I became interested in this unique plant from South Western Tasmania at the same time as Australian grandmothers were gathering in silent, often knitting, protest against coal seam gas. My interest took me to the Australian National Herbarium where I wished to see in person a plant from the fossil record that has no seeds and can only clone itself. Today’s remnant plants (on the verge of extinction) are genetically identical to those in the fossil record from around 135,000 years old!Imagine my surprise to see the Herbarium flower specimens. With petals dried and lost, the flowers appear as nannas in quaint bonnets, gathered together in mute consternation. The sculpture is mounted on Huon pine- another ancient Tasmanian plant.
Face to Face (Acacia with pollen)
Polymer clay/ sandstone, 64cmH x 26cmW x 25cmD
This piece is inspired by a reproductive event that is on the verge of visibility for humans. Coming face to face with the release of acacia pollen requires a couple of thousand times magnification.The fluffy native flower that Australians know so well is made up of scores of anthers, each of which looks (under the microscope) like a heavily textured tube. Atop this tube is a purse-like structure with two slits that burst open, spilling coin-like pollen into the environment. The colours I have chosen are inspired by Australian sandstone and the vivid blue skies that receive and distribute tons of pollen each year.
Gone underground (Rhizanthella slateri)
Polymer clay/ found wood, 25cmH x 47cmW x 47cmD
This sculpture pays tribute to a mysterious orchid and the ever-present threat to its survival that is presented by land clearing and the building of roads. The Eastern Underground Orchid was discovered in 1931 and is currently known in only 10 secret locations in NSW. It is a leafless orchid that lives underground in association with a mycorrhiza fungus, apparently to improve its uptake of nutrients. The orchid also flowers underground in October/ November, only sometimes emerging up to 2cm above the soil surface. Land clearing and the building of roads are a major threat to the plant but when the plant has literally ‘gone underground’, it is difficult to measure the extent of the threat.
Into the Future (Psilotum nudum)
Polymer clay/ alcohol ink, 56cmH x56cmW x 22cmD
This piece celebrates a very primitive plant (the Skeleton Fork Fern) together with its jelly-bean like pollen (which I have depicted after thousands of times magnification). The Skeleton Fork Fern, which is not a fern, has only half the vascular system of modern plants, but has been around for millions of years- well before the evolution of humans and modern plants. On a recent trip to Sydney, I found a few spindly specimens growing from a hairline fissure between sandstone blocks in a restaurant! After millions of years on Earth, I get the feeling it has some tricks that will enable it to outlive every one of us whether we notice it or not.
Lest we Forget (Papaver rhoeas)
Polymer clay/ copper/ seed beads, 56cmH x 30cmW x 30cmD
This sculpture presents two poppy buds, (one of which has fallen to ground on the verge of flowering) and a remembrance flower facing its past. Through its accidental association with human conflict, this common agricultural weed, a native of Europe, has been launched from the soil to international human attention. Today poppies proliferate in the strangest of sterile environments (malls, supermarkets, schools, houses of parliament) but mostly as impoverished mimics of their splendid botanical ancestors.
Mountain warrior (Banksia canei)
Polymer clay/ weathered burl, 30cmH x 15cmW x 20cmD
Banksia canei is a shrub that inhabits sub-alpine areas and impresses me with its survival spunk. Adult plants produce fruits that remain closed until they are burnt. The adult plant does not survive the fire that ensures the release of seeds. Prolonged cold temperatures are then required to stratify the seeds. Can you see the impact of climate change on such a plant? Rooted to its spot, it cannot chase a retreating snow line. When the bushfires arise, the parent dies without fulfilling its potential- to produce progeny with some prospect of carrying on. The seeds will fall to the ground never to germinate.
However, we may not yet have the full picture… Banksia canei is the first recorded indigenous species of Proteaceae to become established in Australia outside its natural range. It has become established in the mild near-coastal climate of Western Australia, where the seeds would rarely be stratified. It suggests that this mountain warrior has fighting spirit still.
Schoolyard Bully (Bull Thistle)
Polymer clay/ alcohol ink, 50cmH x 27cmW x 27cmD
This sculpture of a thistle bud, replete with ripening pink seeds, emerged from the literal pedestrian verge. On my daily walk to collect my children from school, I became witness to something of a parable beside the car park. A thistle plant was growing directly beneath a signpost. The pole prevented the gardener from mowing down the weed. In the grit and fumes, this lone bull thistle grew to an enormous size. It pushed out aggressively spiked shoots and flowers that every day snagged stockings, schoolbags and small children. One day, I found it had vanished from its pole position. Someone had trampled it- leaves; stem and all- absolutely bruising flat. This was a fate from which it has never recovered but I still keep watch for its progeny.
