Colleen Southwell’s Art Grows From the Garden

For Colleen Southwell, both art and gardening are about process not outcomes. They’re “acts of reverence and devotion, of care, storytelling and paying attention”. Collen, an artist and gardener, creates incredibly intricate nature inspired artworks from her studio on a property just outside Orange in Central New South Wales. She’s is a gentle, thoughtful and warm woman and a very talented artist.  

Colleen’s work is a form of paper sculpture where botanical and entomological specimens are drawn in fine pigment pen, painted in watercolour, cut, embossed and shaped and assembled. There are often hundreds of paper pieces in each work. “I use very fine gauge jewelry wire, thread, and sometimes found pieces like antique watch parts or textiles. Each piece is pinned with entomology pins, bringing shadow into play – an important part of the work, I love how it reflects the fragility of the subject and changes with the light.” It’s an incredibly time-consuming process – each work can take Colleen weeks to complete, “often with a pair of tweezers in both hands!”

Over the last year, Colleen’s art practice has taken off. She’s exhibited at Artisans in the Gardens at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney, St Cloche gallery in Paddington, and this week her first solo exhibition, Into the Wilder opens at the Corner Store Gallery in Orange, NSW. I caught up with Colleen, ahead of the exhibition to find out more about her work and the connection between her art practice and love of gardening.

Artist Colleen Southwell’s garden studio.

Can you share a little about your background? How did you come to designing gardens and making art?

A creative path was always my intention, though when I left school I studied business and agriculture at university. I went on to work for 10 years in regional economic development and though there were community aspects of it that I enjoyed, it wasn’t the creative future I had envisaged. 

After having my two sons I retrained in horticulture – I have had a lifelong love for the garden, passed down by my Mum. I loved the creative side of design, hand drawing and watercolour rendering plans, and particularly working with plants.  I worked for a time with a local design business, then out on my own.

The Corner Store Gallery - Colleen Southwell
A work from Into the Wilder by Colleen Southwell.

Starting my design business, The Garden Curator was really a turning point, driven by a growing awareness of the disconnect that many people have from nature, a personal need to refocus, and an idea that I wanted to encourage a genuine appreciation for the natural world and our place within it. I also felt that we need to move back to living with nature day to day in a way that is immersive, productive and enriching. Manufactured “off the shelf” landscapes may look glossy, but they can lack heart if they don’t evolve and reflect the story of the story of those within. The more we engage with nature, the more we are in awe of it, and the more we value it. It begins at home!

My artwork has evolved from these ideas too – intended to encourage pause, observation and appreciation for the tiny details of the life around us.

Your works are incredibly beautiful, but I know from our conversations, that there’s a deeper message you’re trying to convey. Can you please tell me a little more about the meaning behind your art practice, and what you’re hoping people might take away from your work?

It concerns me that as contemporary individuals we seem to be on a never-ending, fast paced quest to “find” contentment. There is a growing disconnect from nature and an increasingly narrow, distorted and often arrogant view about perfection and beauty, and what constitutes them.  I hope that my work challenges this – to see and understand it the viewer must take a moment to be still and look carefully. My practice requires me to do the same, as I can only create through slow and deliberate engagement with the plants and insects that inform my work.

Through pausing and connecting with nature, perfection and beauty in their purest forms become evident, and it’s often the imperfect that is the most beautiful, like the papery, muted petals of a flower in decline. Pleasure and contentment aren’t found, but are rather the collective of these daily interactions and moments of appreciation.

Colleen Southwell’s studio.
Studio details.

A lot of the plant specimens you create in your art work are mythical – mashups, in a way, of different plants. Why? 

My work is never intended to replicate or mimic a plant or insect.  Nature is the ultimate artist – I can’t match that! Each piece is intended to reflect and encourage observation and study, to draw the onlooker in closely, trigger imagination, and to pay respect to the exquisite detail and beauty that is beneath our feet if we choose to see it. I hope it will challenge our perception of the nature we connect with day to day, to elevate it within our consciousness, to encourage questioning and understanding. 

Sometimes my pieces combine both plant and insect elements in the one specimen, in some way reflecting the symbiotic relationships between them, and also suggesting that there is much yet to discover. In these works, they are one being, inseparable, and entirely dependent upon each other.

