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Laura Jones - Bleached

The Design Files 2 March 2017

Lucy Feagins

Best known in recent years for her distinctive flower paintings, this year Sydney artist Laura Jones explores emotive new territory.

With an urge to learn more about the Great Barrier Reef's devastating mass bleaching event of 2016, Laura sought out a residency on Lizard Island, and then more recently on Heron Island. Painting in close proximity to the reef, and meeting the dedicated scientists who study it, has inspired a spectacular new series of paintings for Laura.

We talked with Laura ahead of her upcoming exhibition ‘Bleached‘ at Olsen Gallery in Sydney, opening mid-May.We've been championing the work of Sydney based painted Laura Jones for a few years now. Best known in recent years for her truly exquisite flower paintings, Laura is, in fact, a versatile painter with broad influences. Her latest body of work is particularly inspiring and timely. These works take inspiration from Australia's Great Barrier Reef, which is currently experiencing mass bleaching due to climate change.

Though she's been Sydney based for the last few years, working from a studio in Marrickville in Sydney's inner west, Laura is a country girl at heart. Having grown up at the foothills of the Blue Mountains in NSW, nature has always been a huge influence.

Last year, after three years solid of painting, exhibiting, and keeping up with the immense demand for her ‘flower' paintings, it was time for Laura to take stock. She was exhausted. ‘I found myself reading in the studio a lot, and I kept coming back to news stories about the Great Barrier Reef, because it was experiencing severe bleaching at the time' the artist recounts. ‘I was probably procrastinating, but I was also subconsciously moving towards this new series'.

The more she researched this phenomenon, the more Laura realised that she needed to paint coral, not just read about it. ‘I wanted to learn more about what was happening to the reef through paint' Laura says.' In hindsight this was completely transformational, as it led me to doing a residency on Lizard Island, and then more recently to Heron Island, and to this new series I am making now.'

Laura's coral paintings will be exhibited in a show entitled ‘Bleached' at Olsen Gallery in Sydney, opening May 17th. We recently spoke with Laura to gain a deeper insight into this remarkable new creative direction.

Do you think your art is evolving?

Yes. So, when I made the decision to go to Lizard Island in August last year, I knew something was changing. I haven't been making art for that long. But when I look back on my work over the last 10 years, I can see how it has mirrored my life. It changes the way life does, you don't notice it, but then you look back and you can see things clearly.

Painting is very honest. If you're a truly creative person, then it is impossible to stay the same. Things might be shifting slowly, but you are always digging, pushing, searching. I am looking for something all the time. Each painting teaches you about how to move on to the next one. This new body of work represents an evolution for me as a person and an artist, my growing interest in humankind's connection with nature.

How did the theme for your upcoming exhibition come about?

When I was reading about the reef, I noticed that a lot reports were coming out of The Lizard Island Research Station in far north Queensland. This is because it was at the centre of the worst coral bleaching event the Great Barrier Reef had ever seen. Anyway, I was fascinated with the bleaching process, how the coral turns a ghostly white and then starves to death when the water stays too hot for too long.

I was lucky enough to be allowed to visit the research station in August last year to learn more about what was going on, and to make small drawings and watercolours while I was there. I stayed for 10 days setting up a studio within a lab. I had an incredible time and was so privileged to meet some amazing scientists and learn about what they do. They're actually a lot like artists; they're passionate, they work extremely hard, they're creative, and their job is to communicate their observations to the world.

I suppose I have always had an interest in conservation. But how could one not? To me it seems like an absolute given that we should be doing everything we can to protect the environment. - Laura Jones

I find it very upsetting that there are still conversations about whether climate change is real or not. It drives me absolutely crazy because it's a waste of time.

Clearly there are so many different forces and agendas at play, and whether climate change deniers really believe what they are saying, I don't know. But there should be more people in politics truly listening to the scientific community.

Can you tell us a little more about your upcoming show ‘Bleached', and how this exhibition compare to others you've done?

I'm enjoying moving away from an observation-based studio practice. I've used photos and drawings collected on my island residencies, and have had to rely on memory and experimentation. I've been really interested in painting our collective perception of the reef.

That said, my paintings won't be tourist-brochure type depictions of the reef. I've been painting what's there. I've made paintings of the bleaching. At the time of this interview I have just returned from Heron Island, where the reef is still diverse. So the next phase of painting this show will be the colourful and healthy coral. To see the comparison between the reefs at Lizard and Heron Island was astounding. It's not going to be an exhibition full of dead and dying coral, but it's not going to ignore that aspect either.

Focusing more on the latest artworks themselves, how would you describe your latest works?

They are large underwater landscapes I suppose. I've always been interested in the process of painting - there are layers of thick and thin paint, under-painted parts that look like water. I like revealing the process and sharing the experience of paint. I'm into colour more than ever. I want the gallery to look like it's under water, like each painting is a porthole.

Late last year Queensland scientists confirmed that the 2016 mass-coral bleaching event resulted in the largest die-off of corals ever recorded on the Great Barrier Reef, while some areas did show improvement. Why have you decided to make a point about ‘resilience' through your upcoming exhibition?

Because I don't think we should give up on the Reef. I was really impressed when meeting scientists on my residencies, at how they managed to maintain a level of optimism, despite knowing so much about the devastating effects of climate change. Some of them said it was heartening to see that this conversation is becoming more mainstream after so many years of trying to raise the alarm.

It's true that some parts of the reef are still healthy, like on Heron Island. The first time I jumped into the water on the outer reef there, I honestly nearly swallowed my snorkel. There were so many more fish there than at Lizard Island. When I was at Lizard Island, I was seeing the aftermath of the bleaching, and saw little bits here and there growing back.

The coral can grow back. The bleaching is an evolved response to stress. The problem is that we need to give it the best chance to come back, which means that we need to stop stuffing around on a political level. There is no doubt that coral bleaching is caused by climate change.

Do you think artists and the art community have a role to play in conserving the environment?

Yes. Artists can start conversations, just like this one. Art has the ability to present ideas in a different way. I can put my work out there, and you can take what you want away from that.

Without words, and in the sea of information out there, art can be an uplifting, inclusive and empowering way of engaging with issues concerning the environment.

What would be your dream creative project?

I'd like to go all around the world, following David Attenborough around with a suitcase full of art supplies. Or imagine doing an artist-in-residence on the moon!

But seriously, I am very lucky to be doing what I love, so it already is a dream.

‘Bleached' by Laura Jones
May 17 to June 14
Olsen Gallery
63 Jersey Road, Woollahra
Sydney, NSW

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