Nalda Searles is a West Australian artist working with textiles, using stitching, dyeing and basketry techniques; surrounded by a magpie collection of leaves, stones, seeds, and cloth fragments in her suburban Perth bower. Found objects, such as a snowy feather quilt escaped from a passing vehicle and retrieved on the dusty road from the Kalgoorlie gold fields, undergo a metamorphosis in her hands. The equipment of the everyday is transformed by the application of a thousand tiny stitches holding just as many minute seeds, or blades of grass, or Xanthorrea (grass tree) scales. Dyes from native plants (windfall harvested banksia, quondong and eucalyptus) are brewed in found vessels (tins and drums) over smouldering fires in bush camps.
An autodidact in the field of textiles and fibre, she used part of her first development grant to fund a period of six weeks alone in an isolated camp in the Yilgarn region of her home state. Here she made her first collection of basket forms using bark, grass, flowers and sticks held together with hand-twined yarns. A decade later she began a Bachelor of Arts at Curtin University [WA] and on completion was awarded prizes for painting and theory. Of late she has been working increasingly with bales of fodder, stitching handfuls of soft hay into small talismans and vessels as well as exquisitely formed large sculptural pieces. Her reasoning is that using commercially grown hay is more ecologically sustainable than exploiting native grasses, given the likelihood that enthusiastic students may well decimate indigenous flora in their keenness to emulate her style and work. A kangaroo-headed human figure wearing a re-worked vintage dress is at once autobiographical and also a universal storyteller for land, place and country; three significant intertwined yet separate ways of describing a friendship with the terroir that shapes the artist.
This familiarity with country goes deep. Travelling up country with her friend Panjiti Mary McLean, Searles took the trouble to learn the language of the land - Ngaanyatjarra – by painting each word along with its English translation. Each tracing of the letters with the loaded paintbrush on the 156 boards bearing words and images reinforced the learning process through focused absorption of this vocabulary which she had made made visual.
Nalda moves through country collecting and harvesting objects and absorbing knowledge, putting things aside for safe-keeping and reflection until they ask to be incorporated into work. Her current exhibition “drifting in my own land” opened recently in West Australia and will tour the nation until 2013. The show comprises some twenty-one mixed media works including a skull formed from grass and a basket woven from human hair. There are sculptural works made from re-purposed clothing, found objects and plant materials. There is much stitching to mark surfaces as well as to form bonds.
In her writing she talks about shades and memories; refers to spirals of journeys, kaleidoscopic investigations and the continuity of (imagined) cords as works are formed, both literally and metaphorically. Such threads are very real in her work also. Nalda has taught hundreds if not thousands of students the secret of making hand rolled string twined from plant fibre, redeployed cloth or hair. This quiet and unassuming teacher, writer, maker and thinker is an unsung national treasure of Australia.
HAND/EYE scout, contributor and supporter India Flint's website and blog give more insight into what is happening in Australia. See indiaflint.com and prophet-of-bloom.blogspot.com. To read some of Nalda Searles' thoughts, tune in to her various blogs:
Drifting in Her Own Land
Nalda Searles explores her Western Australia home through art