This autobiographical blog is taken from a rich and detailed transcript of Deborah’s 2018 interview with Helene Thomas of The Wayfinder Mobile Story Studio, at kunanyi/Mount Wellington, complete with magical birdsong in the background. It is a beautiful and intimate insight into Deborah Wace as she speaks of formative experiences and pivotal moments in her life, which have brought her to where she is today as she creates her beautiful botanical art designs.
Grab a warm drink, find a comfy spot and listen to the full audio interview.
At one with nature
I find nature abundantly sensational. When I’m out in nature, I am the happiest little being, I weave myself into it. When I’m collecting, when I’m out in the wild, I talk, chat and sing to plants. I tell them how much I love them. I tell them how extraordinary they are.
If people only knew that you can still your mind and look closer, there is an enormous amount of nourishment and healing to be had from nature. It’s not something that you just take. You have to give something of yourself at the same time. You have to give your time and attention. Through giving something of yourself, you establish a connection.
I have always endeavoured to help people to establish these connections. They feel nourished and healed and eventually it has a cumulative effect on people’s engagement with the world, and with nature.
A theme that runs deeply through my life and work is how to advocate for plant species, the ecosystems that need a voice. I’ve always been happy to be that voice. I feel that the least I can do is to give back for the immense pleasure that I derive from being out in nature. My botanical designs are about bringing beauty into the world in another form. The plant does this effortlessly on its own – through an expression of itself. The artwork that I make is an expression of myself. The fabrics that I create can be used by others as an expression of themselves.
A botanically rich childhood
I was born in Adelaide, South Australia, and we moved to Canberra when my botanist father received a tenured position at ANU [Australian National University] in the research school of biography and geomorphology. My parents moved to Barton, to a house with a big backyard that had a big Blue Gum tree in the corner. To his credit, one of the first things my dad did was to deconstruct the brick wall that had been made around this tree, then he put up a flying fox and climbing ropes in a platform part-way up … I spent my childhood climbing and whizzing down the slide. I dare-devilled and hid from chores and people, thinking, and collecting gumnuts that I could strategically throw down! I loved that connection with the tree canopy, being in that space between sky and earth where I could spend hours doodling around in my own mind.
Luckily for me, my father, Dr Nigel Wace, was a curiosity researcher. I had this sounding board and I was able to ask ‘Oh, Dad, what’s this plant? Why is it growing here like that? Why does it have those colours, why do those leaves look different or what are these gumnuts from?’ The typical questions a child asks. There would always be an answer.
That was a magic zone for me where I started to learn about biogeography and geomorphology, and the interconnection of things. I found myself collecting seed pods and leaves and plants, until I had a little taxonomic collection held in subdivided shoe boxes and every box that I could find.
I used to make mobiles, little creatures that might be made of gumnuts and leaves and twigs. There were graceful cranes with grevillea heads, little tiny gumnut eyes, and hair and wings and tails and feet and long legs.
My printmaking origins
Some of my early creations were well thought out and I was able to use some of them and my drawings in a portfolio for entry into the degree course at Canberra School of Art. I wanted to go into silver smithing, and was accepted, but I soon found out that it wasn’t for me. So I changed to printmaking, which I love. I was so lucky to study under Jorg Schmeisser, an amazing Australian/German printmaker, who instilled in me the sense of always looking closer at the form of plants and things, and being able to draw and work that into etching plates or whatever printmaking form I was doing.
Collecting botanical specimens
The collecting that I’ve been doing for the last 30 years or so is more around plant pressings. I collect individual specimens of plants, flowers, leaves and lichen pressing them between paper sheets under pressure; looking after them, making sure that there’s no mould setting in, changing the papers depending on the moisture content of the specimen; and trying to press so that it’s perfectly represented. It’s a meditative process.
