Green like Suomenlinna
I have found myself in some especially green places in recent years: Finland, Penland in North Carolina, Mt Wilson in the Blue Mountains, and even in Canberra spring brought plenty of rain and the gardens and bushland were lush with new growth.
In 2015, thanks to the Australia Council, I spent the northern summer on the island of Suomenlinna just off Helsinki.
It was the greenest place I had ever seen- in certain glades the air itself seemed gaseously green. The mosses and lichens and the changing array of wildflowers were so bright, luminous and luxuriant. I wandered the foreshore rocks. The waters of the gulf had a strange, heavy look: sometimes metallic blue, sometimes gelatinous and green.
It was summer. The days were fabulously long, but the weather was very changeable. It rained often, but mostly not for long, followed by brilliant bright sun. There were wild winds and storms. It was great to experience the island in all these weathers. The evening following Midsummer the island was engulfed in a dense white mist. It was very beautiful. A small group of picnickers sang folkish harmonies far below me down on the foreshore rocks. It was magical, like being in a painting by Caspar David Friedrich.
Thousands of tourists came each day. Small clumps of moss would often be dislodged by all this foot traffic. So I began my moss rescues, collecting stray clumps of mosses and small cuttings from the vividly coloured tiny succulents growing across the rocks. Using the plastic trays used to package vegetables at the island's small supermarket I made a series of miniature moss gardens.
In the studio I made a several new bodies of work, including a series of experimental small three-dimensional paintings- developed by working into and distorting paper honeycomb spheres. I painted with watercolour and gouache enjoying the luminosity of their matte pigments. The colours I chose reflected the qualities I found around me in the plant life of the island. I added granular pumice and micaceous medium to the paint to allude to the geology of the place. These were demanding pieces to resolve- they had to read well as paintings from every angle, they involved many surfaces and I explored ways of “training” them into distorted and irregular forms using wires and other props. I wasn’t sure quite what they were; they had a vegetative look, something like a mutant lettuce. Some were more book-like, some a bit planetary. The more layers of paint I applied, the stronger they became but they are still fairly frail. I liked the idea of people holding them carefully and turning them around- like the planet in miniature, or some fragile and unfamiliar life form, both organic and mineral.
During 2016 back in Canberra, I decided to try working with ceramics. My interest in gardens extended to the rock and moss gardens of China and Japan and I was fascinated by the sancai (three-colour) glazes of T'ang dynasty ceramics. I looked at a lot of traditional Chinese landscape painting. It is always exciting and liberating to work in a new medium- to discover the possibilities and resistances of a new material process. My colleague ANU Greg Daly was very generous, giving me encouragement, technical advice and mixing up the sancai glaze colours for me.
Over this summer I made most of these paintings. I see them as improvisations drawing on all these experiences.
Ruth Waller, February 2017
to exhibition 2017