I am unashamedly hoping to create work that is beautiful, contemplative and uplifting. I want it to speak, but with an optimistic, inquisitive and gentle voice.

Studio details.

You mention that gardening is a great inspiration. What is it about the garden and being a gardener that inspires/nourishes you? 

Everything about the garden and our land nourishes me physically, emotionally and spiritually. It is endlessly rewarding and challenging. It’s a great teacher of patience and respect and also a great leveller, at times putting me firmly back in my place, a reminder that there are greater forces at play. 

The garden is a place to work hard and to rest and rejuvenate. It’s full of life, a place we share with animals, birds and insects and it’s such a privilege and a pleasure to have them choose this garden as their home.

Our garden also tells our story – it has been built through sharing, is filled with the plants we love, those that have been gifted, propagated and raised from seed. It is slow, constantly evolving and wears its heart firmly on its sleeve.  I am interested in how the garden feels and involves all senses, so it’s value to us to goes way beyond the way it looks.

The garden is a process, not an outcome, and gardening is ultimately an act of caring. I find most satisfaction in the doing and observing, and in simply being within it. There really is no finished product, rather a constant ebb and flow and cycle of life and death.   

Whilst the outcome of your art practice is often layered and unruly and wild, I imagine the process of making each piece requires incredible attention to detail and control. I’m interested in your thoughts on the relationship between order and chaos in your art and gardening practice? 

The process of creating my work is very measured. It takes time and can’t be rushed, it forces me to linger, to be calm, breathe and keep a steady hand. It seems contradictory, but this control comes from relaxation – it’s a meditative and immersive process.

Similarly, I love the garden most when it is relaxed, when it’s a blur of billowing and seedy grasses, when perennials lean into each other and drip over edges, and self-sown plants choose their own place between them. There is something lovely about the garden curating its own picture and being allowed to age and express the seasons fully. It also takes the pressure off the need to maintain visual perfection. I will never have a perfectly manicured garden, I don’t have the time or the inclination. I’m OK with that!

In this unruly froth, the garden is also loved by birds and insects. When the vegetable patch goes to seed, the umbels of carrots and fennel are bliss, and when allowed to bolt, broccoli and lettuces are adored by the bees. Living in a rural area, wildness blurs the line between the garden and the paddocks beyond too – a garden shouldn’t feel imposed on the landscape, rather part of it.  

I have corners of the garden that are more formal and orderly with clipped spheres and rounded cloud hedges. I find the care of these meditative too, and their sinuous and rhythmic forms relaxing. It’s a little attempt at curvy order! 

In my garden, my studio and my home, order and chaos go hand in hand, and somewhere in the middle I find balance.

Details of Colleen’s intricate paper sculpture.
Colleen’s family property lies just outside Orange, NSW.

Colleen’s beloved garden.

Do you approach both mediums – gardening and art making – the same way?

I think yes – both are an act of reverence and devotion, of care, of storytelling and of attention to detail. They demand hard work and slow contemplation in equal measure. Each require elements of control, though it‘s always on their terms and both the garden and my artworks inevitably take on a life of their own despite my intentions. I start with ideas, but the plants (real or paper) always have the final say.  And simply, both are a vital part of my being.

Studio details.
Colleen Southwell in her studio.

 Is there anything else you would like to add about your art/garden making practice?

Too often both art and gardens are subject to judgement – dictated by fashion and status or pigeonholed into good or bad. Ultimately, the act of making a garden or art is personal. It should enrich the life of the maker and reflect their story, without the pressure of right or wrong. The best advice given to me upon beginning this creative path was from my friend, Pia Jane Bijkerk, who through her mentorship encouraged me to call myself an artist. For some reason that is so hard to do, but it opens possibilities! 

Similarly, I think we must encourage others to call themselves gardeners, free from judgement, and to wear the mantle proudly regardless of experience, skill or the size of the plot they tend. Perfect horticultural technique and slick design don’t make the gardener, care and attention and a simple love for the garden do.

Into the Wilder by Colleen Southwell
Corner Store Gallery, 382 Summer Street, Orange, NSW.
November 12 – 24, 2019

The Corner Store Gallery - Colleen Southwell
Work from Colleens upcoming exhibition, Into the Wilder