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Archive for June, 2016

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. 

Collage jpg

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.

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‘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.

Bentwing Swift Moth

Bentwing Swift Moth

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.

Pollen group

Pollen group

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

Weedy Sea Dragon

Weedy Sea Dragon

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.

Tragic carpet

Tragic carpet

*** 

To follow Natalie and her progress, visit http://findiflooshki.com/ or email findiflooshki@gmail.com

 

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In Japan, this remarkable object could well be a wedding gift not because of its obvious delicate beautyIMG_0294 cropped but for what it signifies – love that lasts a lifetime.

Known as Venus’ Flower Basket, it is actually the skeleton of a sponge (Genus Euplectella) that is found on the ocean floor, at a depth of 100 – 1000 metres, off Japan, the Philippines and other western Pacific countries including Australia.

Looking more like a vase than a basket, the skeleton is made from glass produced by the sponge itself from silica it extracts from the surrounding sea water. Yes, this simple creature is able to convert dissolved silica into glass as genuine as any that human technology can produce from sand and quartz.

Not only that, the sponge fashions that glass into a structure that has the rigidity to withstand the huge pressures of deep water. It manages this by combining amazingly efficient microscopic building blocks called spicules (Think of three spikes intersecting at right angles to one another) into the geometrically elegant network that you can see in the photo. Fragile as it may appear, the resulting structure is incredibly strong and resistant to cracking. Architects and engineers have studied it in search of ways to build more robust buildings, especially skyscrapers.

Engineers in the field of fibre optics are also looking to the Venus’ Flower Basket for guidance, and in particular at the hair-like fibres at the base of the skeleton. These fibres anchor the sponge to the ocean floor. They also act like optical fibres transmitting light along their length. The intriguing thing is that they do this better than the industrial fibre optic cables currently available for telecommunication and other applications. Additionally, the sponge’s fibres are more flexible than the man-made variety. What is more, the sponge makes its fibres at very low temperatures using natural materials – a process scientists hope someday to mimic because the existing manufacturing process requires very high temperatures and has other limitations.

Beautiful as the skeletal Venus’ Flower Basket is, it pales in comparison to the living animal, which actually glows in the darkness of the ocean depths. The sources of this light are bioluminescent bacteria that live in the cells of the sponge. Attracted by the glow, male and female shrimp larvae enter the central cavity or atrium of the sponge, happily staying there to feed on the left-overs and waste from the sponge’s diet of plankton.

By the time the sponge has finished growing, the top of the atrium has been sealed, trapping the now mature shrimps inside. But everyone is happy. The shrimp have a perfect “love nest” for life, a secure home and a reliable source of food, and the sponge has a couple of resident cleaners. It is even an ideal set-up for the shrimps’ offspring, as these are small enough to exit through the walls of mum and dad’s sponge and set off on their own to find a mate and make a home for themselves in another sponge.

So there you have it. Because of a shrimp love affair, the Euplectella skeleton has come to be associated with Venus, the goddess of love, and to be adopted as a symbol of a happy married life.

But Euplectella, the living creature, symbolises something of much greater significance for human well-being and advancement. As mentioned, this simple creature has found the solution to technical problems that continue to tax human ingenuity, making it both an example and a symbol of the “genius of nature”. Engineers and scientists look to Euplectella as a source of insight and inspiration, valuing and respecting it for what it can teach them.

Surrounded as we are by the products of human ingenuity and creativity, it is easy to think that the problems of existence, big and small, will be solved only by the human mind. This view ignores the reality that nature has been addressing the same or similar problems for 3.8 billion years – and producing extraordinarily efficient, enduring and graceful solutions. We are privileged to live in a very competent universe.

One of the smartest things humankind can do in the quest for solutions to the problems that face us is to first “ask nature”. Doing this is far easier than you might imagine as there is a fascinating website that can be consulted by anyone. I urge you to go to this site right now. When you are there, try sampling what the site offers by exploring this question: How does nature maintain community? Do this by selecting the following links: (1) maintain community (left-hand column), (2) co-operate and compete  (central column), (3)within the same species (central column), (4) collaborating for group decisions: honeybees (right-hand column). This will lead you to a summary of the work being done by a team of scientists and engineers at the University of Illinois looking at ways to improve human collaboration during disaster relief efforts. And where are they looking for inspiration? – to honeybees.

This is one of almost 1800 examples you can find on the site of an approach to innovation and development called bio-mimetics. As its label suggests, the approach involves the conscious emulation of the forms, systems and processes of nature.

Perhaps the best known product of bio-mimetics is the Velcro fastener. The Swiss engineer, George de velcro burrMestral, developed Velcro by adapting the system some burrs use to cling to cloth and fur.

More than a very wise problem-solving strategy for scientists, engineers and other innovators, bio-mimetics is also a way of valuing and respecting nature for everyone. An underpinning philosophy of bio-mimetics is that nature has more to teach us about living well, harmoniously, sustainably and gracefully on the planet than we could ever imagine.

Humans are masters at exploiting the material resources of nature and dangerously abusing the planet in the process. We need urgently to extend our recognition and appreciation of, and our readiness and willingness to be guided by, nature’s knowledge, genius and wisdom.

Much is being said at the moment about building STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Manufacturing) capabilities within our society. The philosophy and method of Bio-mimetics need to be at the heart of that undertaking.

The beak and head profile of the Kingfisher solved the turbulence problem for the bullet train

The beak and head profile of the Kingfisher solved the turbulence problem for the bullet train

It is also essential that society as a whole becomes much more aware and respectful of nature’s capacity to inform, inspire and guide our scientists, technologists, engineers and manufacturers. This will require, among other things, the expansion of environmental education in our schools and vastly enriched communication between scientists, especially those in the natural sciences, and the rest of society.

In a following post, you will meet a gifted artist who is using her talents to help Australian scientists share their message – something to look forward to, believe me.

 

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