Graham Farquhar Tapestry
Valerie Kirk, speech from Tapestry Presentation at ANU, University House, June 2019
It is a pleasure to be here with Professor Graham Farquhar, who has been a joy to work with, Professor Brian Schmidt, who has supported the commission as the ANU Vice Chancellor and Emeritus Professor David Williams, who has been an advisor through the creation of the six tapestries in the ANU collection.
I would also like to acknowledge Professor Peter Kanowski, Master, University House and his team.
The suite of tapestries marks the significant achievements of scientists at ANU.
Although this is the sixth tapestry in the series I have designed and woven, the process never seems to get easier or quicker. There isn’t a formula I can rely on as each tapestry is unique and particular to the prize-winning work of the scientists. It is always like launching into the unknown, opening a door to completely new territory. Before I begin there are only blank sheets of paper and an empty loom in the studio.
In many ways it must be similar for scientists reaching beyond the known to make new discoveries. There have been many parallels drawn between artists and scientists exploring this idea.
Theoretical Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer once remarked that scientists, “live always at the edge of mystery – the boundary of the unknown. But they transform the unknown into the known – haul it in like fishermen;
artists get you out into that dark sea.” And I think artists also transform the darkness into the light through creative visual imagery.
It is always daunting for me to venture into the unfamiliar territory of science, and in this instance, specifically, Graham’s Kyoto prize winning work in the:
“Development of process-based models of photosynthesis and their contributions to the science of global environmental changes”.
I needed to understand what the research was about, why it is so important and what it has revealed.
Where to start?
In this instance, it was here where we are standing today, when we first discussed the tapestry commission. David Williams asked Graham if he had any ideas about relevant visual imagery I might draw on for the tapestry design. Graham responded immediately by writing his famous and concise equation on the back of his coffee card.
I still have it here, and expect it was the inspiration for the equations in the tapestry.
However, the way ahead was not clear for me. But remembering past experiences, I steadied my nerves knowing that a design for tapestry does not appear immediately but demands extensive research. To produce a new image, never before seen in the world, I needed to delve further, question, follow hunches, get lost in the process, take chances and not rely on the obvious or predictable. It is like deliberately getting lost, surrendering to uncertainty, to purposefully make sure I go beyond everything that is familiar.
Step 2 – Graham sent me his San Diego Commemorative lecture and Blue Mountains Grammar School speech. I learned a lot about his background, interests and motivations. It was also fascinating that he had been a professional ballet dancer - and I hope there is some of Graham’s creative spirit in the tapestry.
In the lab at ANU I met Graham and his team and was surprised that instead of test tubes and Bunsen burners I was looking at custom made equipment, various plants and banks of computers. It seemed very high tech but at the same time hands on in the mess of cables, nuts, bolts and potted plants. The red circle in the tapestry references a monitor with its bright light over eucalypt leaves and acknowledges the laboratory research and work of the team.
Each time I met Graham he talked about his love of the Eucalypts and his home in the bush surrounded by them. It struck me that this kind of bodily and emotional engagement was vital to his work. I collected and drew gum leaves, scenes of the bush and from my Botanical Art training painted in watercolour, very detailed studies. The colour and incidental marks on the leaves developed into the background of the main section of the design. The top section of the tapestry also has white botanical images suggesting the relevance of the work to the entire plant world.
Back to equations: I discovered that Graham always carries a notebook underarm, which is full of equations…….his writing, thinking and speculating. It is commonly referred to as “the Blue Book” by his colleagues, page after page of dense, small, writing detailing his analysis of the data.
I think of the blue book as a parallel with an artist’s sketchbook or visual diary – a private space to reflect, analyse and explore.
I asked Graham to select particularly appropriate equations to include in the tapestry design and in the tapestry they come out of the background……not always clear or complete….moving from early work at the top with page reference 111, to the most recent and most important at the bottom. The equations cover the early work which gave Graham initial recognition, through the years of dedicated work to his most recent prize winning work and equation conveying his thinking and problem-solving ability.
The design was worked in watercolour to emphasise the focus of the research on water, and to read like a landscape – ground, bush and sky, emphasising environmental concerns. A detail of plant cells through a cross section of a leaf references photosynthesis.
Finally, when the design was complete and approved I began weaving the tapestry, on its side, for technical and practical reasons, in my O’Connor studio. It is the most complicated of all the tapestries here as the subtleties of the watercolour effects, the complex colour changes and precise detail required constant attention. There is approximately 4 months full time weaving in the tapestry - from the first strands of yarn making a shape at the beginning to tying off the final row of knots at the top.
It has been an enormous pleasure to work on this project – to see the unknown become reality through drawing on all my skills and knowledge. I hope that the tapestry embodies Professor Graham Farquhar’s dedicated and creative approach to science, his love of eucalypts and the Australian bush, and the importance of the work in the terms recognised by the Kyoto prize and citation.
Professor Graham Farquhar AO was awarded the 2017 Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences for the “Development of process-based models of photosynthesis and their contributions to the science of global environmental changes”. He is the first Australian to receive a Kyoto Prize.
The tapestry was designed and woven by Valerie Kirk, Head of Textiles ANU School of Art 1990-2017 and ANU Visiting Fellow 2018-2019. The tapestry celebrates Professor Farquhar’s dedicated and creative approach to science, his love of eucalypts and the Australian bush, and the importance of the work in the terms recognised by the citation. The design was worked in watercolour to emphasise the focus of the research on water, and to read like a landscape – ground, bush and sky. A detail of plant cells references photosynthesis and the monitor with eucalypt leaves acknowledges laboratory research. The equations are from Graham Farquhar’s personal notebook, conveying his thinking and problem-solving ability.
The tapestry was unveiled on 20 June 2019 by Professor Graham Farquhar