Rachael Lee: The Biophilia Connection

Above: Rachael Lee, Beyond the Elements Series, 2016-2018, Multi-plate collagraphs, stencils, linocut, pencil, wax pastel, varnish on Somerset mounted on aluminium composite panels, 11.85m x 2.1m. Photography Carl Warner 
Right: Rachael Lee, Lost, 2017, Charcoal, pigmented ink and pencil on Tiepolo watercolour paper, 105 x 78cm paper size. Photography Carl Warner. 
Below left: Rachael Lee, Chrysalis no.6, 2017, Collagraph, stencils and linocut on Somerset, piercings, LED, fixings, varnish, 30 x 22 x 87cm. Photography Louis Lim. 
Below right: Rachael Lee, Deep, 2018, Collagraph embossing, stencils, collage, mylar, metallic thread, piercings, varnish on Somerset mounted on 19mm deep cradle board, 30.5 x 22.9cm. Photography Rachael Lee 
Bottom: Rachael Lee stencilling at Impress Printmakers Studio and Gallery, Brisbane. Photography Kay Watanabe

The Biophilia Connection

By Jay Dee Dearness

Biophilia, the hypothesis that proposes that humans possess inherent tendencies to seek out connections with nature and other forms of life was first popularised by Edward O. Wilson (an entomologist) in his 1984 book of the same name1.  It is this kind of nature based connection which can be seen so strongly running as an evolutionary process through Rachael Lee’s work.  An embedded and enduring connection to nature and her place within it – her local environs of Logan, Queensland.

Rachael is a self-confessed collector of the debris from nature’s floor.  Her early artistic memories include affixing these found objects to walls in her home – a soothing act of re-connecting the artist to nature and a literal attempt to pour nature back into her built environment.  These biophilic connections have coursed through her work since 1993 and run in tandem with clear growing evidence supporting the restorative qualities of biophilic attributes for the purposes of promoting recovery of stress and mental fatigue2.  It is little wonder then that her work has been collected by both the Sunshine Coast and the Gold Coast University Hospitals.  Rachael now limits her own collecting to two glass terrariums full to the brim with these found objects in the leafy surrounds of her studio nestled amongst the trees.  These pieces of soft bark, seed pods and leaves act as triggers for moments of transportation back to nature.  The artist takes any opportunity she can to continually immerse herself in green spaces such as Springwood Conservation Park and Underwood Park; these forming the visual inspiration behind this latest series of work.

Art is therefore a meditative therapy for Rachael.  The act of viewing and interpreting nature provides her with calm and focus in other areas of her life.  This was of vital importance over the last two years as this exhibition evolved.  January 2016 marked the start of this project and saw Rachael undergo a Regional Arts Development Fund supported two week residency at Megalo Print Studio and Gallery in Canberra and a mentorship by esteemed artist and printmaker G.W.Bot.  Bot is a fellow collector and the time spent with her reminded Rachael of the need to be mindful and focus, that slow absorption was required for a successful outcome.  Printmaking is ideal for this; it is the art of the obscure (much like those found objects) – rewarding those who take the time for closer inspection.

The residency also allowed the artist to formalise a layering process which was revisited from work begun in 2009 linking reuse and recycling in a move towards abstraction.  Rachael was not yet a printmaker but was already attempting to develop a layering technique that reflected this biophilic state of being and an expedient alternative to hand drawing.  As a result, all except five of the works shown in this exhibition are Collagraphs.  A fine art print made from collaged materials glued down to printing plates which have then been inked and run through a printing press in various ways, overlapped with stencils and linocuts.  Collagraphs are therefore built up in layers, much like the leafy floor of a bushwalk – a soft layering up of organic matter.  Like this organic matter, many of the pieces (Collagraphs being experimental in nature), have been repositioned and repurposed into the ecosystem of Rachael’s work to fit the shape of her latest solo exhibition which marks her most unified work to date in terms of technique, output and connotations.

