The words with which Sieglinde Karl named her earliest works – jewellery – read like lines of poetry to me. An Australian abroad in the late 1960s and 1970s, she sold her creations in London’s Portobello Road markets. At the beginning of my time abroad in the English summer of 1976, I would have strolled past her stall. I like to imagine I paused there to admire a brooch with the name of Morning Star.
She was close to forty, a thorough Bohemian, when she returned from Europe to Australia in 1982. After some time in Sydney working as a jeweller, she settled in Launceston in Tasmania with her partner Rory Spence, an Englishman appointed to the university to teach architectural history and design.
It was in Tasmania that Karl’s artistry found new scope, a new poetry of cosmos and moonlight. Karl and Spence both loved the flora and fauna of Tasmania and became involved in the community and active in protecting and conserving the environment. Karl abandoned metallic materials and turned to organic ones. She began by weaving garlands with materials gathered from gardens, the bush and the beach for her family and friends and their circle of children. ‘I was waking up to beauty, vitality and mystery,’ Sieglinde Karl explained to me recently. ‘I didn’t want to make jewellery using metal any more. I wanted no further part in the mining industry.’
The collaborative installation Trance FIGURED Spirit (1990) signalled a new level of practice. Two years before, in 1988 when the nation had celebrated its centenary, Karl was struck by Australia’s reluctance to acknowledge what the experience of colonisation meant, and continued to mean, to the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. Trance FIGURED Spirit saw many influences at play – the power of the land to inspire connection as well as Jungian concepts of the soul.
Karl constructed three structures/garments: one of newspaper; another of paperbark; and the third of woven acacia and willow in the shape of a large hemisphere. It was still wearable art but was no longer for personal adornment. Bangles, brooches gave way to the avant-garde. The body as exploration. As theatre.
Trance FIGURED Spirit opened in the historic Ritchies Mill. Outside, the fast-flowing waters of the South Esk River had once powered the old mill and produced the flour for the colony; inside the new arts centre was engaged in a new expression. The dancer Graham Jones donned each garment in turn and moved to a poetic and percussive accompaniment. Hazel Smith’s unconventional sound script (‘more mosaics of words than poetry’ Smith is reported to have said) rent the air with strange and at times shocking rhythms, such as the repeated shouting of the word sodomy. It was a statement of that was then, this is now as much as anything.
‘It was a liberating and lucky time with many feisty women around,’ Sieglinde Karl recalled. ‘Australian newspapers frequently mocked the art by women as inferior. Anti-feminist sarcasm was the order of the day. Despite this prevailing attitude, a new interest in women artists was running high.’
A year later, Karl created a solo exhibition in a similarly liberated, ex-colonial space – the cottage that had housed the caretaker employee of the nearby Cataract Gorge nature reserve. A hundred years had passed since the construction of the Kings Bridge Caretakers Cottage, and it was Karl who first used it as an art space.
Dreams Memories (1991) featured a photograph of Truganini faced viewers from above the colonial fireplace. As colonial Tasmania had pronounced her ‘the last Aborigine’, it was a highly-charged image. A live figure wrapped in a grey blanket lay on the living-room floorboards in front of the fireplace. He – she – it huddled on a brown matt of dead casuarina needles.
The predominant vegetation of the gorge is casuarina trees. Their delicate grey-green, needle-like foliage contrasts with the black dolerite cliff face. As the natural world of trees and cliff was visible through the windows of the colonial cottage, Karl’s installation seemed to force viewers to make new and radical connections between the two worlds.
Installations (or site-specific transitory works) both in the natural landscape and in galleries became her forte. She was invited to Hobart, to Adelaide, to Darwin, to Canberra. Her artist statement became bolder: My work is about experiencing the earth …
Installation: 1991 Dreams, Memories
Gatekeeper’s Cottage (Queen Victoria Museum & Art Gallery annexe), Cataract Gorge, Launceston.
