Some people are sceptical about conservation organisations dedicating resource to the arts. Given the urgency of the task at hand, shouldn’t we be directing all our energy and funds to protecting nature? We at the TLC see arts and conservation as emphatically entwined.
Although conservation efforts centre around nature, they are at their core a human activity.
‘People are quintessential to our work,’ Margie Jenkin (the TLC’s former head of Engagement) notes in this webinar, and an important aspect of the TLC’s work is to engage communities and identify ways of connecting people to the value of its conservation work.
Emotions inspire action
If you’ve spent time surrounded by towering trees and scree slopes, with only the sound of the wind; if you’ve spent time noticing the intricate lace of moss on roots and rocks, the carpet of leatherwood petals beneath your boots, the scent of peat and eucalypts, you’ve likely experienced a sense of connection with the landscape that seems to transcend reason – that feels purely emotional, even spiritual.
Like time spent in nature, art can affect people at a deep emotional level. Art can bring that sense of connection with the landscape to people, which is perhaps the next best thing to being in nature.
‘One of the greatest connectors between people and nature is art – art tells nature’s stories,’ wrote philanthropist Rob Purves in his foreword for the Skullbone Experiment catalogue, the TLC’s first major art project held in 2013–2014.
Art tells stories and moves people in a way that politics and scientific enquiry can’t. When the TLC published a book, Breathing space, in 2021 to mark its twentieth anniversary, our focus was on letting Tasmanians tell their stories of nature in their own way. In this webinar, CEO of the TLC James Hattam, a scientist, talks about how scientists and artists see the landscape differently: ‘We’re looking at the same landscape, the same forest, the same wetland, and we’re seeing very different things…. Artists have a great ability to communicate complicated scientific and ecological aspects in accessible and powerful ways and they often evoke much more raw emotion and inspire a real commitment to conservation.’
Changing the way people look at nature
As James points out, art can help us view nature in a different way. Artists can make visible the value of ecologically valuable landscapes that may lack conventional beauty. Ecosystems like wetlands may not have the romance of craggy peaks or wild rivers, and historically, people have thought of them, to some extent, as wastelands to be drained or filled. But these ecosystems are essential for the global water cycle, they provide important habitat for many species including frogs, migratory birds and breeding fish, and they are vital carbon stores.
TLC’s Big Punchbowl Reserve is one of these habitats. Artist Sue Lovegrove, who participated in the Poets and Painters collaboration (2016–2017) at The Big Punchbowl, talks about how part of her role as a painter is to make the invisible visible. Paintings can sometimes convey more than a photo and certainly more than any scientific report – the feel of the wind, the movement of ripples on water. Art can help to make the value of precious, but less romantic, landscapes visible.
Art can also extend both the visibility of landscapes and the work of conservation organisations geographically, helping people connect with faraway places. The Skullbone Experiment exhibition toured to Sydney, while the book Poets and Painters - celebrating the Big Punchbowl (which was produced instead of a catalogue) was launched at the Melbourne Writers Festival. These art projects have also generated national media coverage, helping to consolidate the organisation’s national presence beyond Tasmania.
The TLC’s twentieth anniversary book, Breathing space, was sold in bookshops around the country and reviewed in the national papers. Collecting essays, stories and poems from some of Tasmania’s (and the mainland’s) favourite writers and beautifully presented by an award-winning designer, it told stories of nature and conservation that reached people who had never heard of the TLC. The book featured on ABC Radio National and took the TLC to a whole new audience.
Just as important as this national exposure is the engagement of local communities, which includes artists and writers. The TLC’s ongoing relationship with arts organisations, writers and artists is important to the organisation, both from the point of view of supporting the local arts and for the friendships that have been built along the way. Many artists who have been involved in the TLC’s projects have become long-term supporters and unofficial ambassadors for the work of the organisation.
The Tasmanian Land Conservancy’s arts collaborations
The Skullbone Experiment (2013–2014), supported by two philanthropists, Robert and Sandy Purves, brought together eleven high-profile artists to camp for three nights in the TLC’s Skullbone Plains Reserve and produce works inspired by their experience. This reserve is 1600 hectares of open valleys, old-growth forests, native grasslands, cushion plants and rare, endangered sphagnum moss beds. Two exhibitions followed at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery (QVMAG) in Launceston and UNSW Galleries in Sydney, which collectively ran for approximately ten weeks. See photos from the UNSW exhibition, read an article from the ABC or watch a documentary about the project.
Poets and Painters at The Big Punchbowl was a collaboration between the TLC and Bett Gallery Hobart. During the spring and summer months of 2016–17, nine poets and nine painters immersed themselves at the Big Punchbowl Reserve. In pairs, they witnessed nature then collaboratively crafted work. The results show the reserve interpreted through a new and original lens. Read an article from the ABC.
Breathing space is a book of 20 essays, stories and poems that interrogate Tasmanians’ changing relationship with nature. Published in 2021 to mark the TLC’s 20th birthday, it features contributions from Robbie Arnott, Erin Hortle, Danielle Wood, Jock Serong, Pete Hay, Melissa Manning, James Boyce, Keely Jobe and many others, as well as an original artwork by Rich Wastell. Read more about the book or buy a copy.