Rachel Smith: Can you tell us a little about your journey as an artist – where did it begin and how did you get to where you are now? And what forms of visual art do you predominantly work with?
Dr Tabatha Forbes: My earliest and happiest childhood memories were either being creative inside (drawing or making something) or playing outside – in nature. My parents were both bankers but I told everyone I was going to be an artist before I was 5, and really that’s all I ever thought I’d be. Despite being obsessed with going straight to art school, I didn’t get accepted so I left Auckland (slightly heartbroken), at 17 and moved to Wellington to set up a painting studio with a focus on having my first solo exhibition before I was 20 – which I did. I was always fairly ambitious and by the time I got to Elam School of Fine Arts I was 21, and I’d been exhibiting and studying art for a few years. I took my studies very seriously at Elam, initially mentored by Dr Carole Shepherd and shifting into Intermedia studies mentored by Philip Dadson. During that decade, I stopped painting and moved into what I considered a more contemporary and ‘noisy’ arts practice: performing and working with sound art, moving image and installation. I was involved in bands and art collectives and worked in various galleries through my 20’s. Then I hit a wall. I also got married and travelled to Italy.
RS: Much of your work feels to have a focus on nature and the physical space you are in. In what way does your natural environment impact on your thinking and the work you produce?
TF: Nature is at the centre of everything for me, and by ‘nature’ I mean all the non-human lives, environments and living systems around us. Although I loved being outside as a kid, my twenties were very urban, indoors and art-world focused. When I was pregnant with my first child, we bought a house in the Waitākere ranges west of Auckland surrounded by native regenerating forest and that was when I was asked to do a painting commission. I’d given up painting for years and hadn’t really been drawing so I started doing plant studies. It made sense to draw what was around me because my work was always influenced by the environment I was most dominated by. In the city, it was people and art and movement. Being a new mother was very isolated from all that; I was alone a lot and surrounded by native plants and birds. I found a book in a junk shop (I’ve always been influenced by books!) about the early women botanical painters in NZ and their stories resonated with me. So I started studying and reading everything I could on botanical art here, reading journals from Cook’s voyages and early settlers to learn how those imported views or aesthetics shaped a great deal of how Pākeha perceive nature today, particularly as pastoral beauty. I explored this more thoroughly in both my masters and doctorate studies.
So how we perceive and value nature, considering the histories and present day influences (politics, economics, aesthetics) is something I’m really fascinated with. I also believe those largely imperialist value systems, particularly the commodification of nature as a ‘resource’, has played a pretty dire role in the current state of the planet.
RS: And following on from this, you lived in Rarotonga, Cook Islands for six years, a very different physical environment from Aotearoa. What was this like for you as an artist and did it change your work in any way?
TF: Living in the Cook Islands didn’t change my work, but it did enrich it! I actually ended up finishing my doctorate there because the methodology I’d created in Aotearoa was completely relevant in Rarotonga. My studies focused on the perceptive value shift of land over time. In Auckland, I worked on a site specific project in what had once been the foothills of the Waitākere’s, and was then cleared for timber to become a small horticultural and viticulture region, built mainly by early Croatian and Dalmatian settlers. While we were there, the land was being carved up for property development. I documented a whole apple orchard being bulldozed, piled up and burnt. It was brutal. In Rarotonga, we lived on a side of the island that was cleared of native bush to plant orange groves (the original “Raro” orange drink). When we lived in the area, there were swimming pool sized pits being dug, water-table deep, to bury non-organic rubbish. Other areas, used for plantations, were being cleared for holiday homes and resorts. The issue was the same: land being cleared for economic growth, then cleared again and so the cycle goes, with each generation believing their way forward is right. That ‘progress’ is being made. But really, it’s a pretty biased kind of progress, serving very few and certainly not, for one second serving any of the non-human lives and waterways already thriving there.
Aside from my studies, my exhibition work with Bergman Gallery focussed on ethnobotany – or the interconnection between humans and plants. That allowed me to explore local stories like the ukulele and the beautiful ei’ katu or floral head garland. I worked directly with Cook Island craftsmen and women. That work was a real privilege and I think being in Rarotonga gave me an understanding of what it meant to be a Pacific Islander in a way I’d never experienced in Aotearoa. It certainly ignited a deep love and respect for pacific culture, and for that I am eternally grateful!
RS: I know that all of your exhibitions are based on extensive research, with many shows including accompanying essays. What leads you first, an image that you want to create or an idea that you want to research? Or do they work hand-in-hand?
