involved by visiting the National Tree Day website.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Bay of Fires Winter Arts Festival

I picked up a program yesterday for the fifth Bay of Fires Winter Arts Festival (June 10-12).

It sounds like a hoot.  Apart from the annual Bay of Fires Art Prize (a cool $20,000 in prize money), there will be an arts market, workshops (including Rubbish to Art, Plein Air Landscape and Make A Zombie Keychain), open studios and gardens, live music and a BBQ competition.

Actually, there are so many good things on that I can't decide which to do.  Plein Air Landscape is off the agenda.  This is Tasmania in winter, people!  Rubbish to Art is tempting.  The open gardens have potted plants and worm juice for sale.  The Beer Blues BBQ is a must-do.  Barbecuing has become a form of performance art in Tasmania, with slow-cookin', smokin' mobile BBQ artists travelling to championships around the state.  The BBQ prize money is $5,500, which is more than you get for illustrating a book.  The only aggravating thing about BBQ competitions is that you can smell the meat, but you can't eat it.  The judges eat it.  However, apparently there will be catering for the masses at this particular event.

Then there's the flaming torch closing ceremony on the beach at St Helens, culminating in the lighting of a communal fire pot.  Who could resist that?

I didn't do this picture of Bean and Carrot-Top specially for the Bay of Fires Art Prize, but you can see the bay in the background.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Earth Day eco-dyes

Silk dyed with Tasmanian eucalypts
Yesterday was Earth Day everywhere on the planet.  I went to the March for Science in Hobart.  We didn't actually march, but we showed up to support facts, reason, research, scientific literacy for everyone, funding for science, and the use of scientific evidence to inform political decisions.  We showed up to support using our brains.  We showed up to support thinking and education and objectivity.  These things are not really admired any more.  Still, people showed up in droves, all around the world.  Hallelujah!

While I was at the rally, a scientific experiment was happening in my kitchen.  I wrapped a large piece of silk with some fresh leaves of Eucalyptus morrisbyi, a very rare endemic eucalypt from southern Tasmania, and let it boil in plain water for a couple of hours.  (The leaves were from a planted specimen.)  I wanted to try this species because it is closely related to Eucalyptus cordata, the Tasmanian silver gum.  To my amazement, I learnt recently that Eucalyptus cordata - which is also rare and endemic to southern Tasmania - is renowned globally as a dye plant.  I had no idea of this when I named my blog after it back in 2010.  I've always thought it the most beautiful of eucalypts, but I am a little biased because I did about ten years of genetic research on it, and have seen all of its natural populations, including pure tall stands on cold mountains with shining crowns of silver leaves. 

Eucalyptus morrisbyi print
Turmeric and blackberry dyes
You can see from the top photo that Eucalyptus cordata gives heart-shaped red leaf prints when silk is wrapped around it and boiled in plain water.  Eucalyptus morrisbyi gives much softer, more subtle prints, although with work I may be able to improve this.

I also tried my hand at wrapping fabric in the Japanese shibori method and dyeing with powdered turmeric and wild blackberry.  The turmeric is very easy to use and gives a bright yellow within 20 minutes on cotton muslin.  Blackberry (with a dash of vinegar) is a little more challenging, but the fabric can be soaked in the dye in a glass jar in the sun for a few days to take up the colour.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Kitty Hawk

My view of the Wright flyer
I've just visited the Outer Banks of North Carolina, right in the wake of Hurricane Matthew (see pics below).  The locals were cheerful and unfazed by the fact that sand dunes had been rearranged, low lying areas flooded and power cut.  The Banks are beautiful with wild Atlantic beaches inhabited by horses, a rich history and a series of stunning light houses.  On my must-see list was the site at Kitty Hawk where the Wright brothers made history on December 17, 1903.  Anyone trying to do anything new or difficult should enjoy reading about Orville and Wilbur Wright and just how they managed to achieve the first controlled, sustained flight of a powered aircraft at a time when other inventors were chasing significantly different ideas for powered flight.

Cleaning up after Hurricane Matthew
First of all, they had each other and belonged to a family that valued their endeavours.  Their mother was the original mechanical genius of the clan, and the Wrights built bicycles and other machines, which gave them the confidence to pursue their own concepts.  Between 1900 and 1903, the brothers thoroughly enjoyed spending their spare time camping in wooden shacks among the sand dunes at Kill Devil Hills.  The location gave them open space and plenty of wind power, as well as friendship with a local family.

Flights of stairs washed up on the Outer Banks
I bought two of these books!
First they built a glider and flew it as a kite.  Next, they progressed to manned glider flights.  They built their own wind tunnel to work with drag and lift.  By 1902 they had a new glider design and had learnt how to control its flight.  In 1903 they worked with their shop mechanic to produce a lightweight engine and finally, after numerous disappointments, they achieved sustained flight at Big Kill Devil Hill.  Seeing the monument built there, I finally understood why their plane had no wheels: because they were on soft sand, it was launched from a rail.

It was a big thrill to visit the site, but the Outer Banks were full of other surprises for me.  Among them - this hand-painted mural on the wall of the local supermarket, advertising books by local author Charles Harry Whedbee, who had a very popular TV talk show in the 1960's.  I went straight in and bought two of them.  The first has been reprinted twenty times!  Legends around the lost colony of Roanoke, Blackbeard the pirate and more were collected by Charles during his years of the talk show and compiled into these testaments.  The books are a ripping read, but on top of that, I love the whole concept of that mural advertisement and am determined to have one myself!