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Sonny Whitelaw survives Interpretation lockdown
“Twas the Friday before lockdown when all around the country, everyone was in supermarkets and hardware stores buying up stock in preparation for the Covid-19 winter of the soul.
Sorry, I couldn’t help indulging in a bit of seasonally displaced imagery. It was just such a strange calm-before-the-storm moment in our lives. That Friday was a gorgeous day. I hadn’t yet reached the supermarket because I was with staff from Environment Canterbury and a roading contractor, sitting on a warm sandy embankment overlooking the Ashburton River mouth. We were discussing the twenty-one information and interpretation signs I’d been contacted to design. The pandemic still seemed unreal, even surreal, until the contractor mentioned his uncle in the UK had died the night before, from Covid-19. Then someone mentioned something about life imitating art; they knew the first science fiction novel I’d written (fourteen years ago) about a pandemic, was set in 2020 during a time when climate change was causing economic chaos. “It was just a story,” I mumbled. “Just my imagination.”
We looked out along the shore. Tarapiroe black-fronted terns were catching small fish in the hapua, poaka pied stilts were strutting their stuff, and a sea of pārekareka spotted shags were roosting on the spit. The birds, thousands of them, were completely oblivious to human affairs. We stopped talking, aware, I think, of the need to imprint this moment of calm to help ride out the coming storm.
Then we went into Level 4 lockdown. As with so many of us, Level 4 lockdown meant my work dried up. But that provided an opportunity. I completed all twenty-one signs for the Ashburton river mouth in less than a week. I then turned to another project. My novel about climate change wasn’t entirely imaginary, certainly not the parts about the social and economic consequences. I was (and still am) driven by a single question: how can we help people—individuals, whanau and communities—help themselves to prepare for climate change? The project has barely started, but it’s certainly going to be a major focus this year. It’s also one that we’d love for others—including you—to contribute: www.climatesolutionsnz.org.”
Excerpts from an interview with Jennifer Duval-Smith, Friends Visiting Artist, Auckland Botanic Gardens 2021
Enriching visitor experience
At the simplest level, a botanical art exhibition is a chance to look at something with wide appeal – natural subjects, bright and uplifting – that activates the senses.
Reassessment of preconceived notions of botanical art, and which plants we value as worthy of examination
Seeing a humble plant represented in art, framed and hung, can cause a viewer to reconsider what they might not ordinarily take the time to observe. It gives them permission to look closer.
I have never looked at a cabbage leaf like that before
I like the way you looked at the sunflower from the back, I have never looked at the back
Is this a thistle? Can you eat it?
I like these, what do you call them?
Working with staff
Early engagement and mutual understanding are key to a successful outcome.
Prior to the start of the residency, I offered to lead garden staff on a brainstorming exercise to learn what we might reasonably expect to achieve together. I picked up key information about the workings of the gardens that helped me manage my expectations in a way that was constructive. Around this time, we experienced Covid, lockdowns, budget cuts and some staff changes, all of which potentially affected our joint project.
I made a point of creating a planning document and communicating it to key stakeholders such as management, comms staff, visitor engagement staff, and the Friends who were funding the residency. I felt extremely welcome and well supported by the Gardens team at all levels and I appreciated their support which often went above and beyond.
Mutual goodwill and cooperation makes for a good project.
I was keen to create an inviting ‘conservatory feel’ in the gallery with lots of greenery. There were two issues here. One is that it is surprisingly (speaking as a total outsider) difficult to get hands on specimens for display. In retrospect, this makes sense, they are either being grown or in the ground. Also, plants don’t do so well indoors even though the gallery is quite sunny. However, through general goodwill and common purpose we managed.
What I learned from dealing with the public
Creativity is magnetic and contagious. People want to be creative. If their friends and family are doing something, they can be encouraged to give it a go even the ones who are ‘too cool for school’. Participants included
- Groups of cousins
- Grannies sitting down to draw with their grandchildren
- Whole families escaping the sun or the rain
- Professional people taking a little sneaky me-time in between meetings
- Teenagers, including a charming young man who chose a rose (provenance unknown) to draw
- An entire Phillipino wedding party in between photos
Interestingly most groups followed a similar pattern of sitting down and being quite chatty and then getting into a quiet creative flow, often working silently for half an hour at a time.
We have a creativity confidence crisis
This is particularly true amongst older people I spoke to. Everybody has the ability to be creative in some way and they long to express their creativity. People don’t give themselves credit for the creativity they express already in their lives. Many people have a confidence block.
So people need a bit of a prompt sometimes
Despite the above, most people who visited were already creative gardeners, embroiderers, scrapbookers etc. They are already working with colour and form in their daily lives. They are observing and making judgments and artistic decisions every day.
Whether or not a person perceives themselves as artistic, most people will back their ability to look closely and observe, which is the entry point and basis of any plant-based art practice. Once they are observing, there is the opportunity to record those observations in whichever way they feel comfortable, drawing, counting, writing, colour mixing, pressing specimens etc.