TF: I think they probably go hand in hand. My recent show at Bergman Gallery in Tāmaki Makarau was a little of an exception in that it started with one flower – the hibiscus. From there, a lot of popular culture and personal stories were woven into it to make the show.
RS: And can you talk a little about the works you have shared with us here – the exhibitions they are from and the stories you are telling with them?
TF: I like to think of my work as being contemporary botanical. I’m not a trained ‘botanical artist’ and while I have sincere respect for artists working in that field, I don’t have those skills. My techniques are self-taught from a legacy of works spanning well over 300 years old. There is something about placing a plant form on a white page, and attempting to capture something of its essence that is seductive to me. I grew up loving the two prints of camellias by Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759-1851) in my grandparents’ bedroom, and I was always attracted to the aesthetic – but never wanted to be a flower painter! I had such a post-feminist hang up about that, I refused to paint flowers at all and for the first 10 years I only painted native NZ foliage!
The works here are varied, but express something of my interest in a reimagined kind of botanical arts practice. Every project has a research project behind it – a story. I was lucky enough to work with the plants collected by Daniel Solander on Cook’s voyages to NZ. I wanted to reflect on those plants, imagine where they were growing. Sydney Parkinson (Cook’s artist during the 1769-71 Pacific voyages) noted in his journal: “The country,” he said, “is agreeable beyond description and, with proper cultivation, might be rendered a kind of second Paradise.” I always felt that was the moment that changed everything. The first European framing over the indigenous landscape.
RS: In what spaces and ways is your work usually exhibited? And where would we find it most recently?
TF: I started this work in 2001, when there weren’t a lot of plants or birds being painted as ‘contemporary art’. Now there are so many artists in Aotearoa working with indigenous flora and fauna. Because of my background in installation art, I’m always interested in the viewer and how they experience the work. At the moment, I have a large new work at Puke Ariki Museum in New Plymouth. It’s part of the State of Nature – Picturing a Silent Forest exhibition (on until 5 November). The premise of the show is very close to my heart; it involves colonial history, deforestation in South Taranaki (where I live) and the botanical paintings of Fanny Bertha Good (1860-1950). I made a collection called “Ledger of Loss” looking at plants that flourished in the area and are now endangered or extinct. Traditional in style, the work includes a harsh diagonal light across the work, it’s a cancellation – a strike out, a warning. It’s also a slightly frustrating interference for the viewer – which is intentional.
My Printed Hibiscus show at Bergman Gallery at the start of the year, was very different and explored ethnobotany through the printed hibiscus in the South Pacific, in all of its glory and all of its cliches. The show included light, fabric and wall installation as well as a set of very traditional watercolour paintings. I often paint on surfaces that are embedded with the story or histories I’m drawing attention to.
RS: You teach workshops in nature journaling and botanical drawing as well. Can you explain the difference between these?
TF: Yes and I am very passionate about this work! I’ve been running beginner Botanical Art workshops for over 20 years and teach an introduction to Nature Journaling. Nature Journaling is a really exciting practice to teach because it has so many different factors to it. Historically, it’s the workbook or sketchbook that contains drawing studies and notes based on the environment you are looking at. It can be functional (your garden diary, recording your plants and notes on gardening), it can be an art workbook with studies from nature taking the theme of your observations, or it can be more poetic, reflective and personal. I tend to combine all parts in my own book and work with students to find their own style and voice. I’m a nature writer and amateur naturalist. Nature is an endless source of wonder, curiosity and magnificence for me and I try to inspire my students with the value of connecting art and nature. It can be incredibly calming or cathartic. I’m working on a book at the moment that explores this in depth…watch this space!
RS: Where can we find your work and workshops?
TF: Insta: @botanical.artclass is best, @drtabathaforbes
Gallery: Bergman Gallery Auckland and Raro. Forbes and Flay, in Opunake, South Taranaki
Facebook: botanical art class
Dr Tabatha Forbes holds a doctorate in Fine Arts from Elam School, Auckland University. Her research and practice is primarily concerned with environmental perception/representation in the South Pacific with a primary interest in how we connect/disconnect from our natural habitats. Drawing on C18th & C19th European botanical and natural visual histories, Tabatha brings a contemporary eco-art discourse to her practice. With a background in installation, performance and moving image her work retains an interest in the audience experience while attending to the business of ‘thought provoking aesthetics’.