Janet Laurence

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Artist Janet Laurence presents a stunning exhibition, In Memory of Nature, at the Glasshouse throughout September and early October. Janet’s work explores the “meeting places of art, science, imagination and memory” …

How did your interest in art develop?

I think it was quite an organic thing – it wasn’t sudden. I’ve always been interested in looking at art, thinking about it, making things. I was drawn to art, without knowing a lot about it or being an artist. I originally went to an art school in Italy.

In Australia years ago, the idea of becoming a professional artist wasn’t exactly high on the list. It was really never thought of as a profession – people would become commercial artists, but not artists. It took living in Europe, for me, to make me realise it was something I could do.

You work with a lot of sculptural pieces now, but did you start off in the traditional sense of doing a lot of brushwork and drawing?

I’ve always painted; I still paint. Painting has been my backbone over the years, and my training was in painting.

Your current exhibition features stunning images of the natural environment and plants. What’s the attraction to nature for you?

Having lived in Europe for 8 years or so, when I came back to Australia I realised I was interested in working with art as a way to explore our natural environment.

And the more I explored it, the more I realised the fragility of nature and our natural environment. It was my real interest and concern, so it made more and more sense to make my work reflect that fact.

In 1998 you received an artist’s residency in Tokyo. What kind of impact did that culture have on your life and art?

I’d always been interested in the Japanese philosophy and its relationship to nature and also Japanese architecture and how it relates to nature. Japan has influenced me a lot − their layout of space and their reverence for the natural environment. It’s influenced my work – and my life.

Tell us about the works you have on display in your current exhibition, ‘In Memory of Nature’ …

Essentially, the work is like a mini natural history museum. All of these fragments are drawn from nature and were once living. Many of them were living in a big garden project I had, that was a medicinal garden for ailing plants. They were like little, sick plants on life support – and the ones in the exhibition are the ones that didn’t make it. But they’ve been transformed – I’ve painted them, or lacquered them, juxtaposed them with other things or sandwiched them in glass – things that make you focus on them.

These little, tiny, precious objects from nature have been put into an area that is now part of our culture.

There’s a stuffed owl – and all sorts of things that are reminiscent of that world. It’s meant to be a momento of nature, but captured into the whole natural environment that we’re rapidly losing.

Juxtaposed are two filmic pieces – one’s a big, soft still on the wall of all those plants living in their vials, when they were on life support. Then there’s what I call a tiny alchemical video piece that reflects the sound of these objects and provides a metaphor for their life.

I would like to think that my work will bring people into empathy with nature.

Apart from this exhibition, what are some of the other pieces of work you’ve created? Some of them are quite large and distinctive – like the glasshouses?

I love to make things like that. Glasshouses are really special places where nature is nurtured. In the past, Glasshouses have often been made in some spectacular ways, and that’s hardly being replicated today.

One of the most well-known sites you’ve worked on in Australia is the ‘Tomb of the Unknown Soldier’ in Canberra, in 1993. What was your involvement with this project?

It was completely collaborative with the architects. I worked with architect Peter Tonkin on this project – we entered the design competition together [and subsequently were awarded the commission] and basically we designed the whole thing and had it fabricated. In fact, we’re still finalising text for a booklet that’s being done about it! It was a very collaborative work.

You’ve won too many awards and held so many well-received exhibitions to mention, but if you had to pinpoint something you are particularly proud of, what would it be?

I think the Rockefeller Foundation residency was the most fabulous experience, and I’m very proud to have achieved that. Few artists get that – it was very special that my art was recognised this way.

Thanks Janet.

Interview by Jo Atkins.

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