The highly commended artworks of three Canberra artists are now on display at the National Archives of Australia as part of the prestigious Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize exhibition.
The biennial exhibition is developed by the South Australian Museum and showcases 68 of the Prize’s winning and highly commended entries.
Canberra is the only city outside Adelaide where it is displayed.
Local textile artist Rosie Armstrong, ceramics artist Cathy Franzi, and visual artist Lan Nguyen-hoan’s works are exhibited amid a high-calibre field.
Nguyen-hoan’s, Attempting to grasp water, comprises wide black and white cotton ribbons decorated with hammered titanium, speckled with brass and copper.
Franzi’s Coast Banksia features ornate illustrations of the iconic plant, hand carved onto a porcelain vase.
Armstrong’s A Requiem for Insects features laser cut and etched bamboo plywood depictions of 11 different species of insects at various stages of decay, pinned across a black felt background.
“It’s my interpretation of what disintegration and extinction looks like,” Armstrong told Canberra Weekly.
The Archives’ director of public programs, Caroline Webber, said the variety between the works from the Canberra artists is indicative of the variety between all the finalists’ pieces.
“As always, there are a range of works, and some are very detailed and some are very big,” she said. “The reactions of people, it’s been interesting who likes what.”
The Waterhouse exhibition last showed in Canberra in 2018; the 2020 iteration was postponed due to complications surrounding COVID-19. It was displayed at the South Australian Museum, Adelaide, from 11 December 2020 until earlier this month, before travelling to Canberra.
Armstrong, whose entry was highly commended in the emerging finalists category, told Canberra Weekly each of the 11 species depicted in her work is on Australia’s threatened species list.
The piece was completed two years ago as her ANU Bachelor of Visual Arts third-year work.
“These things are disappearing,” she said. “If insects disappear, our ecosystem faces such problems, because although we don’t see them they play such an integral part.”
While acquiring a list of endangered species initially proved challenging for Armstrong, her mother, who runs environmental peak body, ACT for Bees, was able to send her down the right path.
“It was really hard to find what insects are endangered, but once you get onto the right lists, it was useful and helpful,” she said.
An ornate work comprised of nearly 200 pieces, transporting Armstrong’s piece between Canberra and Adelaide was practical to pack down and tedious to set up.
The felt backdrop rolls up around a tube containing all the plywood pieces. That’s then packed into another long tube.
White dots across the felt backdrop mark where each insect piece belongs for reassembly.
“It’s not the easiest thing to install, it’s very time consuming,” she said.
Prize a ‘bridge between science and art’
An established artist with a scientific background, for Franzi, the Waterhouse is the culmination of both her passions.
“That science/art relationship is really important to me in my work, so to get into the Waterhouse, which is all about art and science, is a great honour,” she said.
Having practised her art for 25 years, Franzi commenced her Master of Visual Art in 2010 and followed that with her PhD of Visual Art Ceramics.
She said it was while studying that she developed the ability to further channel her scientific knowledge through her art.
“It was during those times of study that I developed to this work,” she said. “It’s really combining those two things that feels really right for me.”
Franzi also volunteers with the National Seedbank at the Australian National Botanic Gardens, which sees her being directly involved in fieldwork.
“I do work with scientists, I am often involved in projects where I am out in the field with scientists to understand what’s really going on with the environment to inform what’s going on in my work,” she said.
Franzi said Canberra has a “fantastic ecosystem” of artists, cultural institutions and local support.
“It’s a little bit quiet I think; Canberra’s still only just being known for the arts, but it’s a really incredible environment to be in,” she said.
All three Canberra artists will be giving floor talks at the Archives throughout May.
The Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize exhibition will be on display at the National Archives of Australia, Canberra until 6 June; naa.gov.au
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