Garth Henderson’s exquisitely hyperreal work is pushing the boundaries of Australian botanical art. Digitally sculpted by the hand and eye to form intricately detailed studies, he explores the complex geometric beauty of iconic natives like no other artist before him. We sit down with Garth to learn more about his own extraordinary native plant project and a particular fascination with Banksia…
NPP: Your botanic artworks are mesmerising. How did you arrive at this style of work?
GH: I’m primarily interested in organic geometry, in particular the unique and evolving mathematical permutations of Australian flora. I have created these works as a visual investigation of their complex form: plant species as organic architecture.
Produced as a series of large format limited edition archival prints on museum paper, each work arrests the viewer by challenging perceptions with the subtly hyperreal interpretations of the familiar.
My creative tools utilise 3D modelling and sculpting software, and virtual studio photography. It’s anapproach rooted in deep experience as a visual artist and horticulturist, honed by a Bachelor of Fine Art from Curtin University, Perth WA, with majors in photography and printmaking, with further specialisation in 3D modelling and digital media from RMIT, Melbourne, Victoria.
“I appreciate my visual style is informed by a combination of my background in photography and horticulture, and a childhood in an extraordinarily botanically rich corner of Western Australia…”
NPP: Botanic art is painstakingly observed. How do you go about creating such striking 3D artworks?
GH: I work direct from a dried plant specimen in the studio, or reference a series of photographs I have taken in the landscape. Working in a virtual environment allows me to break down my observations, to dilute the essence of the structure, and rebuild it as a series of shapes and modules.The ability to output the work as a photographically ‘correct’ interpretation of reality challenges the viewer with a streamlined version of what they believe themselves to recognise.
My philosophy is to visually dispense with the scientific and cultural ‘restrictions’ of traditional botanical studies, and approach the subject matter with a focus on form and geometry. My initial works with Banksias were general references, based on memory and familiarity and a few particular visual indicators of how we recognise the Genus. What I think has evolved in this process is a more concentrated approach to allude to familiar aspects of specific species.
“My experience of banksias as a child was my introduction to the wonder of the natural Australian environment. My experience of them as an adult is in an almost meditative state of observation of organic mathematical forms…”
NPP: Banksias seem to be a particular focus, can you explain why?
GH: As a child growing up in the south-west corner of Western Australia, there was much time spent outside, exploring the scrubby native bushland around our house. And Banksias, whether in bloom or later as fruiting cones, are inherently engaging to a wandering mind (think May Gibbs’ particular take on the subject matter).
Plus the flowers suddenly appear out of this muted, dull grey green forest in such a spectacular display of form and colour. And 90% of Banskia species are endemic to this region also, so it’s a personal history of experiencing them from a young age.
And coming back to them in a creative discipline, having had the luxury of a formal education in the Visual Arts and Horticulture, and also an immersive vocational history. My experience of them as a child was my introduction to the wonder of the natural Australian environment. My experience of them as an adult is in an almost meditative state of observation of organic mathematical forms. They are the perfect example of Form and Function.
NPP: What do you most love about Australian native plants?
GH: Their tenacity. To be able to not only survive, but thrive in such an old old landscape.
But mostly, their repetitive and evolving floral structures. There’s a scale and economy of form relative to the ability to function and prosper in a harsh environment. So many of the most intricate flowers demand you to be intimately close in order to truly appreciate their structures. I think that’s why the Proteaceae family resonates so strongly as subject matter: Banksia, Grevillea, Hakea etc… They are tough plants. And from a traditional European perspective of nature as abundant and immersive, these plants from drier regions initially fail to offer that immediate sense of comfort we expect from the natural environment.
It is only on closer inspection of the buds, flowers and seedpods of these plants, that the wonder and intricacy of form elevates them to a whole new level of understanding and appreciation.
NPP: Where do you get your design inspiration from?
GH: I appreciate that my visual style is informed by a combination of my background in photography and horticulture, and a childhood in an extraordinarily botanically rich corner of Western Australia.
But to put the fascination with geometry in context, one of the first books I remember being fascinated with was a copy of Ernst Haekel’s ‘Kunstformen der Natur, that I had as a child. I thought his extraordinary observations and illustrations of the simple/complex permutations of organic geometry in the natural world were truly remarkable.
As was the photography of Karl Blossfeldt, particularly the close up of plant structures in ‘Urformen der Kunst’. His philosophy was that ‘the plant must be valued as a totally artistic and architectural structure‘ (1: Blossfeldt, Karl, Urformen Der Kunst: Photographische Pflanzenbilder, Verlag Ernst Wasmuth A.G. Berlin, 1929 ). His observations informed my view of plants as design and form.
NPP: What are your favourite native plants to grow or ones you particularly enjoy in your garden?
GH: I am lucky to be involved in the stewardship of a magnificent Phillip Johnson billabong garden on a private estate in country Victoria.
His ideology is a celebration of a particular aspect of the essential Australian environment, and is reflected in the design and sustainability of the garden.
As for the plants, I can’t believe how tough Correasare: minus 8 degrees, waterlogged clay in Winter, porcelain hard clay in Summer, and they are thriving. Also, Myoporum: hasn’t missed a beat over the three years I have been interacting with this garden. Brachyscombe multifida, dies off a bit in the frost, but comes back enthusiastically, as does the Chrysocephalum.Eucalyptus pulverulenta severely wind pruned, but starting to mature into their compact spreading forms, and so intricate when they start to bud up between the unique foliage. And because of the water element, there is some runaway Marsilea (Nardoo). Such a simple geometry to its light green foliage, and it gets a shimmering silver sheen when submerged in the pond.
NPP: Are there any public or private gardens featuring native plants you like to visit for inspiration?
GH: My favourite is King’s Park Botanical Garden in Perth, Western Australia.
When I lived in Perth I’d regularly stop at Kings Park on the way to work for a walk around the mainly natural bush site and I never miss an opportunity to visit this garden every time I visit the city. Almost half of Australia’s 25,000 plant species are represented there. It is such an overwhelming experience to visit the gardens in Spring, when most plants are starting to flower. They also have an exhaustive living collection of Banksias!
Horse Island in Bodalla. I was fortunate to visit the site with Landscape Architect, Jela Ivankovic-Waters, for a private tour early last year. Owner Christina Kennedy has informed her understanding and appreciation of Australian plants over the last 25 or so years, and created a truly unique Australian garden, balancing the formal and informal garden spaces on a such a grand and dramatic site. The sheer scale of the clipped ‘Agonis flexuosa’ on the main drive indicate what a new way of expressing traditional garden styles can achieve.
And finally, Banksia Gardens in Mt Barker, is still on the ‘to do’ list, where they have the world’s only complete collection of Banksias.