The Veil of Mourning series (1993) consisted of plaster busts dressed in veils of natural materials such as sea shells, and the spines from the xanthorrhoea tree. They were again exhibited in Launceston, but this time in the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, which purchased two. Both were symbols of loss. In a talk delivered to the volunteer guides of the prestigious gallery Sieglinde Karl explained the philosophy behind the veils. ‘The treatment of Aboriginal people in Australia makes me feel sad, ashamed and guilty. Aboriginal peoples are guardians of ancient consciousness. We are so privileged to be surrounded by it and could benefit from it – if only we allowed it.’
Secret Places (1996) was perhaps the most ambitious installation of her career. At its centre was a large reclining female figure, hinting of ancient European worship of the Great Mother.
Sieglinde Karl would later describe the creation of Casuarina Woman as the resolution of a middle-age crisis. The figure embodied something of Karl’s own journey from the trauma of childhood in Nazi Germany to a ‘oneness’ and wholeness with the Earth itself. Now a woman of fifty, she had spent many years struggling with a sense of loss and displacement. Her father had been an officer in the German army and her mother had fled to the countryside in order to be safe. Siegi was born in a small village in Germany’s Black Forest in 1943, a war baby. The family emigrated to Australia in 1953, her father finding work on a wheat and sheep farm near Griffith. Her late childhood was spent in a dusty land, one she didn’t find easy, at first, to love.
While wrestling with the issue of identity, Sieglinde Karl found a secluded grove of casuarinas behind a beach in northeast Tasmania. She harvested the needles – yellow, orange, brown and grey – and learnt basket making. Jewellery making had inclined her to work with the miniature and to exercise the quality of patience. And so began two years of painstaking work, coiling, netting and sewing hundreds of needles together.
Casuarina Woman is big. Larger than life size. Reminiscent of statues of the reclining Buddha that are worshiped today in countries like Thailand and India. She is sacred – yet rude, unabashed, proud of her fertility. Her face is not individualised but covered with a veil or helmet of casuarina sticks mottled with lichen. She is body. Strong of limb. Thick of hip. Her taut breasts point upwards. Her feet and hands are outsized and her fingers end in sharp point. The installation opened in the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery. Again Hazel Smith from Sydney contributed poetry/text while the innovative Tasmanian composer, Ron Nagorcka, added a soundscape. Casuarina Woman was a force to be reckoned with. A sensation. This was partly because of her vulva. The lips of her labia were large and drew attention to her secret place.
A decade of extraordinary productivity for Sieglinde Karl followed the Secret Places collaboration Journalists and art critics wrote about her. She won grants (Arts Tasmania was particularly supportive) and she was invited to contribute to a number of travelling exhibitions within Australia and overseas. The National Gallery in Canberra acquired her work, as did all the state galleries except Queensland, my home state. Casuarina Woman toured to a number of regional galleries – they also rushed to acquire Karl’s work. In the USA, the Racine Gallery and the Houston Gallery in Texas added her art to their collections.
The artists who inspired her were British land artists Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long, and the German conceptual artist Wolfgang Laib. All worked in the realm of impermanence or – the term the art world prefers – the ephemeral. The notation, exists now as a photograph only, became more common all over the world as artists embraced the installation concept.
2014 Xmas Mandala
Sieglinde Karl had always found joy in placing tiny objects – arresting in themselves for their colour, texture, shape – within the gambit of a greater design. The Tibetan Buddhist tradition of creating temporary devotional works using coloured chalk or crushed semi-precious stones inspired her and the mandala form drew her closer. The creation of mandalas began as early as 1994 with rings of honesty flowers encircling a tree in an English friend’s garden – an appreciative holiday gesture, simple and heartfelt. After her partner Rory Spence was diagnosed with cancer in 2002, the mandala became a favourite form.
Karl’s sense of aesthetics was, by now, so developed that she could arrange beautiful shapes, colours and textures in ways that affected viewers with a visceral kind of enchantment.
Initially, the distant cosmos had inspired her jewellery; now it was the immediate and the concrete – objects found in nature like grasses, twigs and seed pods. Botanical and other names were meticulously documented. Strangely, the itemised materials in exhibition catalogues continued to read like poetry.
Flowers from the Wonga wonga vine
Kennedia rubicunda pods
It was never enough for Sieglinde Karl to let the viewer see fragile and translucent shells of a pinky-orange colour; she felt it her duty to inform them that they were in the presence of Kurrunulla shells. Rather than feathers, they were seeing rosella feathers.
