Drawn to a cabinet of curiosities is an exhibition by artist Jennifer Keeler-Milne, inspired by the collections of objects from the natural world that people from the Renaissance often collected and displayed. Jennifer’s exhibition may be seen at the Glasshouse Regional Gallery throughout March and April.
Hi Jennifer. Describe your artistic background … Where did you grow up, and what/who first inspired you to produce art?
I have always drawn. I remember drawing when I grew up in Melbourne. Being the youngest child (by many years) in a family of four children, I sometimes felt like an only child and kept myself amused for hours on end by drawing.
Looking back, I can see myself creating imaginative worlds, and that pattern continues today but in different forms. Drawing, looking at drawings and artworks all over the world is a great source of inspiration. Each week I divide my time between working on drawings or paintings in my studio and teaching drawing in my own business called “Dare to draw”.
What media do you most like to work with (and why)?
I am mostly involved with painting and drawing. In painting I choose to use oils on a richly textured linen. I have put a great deal of effort into learning the skills and techniques of the old masters and enjoy using their methods of glazing and scumbling. These materials and processes allow you the pleasure of creating paintings with luminosity and depth.
Some people think my drawings are made on black paper with white chalk – but that is not correct. What you see in my drawings are either areas of charcoal or the white of the paper. In drawing I use willow charcoal on a textured watercolour paper. I love the soft and velvety blackness that can be achieved and how it can be worked to create a range of tones.
A piece of willow charcoal is a small section of willow vine that has been fired to a high temperature. Each stick is slightly different and when it’s crushed, it becomes reduced to black dust. This creates quite a challenge in terms of drawing, and my aim is to create something of complexity from this fragile media.
You have an upcoming exhibition at the Glasshouse, entitled Drawn to a cabinet of curiosities. Where did the inspiration come from for this work … Can you expand more on the concept of “Wunderkammer”, and what this means?
Curious people have always fathomed the intricacies and workings of the natural world. The culture of collecting, classifying and drawing natural specimens predates the naming of disciplines such as biology, science or art. During the Renaissance, collected specimens were assembled into rooms that were designed to evoke the spectacle and marvel of the natural world. These designated spaces were called wonder-rooms (Wunderkammer in German) or cabinets of curiosities.
Building on this tradition over the last three years, I have created my own cabinet of curiosities. It is a two dimensional cabinet of drawings of natural specimens.These drawings seek to capture the distinct characteristics and details of a range of organic forms, yet also imbue them with a sense of intrigue. This is what will be shown at the Glasshouse, which will be the inaugural exhibition of these drawings. I am looking forward to seeing them all installed in this beautiful space.
Going into even more depth about this particular exhibition, how many pieces will be on display, and what are some of your particular favourites?
Over 150 drawings will be on exhibition and these drawings fall into three subject categories: specimens from the land, the sea and the air. These categories of land, sea and air contain drawings of rocks, gemstones, nests, urchins, sponges, moths and feathers. Each series has had its own challenges and rewards, so I love them all.
Why does the natural world hold such fascination for you?
Despite living in a largely urban environment in the inner city of Sydney, I am always looking for connections with nature. My first major series of works were cloud and sky studies. Everything in the Glasshouse exhibition has been drawn from a specimen that I have either collected or has been loaned to me.
Beauty and mystery are repeated themes which are intertwined in my artistic practice. Creating and exhibiting drawings of organic forms not only documents and celebrates them as part of our natural world, but also inherently brings awareness to their fragility and vulnerability in a climate of threat and change.
I resonate closely with the words of the late American artist Georgia O’Keefe when she said: “I have used these things to say what is to me the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it”.
What do you hope visitors at this exhibition will take away from the experience of viewing your art?
Hopefully, a sense of delight and wonder.
What do you feel has been your most significant artistic achievement to date?
In 2011 I was privileged to be invited on an artists’ trip to a desert region in far west NSW. My inspiration was the plants that were in abundance after an unusually high rainfall. The result was a series of 48 charcoal drawings titled NSW Desert plants. It was a proud moment in 2014 when the Art Gallery of NSW acquired these 48 drawings to be part of their Australian collection and then hung them alongside works by Drysdale and Nolan.
Where to from here for you … What plans do you have for the next 12 months or so?
I would like to continue along the path of the cabinet of curiosities. I have been inspired by some travel to Japan and the collection of an assortment of Japanese objects.
Where can readers see more of your artwork or find out more about you?
My website is a good place to start: www.keelermilne.com or instagram @jenniferkeelermilne
Interview by Jo Atkins.
See Drawn to a cabinet of curiosities from March 11 to April 25.
Exhibition opens March 11, 6pm: free entry.
Visit www.glasshouse.org.au for more information.