Divine Detail: Mali Moir

Everyone needs a break from work sometimes. For Melbourne-based botanical illustrator, Mali Moir, that ‘break’ comes in the form of drawing life-size horses in charcoal on huge sheets of paper. ‘I call it my big, loose stuff,’ says Mali, laughing.

We’ve pulled up some chairs in the Whirling Room Studio at the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne, where Mali teaches weekly botanical illustration classes, and we’re talking about what she loves to draw. For the record, Mali loves drawing microscopic things, but lately horses have presented a welcome break from the exactitude of her 25-year career as a botanical artist.

‘Everything was getting tighter, to the point where I was drawing things only visible under a microscope. I wanted a change from that and I settled on drawing horses with charcoal. These works are big, I stand up to draw them, they’re all the result of shoulder movement… as opposed to small hand movements while I’m sitting at a desk,’ says Mali.

It’s a different genre, a completely different world of art. Some people have responded to it by saying, ‘Wow, the detail in your work is amazing.’ My response? ‘That’s not detail – this is detail! Let me show you detail!’ They think it’s a joke that I’m calling this my big, loose stuff. But it really is, it’s big and loose.’

As a botanical artist, Mali is renowned for exactness. She started her career at the National Herbarium of Victoria and, while working there, contributed illustrations to three of the four volumes of Flora of Victoria (1994 – 1999), the bible of vascular plants in the state. Later, Mali contributed to Flora of Australia (2002) and has exhibited her botanical artwork widely. She has also taught botanical illustration classes at the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne for many years.

'It’s not hard to be inspired. Anything that’s lying on the ground is an inspiration - leaves, gum nuts ... I do see beauty in most things,' says Mali.
Botanical illustrator, Mali Moir.

‘Botanical art is copying exactly what you see,’ Mali tells me. ‘I’ve always preferred realism to abstraction in art. Botanical art brings together the precision of realism with the integrity of science, which perfectly suits me. I just sit and draw exactly what I see.’ Mali’s works are precise and, even in a technical field, beautifully distinct. She’s drawn a fair number of our native plants, as well as exotics, and has more recently shifted her eye towards microscopic marine life – crabs, shells and even so-called dumpling squid (creatures which are as cute as they sound).

Historically, botanical artists have been tied to voyages of exploration. With Cook came Sydney Parkinson. For his exploration of the Australian coastline, Matthew Flinders recruited a team of six scientists, amongst them Ferdinand Bauer, who made pioneering sketches of Australian plant life. ‘To think they were working in a moving ship, surrounded by pressed materials and drawing by candlelight!’ says Mali. She continues in this tradition, accompanying scientific teams where she can, to record and communicate discoveries that are made in the natural world. One of these expeditions was to Papua New Guinea in 2012, as the botanical artist for a team hand-picked by the National Museum of Natural History (or Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle) in France.

I was there for five weeks of a six-week expedition. It was huge – 100 specialists from all over the world participated at some stage during the six weeks. The purpose was a rapid survey of marine species. The organizer of the expedition goes to hot spots all over the world to conduct marine surveys. They do a huge collecting to see what the diversity of species is in the area – essentially it’s about collecting and counting. They had a dive team and technicians, a sociologist who was studying the scientists studying the animals, and me! The dive team would go out three times a day. They worked non-stop.’

As part of the expedition, Mali compiled notebooks full of preliminary sketches, mostly shells and crabs. The museum has access to the artworks resulting from the trip, and Mali is also exhibiting some completed illustrations based on the sketches in the ‘reFraming Nature’ exhibition, currently being hosted by the Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne.

Mali's illustrations included in 'reFraming Nature – Natural History Art Exhibition', presented by the Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens from 10 – 25 October 2015 at Domain House, Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne.
Sketches made by Mali on her expedition to Papua New Guinea with the National Museum of Natural History, France. Image courtesy of Mali Moir.

In a world where it seems everything has been discovered, it’s becoming increasingly rare to hear of expeditions the likes of those staged by the National Museum, at least where they encompass cross-disciplines and include artists. ‘The sponsors in this case wanted a full suite of disciplines involved, including educators, film makers and visual artists,’ Mali explains. ‘One of the sponsors was Prince Albert of Monaco. Halfway through the expedition he flew in with a small entourage to see first hand the work being done. But for the most part we were incredibly focused. The scientists would have breakfast, turn up at 8 or 9am, and finish at 10 or 11pm every day. We had a few Sundays off.’

Prince Albert of Monaco seems to know what we all should know: having an artist on board when science needs communicating is invaluable, particularly when the science being done is big picture, state-of-the-environment work. Art is a way of connecting the public with the insights of science, not a ‘cultural appendage’ as rigid economic policy would have us think. Mali says it like this: ‘Artists make science visible and botanical or natural history art is about communicating science. Science can be a dry area. People understand the visual language of art, whereas they can find it more difficult to understand the language of science. Art can explain what science is observing, in a powerful way.’

For Mali, botanical realism is a way of seeing that comes naturally and vividly. In the late 1970s and early 80s she lived as a self-confessed ‘hippy’ in northern New South Wales, having dropped out of art school at a time when abstract art was the norm and rule. She landed on her feet in a former cattle farm halfway between Grafton and Glen Innes, a vast property that stretched over 3,500 acres. ‘When I arrived there were sixty people living there, and by the time I left there were 200 people. What I noticed was the isolation of the place. It was an hour’s highway driving to the nearest shop. There was a need for the community to be independent so I started by planting a 300 hundred-tree orchard and installing a market garden. I found that I could remember the Latin names for the plants I was working with, which surprised me. I fell in love with plants then and there.’