Emblematic of this period was her solo installation of a mandala, Seeds (2002). The catalogue stated, ‘Seeds are potent symbols of the potentiality of life, of the archetypal mystery of nature, of our dependency on plants for nourishment … Seeds are the essence of existence.’
In their beauty, her mandalas expressed an extraordinary sense of love and devotion for the planet and its ecological plight, now more widely understood. They might also have privately urged the universe to relent and let Rory Spence, a very much loved man, cheat death.
When Rory died in May 2004 – a passing that triggered an outpouring of accolades for him and his work from the architectural community, not only in Launceston but elsewhere in Australia, and in Europe – Sieglinde (now Karl-Spence) embarked on an exquisite series of mandalas, Memento Mori Mandala for Rory. The works spoke of grief, and healing. Sieglinde was in her sixty-first year when she began on them; they are on-going. ‘I experience a meditative state when making them. I hope to evoke a sense of reverence, respect and awe for the beauty of our natural environment.’ Her use of black velvet cloth as a background heightens the visual impact of her mandalas. From a distance, they are mesmerising designs; on close inspection, the viewer realises they are composed of quite small seeds or flowers, carefully chosen for their uniform size to give the symmetry and precision that is so characteristic of the mandala form.
I discovered the works of Sieglinde Karl-Spence when writer-in-residence in Launceston in the spring of 2014 when I chanced upon a mention of her solo installation Dreams Memories (1991). Since it had been staged in the Kings Bridge Caretakers Cottage where I was then staying, I wanted to know more about it. But Sieglinde Karl-Spence no longer lived in Tasmania and her many works were not then assembled on a website. I learnt only that, after the death of her beloved Rory, she had cut off her long dark hair, sold up, and moved north. (In stages, not in one movement as this sentence suggests.)
It was her use of the space that transformed it from a neglected and under-appreciated colonial cottage into an art space. Since then – twenty-five years now – the Launceston City Council has given visual artists, dancers, writers, musicians, poets and others the opportunity to stay in it. Here, at the confluence of the North and South Esk rivers with the Tamar estuary, in the stunning natural environment of the Cataract Gorge, artists have been able to engage and create.
I hoped to meet the instigator of this change I tracked her down by phone to Bundeena, a coastal village south of Sydney on the edge of the Royal National Park. Within the year I visited. Siegi was generous with her time. We spoke of many things pertinent to the lives of women artists. Like politics. Like joy. Like struggle. Like lovers. Like children – she has a son, I have two. We sat on a headland and confirmed the love each of us feels for earth.
She showed me her studio. One long wall was lined with storage boxes containing a huge variety of seeds, pods, tiny marsupial skulls, and other found objects. On the table in the centre was her most recent mandala: a circle of red callistemon flowers arranged on black velvet. Her seventy-year-old eyes sparkling with mischief, Siegi pointed to an upper corner of the studio. Casuarina Woman lay there, suspended in a hammock of casuarina limbs.
She is stunning. I look forward to the day when I hear that a major gallery has acquired Casuarina Woman and will put her on public display, in all her Great Mother glory.
This essay could be sub-titled ‘In Praise of Artist Websites’. The ephemeral nature of earth artistry means that it vanishes quickly. We can’t go into a gallery or a particular landscape and experience a past installation, can’t interact with it, can’t collect it, can’t invest in it. But we can go to a website. Thanks to photography and cyber-space, the reach of ephemera is global, luminous, and free.
Wherever we live, we can share in the works of Sieglinde Karl-Spence, Australian earth artist.
Lesley Synge is a writer of non-fiction, reviews, fiction and poetry including an illustrated e-novel, Cry Ma Ma to the Moon (2014). The book Mountains Belong to the People who Love Them (Post Pressed, 2011) is, in part, a work in praise of the Gold Coast Hinterland Great Walk. Her website is at Zing Stories. Acknowledgement is made to the Launceston City Council for an arts residency at the King’s Bridge Cottage in 2014.
To further explore the work of artist Sieglinde Karl-Spence, visit her website.