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Josephine Jakobi: 'Voice From The Estuary'

Halocline Work in Progress Lake Tyers Estuary

"If we didn't want to upset anyone we would make films about sewing, but even that could be dangerous." David Lynch

Mixed media artist Josephine Jakobi explores the very 'cycle of life and death' in an estuary in the far reaches of the Gippsland Lakes on the south east coast of Australia. Her delicate drawings and embroidery on stained and 'marinated' linen point to the intricacies and profusion of life that are the ecological essence of the estuarine system. She exposes in depth what is at stake as sea levels rise and housing developments encroach on Australia's natural coastal habitats.

Jakobi is re-vitalising a small plot of forested land adjacent to the remote end of the Gippsland Lakes. Known as The Old Bee Farm it has 'come down to her' through her matriarchal forebears, indigent ancestors who depended on this land for food and survival.

Despite their hardship she is mindful of an "overlay of domesticity"- the gentility of homemaking, bee-keeping, cooking, crocheting and stitching. The women cohabited in the intricate world of native birds and spiders, referred to as "the original weavers." This respect for the dexterity of spiders and birds extends to other species - wasps, caterpillars, beetles, grasshoppers, fungi and crustaceans; all minutiae busy in the art of survival and maintaining their own 'creature comforts' in the critical 'life and death' cycle.

This sensibility stemming from her bush childhood underpins the unique art practice of Jakobi and her deep bio-ethical awareness.

There is no hint of the picturesque nor is there scientific observation for its own sake. Rather, there is coalescence, an intrinsic physical and creative interdependence between the artist and the elements and forces of nature.

Her adopted studio is an estuarine ecological system, a forested area about 15 km east of the Gippsland Lakes with a total water area of about 25 sq km. It is rich in limestone, native tree and plant species including many species of Gums and Banksias that provide habitat and nectar for migratory birds and Flying Fox species of high conservation value.

Halocline Lakes Tyers Gippsland Art Gallery 2017 Image: Lindsay Roberts

The estuary, where fresh-water meets salt-water from the ocean, experiences the rhythm of seasonal and annual fluctuations in salinity, water temperature, water quality and tidal flows. Jakobi has become increasingly magnetized to the rhythmic cycles and the complex geological substructure and biodiversity in these outer perimeters of the lakes ecosystem.

Some years ago Jakobi heard Edward O Wilson expounding on "biophilia" on ABC radio. She recognized that her attraction to the minutiae and creatures in her environment and her style of art practice aligned perfectly with his hypothesis namely: that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life.

His 'biophilia' hypothesis has led to new philosophical perspectives in evolution, conservation, architecture and design and Jakobi gives full artistic expression to this movement.

Her solo exhibition entitled 'Biophilia' (2012) brought together her focus on bees, wasps, spiders, butterflies, grasshoppers, caterpillars, shells and fish. She designed a press to emboss leaves directly onto paper mixed with "flotsam and jetsam" from the forest floor. She collates, illustrates and stitches for viewing under vintage magnifying glasses integrated into her miniature, sculptural installations.

Halocline Lakes Tyers Gippsland Art Gallery 2017 Images: Lindsay Roberts

But these objects transcend the scientific or the curiosity of museology. The viewer is drawn into an emotional and intimate synthesis with nature - its creations, its systems, patterns and rhythms and its fragility lay bare "under the lens".

"Biophilia" intensified her approach to 'art-making' and unleashed a distinct poetic style.

Forms sit lightly on the surface. Stitching, overlay and drawing complement and give abstract expression to the natural elements and forms. Rhythms and patterns have a dynamic, almost kinetic effect. Jakobi achieves a balance and elegance in this work that expresses a deep love of her native bush, a forensic knowledge of her ecological environment and deft skills in the crafting of fine art.

Her recent exhibition entitled 'Halocline' (a Greek word referring to the vertical salinity gradient within a body of water) represents the culmination of a two-year-long project and a further development of her 'biophilic' art practice.

Halocline Lakes Tyers Installation East Gippsland Art Gallery 2017 Images: Lisa Roberts

Into the estuary, a 'stone's throw' from her great grandmother's Bee Farm, she submerged six lengths of fine Belgian linen and then a large cotton canvas (8.5 x 1.8 metres), each for a month at a time, to allow the fabric to experience the tidal flow, the change in temperature and the phenomenon when salt water merges with fresh water.

Jakobi kept a watchful eye on her submerged canvasses as the cloth absorbed the elements of the 'life and death' cycle brought on by the tidal flow. As the water warmed and the salinity increased the bolts of fine fabric were infested with limestone, plants, mud, eggs, mussels, barnacles and shrimp; all rotting, staining, marking and softening the bolts of fine linen and the larger cotton canvas.

According to Jakobi..."it was not so much about imprinting onto the fabric but "giving a voice to the Lake."

After the month of immersion she added her delicate, drawn 'overlay' and embroidered the phases of the moon on each cloth. Her 'overlay' is restrained. The artist is in counterpoint with the 'voice' that has embedded itself into the fabric. It is the finely tuned and balanced work of a trained hand that is immersed in the material and subjective composition.

Two solo exhibitions at the Gippsland Art Gallery Sale, and the East Gippsland Art Gallery Bairnsdale had impact. The Halocline works reveal a leap in confidence in the artist's unique practice. Works are bolder in scale and radical in material experimentation.

Halocline Lakes Tyers Installation East Gippsland Art Gallery 2017 Images: Lisa Roberts

Jakobi's formal training B.A (sculpture) M.A. (mixed media) (Monash University) and her life long pursuit of the intimate connection between art and nature provide her with the skills and confidence to take risks. She goes into places where few artists are prepared to go.

She is the epitome of what it is to be a 'biophili-artist' and at the forefront of a growing recognition by contemporary artists that they, like scientists, have an important role to play in conserving the planet.

Words: JOMO

Images: Lisa Roberts (Bairnsdale) Lindsay Roberts (Sale)

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