Ecological Treasure Hunting with Artist Penny Sadubin

A commitment to knowing landscapes, inside and out, underpins the creative output of Australian artist, garden designer and teacher Penny Sadubin. Her latest series of drawings and paintings – part of a group show titled Interconnected at Hazelhurst Art Space – is the result of a self-initiated “treasure hunt”, where she attempted to track down the 15 Threatened Ecological Communities of the South Coast of NSW.

Penny initially trained as an artist at the University of NSW College of Fine Arts in Sydney. After graduating she moved to the UK, where she soon realised she “just wanted to be outside”. Retraining as a garden designer, Penny worked in London for several years before transitioning into community garden design, public art projects and forest schooling methodologies. In 2013, Penny and her husband Tim Rushby-Smith moved back to Australia with their two children. She currently works for Bundanon Trust as an art educator.

I chatted to Penny about her life as an artist and teacher and the importance, for her, of connection to landscape.

Your recent work focuses on threatened ecological communities (TECs) near where you live on the South Coast of NSW. Can you paint us a picture of this landscape?
The Illawarra region runs from Sydney’s southern edge, down the coastal strip bordered by the Illawarra Escarpment in the west and the Shoalhaven River in the south. The Escarpment is what remains of an eroded ribbon of mountains that run parallel to the coast. Coastal moisture is caught by the ridge and feeds the pockets of subtropical rainforest that can still be found in the steep gullies. The coastal plain is largely developed but there are pockets of communities – sandwiched between farms, roads and creeping urban development – that give us an insight into what the area once looked like. These ecological communities include coastal freshwater wetlands and coastal saltmarshes, dry areas of melaleuca shrubland, grassy and park-like eucalyptus and melaleuca woodlands, native grasslands, swamp oak and river flat forests in the permanently wet floodplains and the littoral rainforests behind the sand dunes.

Penny Sadubin. Photo: Tanya Patrick

What inspired you to work on this subject?
I’d come across a brochure which listed the threatened ecological communities (TECs) in the Illawarra. I was thinking about the human impact on the landscape around us; our strongly felt connections, our indifference as well as our attempts to control, change or regenerate these special landscapes.

How do we value these landscapes when we have so many differing viewpoints? Can we even expect these vestiges of endemic ecosystems to survive in the future, in the face of human land habitation, weed infestation, feral animal impact and the inevitable pressure of a changing climate?

TECs, as their name suggests, are ecological communities which have been identified as facing a high risk of extinction. (Editors note: An ecological community is a group of native plants, animals and other organisms that naturally occur together and interact in a unique habitat. An ecological community becomes threatened when it’s composition and functionality have been significantly depleted across its full range.) The brochure communicated all 15 local examples. I thought I can go to Perkins’s beach; I can go to Werri Lagoon. It felt a bit like a treasure hunt. Would I be able to observe the differences? Would I be able to find the characteristic plant species in these places?

It’s not always as straightforward as ‘this is one community and that’s another’. In the end these are human designations – the plants don’t know the rules although they know who they like to cohabit with, I suppose.

Bangalay Sand Forest – Seven Mile Beach, 50cm x 50cm, pencil and watercolour on paper. By Penny Sadubin
Swamp Oak Floodplain Forest – Puckey’s Estate, 50cm x 50cm pencil and watercolour on paper. By Penny Sadubin
Coastal Freshwater Wetland, Swamp Sclerophyll Forest edge, Coomonderry Swamp, 50cm x 50cm, pencil and watercolour on paper. By Penny Sadubin

These places are clearly very beautiful environments. Can you talk about how they feel?
Yes, they generally look amazing, but they’re extremely fragmented. For example, the littoral rainforest near Seven Mile Beach. It’s a tiny, but gorgeous, sliver of a national park. Within this small area, framed by a busy road, there’s a sewage treatment works, a sand mining operation with plans for expansion, a redundant council tip, two caravan parks and the Gerroa township. Despite this, painting there is always special. There is a road behind where I was drawing, but the traffic noise mostly dies away as I concentrate. I think the air is super oxygenated from the trees, it definitely has an effect on me!

This spot, known locally as the Sand Track, is characterised by bangalay (Eucalyptus botryoides), coastal banksia (Banksia integrifolia), swamp mahogany (E. robusta) and blackbutt (E. pilularis). A beautiful matrix of grasses and forbs, including weeping grass (Microlaena stipoides), bracken fern, native violet (Viola hederaceae) and kidneyweed (Dichondra repens), grows in the dappled light at ground level.

In this part of the park there are elements of the adjacent plant community which is called Littoral Rainforest and Coastal Vine thickets of Eastern Australia. This community includes large vines, native sarsaparilla (Smilax glyciphylla), cabbage tree palms (Livistona australis) and rainforest species such as Cheese tree (Glochidion ferdinandi). There’s a gradual mixing of the two and I enjoyed getting to know them and noticing how they feel different.

