Anne Harris: In the Artist’s Studio

Anne Harris is a Queensland-based artist, weaver and materials forager. She imprints the textures and echoes of plants, and the natural world, into all of her work – and here, invites us in to her studio to see how working with plants influences her creatively.

Where I work. My studio is a 10-metre by 5-metre shed with a big verandah. My collection of wood spills out onto the gravel awaiting sorting and storage. The trees in this semi-rainforest area tower 30 metres over the shed and when I look out I see only trunks interrupted by the occasional bracken or ginger plant. There are leaves everywhere: my space is a work in progress, a collection of mismatched furniture. I work on the ground a lot, so things are scattered. Ideas wait around for the next whirlwind of progress, in this slow art process. Sometimes I think I should take a few days to organise and sort, but time is precious and making is more satisfying, so I never seem to make the trade.

How plants talk. Work for me is about observing, listening to and interpreting nature. When I sit down to work, I listen out for the silent conversations that occur in the materials before me and through my actions, give them resonance. I gather materials and uncover their properties, slowly learning their ways. My work emerges: sometimes quickly, sometimes painfully, only after hours of experimentation and process.

My path towards interpreting the quiet voices of nature involves investigation – online, or through word of mouth, focusing on just one plant at a time.

Sometimes I think it will take a lifetime of study and exploration to arrive at a true understanding of each element – the leaf, the bark, the wood, the roots, sap, resin, the season – in relation to the plant. The possibilities are overwhelming and the applications infinite. I start to list them: plant pigments, chemical elements, physical properties, decorative uses, medicinal purposes, and even elements that are completely unseen and unquantifiable in today’s seemingly resolved world.

If I sat with the plant could it heal me, could it make me see more than what is on its visible surface?

How we talk in return. My artistic process is a way of being. I give myself permission to make my work, and let go of the judgment voice of reason, that can find no financial or commercial significance in these investigations. Ever-present is the personal back-chatter that questions why I feel so drawn to explore the unknown properties of plants, and to rediscover old knowledge. In some ways, it is a journey full of the unknown, full of excitement, driven by the need to create a story, or a record of a moment in time.

One purpose of mine is to create an object or response that can be shared. Not through words or photos as proof, but through intangible responses that skirt around intellect and seek to enliven some common emotion that we once shared, something more deeply rooted in our human psyche.

What my art reflects on. Our connections with nature are becoming more about proof as we experience place through our mobile phones and less about true, purposeful interaction. Our own sense of what is safe and what may cause us harm becomes blurred, disempowered. Time poor lifestyles take over, full of choices. It seems to paralyse our ability to stop and just be, be happy with just one place, just one thing, just one job, just one family, just one dress, just one pair of shoes.

There’s a tendency now to look past, look forward, to check and recheck our social media and the simultaneous actions of 100’s of friends who are liking and sharing. Yes, this is the new way and without a doubt being able to stay in contact with my family thousands of kilometres away is nice.

But how does that root me in my own place, if my culture is constantly borrowed, invisible, diluted, non-existent? Where do I belong?

Living and observing. When I go outside I look, I really look, to see the changes in the seasons and hear the changes in the sounds of the day. The pattern of the trees and plants are hypnotic! You can see how they grow, where they grow, and watch the weather that helps bring down limbs for me to use. Life like this is a practice of chance, which switches ‘on’ what has been otherwise discarded.

I have a fascination with the woodpile, cut and waiting for the fire. The seasons were dry this year and some 40-year old brush boxes died; while standing tall, they just stopped living. An arborist brought them down in a few hours, reducing them to piles of neat firewood. The termites came, and then the next beauty began in pathways of life, seemingly random patterns that in fact form purposeful routes from here to there. Hard wood is slowly turned back to dirt. If you wait and look there comes a time when the balance of decay and life support each other and can be harvested.

Reaching a resolution. This hard, hole-y wood is carved art and I am simply the facilitator, the preserver of beauty. I observe then intervene and halt the process mid stream, in order to share with others the pleasure of nature’s process.

My creative process (itself embedded in nature) has different chapters, different forms of exploration and different ways of learning. For instance, I became fond of the Cotton Tree, Hibiscus tilliaceus, in an attempt to learn about the original custodians of the land. I found a tree and harvested from it, gathered information by word of mouth, and then let the process take over. I learnt from doing, from questioning results, and researching how traditional knowledge was being transferred. After a full two months spent working with the wood and fibre, I found satisfaction and connection, and a way to tell my story.

Connection is beauty. My work is about seeing, and finding ways to share these ordinary stories of process. I look at the natural world and human interactions with nature, both sustainable and destructive. Judgment has no place here. What matters is the ability to find beauty in all these processes. I adopt materials that are discarded, that are not necessarily valued, and spend time searching, allowing processes to play out, for a story to emerge.

This is what connects me to my own place, and gives purpose to my being.

Images supplied by Anne Harris