Melissa Hirsch: Fibre Artist

The origins of working with plant fibres are ancient. Evidence suggests the Peruvians began spinning cotton fibres around 10,000 years ago. Flax, which is used to make linen, was domesticated long before sheep. Locally, Australian Aboriginals used fibres from hundreds of native plants to make rope, string, mats and baskets before European settlement.

Byron Bay-based artist Melissa Hirsch continues this tradition, creating works from plant fibres mostly sourced from local urban landscapes, using a variety of weaving techniques. Describing herself as a ‘fibre artist,’ Melissa feels a connection to the lineage of makers who work with plant fibres:

“There’s interesting things to be learnt from all cultures working with plant fibres whether they’re indigenous Australians, Europeans or Americans. Because there really wasn’t a tradition of white people working with fibres in Australia, I basically just took an “anything goes approach” which freed me up to be experimental. I think it would have been very different if I’d grown up in a country with a strong weaving tradition such as Japan. The Japanese preparation and use of bamboo and cane have a real lineage. The way they spilt it is specific and precise. As time goes by I’m appreciating these skills more and more.”

Inspiration first struck Melissa when she discovered some Bangalow Palm (Archontophoenix cunninghamiana) fronds lying on the ground, whilst wandering the streets of Sydney. She felt something useful could be made of them, her passion for using sustainable and recycled plant materials eventually leading her to art school.

These days, Melissa is drawn to creating objects that appear fragile. Using a contemporary random weaving technique, she makes objects that look like they’ve been eaten away but manage to hold the memory of a particular shape:

“It’s a like a skeletonised leaf in the forest. The form was once complete but even after it’s been eaten away you still see the form of a leaf. There’s a lot of negative space in it. The space between the fibres of an object is as interesting as the object itself.”

Melissa at work

All parts of a plant offer up potentially useful fibres for making objects, but not all plants make durable materials as Melissa discovered once she started experimenting:

“I started out learning weaving techniques by making raffia hats. Then, when I moved to northern NSW, I went looking for vines and other materials. I made a lot of mistakes in the beginning by using inappropriate materials, like Monstera (Monstera deliciosa) roots which after a few months turned to mush.”

The cellulose inside the plant material is what makes its fibre useful (after it’s undergone the appropriate preparation processes). The length of the various fibres, which can vary from millimetres to metres in length, also determines the ways it can be used. New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax) is Melissas preferred material because it offers great structure whilst appearing soft and fragile. But there are other factors that determine which materials she uses:

“The preparation time of plant fibres influences what I use. If it needs too much preparation, I tend not to use it.  Some fibres are only available in particular seasons, like Jacaranda stems, which are available only one month each year. They don’t need much preparation, so I just pick them up and size them into bundles. Some people use the stems for making baskets, but it is time consuming because of the sewing technique used. I use them more for two dimensional wall forms.”

So where will her work take her from here?

“Recently I’ve been busy making lots of baskets for film sets which has been challenging but fun. I’m taking a moment to reflect on the direction of my work and the art world as a whole. The nature of nature is that nothing is the same, so for me, working with plant fibres means a hand-made tradition will always remain,” she concluded.

Melissa Hirschs work has been included in touring exhibitions nationally and can be found private and public collections. She has won a number of sculpture awards and has had ten solo exhibitions. She is often commissioned for site specific works. For more information, email Melissa Hirsch.