The Dirt: Tamara Dean

It’s easy to tell when someone’s in their natural environment. They somehow merge with it, the separation between body and space blurry and undefined. I went for a walk through some bushland with artist Tamara Dean recently – it was hard to tell where she ended and the bush began.

I visited Tamara on a sunny afternoon and we chatted over a cup of tea in her rambling backyard, before heading off to the bush. Meeting anyone for the first time can be daunting – particularly when that person is an artist who you have an art crush on! But I needn’t have worried: Tamara is a gentle and entirely unpretentious soul, and it became clear very quickly that we share a muse – nature. We found plenty to talk about.

Tamara’s highly acclaimed photographic and installation works explore the ways we move within the realms of culture and nature. Her work is rich, staggeringly beautiful, and truthful – somehow capturing a sense of the primal magic of existence. ‘The easiest way to describe my work would be people in nature engaging with the landscape,’ Tamara says.

Her aesthetic is distinctive. It’s painterly, dark, and soulful. She cites Pre-Raphaelite painters such as John William Waterhouse as strong influences on her. But, equally as important is the bush;

I just love being in the bush. It makes me feel more human and happier. I think it’s as simple as that in a way.’

Nature has always been an important part of Tamara’s life. Growing up in a house backing onto bushland in Chatswood, in Sydney’s north, was a formative experience for her and perhaps set her on the path towards an art practice that explores the ways humans engage with the natural world. ‘The smell of nature brings back a sense of home for me,’ she says.

‘At high school I was completely obsessed with the bush. I sketched and painted it constantly,’ Tamara recalls. Whilst she studied photography in years 11 and 12 she didn’t realize at the time it would become central to her creative process as an artist. On leaving school she studied visual communications at university, thinking she would become an animator or illustrator.

After travelling for a few years (funded in part by busking as a fire-twirler!), she returned home to Sydney and landed a job at the Sydney Morning Herald as a photographer. She worked at the Herald for 13 years, leaving only last year to pursue her art projects full time.

Alongside her work as a press photographer, and after having two children, in the mid 2000’s Tamara decided it was time to return to her artistic roots. Her Ritualism series was the beginning of this. ‘Ritualism had a lot to do with me questioning religion based on my own experiences of it,’ Dean says. ‘I come from a Jewish background but I had no sense of connection to Jewish rituals. In religion water is a common symbol of purification, so at what point does washing your hands become a significant ritual, and when is it just pragmatic cleaning?’ For Tamara, Ritualism was an exploration of the contemporary quest for meaning and purpose, set within the Australian landscape.

Following on from ideas of ritual, mortality and nature, Tamara’s next series was called This Too Shall Pass. ‘I set this series in places of urban decay,’ she says. ‘It was about being young in the city and having places you can claim as wild spaces. Where there’s no paths to guide you, where you have to rely on your instinct.’

Since Tamara created This Too Shall Pass, every place she photographed as part of the series has been developed.

Where can you find those spaces that relate to your primal instincts as a human in cities nowadays?’ she says, lamenting the change. ‘I think, inherently, we seek those places out. It’s been demonstrated that by going to natural places people feel better, happier. Reconnecting with a sense of being human in nature reminds you of the bigger picture.’

Pondering ideas of the importance of the connection between humans and nature led Tamara to her work, The Artists, created whilst on a residence at Art Omi in upstate New York in 2013. For The Artists, she interviewed 30 artists about nature. She asked them why they spent time in nature, what it meant to them, if it was a spiritual experience, and more.

I found that for most artists the experience of going into nature wasn’t an otherworldly experience,’ she says. ‘It was really about arriving in the here and now. It was about smelling, hearing, engaging with their senses and engaging with the landscape.’

‘I found this really interesting, because it challenges our ideas of what is spiritual,’ she says. Following the interviews, she photographed the 30 artists engaging with the landscape in a way that illustrated their thoughts about nature, using their bodies to represent their feelings.

Tamara’s most recent work, Here and Now, took the ideas explored in The Artists further. It was a completely immersive installation, a journey to the nature of the present complete with sounds of the bush, the smell of the bush (created by scent designer Ainslie Walker), a reflection pond, and a huge, erie, image of humans scrambling through a wild landscape. ‘Here and Now was a reminder about the value of nature in our lives, and our intrinsic connection to it,’ she says.

There is so much richness to be found in the conversation between humans and nature. Tamara explores and documents this dialogue with a rare sensibility. Through exploring the most human of experiences – such as rituals and rites of passage – within the context of the vast majesty of nature, her work has the power to connect the viewer to something incredibly profound – the experience of what it is to be human and alive in the most pared back, elemental sense. We’re here now, but not forever.

Tamara wrote a short story about her artistic process and shared some images with us earlier this month. Check out the story here.