Artist Profile: Sally Blake

At a recent exhibition at Belconnen Arts Centre in Canberra, a life-sized impression of the 30,000-year-old Venus of Dolní Věstonice stood amongst a room layered with scorched, stitched and punctured paper drawings, spiralled webs of plant-dyed wool, decorated Goddess icons and patinated copper wire vessels woven into seed pods and bronchial structures. Through these symbols of death, renewal, regeneration and transformation, the show’s creator, artist Sally Blake, pondered the question: how can we explore contemporary environmental concerns through the ancient patterns and knowledge of the living world? 

Sally, who holds a Doctorate in Philosophy from ANU, is fascinated with investigating the complex space between the human and natural world. She produces works that infuse textiles and paper-based media techniques with natural processes, such as rain, shadow, colour and fire, to reflect on disconnections that lead to environmental harm, and possible transformation. 

Sally is also the architect of the Eucalyptus Dye Database, an extensive online catalogue of colours extracted from eucalyptus species found within the Australian National Botanic Gardens – a research interest that continues to evolve within her most recent explorations into the effect of place, which is informed by collections of plant-dyes and stories from eucalypt trees local to the ACT.

We caught up with this prolific artist recently to find out more about her making process, the important role that plant-based dyes play within her work and her deep reverence for the patterns and processes of the natural world.

Hi Sally. Please tell us about you and your life with art? I am a visual artist living in Canberra with my partner. We have two grown-up children. My first careers were as a paediatric nurse and midwife, both of which I loved.

Art always beckoned and I made the decision to start at the ANU School of Art in 2004 where I did my undergraduate studies in the textiles department. I went back and was awarded my PhD in 2015. My research examined the potential space between humans and nature. I work at the ANU as a session teacher in textiles, teaching plant-dyeing, stitch, drawing and constructed textiles. I also run workshops in plant-dyeing and basket making. Around teaching commitments, I work full-time as an artist.

Sally Blake. Image by Jamila Toderas
Fire Drawings, 2019. Ash, burns, pinpricks and eucalyptus-dyed wool stitched to handmade kozo/abaca paper. 35.5 x 28.5 cm

What is it about the process of hand-making that you are drawn to? I am drawn to finding the symbolic language that expresses my deep concerns about climate change and other environmental threats. I explore the disconnections between humans and nature which leads to environmental harm, and the possibility of these transforming.

Your work explores the complex relationship between the human and natural world, collaborating with natural processes such as rain, fire and plant dyes across mediums including drawing, basketry, weaving, stitch and dyeing. What has inspired this fascination with nature? In nature I have always found resonances for my own experiences.

I have always watched nature closely. Outside my childhood bedroom window was a prunus tree. I loved it all the year round. Its deep purple leaves in summer, its bare branches against the winter sky and the pink, short-lived blossoms in spring. I wished the flowers lasted for longer, as it seemed such a long time until I would see them again.

Dye Diary, 2016. Eucalyptus-dyed wool, silk and linen. Approx 175 x 350 cm. Photo: the artist
Eucalyptus Mantle (ACT), 2019. Eucalyptus-dyed wool, silk and linen on paper. 60 x 106 cm

The Eucalyptus Dye Database is an incredible resource that you have created with the assistance of the Australian National Botanical Garden. Can you please tell us more about this body of research – what inspired its beginning? What did the process of creating the Dye Database involve? We are so lucky to have this incredible natural dye source growing in Australia. With over 800 species of eucalypt there is a vast array of colours available. I originally wanted to document the dye colours from eucalypts as I thought it was important to have a permanent record of these dyes which was readily available to everyone. 

It was a lot to manage logistically from collecting the plant materials to making sure the recipes for each species was exactly the same so the results could be compared between species. Sewing samplers, winding skeins of yarn to be made into baskets after they were dyed, making dye-pots outside on frosty Canberra nights, digitising the information for the Database, keeping all the samples labelled – everything took lots of focus and time.

I have worked on two large research projects into eucalypts and their dyes at the Australian National Botanical Gardens. The first one was in 2016 and was supported by the Australia Council. In this project I collected the dyes from 230 eucalypt species on wool, silk and linen. As part of the project I created an on-line database of the dye colours which is freely available here

With support from ArtsACT, during 2018-19 I researched the 27 eucalypt species that grow naturally in the ACT. For this project, I collected dyes and stories that people have about the different species. I hope to exhibit the results of this research in 2021.

Do you have a favourite plant/tree/botanic to draw colour from? I love the range of colours possible with eucalyptus dyes. If I had to pick just one it would probably be Eucalyptus mannifera. It is a species that grows naturally in the ACT and is a beautiful eucalypt, with its chalky white bark that deepens to orangey browns before it sheds in summer. The leaves and bark both give wonderful colours. On wool, the leaves give a deep orangey red dye which always seems miraculous. 

