5-10-5: Arist Morgan Allender
by Eric Hsu
I first became acquainted with Morgan Allender’s work through Instagram, and identified with the moody and romantic feeling of her paintings. When Morgan attended the Beth Chatto Symposium last August 2018, we connected in person and was able to chat briefly about her work and gardening. It’s a delight to have her reveal her passion for painting and gardening on Plinth et al.
Please introduce yourself.
I’m an artist based in Southern Australia, making large-scale gestural oil paintings inspired by travel, landscape (usually gardens) and memory. (Background: Although introduced initially online , Eric and I met in person while both attending the Beth Chatto Symposium in Essex, UK in Summer 2018. I was there as part of an ongoing research project into notions of the artist-gardener and the parallels between painting, planting and place.) I’ve just completed an exhibition of large paintings that were inspired by that research trip, taken over 6 weeks spent in the gardens and landscapes of the UK and parts of Europe. Back here in Australia, I work full-time in my converted barn studio set within the grounds of our 5 acre garden and fields in the Adelaide Hills.
The arts or horticulture?
Both, I could never choose. At the moment I am completely consumed by painting, in the studio 6 days a week, and gardening is my time off, my meditation, and my inspiration for the paintings. At other times in the year it switches to the focus being on the garden. I realized over the last couple of years that there is really no divide between the painting and the gardening, they are two media within the same art practice. I am working towards combining the two more and more and am increasingly interested in the painterly application within garden/landscape design. I would love to bring my knowledge of art and painting to a collaborative project with a garden design studio.
The connections with plants and gardens can be sparked in endless ways, whether it be a grandparent who encouraged a child to sow some seeds or the beauty of a neighbor’s garden. How did you become interested in plants?
I have always been surrounded by plants and horticulture. My father is a horticulturist and nurseryman specializing in Australian native plants, and my mother is a very keen gardener who has always made beautiful gardens for herself and for others. For as long as I can remember my dad has run his nursery in various forms so I’m sure I have potting mix in my genetic makeup. Mum taught me the names of plants as I was learning to talk, like a second language, and took me to visit many gardens. Growing up, we had a big rambling garden with a lake, which provided many hours of entertainment and connection with nature. I feel so appreciative for this exposure because it has formed the backdrop to which I have pinned my entire life.
You have an arts background, having earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Hons) from the Adelaide Central School of Art and having exhibited at various galleries throughout Australia. There was certainly significant scope for an art student to experiment with different media like ceramics, textiles, or sculpture. How did your style develop and evolve to its current form?
I went to an atelier-style art school where all the teachers are artists and there was a lot of emphasis on technique across the various disciplines. I tried all kinds of things from installation to video to printmaking but painting just felt right. The earthy, romantic materiality of oil paint is incredibly exciting and I feel I could paint for an entire lifetime and still be fascinated and challenged by it. There is something about this untamable quality of paint that is akin to gardening and working with the elements – it’s a collaboration between the human hand and those elements that are out of our control. I really wasn’t until after art school when I suddenly was alone in my own studio, without the structure of college, that I started to find my own voice. That experience is very common – college provides an excellent grounding but nothing can compare to just doing it, lots of it, and working really hard, that is when the creative energy starts flowing. So, to answer your question, my current style has gradually evolved out of itself, from one suite of paintings to the next, and continues to do so.
Your paintings defy categorization – they are neither still-life nor landscape paintings. Flowers are not synchronized seasonally like those Dutch flower still-lives, but they seem surreally suspended within the large context of landscape paintings. There seems to be a melancholy, if not foreboding feeling one gains from seeing your paintings. Is mortality a subject you wish to impress on your viewers?
Possibly, but not in a macabre way, more in an awareness of the cycles of nature. Yes, I do identify them as landscape paintings although they sit on the margins of the genre somewhere, not easily defined. Essentially my paintings are an attempt to communicate visually something that is felt. I’m trying to evoke the feeling of an experience in nature, and specifically the paintings are based on personal memories of Place (particular gardens, landscapes, travel etc). So I would say that right at the heart of things I’m communicating a meditative or transcendent state, a connection to forces bigger than us, something that those reading this who spend a lot of time in gardens and nature will understand. I like that you find them melancholy, aa I see beauty often being felt as a sort of melancholy, a heartache.
The physicist David Deutsch suggests that our attraction towards flowers rests on their objective beauty, connected to their harmonious colors, soft curves, and symmetrical forms. What is it about flowers you feel a certain affinity for painting? And are there specific flowers and leaves you like to explore in different ways?
I’m not sure we look at anything as purely objective beauty. Beauty is irrevocably linked to deep emotion and the soul. Plants in general and especially flowers are a very tactile reminder of the greater forces of life, death and renewal. I believe they are a potent symbol of human emotion and vulnerability; people have highly charged emotional responses to them, I have heard so many stories told to me over the years about the personal significance of plants – so many people associate particular flowers with memories of a person, time or place in their lives. My latest body of paintings weave arching grasses, trees and foliage into the compositions. Rather than floral, they are really garden paintings, immersive landscapes.
As an artist whose livelihood depends on selling her work, how do you relinquish the sentimentality that may attach to the paintings you produce? Are their certain paintings you kept because they documented an important phase of style evolution?
