Interrogation and Regeneration with Artist Cara Johnson

Grace is one word I would use to describe artist and contemporary jeweller, Cara Johnson. A deeply thoughtful and wise soul, Cara’s delicate works interrogate land management practices and the human relationship with the natural world. When she isn’t exhibiting in the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria or foraging for weeds and discarded tree guards, Cara can be found regenerating a little slice of land in the Otway Ranges in Victoria with the help of her dogs and a band of curious chickens.

I caught up with Cara recently to learn more about what inspires her, her connection to plants, her making process and her fondness for messmate trees (Eucalyptus obliqua).

Please tell us about your art practice. I’m an artist and contemporary jeweller, and also feel strongly connected to domestic craft. For me, art is where I search for ways to begin to consolidate the things that I care about most. My works all tend to take a very long time, and weeks and months can easily disappear as I work in my studio at home. Committing intense periods of time to my work is an important part of my practice, and I like the thought that what I invest into a piece stays held within it. 

For mending by Cara Johnson, 2018. Found tree guard, willow, blackberry cane, found iron wire. Image by Fred Kroh

What is it about jewellery and small-sculpture that you are drawn to as both a maker and a wearer? The scale and intimacy of jewellery suits the way I experience the world, and although my works are not all wearable, I do situate my practice within a jewellery vernacular. I like that I get to hold and feel every part of the material, and that my hands are my most used tool.

My work is about heavy-handedness and damage done, but also about my own care and deep love for the environment.

cara johnson

Your art making process explores the intricate narrative between people and landscape. What are your thoughts about land management practices in Australia? Often I think about the speed at which vegetation was cleared here, which can easily overwhelm me. Our landscape is scarred and it is critical that we place value on the precious remnants that are left. It’s my hope that focus shifts towards true habitat restoration, which is the long road, and takes years of commitment and sensitivity.

How do you interrogate these thoughts within your craft-based works? I’m always working with tensions, trying to draw lots of threads of thought together that are complicated and conflicting. My work is about heavy-handedness and damage done, but also about my own care and deep love for the environment. Having a broader understanding of land management practices helps to inform the narratives I’m working within, but the pieces I make are always drawn from my personal relationship to place and often connect back to individual trees and plants. 

Messmate (Eucalyptus obliqua) by Cara Johnson, 2017. Paper, paper thread, natural dye. Image by Matthew Stanton
Lines I by Cara Johnson, 2017. Paper thread, blackberry cane, iron. Image by Matthew Stanton
Creek (rupture) by Cara Johnson, 2016. Willow, iron, paper. Image by Jeremy Dillon

You reside in the Otways in South West Victoria. Can you paint a picture of this landscape? Where I live is traditionally a meeting area for several groups of Traditional Custodians, and I acknowledge that these lands are those of the Wathaurong (Waddawurrung) and Gadubanud (Katubanut) people. Here, the air is clean and crisp and it drizzles more than most places. The area is geologically significant, causing the landscape to slowly shift from precious low, scrubby heathland dotted with Xanthorrhoea australis and windswept ironbark (Eucalyptus tricarpa) into towering mountain ash (Eucalyptus regnans) forests. Often you hear yellow tailed black cockatoos and gang gangs, and on a windy day if you look up there’ll be a pair of wedge tail eagles circling.

My favourite plants change with the time of year. As the months warm up, I tiptoe through the bush looking for terrestrial orchids, but I also love when the messmate bursts into flower because everything smells sweet and warm. 

…art is where I search for ways to begin to consolidate the things that I care about most.

Cara johnson

What has inspired your connection to plants? Years ago, I briefly worked at a wholesale indigenous plant nursery for a man who wouldn’t sell plants to anyone unless he could see where they were going on a map and assess if they belonged there or not. His passion for landscape restoration, and his level of commitment and care has inspired me greatly. I used to think he was extreme in his ideals, but now I completely understand why he was so careful.

I also have a wonderful neighbour and friend down the road whose life has been dedicated to environmental community action, and she’s always up for a cuppa to lament about the state of the things while also excitedly telling me about a bird she spotted that week or something hopeful she’s read. I find her optimism inspiring and feel very lucky to have her in my life. I am also active in my community and care very much for my surrounds, and hope one day I can look back and feel like I have tried to inverse some of the damage done. 

I’m interested in the relationship between the materials and the form of your works. Delicate, precious creations are forged from heavy, found objects, such as old tyres, iron and bailing twine, and some are then buried in the earth or left within nature to rot and rust. Can you tell me more about your choice of materiality? What role does place play within this? My material choices are deliberate, as it is my understanding that materials hold their own narrative before I come to them. It’s important to me to be able to justify my reasons for using a material, and one of the main parameters I set myself is that I cause no negative impact in sourcing my materials and I’m careful in upholding this. Quite often, I use weed species including willow that I cut from creeks, and blackberry cane that I hack from undergrowth.

