Art Inspired by Ancient Plants

I had a surprise invitation a week or so ago, to open an exhibition of paintings in the Cessnock Regional Art Gallery. Apologising for such late notice (the original opening guest had had to pull out) Hadyn Wilson wondered if I might be available this weekend for a trip to Cessnock.

The weekend was pretty free and having not yet visited the Hunter Valley after 11 years in Sydney – very poor I know - I was tempted. When I looked at the artwork on the web, I was hooked.

If you are visiting the Hunter Valley over the next month (until 8 March) I’d definitely suggest a stop over at Cessnock to see this small, but wonderful, exhibition of botanically inspired artwork. It’s called ‘Stories from the Archive: A Palaeobotanical Narrative’ and represents 10 years work. Tomorrow, I understand, it will be examined as part of his PhD study at the University of Newcastle.

So I said yes and I'm very glad I did. Not only is the art amazing and Hadyn Wilson a charming person, I was able to enjoy the produce and hospitality of the Hunter Region (and thanks to Virginia Mitchell for all her support and advice). Below is a bit of summary of what I said on Saturday evening (with the tense all over the place...)...

I started by noting that I was keen to open this exhibition for two reasons. Firstly the artwork is fascinating and fun. Works on internet looked great, better on a CD and now in reality…fascinating! Secondly, I think extinction is an intriguing and misunderstood concept. Death and extinction are a critical part of evolution. Along with reproduction and ‘fitness to survive’ is the necessary corollary of death and extinction.

But before I got onto extinction an all that, I gave a little background to Hadyn Wilson himself:
· Attended Art School in Sydney; Institute of Arts at ANU; Masters of Fine Arts, UNSW and now nearly completed a PhD at University of Newcastle.
· Taught at art schools and universities; study tour in New York and Prague
· Painting and exhibiting for the last 30 years
· Represented in more than 60 exhibitions, including more than 30 solos, and in private and public collections around the world.
· Many awards, including: Travelling Art Scholarship, Mosman Art Prize, Art of the Rocks 1st Prize.

And so to the exhibition and to extinction. I spoke about the Australian flora being under threat and the long evolution of plant life on Earth. I mentioned that the first plants to trap the sun’s energy and turn it into food – the basis of oxygen and life – evolved 3.8 billion years ago. They were the Cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, featured in a couple of Hadyn’s works.

Flowering plants go back a mere 100-150 million years. We have clues about what the first flower looked like from 125 year-old fossils from China and a group of living plants around the world, including Amborella, a non-descript plant from New Caledonia. These plants carry in their DNA all the information we need to track their family tree and in theory the first flowering plant. Hadyn makes reference to Amborella and to the ‘first flower’.

I said humans are less than half a million years old, with the whole human clan branching off from chimpanzees only 5 or so million years ago. Of course Hadyn has them harvesting and living among ancient fossil plants, which is the great thing about art!

While there might be 1.5 million known species living on earth today (we humans are one), and another 1.5 million or up to 100 million yet to be discovered and described, most species that have lived on earth are extinct. That said, the loss of any species is a sad and dramatic event. Not something we should just allow to happen as a by-product of doing other perhaps less important things.

I went on to talk about it being important to remember that the species we live with today (the last few hundred thousand years) are the ones we evolved with as a species. Some of these species are ones we depend on now, or may need for the future. Scientists today also talk about the ‘resilience’ of a community and its ability to adapt to change. When it comes to what are called the ‘tipping points’ – when an ecosystem will change or be wiped out – having some duplication and resilience may be critical.

On top of these practical considerations for us, the species on earth today are also the ones we have got to know and love – part of our world family. Each is a unique outcome of evolution and won’t evolve again. It has its own beauty and interest.

For me these were the kinds of things we could contemplate as we looked at Hadyn’s artwork, mostly based on fossils from the Hunter Valley. I said fossils are what are left of a living and vibrant plant or animal from our past. Hadyn is incorporating into his paintings images of fossils – the equivalent perhaps of terracotta warriors from China or ancient (not modern) rock art uncovered in the Blue Mountains or Arnhem Land. Fragments of the past.

As with ancient artwork, we should look at fossils as a celebration of past glories as much as a loss of what might have been. From this art you remember that fossil plants were once living plants – growing, evolving, even...being harvested! Hadyn has filled in the gaps, with imagination, which is just what scientists do with fossil fragments – they create a story based on fragments of the past.

Hadyn says he was inspired by Mary White’s books (later becoming friends with Mary) and the ‘imaginative leap’ required to make this science understandable and relevant to everyone. Also perhaps the leap from fossil to a once living world that is now extinct…

Hadyn has created a landscape – an imagined and imaginative landscape – much as the scientist has done. He tells a different story to the scientist but an equally compelling one. I’m sure there is a book in all this – ‘A Traveller’s Observations’ perhaps?

There are stories in here about lost worlds, conservation, science… But more than this, these pictures magnify and refocus the wonder of the natural world. There is happiness and sadness in this world of fossils, and in theses stories, for all the reasons I mentioned before.

I ended by noting that we humans are part of the story, and definitely part of Hadyn’s artworks. Do take a look.

Images: The artist and me in front of one of his most striking pictures (A Laurasian Legacy), followed by 'The Sunny South and Cyanobacteria). Below are a selection of pictures from the Stories from the Archive series and finally the dark but evocative The Aspirations of Pollen.


ACE Soft said…
Nice blog for new generation

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