Biophilia and Beauty

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

Over the last three years, I have sought to develop work in new ways in order to offer an alternative discourse to the overwhelming pessimism of climate change debates. Taking my artwork out of the frame, and then off the wall, into three dimensional installations, and ultimately short films, has allowed me to explore original and diverse forms of artistic expression.

My journey started in 2009, following a year as Artist in Residence at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney, where I exhibited a series of 27 mixed media drawings featuring extinct and endangered plants. Since then, I have continued to explore ways of communicating the escalating impact of climate change, while trying to reinforce that appreciating the beauty of nature – biophilia – is a necessary need for all people.

I was able to integrate a lifelong passion for meditation and mindfulness into my work as it evolved, and this has presented an opportunity to draw not just from the knowledge of the scientists I worked with at the Royal Botanic Garden, but from recent studies in neuroscience and ecopsychology, about how the brain constructs emotional responses which flow through the body.

Living Fossils: The Shape of Loss (series), Drawn Thread, Australian National University, Canberra, 2017. Drawings of cross sections of fossil wood on cut paper backgrounds symbolizing urban environments and maps.

I sought not only to represent the plants’ precious beauty, but to explore how plants can heighten our abilities to feel and connect with nature. My work seeks to bring this sensibility into galleries and other spaces in less conventional ways. It aims to enhance our ability to reconnect with our own nature, and to reflect on potential loss, explored through the incidental and concomitant beauty found in Herbarium collections, and in the wild.

The first of these new experiments was selected in 2016 for the “Future Stratigraphy” exhibition at the Sydney College of the Arts, Sydney University. The Archaeology of Absence featured drawings of endangered plants in free floating circles and cut paper pieces, across the length of a three meter-long wall.

As a passionate educator, I also wanted to be involved with the community in Sydney. This led me to take part in The Big Anxiety Festival, where I will present a large scale solo exhibition, Art + Nature: Antidotes to Anxiety, and conduct two drawing workshops, hosted at the Fisher Library and the Royal Botanic Garden.

Recent surveys and statistics suggest that an increasing number of people are disengaged from the issue of global warming, and actively avoid thinking about it. Yet the human species needs to be integrated with nature more than ever before. Research in biophilia and ecopsychology continues to provide us with evidence of the positive impacts that being connected with nature – and seeing images of nature – can bring, to both our physical and mental health.

Requiem (Red) showing details of one of three large glass vitrines. The exhibition was distributed across three floors of the Fisher Library, Sydney University, 2017. Red sections relate to The Red List summary of endangered species, and the pressed branches in the foreground are from the critically endangered Eucalyptus Copulans tree.

The first series of works in “Future Stratigraphy” featured free floating circles, the second an installation in the Fisher Library, and the third series used scanned images of my drawings to create a visual meditation and narrative in two short films co-created with Margaret McHugh. The first film was called “Micrographia” and the second, “Deposition Lines.” Both films used soundscapes and combined real images of endangered plants with the drawings. They integrated cut paper layers, changing focal points, alternating light sources, and other visual devices to evoke a calm, meditative experience.

Recent studies have shown that looking at images of nature for as little as five minutes provides health benefits such as reduced blood pressure, increased immune response, and lower depression and anxiety. We are not separate from nature; we are nature. Exploring plant images through artwork, and extending their reach, can provide a way of creating emotional empathy, as a type of touchstone to bring us back to ourselves.

We need antidotes to the negativity of climate change – and nature is ready, and waiting for us.

(Top image: Micrographia, still, at 0.09 in video. The layering in this drawing was inspired by the writing and research of Rachel Carson, in the 1962 book Silent Spring.)


Emma Robertson researches developments in creative thinking processes, exploring the relationships between words, objects and memory in mixed media drawings, installations and bookworks. She is an Associate Professor at UNSWAD and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, London. Emma has exhibited in eight countries, and her prize-winning artwork is held in seven international public collections. For her current PhD practice-based research at Sydney University, she has extended her previous Artist in Residence work with scientists at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney, to explore new ways of communicating about the impact of climate change on rare and endangered Australian flora.

About Artists and Climate Change:

Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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