You are now researching eucalyptus trees in the ACT as indicators of place; collecting physical data – colour extracted from leaves and bark – and emotional data – stories of people’s experiences with the trees themselves – to create a complex understanding of place that is connected by both art and science. Can you tell us more about this work? My work is always an investigation of the relationship between humans and the natural world. Plant dyes are important in my practice as they are only produced through a combination of human activity and plant materials. Plant-based dyes create a particular colour palette — a plant’s rootedness — making them excellent indicators of place. Including stories as artistic inspiration will add another layer of meaning about the connections people make with place.

All That Remains, 2020. Pressed burnt and drought-affected eucalyptus leaves, ash, burns, pinpricks and eucalyptus-dyed wool stitched to paper. 140 x 140 cm. Photo: the artist

Environmental sociologist Frank Vanclay writes, “place’ is generally conceived as being ‘space’ imbued with meaning.” Discovering the meaning that people find in connection to particular eucalypts is a rich resource for developing work ready for exhibition. It challenged and opened up my practice to work with other people’s meanings and connections to place. As I develop artwork in response to the stories I will use dye colours from the eucalypt particular to the story. 

Working with local eucalypts meant I could undertake more in-depth research. I investigated the effect of place on dye colours by testing the dyes from the same species, from different locations.  I will test the effect of seasonal and weather conditions on dye colours by collecting leaves monthly from the same eucalypt for twelve months. 

Including stories and dyes provided physical data (from the dyes) and psychological and emotional data (from the stories) from which to develop a body of work about place. 

Interconnected, 2020. Eucalyptus-dyed and indigo-dyed wool, silk and linen stitched to handmade Mexican circle amate paper. 120 x 240 cm. Photo: the artist

Can you paint a picture of your garden at home? My garden at home felt like a little oasis through the summer fires and smoke, and I am so grateful for it through the restrictions of COVID19. It is a mixture of natives, perennials, annuals and vegetables. I also have some dye plants- a Eucalyptus mannifera and a cinerea which I keep as bushes and lots of Indigofera australis. I want to plant some more dye plants. We have wicking beds for the vegetables and they worked so well through the hot summer – even the strawberries looked perky and produced lots of fruit. The whole garden is thriving at the moment after substantial rain and warm days before the frosts begin.

I have an outdoor dye studio, using a commercial kitchen bench and sink that we found on Gumtree. I also have a beautiful, 60 litre blue and white ceramic pot for indigo dyeing sitting in the garden.

We have lots of native bees, honeybees and other insects buzzing around in the garden and lots of birds too. I am particularly smitten with the native blue-banded bees which love the salvia.

The outside is brought inside at home with lots of indoor plants, about 40 so far. They have become a bit of an obsession…

Regeneration, 2019. Patinated copper wire. 75 x 50 x 50 cm. Photo: the artist

My favourite of your works include a series of gorgeous woven patinated copper structures which take intricate forms such as bronchial structures and lungs, baskets and seed pods. What is the story behind these pieces? I draw my inspiration from nature, particularly seeds and seedpods. My first inspiration was the structure of a skeletonised seedpod that I perceived as holding a duality between life and death, and a tension between vulnerability and resilience. This tiny fragile form still held its seed, and the potential of new life. It reminded me of woven basketry forms, with which it shares a porosity between inner and outer. I wanted to find a way to imitate the seedpod’s dry, skeletal fragility. This is when I first started making baskets with fine copper wire, as this medium allowed me to make forms that also held this tension between fragility and resilience.

I made and named the lungs, The Commonwealth of Breath after a David Abram quote. They sat in my studio for a couple of years until the The Ancient Gaze exhibition about climate change. Canberra was heavily affected by bushfire smoke and the lungs had a particular contemporary relevance. They sat next to a stitched David Abram quote,  ‘Breathing involves a continual oscillation between exhaling and inhaling, offering ourselves to the world at one moment and drawing the world into ourselves at the next…’

Commonwealth of Breath, 2018. Patinated copper wire. 62 x 44 x 12 cm. Photo: the artist
Seep, 2017. Plant-dyed wool, silk and hemp, aluminium wire. 22 x 60 x 55 cm. Photo: the artist

What are you looking forward to right now? Right now, as we are physically distancing, I am enjoying having so much uninterrupted time for art making. As an introverted artist, with lots of art materials, this time suits me. But I also look forward to seeing my children and friends when this is all over and giving them all a big hug. I hope we will re-emerge into a world where we have learnt more empathy, compassion and understanding for the suffering of people and the natural world.

Where do you find inspiration? I find inspiration in the patterns and processes of natural cycles. In particular patterns of death, renewal and regeneration and the interconnected whole. The climate crisis gives me focus.

Currently I am drawing on ancient European myth and symbols. In particular, the Great Goddess as she embodies death and renewal cycles.

If you were a plant, what would you be? Eucalyptus mannifera.


Header image: In Memory, 2017. Copper wire, eucalyptus-dyed wool, silk and hemp.28 x 60 x 40 cm. Photo: the artist

Ancient Glyphs, 2019. Plant-dyed wool and silk stitched to paper. 16 x 12 cm each. Photo: the artist