I admit that I am not qualified to write about this topic, but my guest blogger, artist Natalie Maras certainly is – and a great deal more besides. The range of her work as a sculptor is extraordinary but unified by a deep commitment to communicating the essence of her subjects. That essence includes the “patterns of life” that scientists are busily uncovering (and often having difficulty describing to non-scientists) – Natalie has the distinction of being the first ever artist-in-residence at Australia’s prestigious Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Herbarium which is part of the National Research Collections.
After just an hour or two talking with Natalie and admiring her (sometimes quirky but never frivolous) creations, I knew that readers of my blog would be fascinated to meet her through her own reflections on art and its relationship to the natural world.
‘Hello children! My name is Jacques. I love the sea.’
I was a primary school student sitting cross-legged on the floor in our school assembly. I could hardly contain my excitement at clapping eyes on the man who was addressing us in person from the stage. He had a weathered face, spoke entirely in French, and to my delight he wore his characteristic knitted beanie. To me, he appeared as though he had stepped straight out of the photographs in my favourite books.
‘It’s Jacques Cousteau!’ I whispered hoarsely to my neighbours. ‘Cousteau! Can you believe it – here! You know… deep sea diving, aqualungs, submarines…?’ Their unknowing eyes plunged me into hush.
Apart from my frustration that day at being unable to share my utter joy with my peers, I felt something else. My childhood hero was a man who loved the subject of his lifelong studies. He was it seemed to me, with my childish eyes wide open, overflowing with love. ‘I love the sea. Do what you love. Never give up my dear children. I wish you all, from my heart, good luck!’
These days, I am in my late thirties, a professional artist and on a daily pilgrimage to the same primary school with my three now young children. I am privileged to demonstrate for them, and for many others with whom I now cross paths as an artist, the importance of doing what you love.
‘Are you an artist because you want to be famous some day?’ the assemblies of primary school children ask me… No. I just love a mysterious thing and like Jacques, I want to spend time with it. I sculpt in love with learning, and I carry the baton of pursuing what I love.
I love exploring the underlying patterns of life with my hands and with my imagination. In my studio work, I discovered that the mysterious underlying structures that appear in pollen grains repeat in viruses and bacteria and also vibrate at cosmic level among the stars. The pattern of musical notes when played through sand appears in sacred and primitive architecture as well as in flowers and turtle shells and receding water. The cycles of accretion and erosion in biological soil crusts are identifiable in seeds and in my own bones. Tracing these patterns of nature takes me into ancient time and far into the future, deep underwater, broad around the globe and high into the cosmos and well into myself. I am an artist because I grow in that endeavour, in love.
Someone once said of art that nothing great could ever be made by simply copying nature. I have been fortunate to meet the works of great technicians of botanical and wildlife art. I have exhibited among some of the technicians- at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Sydney and most recently at the South Australian Museum. In museums and galleries around the world I have also encountered the works of many long-passed famous and anonymous artists and craftspeople. I agree now that merely copying nature is not an aspiration held by the world’s greatest artists. The greatest artists aspire to, and do, strike the Source.
Though I know there are lesser human copies of nature, which can bring tears to human eyes, to me, human aspiration counts. That aspiration marks human potential and marks the artist. To me if an artist produces copies for a copy’s sake, they are no better than a primitive natural architect – be it moth, ant or termite. After all, a single spider web, dewy in early morning sunlight, will conjure emotion. A single crystalline flake of frost on grass can wondrously steal the words from human lips. Nature presents things of beauty all around us, but this is not art.
I also accept that nature often cannot be copied- it sets a standard far too high for humans to reach. That moth, ant or termite actually outdoes the human maker. A humble caterpillar can weave such a cocoon as to put the cleverest human hands to shame. I have in my studio the remnant of a deep-sea sponge, Euplectella, whose spicules of flexible optical fibre defy the most advanced NASA engineering. The Baya Weaver bird has at least a dozen knots in its repertoire to make the most magnificent nests, which cannot easily be replicated. Twice as an artist in residence (at CSIRO) and guest artist (at the ANU) among scientists, I learned first-hand the limits of sophisticated scientific perceptions and technology.
Sometimes the most experienced artistic hand, or even the most naïve hand, is graced to convey a
universal pattern of life. I say ‘graced’ advisedly. Making art, as I know it, (and caution, dear reader, I have not passed through formal art school!) involves long and careful training in seeing things- from the inside and the outside. It also involves long and careful training with different materials, each with their nuanced behaviour (affinities, hostilities and different states in different conditions). As with our oldest friends, it takes time to know materials and accept their limitations, quite apart from our own. Then there is training to ensure that hands and eyes work together harmoniously allowing space for the artist’s ‘voice’ to enter and more importantly… to exit. Sometimes talent and inspiration arrive spontaneously and ferociously bypass concerted technical efforts. Art can arrive by ‘accident’.
By now I understand in my practice that the training I have accepted as my calling is long and arduous and has nothing whatever to do with fame and fortune. I do not seek to copy nature for its own sake. I do not copy nature because I dare to imagine that I am good enough to do this. I copy nature in an effort to refine my perception so that I resonate with influences intended for me. I can accept that I was not intended to understand some aspects of life. Some things will forever remain beyond me. For now, nature sets the best standard to which I can aspire as a sculptor, until grace arrives.