An Arts Queensland grant permitted the artist additional time to devote to her practice and access to facilities at Impress Printmakers Studio and Gallery, Brisbane from 2016 through 2017.  This provided her with the resources necessary to produce the leading images of this exhibition, the Beyond the Elements Series.  This series responds to Springwood Conservation Park in a way that breaks free of the traditional presentation and representation of nature.  Every level of nature itself is explored in progression like a walk on a stone path from the earth to the trees, then on to water, the air, and back to aether.  Much of the work that underpins biophilia comes from environmental psychology and the Attention Restoration Theory which is based on two main areas of study.  The first area of study is Structural Developmental Theory of which Peter Kahn is the main scholar3. He closely observes cultural and biophilic relationships for health and well-being.  The artist experienced this effect first hand from 2016 at the start of the project when a series of medical issues affected her physical well-being.  The time spent in this serene natural environment, for the artist, was like stepping back in time to a peaceful existence.  The act of making based from this contact with nature provided her with a much needed calming and restorative effect.

Happy accidents were also an outcome of making whilst recovering from the various procedures and therapies.  An evolutionary process; the artist had to adapt her artistic output to what her body could handle, moving from strict collagraphs to stencils and blind embossing – uncovering within that new and exciting textures.  Elements of this metamorphosis can be seen on close inspection of Beyond the Elements Series and the Chrysalis Series along with the individual prints, reflecting back glimpses or snippets of this process – steps along the evolutionary curve.

The second main causative theory for the biophilia hypothesis is Stress Recovery Theory of which Roger Ulrich and Yannick Joye have been the main contributors4.  This theory outlines the direct benefits of nature in stress reduction which the artist found in Underwood Park.  The ducks and accompanying pond were the perfect restorative environment and provided Rachael with great joy whilst recovering from another two surgeries in 2017 and the following radiation treatments.  Lost (which was made during her radiation treatment) highlights what the artist herself describes as a rambling, chaotic, unsettling state she experienced during this time – a reflection on the state of her mind after a period of not being able to make art.  A Pond Reflection was made after Rachael was able to get back into the studio on a regular basis.  The calming effect of the ducks, dappled light of the trees and movement of the water integrating into this second artwork and reflecting a more peaceful inner state.

To understand Rachael’s work is to understand the nature of biophilia itself.  Neuroscience and social psychology are only just starting to explore the depths of our connection to nature but Rachael has already been exploring this concept for over 20 years in her work.  Envisage – unseen rhythms was a direct response to this feeling of a connection to, and absorption with the positive experience of nature based environments and the unseen forces that create this attraction.  Only roughly five per cent of the universe is visible to the human eye.  Dark Energy is an unknown form of energy that repels gravity and accounts for approximately 70 per cent of space, occupying the entire universe and causing its expansion to accelerate5.  The ‘negative space’ in Rachael’s work acts as a visual metaphor for what dark energy might be?  And what it might look like?  This is depicted most clearly by the representation of the ‘critters’, the physical output of forces exerted by the artist on her medium of creation.  Unseen and unknown forces like the first single celled amoeba that activated nature as we know it.  Forces that still physically and subconsciously affect us through seen and unseen rhythms, bringing dark energy and matter to light through biophilic engagement.

For Rachael Lee, this solo show marks her most ambitious project yet.  It has truly connected her to her local natural environment within Logan and acted as a tool for regeneration at a time of great physical stress.  Rachael acknowledges the importance of nature and how central this, in conjunction to her arts practice, is for her wellbeing.  She has stated herself that she cannot produce anything that doesn’t stem from beauty because for her art is about erring on the side of hope and acknowledging our very physical nature – both known and unknown, seen and unseen.

Notes:

  1. Edward O. Wilson, The Biophilia Hypothesis, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1984.
  2. Kaitlyn Gills and Birgitta Gatersleben, A Review of Psychological Literature on the Health and Wellbeing Benefits of Biophilic Design, Buildings 5, 2015, p. 959.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Yannick Joye, Biophilic Design Aesthetics in Art and Design Education, University of Illinois Press, Chicago, 45 (2), p. 17-35.
  5. Interview with Rachael Lee, 5 March 2018.

 

Envisage – unseen rhythms is at Logan Art Gallery in Queensland 15 June-21 July.

This project is supported by the Regional Arts Development Fund, a partnership between the Queensland Government and Logan City Council to support local arts and culture in regional Queensland.

 Rachael Lee is supported by the Queensland Government through Arts Queensland.

Jay Dee Dearness is a Brisbane-based printmaker, curator and designer.  She is a past vice-president of Impress Printmaker’s Group Brisbane, operated Myrtle Street Studio (a print and paper ARI) and is commencing her postgraduate research this year on the impact of art, culture and biophilia for wellbeing in the workplace.  Jay Dee has exhibited internationally and is a certified WELL Accredited Professional for health and wellbeing in the built environment through the International WELL Building Institute.