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It’s all about the garden

I tweeted a little while ago about how my teen self would roll her eyes at me painting flowers. So un-original. So shallow. So pretty. I also remember my mum watching something on TV, featuring an artist who would take gorgeous close up photographs of flowers, crank up the contrast, and print them out large scale in black and white. She then painted over the top of them (effectively a hand-coloured photograph). At the time, Mum said to me, “I know you’ll think this is cheating, but isn’t she clever?”

Fast forward to 2021. The natural landscape, and imagery from my garden, have become what I want to paint most. And I’m really glad that my mum shared that documentary with me, because I love the idea now and it’s something I will probably try during my 100 Days of Painting.

But I’ve been thinking about how this change happened, and I think it’s because my life and environment are so much more… botanical, now. I still miss the peacefulness of being enveloped in ngāhere/forest in Auckland, but now I can lose myself in my own garden.

Sketching at Trotter’s Gorge, East Otago

Our garden is very much a work in progress. I’m building it – so to speak – from the ground up, and I am closely observing its growth. I also bought my first ‘real’ camera last year, just before lockdown, so when I learned photography my garden was the easiest place to start. I have come to see beauty so easily in the wild mess, and to appreciate the roles each critter and plant has in the ecosystem that is our backyard.

Admiral butterfly caterpillar on its host plant, stinging nettle

To create this garden, we have to do a lot of planning, which of course continues to evolve as we go. I have had to learn the difference between a weed seedling and the seedling of a plant we want – and when they may be one & the same! I’ve met new animals that would never have graced my presence in suburban Auckland, and discovered many new plants. I’ve learned more about how plants grow, and the excitement of watching a seed grow into a flowering plant. I’m still experimenting with the windows of time that each plant needs to be sown or planted out, and this is something almost constantly on my mind (right now, I have a pot-bound magnolia that desperately needs to get in the ground, our native trees really need to be planted this winter, and if I don’t prep the ground soon then our wildflower meadow will continue to be but a pipe dream).

Our flower garden in mid-autumn

Is it really any wonder that my creative work revolves around the garden?

Some of the modern artists whose work I admire have works with gardens and flowers – Monet, van Gogh, Klimt, Georgia O’Keefe – and indeed were considered radical for their time. Flowers continue to be beautiful, and I continue to be enamoured by my garden. Perhaps that is enough justification to make “pretty” art.

Sketchbook: practising a meadow of flowers in gouache

By Z. R. Southcombe

writer, artist, teacher (and other things)

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