Painting the Hills of Canberra
1 November to 14 December 2013
Cathy Franzi, Red Hill(2013), porcelain, glaze, engobe and sgraffito, Photographer David Paterson.
Painting the Hills of Canberra by Dr Patsy Hely
Went to see the Griffins for the first time yesterday afternoon. Oh the loveliness of the native flowers that he has managed to preserve there . . . !(1)
This description of a visit to the Griffin's new home in Castlecrag by author Miles Franklin, gives an idea of the attention Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahoney Griffin gave to the environment. Whether in Canberra, Castlecrag, America, or elsewhere, the natural world - with its features and contours and vegetation, was the thing. It was the starting point around which the built environment gained coherence and the end point where plants and buildings together formed a naturalised overall schema.
Their appreciation of the Australian landscape is well documented and manifest in collecting activities they undertook. Firstly, was seed collection. Collecting seeds for Canberra's extensive planting was begun by horticulturalist Charles Weston in 1913. He enlisted many for the task but as Leonore Coltheart relates: '. . . there were no more vigorous seed-collectors than Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin.'(2)
Second was plant listing, with Marion's listing of plants suitable for Canberra now held by the National Library of Australia (3). Her lists are extensive, include natives and exotic species and are compiled in eight hardbound booklets, two each for the colours yellow, red, blue and white, under categories such as 'white shrubs and trees', 'white climbers', 'silver-leafed plants', etc. In these lists, the Griffin's proposal to 'paint the hills of Canberra' can be seen being shaped. And from these lists, together with botanizing and other research, Cathy Franzi's ceramic-based interpretation of the Griffin proposal has been formed.
In a heartfelt plea in 1938 to the 'citizenry of Canberra', recorded in her biographical opus The Magic of America, Mahoney urged both recognition of and respect for beauty, whether in building or in the natural world:
'. . . when he realizes that each one can assist not in denuding but in reclothing all the hills not only with soft wood forests but with native loveliness, perhaps taking Mr. Griffin's suggestion to plant each hill with a distinctive color, one with reds, another with blues, another with yellow and gold and so on, then what a breath taking thing the heart of Australia will have become.' (4)
The Griffin's approach to planning and design was holistic; all - natural landform and feature, building, infrastructure and habitation - were to be in harmony and Mahoney suggests the role of plantings in achieving compositional coherence:
'. . . by a preponderance of shrub plantings naturally and informally massed and grouped for harmonies of texture and color of foliage and flower.' (5)
The Griffin's colour-grouped planting was proposed to Weston in 1916 and included Red Hill: 'Red Hill', Black Mountain: 'Rosy Hill', Mt Ainslie: 'Golden Hill', Mt Pleasant: 'Purple Hill'.
In this exhibition Cathy Franzi has followed the Griffin's proposal using five porcelain vessel groupings, arranging the work to correspond to the axes of their overall Canberra plan. A wall-based tile work brings in Mt Bimberi to reference its locational role in Mahoney's renderings of Griffin's Canberra plan. Each of Franzi's groupings depicts flora from Mahoney's lists, along with others found during a twelve-month project of plant identification at each site.
There is a long history of depicting plants on ceramic vessels and there can be few homes or museums where none are present. In Australia, a particularly fertile period for the use of flora on ceramics was around Federation. At that time, when Australian-ness was being given visual form, native flora provided a ready motif.
On a broad scale this representational urge was primarily linked to nationalism, but at an individual, more personal level, it provided a channel through which an attachment to the Australian bush could find expression. It perhaps ushered in as well the beginnings of an environmental consciousness, such as prompted Franklin's lauding of Griffin's native flora preservation.
There are resonances between the work made around Federation and the work in this exhibition with the connecting link of Franzi's love of native flora and her impulse to conserve it. Working from drawings she makes on site, photographs, and specimens from the National Herbarium, Franzi uses a traditional ceramic technique, sgraffito, to translate what she sees to the clay surface. In doing this she works with liquid clay slips to which pigments have been added, carving back with mark-making tools for particular effects: a sharp line here, a ragged blurring mark there.
Individual works show native flora as lovely, but have a documentary role also that is both public and private. The works show what is here, help describe this place, and bear witness to what might have been had the Griffin's proposal been executed. For Franzi, the work has a further role because the act of representation itself is instructional - another form of botanizing in this case: where does this leaf go? How does this attach? What colour here? It is in the repetitions to work these out that the plant becomes embodied, inscribed on the self, at the ready then to go back out into the world through feeling.
Franzi's sgraffito is reminiscent of woodblock work of other artists who have given form to their interest in native flora through art-making. Margaret Preston's prints are perhaps the closest connection and the aesthetic associated with the technique the clearest link. Franzi's flora, although botanically quite accurate are not botanical illustrations but neither are they, like many of Preston's depictions, part of a still life or landscape genre.
Marion Mahoney Griffin's role in rendering the Canberra plans is termed 'Delineator' and perhaps this is an apt term here. Mahoney's beautiful plans delineate an idea for a city but also project, in their exquisite rendering, a much broader philosophical and spiritual possibility. The possibility Cathy Franzi hopes to project though her ceramic forms is an environmentally aware one. Like so much else of their Canberra plan the Griffin's planting proposal was not realised. In applying studio processes to Mahoney's lists though, Franzi's ceramic ensembles can cause us to look anew at the hills marking out the local area.
Patsy Hely is a Senior Lecturer at the Australian National University School of Art