Image above: Jennifer Keeler-Milne Spring Wattle II 2021 oil on linen 92 x 198 cm
In lockdown, she collected autumn leaves and turned them into art
By Robin Powell
June 18, 2021
Of all the things we discovered and rediscovered about ourselves last year – working from home works, more hand sanitiser means fewer colds, an empty diary is a relief not a trauma – surely the best was our reconnection with the natural world. We started noticing things we hadn’t seen before – the dew drops hanging on the casuarina needles in the park, the exuberant opportunism of a fiddle-leaf fig liberated from its pot to take over a neighbour’s front yard, clouds of cabbage white moths feasting in the dandelions by the railway line.
Artist Jennifer Keeler-Milne, found that on unusually quiet walks from her home in Sydney’s Glebe to her studio in Newtown, her attention was snagged by the skeletonised forms of fallen autumn leaves swept into eddies along footpaths and into gutters. She collected the fragile, almost-ghost forms and turned them into subjects of exquisite works of attention.
“At that time,” she says, “I felt we were all looking inwards and I wanted to paint the leaves as portraits, to give them that level of attention. Some of the veins within the leaves are like landscapes with the universal visible in the particular. As I worked that seemed to express a metaphor for what was going on in the world.”
And then spring arrived and our tentative optimism about having survived the worst was massively boosted by the plants around us. Stunned by a summer of heat and fire, then nurtured by an autumn of rain, plants sprang back into growth with an explosion of spring energy that was both relief and reassurance.
Keller-Milne was reminded of a profusion of wattle growing around a cottage she’d stayed in the year before. “The wattle had stayed in my memory. You can never feel sad looking at orange or yellow – these are colours that express joy. After the winter we had endured, I felt really compelled to work with the wattle to express that joy and relief.”
Keeler-Milne painted a two-metre length of paper in vivid yellow and then used charcoal to draw in a background from which bursts of yellow seem to throb with energy. Looking at the work is like standing inside a wattle, with the light taking on a golden tone, the branches moving and shifting in and out of focus, the honey scent, the sound of bees, the joy of the colour.
In a new exhibition, Autumn and Spring, at the Australian Galleries, June 22 – July 11, the wattle drawing, which featured in the Dobell Drawing Prize, is joined by more large-scale images of wattle painted in oil as well as the intricate leaf portraits. While not botanical illustrations, the works come from a deep study of the form of the plants. “My aim as an artist is to express something about the subject. It’s pictorial, but it’s about an emotion as well.”
This seems to me to be a description of gardening too. We pay close attention, we look to create satisfying pictures, but our deeper aim is to evoke emotion. Keeler-Milne’s pictures remind us that the emotions evoked by the natural world, from the melancholy of fallen leaves to the joy of exploding wattle,- took on extra power last year. Can we hold on to that connection?
Jennifer Keeler-Milne Autumn Leaf V 2020-21 oil on linen 41 x 51 cm