Bangalay Sand Forest & Littoral Rainforest, Seven Mile Beach, 81cm x 62cm, oil on plywood. By Penny Sadubin

 As well as painting you’re currently completing a Master of Teaching and are employed by Bundanon Trust as an art educator. What is it about teaching that you are drawn to?
I love to connect young people to their creative potential, to see what they can do when given the opportunity and confidence. The natural landscapes of Bundanon, and Arthur Boyd’s legacy, are a powerful force. It’s exciting to see how students respond when they are there. 

I’m also interested in how visual arts can address the imbalance between the physical and digital worlds and amplify personal relationships with the environment. Physically, young people are not going anywhere much, but often we have no idea where they are.

Repeatedly, research findings confirm the crucial role the arts can play in multi-sensory learning, which in-turn fosters greater nature awareness and attachment. Of course, there’s many links here to the way our First Nations people know about and care for Country. We all have a responsibility, no matter what age we are, to understand, learn from and look after where we live. 

Penny Sadubin in her studio. Photo: Tanya Patrick
Penny Sadubin in her studio. Photo: Tanya Patrick

Can you tell us a bit about the process of making the works for Interconnected?
To try and understand the TECs on a deeper level, I walked them with ecologists and local naturalists, like Warren Holder from the Gerroa Environmental Protection Society, who has been proactively defending biodiversity for over 30 years.

I hope the paintings reflect this period of research and immersion, and move beyond the romantic or aesthetic appreciation that an audience generally has towards landscape painting. Maybe this is where my painting links back to garden design, a pursuit focused on expressing a site’s genius loci – the sense of place – honoring and amplifying it within a space. If my work helped a viewer understand something of the underlying complexity of what I’m depicting, or encouraged them to find out more about what they can do to defend it, I’d feel validated.

Your poster ‘Threatened Ecological Communities of the Illawarra’ speaks to this didactic approach.
Do people really want a science lesson? Probably not! The print was my attempt to celebrate our local ecology in a visual way, while examining the threats as well as the positive ways people can come together to preserve this vital biodiversity.

Threatened Ecological Communities of the Illawarra poster, by Penny Sadubin.

How does working en plein air influence your work?
Going to the same place over and over and getting to know it and how it changes – this feeds into my ability to capture the unique characteristics of the ecosystems, their forms, and the feeling of being there.

I start outside with drawings, then return with a board and starting painting, before finishing an artwork back in the studio. There is always a dance between painting from observation and memory, intuition and feeling.

Can you tell us a bit about your garden at home?
What I love about gardening at home is that it’s constantly evolving. There’s always something to do. I can go out and be immersed in gardening for short bursts or the whole day. I find my creative practice is much more demanding, I’m not someone who can just go to the studio for half an hour. But I can weed or water the veg garden as a study break. It’s my version of mindfulness. I can really switch off to the rest of the noise in my head and watch a spinebill in the salvias. The garden is really grounding for me.

I have a small veg garden, which is never as productive as I want, but if we eat a few pumpkins, beans, cherry tomatoes, potatoes and herbs from the garden I’m happy. We also have bananas, pomegranates, coffee and olives which has led me to appreciate how many processes are involved in every cup of coffee or jar of olives! It feels so exotic after our London garden to harvest home grown bananas.

I concentrate on plants that are locally native as well as exotics that support wildlife. I’m quite obsessed with native bees. I love spotting blue banded bees, teddy bear bees and neon cuckoo bees in the different varieties of salvias I grow.

To date, the best moment was when the coastal banksia I planted was finally big enough to attract the yellow tailed black cockatoos. Gardens don’t have to be 100% native but every local plant you include creates connections that can support your local ecology.

Detail of Penny Sadubin’s sketch book. Photo: Tanya Patrick

Detail of Penny Sadubin’s sketch book. Photo: Tanya Patrick
Detail of Penny Sadubin’s sketch book. Photo: Tanya Patrick

When I think of you, the word action comes to mind. Where do you get your energy from? What or who inspires you?
I recognise the First Nations concept of Country as teacher and provider. I think it’s a worldview we could all benefit from, but we have a lot to learn! 

In terms of people, I love Janet Laurence’s multifaceted approach. I also admire her doggedness at staying on task with regards challenging our perceptions of the natural world.

Ultimately, I think it’s the landscape itself that speaks to me the most. In trying to come up with a response that somehow captures it, I hope the landscape will speak to other people too.


Coastal Salt marsh, Werri Lagoon, 51 cm x 36cm, oil on plywood. By Penny Sadubin