Living and collecting down at Lune River, which is where I lived for 20 years, a lot of what I looked for were smaller plants – orchids, irises, fungi and lichens, and drosera which are the small carnivorous plants. To find them you end up calibrating your vision for a section of ground, which is maybe 20 centimetres or even only 10 centimetres above ground level. It’s almost like you develop X-ray vision, excluding all else, that will take you right to that plant if it’s there.
The Tasmanian buttongrass landscape is such a resilient, amazing groundwork of plants. In summer it is totally dry and crisp, and in winter, it’s absolutely boggy and peaty, filled with water and sometimes frozen. The plants are super resilient. Sometimes they’re tiny, tiny plants and often they are very old ancient plant forms, like club moss, which was ‘dinosaur food’ and is unchanged since then. Places like Lune River are a portal into a Jurassic landscape where there were megafauna, dinosaurs and volcanoes. They can still be traced through the mineral content in the ground, the agates and through the fossilised tree ferns… I could find the same plant, maybe in a different size scale, from the Jurassic period.
Family influence & Dr Nigel Wace
My father, Dr Nigel Wace channelled his love of small things and natural forms into a much more academic route. He had a wide-ranging mind, but much of his curiosity-driven research which was funded in the 1970s and 80s, wouldn’t be funded now, as it would have no direct application and no money to be made from it.
I remember when I found some of my father’s plant pressings from his escapades including plant collections from Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island that he made in the 1950s as part of the Gough Island Scientific Survey. My father let me take some of these extra pressings, and the resulting arrangement was one of the first that I did. I just loved the way that you create the composition, but that the plants retain the integrity that they express through their form.
I realised that there are limitations to the process because you don’t want to just collect and collect. So I started thinking about digitising my collections, and how to make this into a more viable artistic expression, a product that I could use to make a living.
Singing with Arramaieda
I decided that Tasmania was the place where I wanted to live after my first visit. I started off in Hobart and it was there that I met up with Rachel Hore and Melanie Shanahan. Together we started Arramaieda, an acapella singing group, in 1988. We started a collection of original songs around sense of place and social justice issues. We wrote a lot of our songs and sang songs by Sweet Honey and the Rock, Miriam Makeba, and songs about Nelson Mandela. We created something very beautiful with Arramaieda, three- and four-part vocal harmonies.
Harmony is an extraordinary space to be in when you’re offering vocally, and you’re listening so intently and fitting within this musical thread.
I find the power of song is amazing, to express an idea, and the way that other people can gain access to that same expression through connection with song and music. We sang for Nelson Mandela on the steps of the Sydney Opera House in front of 40,000 people. We saw tears streaming down his face when he realised the love and connection of this Australian crowd, and felt their waves of love and emotion. That’s never left me.
Origins of the Recherche Bay campaign
I eventually left Arramaieda and moved down to Lune River with my partner. I looked out every day from our place at the wondrous Lune River buttongrass landscape, out to World Heritage area and across the river…writing songs and singing, teaching mosaics and collecting all my specimens.
I realised that I had more to do, more to give but I didn’t know how to do it from such a remote location and with little means.
It is hard to articulate, but I had to acknowledge that I wanted to do something and significant, whatever that was. We lived in this beautiful place, but just a few kilometres away, this landscape was under threat. There’s an enormous amount of logging extraction going out of these southern Tasmanian forests. Beautiful, old-growth pristine forests are being cut down and trucked out every day – and the grief that you hold, that is held in the community, and that is unexpressed can go unacknowledged.
Every day I saw felled trees going past. Every night I heard another 10 trucks. I thought it surely can’t be endless. These are the forests that I love. These are whole communities of trees and moss and plants that I love and then, they’re gone! When we found that the Type Locality of Recherche Bay and the Northeast Peninsula was going to be sold, developed and logged, we rose up as a community. I was very much a part of the Recherche Bay campaign along with many members of our Far South community, and high profile individuals including Dick Smith AC and the Tasmanian Greens. We drove this campaign.