I feel grateful to say that I have sold nearly every painting I’ve exhibited over the last decade, and there are a few I miss dearly, like old friends who have moved far away. I ultimately let go of the paintings because I genuinely believe that art is at its most vital when shared with others. I don’t make art in a vacuum and part of its development, after it has left my studio, is in the interpretation and enjoyment by other humans. Also, I think that any art practice is based on growth and development, a forward trajectory of ideas, always evolving. So in this way, letting go of paintings when they are complete is part of the process. The paintings that are most valuable to me in terms of being important markers in the evolution of my practice are my small oil studies, usually made quickly on scraps of linen or board. Most of these are recordings of a certain idea or feeling and a handful of them are hugely emotive for me, although they would perhaps have very little meaning for others.
Instagram has been a popular platform through which artists popularize their work and project their creative philosophies. It has been criticized for influencing how creative designers are compelled to create work that are photogenic or garner the most ‘likes’ when sometimes the most interesting work not easily depicted online requires a tactile or visual experience firsthand in person. How do you perceive or impose your artistic expression without being too overly influenced by social media?
Good art will always be better when experienced in person. Instagram is the only social media platform I use and it has been an amazingly essential tool for sharing my paintings and acting as a virtual gallery alongside my website. We are all aware of the double-edged sword that these apps embody – at their worst, and if we let them, they encourage anxiety, time-wasting, plagiarism, exclusion, comparison, addiction and the homogenization of ideas and culture – but I have made the most incredible introductions to people and places this way. Really life-changing. I have sold my paintings across the globe from my secluded hillside in South Australia, which is a miraculous privilege. I take the good with the bad and try to focus on the positive. I don’t look at a lot of art/artists online, in order to keep my creative vision clear of stylistic influence.
Painting and gardening require mastery of technique and evince creative control. They can only be personal if the participant feels emotionally liberated. What would you say about being an artist and a gardener have revealed about yourself?
I’m not sure what they reveal, perhaps that is for others to ponder. I guess my garden and my paintings are a multifaceted self-portrait. I feel most authentically myself when I am either in a garden, or my studio, usually solitary and connected to creativity and nature.
South Australia, like elsewhere on the continent, has borne the blunt of climate change, mainly in droughts and extreme summer temperatures. I would be curious to know whether the changing climate has altered your approach towards gardening.
As a result of the harsher summers we are experiencing, my partner Justin and I are actually planning a complete reworking of the planting schemes in the garden this Winter. The beds are due for an overhaul anyway, perennials need dividing etc, but we are taking out many plants and replacing with a tapestry of Mediterranean plants that still will have a painterly movement. My vision is for the plantings to be drought tolerant without being spiky or too structural. Creatively I would like to achieve a soft airy response to climate with the plantings- “sheer curtains in the wind”- with lots more cooling green tones. The summer dry season can extend well into Autumn so I’m planning more for plantings that will look beautiful over a long, dry Autumn period.
What are some of your favorite garden plants that have proven resilient in the Mediterranean climate of South Australia?
This has been a particularly drought-ridden year, with very little rain and Summer temperatures reaching 48C at one point. That week, plants in the garden literally burnt in the sun with leaves turning crunchy and brown in a matter of hours. Definitely gardening hell!! But a wake-up call to the need to work with, not in denial of, the changes in climate. In the Adelaide Hills we get higher rainfall than most of the state but it’s still very dry. I favour softer romantic plants rather than more structural succulents etc. Particular plants that have sailed through Summer unscathed are the Gaura, penstemons, Oenothera, Achillea, some pelargoniums, the grasses (Poa, Stipa), Verbena bonariensis. Lilies (mainly ornamentals/longiflorums not species) have done extremely well this year, loving the heat. The wilder-form and species roses are very resilient in our dry clay soil, I have them growing over the house, through beds and into trees throughout the garden.
Australia has some of the most remarkable flora, not to mention dramatic natural landscapes, in the world. Do you have any favorite Australian flowers and landscapes you like to explore outside of your time painting and gardening?
I grew up in my father’s Australian native nursery where there was a huge and wondrous stock garden, very wild and full of large flowering shrubs and strange herby scents, especially in winter and spring. The powdery scent of acacia flowers in winter will always evoke that time. My favourite Australian plants are the correas, such delicate bellflowers with a downy fuzz on the surface of the leaves and flowers, like a cat’s tongue. Philotheca myoporoides is another favourite for its little star flowers and the amazing scent of passionfruit/pineapple when you squeeze the foliage between your fingers.
What is your desert island plant?
Clematis armandii “Apple Blossom”. I have one growing up and over the entry doorway into my studio and it makes me ridiculously happy.
What are some lessons you would impart to any inspiring artist who wants to combine their love of plants, gardening, and lucrative work?
Here are some hard-won lessons I have learnt/am learning over the last few years that may be useful to others:
To be curious, not put yourself in one box, indulge various interests all at once – we are multi-faceted beings and any good creative output is the sum of many parts.
To take no notice of cliques and trends, especially at times you may feel on the outer, this probably means you are doing something worth developing further. What is that quote?...”steer your course by the stars, not on every passing ship”. Block out the noise.
To have patience: every career is built up slowly over time in small increments, not in 5 minutes. Is it too much of a cliché to draw a comparison to making a good garden…? There’s a lot of emphasis in the press etc on “rising young talent’, perhaps part of western culture/the media’s obsession with youth and The New. In reality it is time, dedication and consistent commitment, ie really genuinely enjoying what you do and just getting on with it.