I also collect a lot of agricultural debris and am drawn to anything that connects to tree planting and land-management practices such as plastic tree guards. At times I’ve left works within the environment, in the places they’re drawn from. I’ve done this when it felt appropriate to the work, but have moved away from this as I became uneasy about leaving anything in the landscape. 

Cara Johnson installing Safekeeping in the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, 2019
38°21’20’’S 144°16’37’’E by Cara Johnson, 2016. Paper, messmate from one stick, paper thread, dirt. Image by Jeremy Dillon

Your recent exhibition, Understory, at the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria was an ode to the fragility and preciousness of nature. What were some of the thoughts and forms you created within this collection? Was there a significance to exhibiting this series within the RBGV? My show Understory was made to be shown especially at the gardens which made a lot of sense to me, as my works all connect back to plants and the RBGV is a plant refuge right in the middle of Melbourne.

One of the pieces in Understory was made in response to a small pocket of remnant Sweet Bursaria trees that sit on the western side of the gardens, and I came to that work after chatting with the horticulturist who looks after the beautiful old trees. I also made a fence type structure from willow and silage wrap called Safekeeping that I installed along a path that cuts through the Indigenous Grasses Bed. Through that piece, I wanted to highlight the preciousness of the grasslands while also giving visitors a chance to reflect on their own relationships to plants. 

Human interventions in nature, such as fence lines, tree guards and invasive species feature strongly within your works. What is the significance for you? A few years back I read a line in Murray Bail’s book Eucalyptus that sums it up perfectly for me ‘…the straight line is immediately sharply human’. Fence lines slice through the landscape with no regard for the shape of the land and go against what is natural, illustrating the need to control and contain. Tree planting (especially in straight lines) is jarring to me, and I regularly find tree guards left on for so long that they begin to actually damage or even kill the trees they were meant to protect.

I do practice weed control myself but have internal conflicts about my own brutality towards these invasive plants as I try to eradicate them from the landscape, so I somewhat remedy this by replacing them with indigenous and endemic species.

You’re taking part in an exhibition this month at Gallery Funaki in Melbourne titled Elegy – can you tell us a little about the theme behind this show and the pieces you are exhibiting? Elegy is a special show that sees a group of Australian artists all respond to landscape grief and environmental crisis. The largest piece I made for the exhibition was constructed from thousands of tiny beads hand cut from a tree guard that I found in the landscape. The piece is called Hollow and is for contemplating the sadness of mass land clearing while holding some sort of hope for repair. I also have a series in Elegy called Wood duck, which is made from old river red gum fence posts, bailing twine, ash and paper. This small collection of pieces are very special to me and honour a little wood duck that I saw get hit by a car last year while she was crossing the road.

Leaf litter I by Cara Johnson, 2020. Paper, iron, silage net. Image by Fred Kroh
Sweet Bursaria (remnant) by Cara Johnson, 2019. Found milk carton tree guards, silage net. Image by Fred Kroh

Tell us about your garden space at home. My place is a small corner sliced off a farm, and it was cleared land when I moved in. I’ve mostly planted local species – the first year I planted around 500 tube-stock and have continued to repeat this every planting season. My aim is to provide as much habitat as possible, and it’s incredibly rewarding to have kookaburras come and sit on trees that I put in the ground and little flocks of red-browed finches taking shelter in the garden. I also have lots of native Australian plants that aren’t local, so I am careful that I don’t introduce weedy species that have tendencies to spread as there’s bushland across the road. Up the back is a big veggie garden where I spend half my time shoeing out my chooks that always find new ways to break in. If I’m ever away from home for a few days the first thing I do is walk around the garden to see what’s grown and what’s flowered, and what work needs to be tackled. 

Where is your favourite place to go to when you need to escape? Walking my dogs in the bush near where I live (always on a lead) or taking a cuppa up into the garden to spend time with my chooks. 

What are you looking forward to right now? At the end of the year I have a solo show at the Museum of Economic Botany in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens, so making new works for that is a focus for me this year. I’m also doing another project with Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria at the Australian Garden in Cranbourne during winter, where I’ll be installing some site-specific pieces amongst the plants. 

If you were a plant, what would you be? I’d definitely like to be a tree so that I could live for a long time, and I’d hope I’d get to be a messmate (Eucalyptus obliqua). They’re an understated, washed-out grey, rough-barked eucalypt and as they grow older become wonderful habitat for owls, possums, bats and bugs and provide beautiful leaf litter for the understory.

Find out more about Cara and her work by visiting her website and Instagram.

Header image: Cara Johnson by Fred Kroh 

Unearth by Cara Johnson, 2018. Paper, iron, paper thread. Image by Fred Kroh
Measuring Cups by Cara Johnson, 2017. Found iron wire, paper. Image by Matthew Stanton