When Mali returned to Melbourne five years later, she took up horticulture training at Burnley College, where botanical art was also being taught. ‘I did the two courses. Art and plants came together perfectly for me at that moment. I thought: ‘This is where I’m supposed to be!’ Botanical illustration is highly technical, with a visual language all of its own. It’s about realism, detail and accuracy, which is how Mali sees the world. She has the sharp ability to draw what she sees, in a way that is objectively exact. ‘It was only a long time after I started to teach that I realised people don’t necessarily find that easy and straight forward, whereas I thought, ‘What’s the matter, you just draw what you see!’

Seeing, particularly in art, is a matter of ongoing learning and searching. John Berger said it well in his book, Ways of Seeing (1972): ‘The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.’ Botanical artists like Mali reach towards explanation through art. ‘It’s becoming clearer to me that the drawing process is part of the understanding. When I started drawing, it was the other way around. It was: ‘That’s what I see so I’m going to draw it.’ Now, I draw it to be able to see it. I draw in order to understand; as opposed to thinking I understand first and then drawing it.’

A long time ago someone was trying to tell me the difference between a native water plant and an introduced species that’s taking over the ponds. To the naked eye there’s no difference, but under a hand lens you can see the difference: the weedy one has a glandular hair and the native one doesn’t have that. It comes down to the incredibly fine detail. Drawing with detail gives the artwork integrity and that’s rewarding for me as an artist.’

Mali Moir, 'Giant spear lily, Doryanthes palmeri'. Image courtesy of Mali Moir.
Mali Moir, 'Lysiosepalum involucratum'. Image courtesy of Mali Moir.

There’s a renaissance of sorts going on in the botanical art world, and Mali is witness to it on a variety of fronts. People are signing up for drawing classes in never-before-seen numbers and there’s change afoot in styles (and not all of it involves life-size horses!). ‘The artists who have been around for some time now are looking for the unusual,’ says Mali. ‘It doesn’t even need to be an unusual species, but maybe an unusual angle or perspective. We’re trying to move into more contemporary rather than traditional approaches.’

Maybe ten years ago I noticed people saying ‘I love that, it looks so real’ as opposed to liking work that is more expressive. In the past it was uncool, that level of realism. Botanical art is often associated with very Victorian values because that was the last renaissance of science and art, so it was seen as a bit daggy in that way. That’s being broken down. People are quite happily coming to classes, saying ‘I love tight detail’ whereas before it was a case of, you know, you shouldn’t really admit to that.’

Even after 25 years in the field, Mali says she’s still learning, still endlessly inspired and still on the hunt. ‘As a professional artist I’m always looking for new material. On expeditions I can piggyback on scientific expertise. It expands my view and my material.’ Often, it comes down to access to new material and finding something hasn’t yet been illustrated. ‘Across science all the big things have been identified and discovery is getting more and more microscopic,’ says Mali. ‘We’re finding out more about the value of the very small things. More and more the things I love illustrating are the microscopic things that nobody sees because they’re small, out of view… and at the bottom of the ocean. Part of being a natural history artist is communicating that these things exist in a way that appeals to people, which is the art side and the science gives it the credibility.’

At her home in Glen Iris Mali has a garden in two parts. The front shows her traditional side, where she grows magnolias, rhododendrons and azaleas. But out back is a native garden, a great work in progress. ‘I’m trying to create a backyard with the plants that I illustrate. I’ve brought a few things back with me from field trips to see whether they’ll grow in my soil, and I’m trialing some of the plants I’ve illustrated for Flora of Victoria.’ Add to this a smaller version of the market garden she established back in her hippy days. ‘I’ve got a little vegetable patch that doesn’t do a lot because it’s all about time! I’ve always loved the useful plants, so I have a couple of old heritage variety apples like Golden Noble espaliered on the wall. They are the best cooking apple you’ll ever taste. I make the most simple tart – slices of apple with sugar and butter and people say ‘This is fabulous, you are the most incredible cook!’ and I say, ‘No, believe me, it’s the apple.’

I’m a gardener at heart. If I couldn’t do art I’d be gardening. Some people retire and want to do botanical art … not that I’m going to retire, but in my time off when I need to chill and regroup, I play in the garden. Some Sundays I can go out and come back inside at 5pm. It’s good to get your hands dirty.’

Which takes us back to charcoal and Mali’s bigger works of art, currently being shown as part of the NGV International’s exhibition, ‘The Horse’. For this, Mali rendered a life-size image of an eight-week-old foal, the Queen of Hearts. ‘The NGV curatorial team also asked me to create a couple of designs that are reproduced as part of the exhibition,’ Mali tells me. ‘They’re horse rumps. So I’m now known to draw bums. I called the series Glutaeus magnificus. I guess it is quite playful – compared with my other work.’
Botanical Art Classes

A moth amongst the succulents, spotted by Mali, outside Domain House.
Botanical specimens for students' drawing studies at Mali's classroom in the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne.
The Whirling Room Studio at The Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne.
Mali Moir, 'Maireana turbinata Paul G. Wilson'. Image courtesy of Mali Moir.