Common Gold (Calendula officinalis)
Polymer clay/24K gold, 50cmH x 18cmW x 10cmD
The title of this sculpture might appear a misnomer since 24 carat gold is not at all common. I urge you to value more highly the seeds of what is usually taken to be a simple and utterly pedestrian yellow-flowering garden weed. Calendula is one of a few plants that produce not one but three types of seed on the one seed head- each unique spiralling architecture is more or less designed for dispersal via different methods. Given the proliferation of the plant in local gardens, it is clearly a successful survival strategy. Calendula seed oils have a high rate of oxidation and are used in paints and coatings industry, and have applications in the manufacture of cosmetics and some industrial polymers. Recent findings also cast a spotlight on the body-fat lowering and anti-carcinogenic properties of Calendula, which are especially applicable to human leukaemia and colon cancer.
The Kiss (Tiger lily pollen germinating)
Polymer clay, 48cmH x 31cmW x 33cmD
To the naked eye, a tiger lily is a beautiful flower with romantic appeal. At 2000 times magnification, a scanning electron microscope reveals simultaneously alien and familiar features. The surface of the sticky lobed stigma in the middle of the flower is covered in slender (female) filaments, each of which seeks a single (male) pollen grain. Once a pollen grain has landed on a receptive filament, molecular signaling causes the pollen grain to germinate. When we clip the pollen-laden anthers from tiger lily flowers (to prevent staining of human clothing and furniture), we interrupt this story… ‘the kiss’ will never be fulfilled. For the romantics, I have used phosphoric polymer clay over the surface of this sculpture. This means that the whole sculpture has a soft glow in the dark.
Starship (African Firebush seed)
Polymer clay, 50cmH x11cmW x 16cmD
As I was making this sculpture of an African Firebush seed (around 8mm long), I noted that bookings were being taken for the first civilian flights into space. Engineers deliberately build space ships and suits like seeds, since nature has refined their engineering over thousands of years. I find the highly detailed aerodynamics of this seed particularly striking. Consider the poignancy of a botanical spacecraft (seed) passing through extremes of temperature, humidity, radiation and time. The seed delivers its ‘cargo’ to an unknown and almost always hostile destination.
Mortal Combat (Mistletoe vs Eucalypt)
Polymer clay, 52cmH x 56cmW x 52cmD
This sculpture is inspired by the naturally quite well matched contest between parasitic mistletoes and host eucalypts- after fire has ravaged them both. Growing up with weekly drives through the country to the coast, mistletoes were a familiar sight. We came to know the eucalypt trees most heavily infested and over the years, watched them sicken under the pressures of parasitism (primarily water loss). Bushfires normally rid the eucalypts of mistletoes however land clearing minimizes this effect and so unfairly advantages mistletoes. If you look closely at the apparently defeated eucalypt, you will find it is the actual victor: the emergence of epicormic shoots heralds the re-sprouting of healthy limbs.
Sleeper cell (Nigella seed with flower)
Polymer clay, 42cmH x 35cmW x 20cmD
This piece emerged during Egypt’s Spring when ideologies (like seeds) were suddenly activated, having lain inconspicuously dormant. With near scientific accuracy, this sculpture represents the intricate surface detail of a single microscopic seed of Nigella damascena or ‘Love-in-a-Mist’ (around 200 times magnification). From this emerges a hint of its flower as well as a seed of the related Nigella sativa (black cumin). Cumin is one of the oldest known culinary and medicinal plants. Seeds and oil have been used around the world as a spice, to cure a wide variety of ailments, and even as a nutritional grain (similar to wheat). Nigella was so important in ancient Egypt that seeds were buried with pharaohs like Tutankhamen and proved viable in modern times.
Love Thy Neighbour- Lichen
Polymer clay/ pheasant wood, 47cmH x 30cmW x 23cmD
Lichens comprise two almost inseparable organisms – a fungus and a photosynthetic partner (either an alga or a cyanobacteria). Attempts have been made to separate the two partners but neither ‘neighbour’ thrives without the other. Nobody knows how many lichen species exist on earth. Estimates range between 13,500 and 30,000. At any rate, the partnership is so successful, lichens can colonize habitats that remain out of reach for us. My use of rare pheasant wood symbolizes the additional fact that human neighbours can generate new habitats for lichen, which would otherwise be very rare or completely absent in the natural environment (for example gravestones, garden ornaments, play equipment with ideal aspects and fresh air).
Satellite tracking (Borage seed with flower)
Polymer clay, 47cmH x 34cmW x 18cmD
This sculpture depicts a highly magnified borage seed (normally only 4mm long) with its flower (around 25mm). The barbed and ornate surface of the seed ensures good adhesion to animals and hence wide dispersal. Last year, I planted six borage seedlings in my home garden bed as a food source for bees. My children marvelled at the similarity between borage flowers and the satellite dishes they saw on rooftops in Queanbeyan. The seeds have proven incredibly fecund. Even though the plants are rooted to the spot, they have multiplied to around 100 plants and have managed to traverse the breadth of our garden in vivid blue tracks.