This campaign also made me aware that the artwork that I was doing was linked into a much deeper vein of history and culture, which I found irresistible – the writings about it, the characters involved, the naturalists and the plant collectors. The ethnographic record made by anthropologists in these early collections depicted community camp life culture of the Lyluequonny people, the Tasmanian Aboriginal people of the Recherche Bay area, making it come alive to me in a way that I hadn’t known. What I’d always known was that I was on land that Aboriginal people had lived on and walked through, loved in and feasted on.
Fighting to protect this landscape, and the depth of historical narrative that ran with it, made me feel that, ‘Oh, actually the work I’m doing shows me that I’m part of this narrative. And as I’m a part of this narrative, I’ve got a responsibility to bring that about in a way that really brings my best to it.’
European travels under the Churchill Fellowship
I can remember sitting in my garden in Lune, pondering how on earth could I get over to the herbarium collections of Europe to see the plants that the French collected from this Type Locality – to see the specimen collection and the historical notes, and to immerse myself in that story, along with the political and cultural nuances that come with the early French collection of the botanical record from Recherche Bay.
Lo and behold, 10 years later, I applied for a Churchill Fellowship to do exactly that. I had fine-tuned my goal and done the work necessary to know that – yes, I’m a real part of this story and I can bring something big to it. I want to show these collections in a new way and bring them forward for fabric and wall coverings and story and song. I plucked up my courage and applied, and I got it! Oh happy days.
I went to study the early French botanical record from the d’Entrecasteaux expedition and a few other expeditions in herbarium collections in Europe, specifically in Florence in the Webb Herbarium and in Jardin des Plants in Paris, in the Natural History Museum and in Kew Gardens and many other things besides.
My designs are about caring deeply, in a very practical way so that people who may never have access to the buttongrass plains or other landscapes which are part of Tasmania, will get to know them. They are about the people that first collected these plants and what drove them to do that, what these plants represent, and the story of botanists and naturalists – the explorers.
I feel that I have an impact through the artwork, by putting these designs at the most sophisticated highest level, out into the world so that people can purchase fabrics and put them on their walls.
I embrace slow fashion and use a completely internationally-certified textile production system that is the lowest wastage and lowest impact on the environment, in both the textile manufacturing and the printing process. This fits with my ethic and values, and I am continually evaluating ways to further reduce my environmental footprint.
The production of textiles is a hugely wasteful, resource-intense and polluting industry, so I don’t want to be contributing to that. I want to be creating high value in terms of the educative model for what goes behind the visual, so when people want that orchid on that blouse, or that length of fabric to be made into something, they also get the story behind it which becomes theirs to tell. It’s a compound effect wherever it goes.
The big picture
I am extremely concerned because of the climate emergency that is evolving. What’s happening is a timing slippage across many ecological niches, not just for orchids, but for many or possibly all things. In localised environments you’ll find that orchid species may flower later because its drier – and it’s getting drier and drier every year. It might get so dry that pollinating insect species have to become sexually mature and mate earlier, so there could be a two- or three-week slippage where they can’t meet.
The orchid can’t get pollinated because the insect isn’t out there ready. And so what happens then? Millennia of evolution are undone through this climate emergency. And that’s just one illustration of it. That is happening with phytoplankton. It’s happening with the shell structure of the calcium in the shells, cataclysmic waves of dissolution where structures aren’t meshing as they normally would. That’s a real concern. That’s part of this story.
It’s a big idea to articulate. I think we need to grapple with it, and with that comes an understanding that we are not outside these systems. We are so deeply inside them and we need to own our responsibility for how we act within them. We need to care for all the things, even the ones that are ugly or that don’t serve us. We actually need to serve them.
We need to know that we’re not separate, and to be active in what we can do to help mitigate this situation, now.
My current fabric designs hold a story that is both science and art. They embody important topics of plant and habitat conservation, of the impact of climate change and what we all need to do to protect these fragile ecosystems.