Curation and Cultivation: Thoughts on the Intersection of Ecology and Cultural Identity in the work of Susan Harris and Nicola Moss
Earth-shaping in the form of gardening and landscaping can be understood as expressing ideal relationships between man and nature, revealing certain patterns of interaction between the people and their surrounding ecologies. Bringing together Susan Harris’ experiences and documentation of bush habitat and Nicola Moss’ exploration of Grafton’s town ecology after a residency at Grafton Regional Gallery, this exhibition is a result of multi-faceted art practices that integrate with the artists’ lifestyles through volunteering, observation and ecological research. On a Walk identifies the overlapping processes through which one can begin to take root in one’s surroundings; through planting, through community, and through walking; in a uniquely pragmatic view of identity forming through one’s Place.
Eschewing the romanticisation of the untouched Australian wilderness; a place that never existed in Australia in the first place but has been actively “cultivated” by indigenous populations over millennia; these artists understand that nature is “curated” to various degrees in our everyday situations.
In Australia, there is a constant balancing-act between “curating” and “cultivating” which is imbued with complexity and nuance. In Grafton, as with most of postcolonial Australia, our European gardening and landscaping practices have been written into the history and shaping of the town. Grafton is identifiable by roads lined with purple Jacaranda trees, a species that originated in South America and was subsequently planted around the world during colonial expansion due to its visual magnificence.
“Many traditional pleasure gardens … recall Eden or the Golden Age, an imagined pre-cultural past when man's harmony with nature was untroubled and effortless. On the other hand, the subtle interplay between artifice and accident, between art and nature, between illusion and reality in European garden traditions from the Renaissance onward embodies changing cultural patterns for coping with nature as adversary, as the given material for the activity of human reason, as the untamed realm confronting the human will.”
Street trees have been planted in Grafton since a Public meeting held in 1866, in which the Mayor said not only would the trees provide a more habitable environment from the shade, but also they would add to “the beauty and ornamentation of the town”. Though many planting styles are introduced, they are also uniquely human; it is natural to desire shape, pattern and consistency in our environment and our history. The Jacarandas have provided the visual environment that has produced a collective imprint on the local psyche. This planting has resulted in the longest-running floral festival still celebrated in Australia, is immortalised in a Cold Chisel anthem, and memorialises local serviceman who lost their lives during times of war.
However, not every floral introduction took root. As Grafton was established, residents attempted to re-create, or curate, traditional European cottage gardens, often referred to as “homesick gardens”, in nostalgia for a British homeland that most of them had never seen. Woven into this process was the often unrelenting loss of specimens that were unable to survive Australian conditions, to the disappointment of the growers. Postcolonial and rural Australian gardeners are therefore uniquely positioned to understand the contradiction that lies at the heart of European landscaping traditions; that they express both a desire to be connected, and a desire to curate; and are often emphatically reminded of our failure to do both.
The contradiction between artifice and nature, curation and cultivation, is negotiated every day in the uptake and integration of native planting and environmental practices in community gardening and environmental associations across Australia. This negotiation also occurs through the art practices of Moss and Harris, which, rather than occurring in the vacuum of the studio, develop in community and environmental context; a quiet activism.
As a result of this negotiation between curation and cultivation, community gardeners and grassroots environmental movements have allowed participants to physically “design and inhabit their ideas for the future and (re)conceptualise the past”. Such movements have therefore been at the forefront of influencing Australian cultural identity, adding layers of complexity to anthropocentric and nationalistic notions of what it means to be Australian.
This brings us to the question that lies at the heart of this exhibition, one of how to bring an ethos of sustainability to the wider community. The artists show that part of the answer is collectively acknowledging the interconnectedness of cultural and natural environments. Nature and Culture are not binary opposites or discrete concepts, but rather the product of each have been woven together over millennia, consistently affecting each other. Living in an anthropocentric era, where issues of global warming and loss of species and habitat are more frequent and ever worsening, we return to the realisation that the fates of nature and culture are interlocked. This is especially felt in rural Australian communities, who are often the first to be affected by environmental changes.
Moss’ Grafton residency in 2014 highlighted for her that “the Jacaranda Festival is an experience best appreciated on foot; one that facilitates engagement, empathy, festival celebration and identity.” Further, walking is a humble way to know one’s surroundings through a process that is simultaneously active and passive, and leaves room for observation, contemplation, and the chance to take in sensory information through the body as it is engaged in an automatic activity.
In the slow art practices of Susan and Nicola, the paper-based work becomes an extension of the body. It translates embodied knowledge gathered through walking in deliberate but gentle processes of drawing, printmaking and papercut.
“We value [drawings] for their immediacy, for the insights they offer into the process of the creative act, for their fragmentary, incomplete nature, their intimacy and directness; in drawings, we seek truth, not power.”
Using methods of expanded drawing allows the artists to inscribe themselves into time and place, demonstrating the multi-faceted journey to feel connected to one’s surroundings. Though shapes between the works overlap, one might see the doilies of the Country Women’s Association in Moss’ mandalas, among maps of the city and surrounding topography. In Harris’ drawings, the shapes of seeds, leaves and bark emerge from studies drawn on bush paths.
In this exhibition, lines and mark making in expanded drawing processes create patterns and connections, crawling like roots or neural pathways between silhouettes: results of intuitive processes of curating and cultivating in harmony.
Essay by Marisa Georgiou
We would like to acknowledge the land on which Grafton now resides, the Bundjalung and Gumbaynggirr peoples who cultivated it, and their elders past, present and emerging.
 Esther Gordon Dotson, Shapes of Earth and Time in European Gardens, Art Journal, Vol. 42, No. 3, Earthworks: Past and Present (Autumn, 1982), pp. 210-216: 210
 Clarence River Historical Society 80th Jacaranda Festival 2014 booklet, P2
 Allaine Cerwonka, Native to the Nation: Disciplining Landscapes and Bodies in Australia. Minneapolis, MN, USA: University of Minnesota Press, 2004. P112
 Note from the Artist, 2017
 Karen Kurczynski, Vitamin D2, New Perspectives in Drawing, 2013, pp6-14: 8