From Little Things Big Things Grow

Art + Gardens


Gardens can provide both inspiration and refuge. Briony Downes spoke to six Australian artists about their passion for plants.

A green thumb is not required to appreciate a good garden. From the ornamental Roman pleasure gardens of antiquity to the modern botanical gardens in every capital city, gardens continue to be places we escape to and find inspiration in. They can be a magnificent display of wealth, a humble place of relaxation or a source of edible sustenance.

For artists throughout history, gardens have provided comfort and nurtured both creativity and resourcefulness.

Even when he could hear artillery exploding near his Giverny garden in eastern Normandy during WW1, Claude Monet was still compelled to paint the flowers and watery reflections he found there. Similarly, Frida Kahlo sought solace among the plants at her home, Casa Azul, in Mexico City. And she painted its flowers and fruits into some of her most famous works. Closer to home, amidst the Australian bush, Norman Lindsay conjured magical puddings and raunchy nymphs from his garden studio at Faulconbridge, NSW.

Like so many artists before her, painter Lucy Culliton spends time in the garden every day. Moving from Sydney several years ago, Culliton landed in Bibbenluke, a small town located on the Bombala River in the Snowy Mountains region of NSW. Her home is called Bibbenluke Lodge. Former trout fishing accommodation, it was built in 1937 on 60 hectares of farmland with an expansive garden which Culliton has restored. Considering herself the latest in a line of caretakers, she reveals, “Some of the trees in the garden are over 100 years old. The garden has been through many different hands. It is my turn to add my bit.”

Lucy Culliton’s garden. Image courtesy of the artist.

Known for her generously layered paintings of the farm animals and native flowers that share her rural idyll, Culliton is a regular finalist in the Wynne, Archibald and Sulman Prizes. Driven by the routines of country life, every morning after all the animals have been fed, Culliton paints in her studio, a converted barn that streams with natural light and has open views to the garden. Animals come and go, keeping her company while she paints.

As a frequent subject of her paintings, Culliton’s garden is deeply entwined with her work. “The garden helps my practice by being a ‘look forward to’ distraction,” she says. “It has been a harsh dry summer and soon there should be autumn colour. A garden is an artwork which will never be finished and it is good exercise mentally and physically.”

Nestled in a suburb of Brisbane where the colour green is abundant and the air smells warm and good, Judith Wright says her subtropical garden is “a place in which ideas might form.” Its leafy jumble of bamboo, palms and native ferns provide “the space and solitude needed for reverie.” Considering Wright’s work possesses themes of imagined life and the unconscious with strong threads of love and loss, a garden like this is perhaps an occupational necessity.

Formerly a professional ballet dancer with the Australian Ballet, Wright is a multi-disciplinary artist working across installation, video, sculpture and drawing. Her two-dimensional work calls on abstract forms that flow into each other while her sculptural installations are filled with collected objects and replica body parts, often possessing an intense theatricality reminiscent of the abstract constructions of Eva Hesse.

“I think my art practice and the garden are interrelated,” says Wright. “While I would previously have thought that my ideas and interest in artefacts come directly to the garden from my studio practice, and they do, I find of late it’s not so simple. I have recently been working on an installation which requires close examination of the structure of trees.”

As the Japanese tradition of Zen gardens demonstrates, a large space is not essential for a successful garden. Although inner city gardens often don’t have the rambling space ofto properties like Culliton and Wright’s, they can employ a compact aesthetic that involves stacks of potted plants, carefully constructed paving, walls and wooden panels to create a similar place of sanctuary. A long-time fan of Zen gardens, Mylyn Nguyen uses her serenely constructed inner city Sydney garden as direct inspiration for her drawings and sculptures. In Nguyen’s work, tiny human figures interact with dream-like, moss covered creatures and handmade insects which seem as though they would not be out of place living amongs the plants in her bamboo lined garden.

“I always try to make work that evokes the concept of ‘small but big’,” Nguyen says. “I think that’s why I like moss and insects. Compared to us, they are so tiny, but they have such a presence that with them, a house is a home. The themes in my work are sometimes a little fantastical, but I always have an element of plant life in my work. Plants are real and exist in every dimension/story, they give a truth to my works.”

Further south in the cooler climes of Melbourne, David Rosetzky and Sean Meilak are inspired by the versatility of Mediterranean courtyard gardens. Together they tend to their compact Brunswick garden and it is a space they each feel compliments their artistic practices. As an artist possessing a keen interest in the psychology of space, Meilak explains, “I am always observing the changing compositions in the garden and thinking of new ways of combining plant varieties, forms, textures, colours and layers.” Known for his elegantly charismatic video portraits and photography, Rosetzky cites the creative aspect of gardening as paramount. “The process of gardening and creating a garden over many years, and experiencing how it has changed, grown and developed over time, provides a very healthy parallel to one’s art practice,” he says.

Jenny Orchard’s garden. Photograph courtesy the artist.

The experience of a garden changing over time is something Jenny Orchard knows well. After growing up in South Africa, Orchard moved to her home in Sydney over 30 years ago. The bright colours and cultural influences of Mozambique, Botswana and Zimbabwe are evident in her surreal ceramic forms and this unique sensibility has flowed into her garden. Its wild expanses of spiky succulents, chokos and impressively spiny prickly pears offer unique textures for her work and provide a place to house her totemic figures.

“Embracing ‘spontaneous vegetation’, I made plaster casts and sculptures from the chokos, as well as soup, but squeezed the prickly pears into pots away from the kids,” Orchard says. “These plants have a particular form and growth pattern I find compelling. When I moved in with the chokos, I had not long been in Australia and my artwork evolved to be about personal identity and our connected nature. The plants I made moulds of, and later assembled into figures, were essentially all South East Asian or African.”

Our varied climate and generous landscapes allow for a wide variety of styles, and the garden has a constant way of capturing our attention. For Lucy Culliton, Judith Wright, Mylyn Nguyen, David Rosetzky and Sean Meilak, and Jenny Orchard, the garden plays a vital role in their practices and provides not only inspiration but a contemplative place where ideas (as well as plants) can grow.

Briony Downes