Meet Marni Stuart: Draw, Teach, Preserve

Australian illustrator and educator, Marni Stuart, spent her youth amongst her grandmother’s green wilderness that overflowed with produce and garden and those influences billow from her art.

Not limited to collections, she instead grows a single body of work and her latest deposits for Nerida Hansen Fabrics are a response to her wildflower walks. She talks with our blog editor, Jacqui Taylor, about her conscious choice to only work with Australian flora with the end goal to protect these native plants.
Hello Marni, lovely to chat via email. Let’s start with yourself, where did you grow up and where do you call home now?
I grew up in Brisbane but now call the Sunshine Coast home. Every year, as a kid, we would spend the entire summer holidays at a coastal town called Cotton Tree. It was a beautiful way to learn to waste time lolling around, doing not a lot, at the beach. So, it was always my dream to provide that kind of life to my kids.

You are both a creative and textile designer, as well as a provider of industrial knowledge in the academic setting, what is your preference?
I don’t think I have a preference. I love teaching and design is my happy place. I was never comfortable at a desk job working the 9am-5pm life, even when it was a design job. I chopped and changed between jobs rapidly, never finding my fit. Then just after completing my Masters of Design I found academia through UNSW Art and Design.

I started at Torrens University almost eight years ago and the time has flown by. I love that every day is different, that each class has its own personality and that I’m able to do so many different things with my time. It’s really liberating.

Now that I’m working on my PhD, I am finding that my textile design practice, my teaching work and now my research are becoming beautifully tangled, which is what I had always hoped would happen.

My PhD research is exploring the role that drawing and celebrating our native botanicals can play in their conservation. This kind of research allows me to find the power of the work I’m making.
Talk me through your creative process.
I’m loving where my creative process is at the moment. I’m free of the endless digging for inspiration, now I have a queue of ideas that I simply need to find the time to execute.

I work directly from my inspiration, choosing to only work with Australian native flora. My happy place is going for wildflower walks, either alone or with fellow wildflower wanderers. These are sometimes through the sand dunes, wetland, or bushland. The more I walk, the more I see, as I learn how to find the wildflowers hidden in the mass of green.

Occasionally when I walk, I will get a chance to sit and draw directly from the source, which gives me a chance to learn the plant. I look at the flower and count its petals, stamen, or sepals. I see how the branches connect or what formation the leaves sit in. If I can’t stop, I will take a myriad of photo references to work from later.

In the time between my walk and when I get a chance to draw, the images will start to form in my mind, and I will quickly sketch them out before they’re lost.

When I finally get a moment, I will draw the designs out on a heavy stock paper. I start with a pencil sketch, then draw it in full in Sharpie. I love Sharpies, because they’re bright, and confident with their colour, but they’re also transportable and can be used in small specs of time.

I usually draw the entire motif as one image, rather than smaller motifs that are connected later. I have been designing repeat patterns for close on 20 years, they are pretty much second nature to me now, so I’m allowed to take a lot of liberties with the elements I put into them. When the motif is done it is photographed and taken into Illustrator for repeating.

The colours are mostly inspired by the plants themselves, whilst trying to work within a limited colour palette.

What are some initiatives you have implemented to be more sustainable or ethically conscious with your work?
Practically speaking the design process has a small footprint. I have a sketchbook, a laptop and my sharpies. Our home is run on solar power, which helps reduce the laptop's footprint, my son's kindy has a collection program that takes my spent Sharpies for recycling.

However, the real impact I see that I can do with my practice is to use it to continue the discussion on environmental conservation. My work is like the spoonful of sugar that can sometimes open up a viewers eyes to topics they had previously avoided. Within my work, I draw and name native Australian plants, largely ones endemic to the coast, as means of showing the world how beautiful and precious they are. My aim is to show people their value, so that in turn, they may make decisions that will help to protect them from destruction. And if we protect the wildflowers, then we protect the ecosystems that revolve around them.

Considering the challenging time we are in, what has changed for you due to COVID-19?
Absolutely. In a very good way. COVID was really really challenging as a family with full time jobs, small children and no daycare. However, it did have an ethereal feeling on the coast. Like we were locked into this quiet patch of beauty with no one around.

As a family our daily sanity outing was to the sand dunes, to let the kids run wild. So since then, I’ve made a lot more time for wildflower walks to inspire my work and calm my thoughts. This has also meant that I have shared this part of my process through my social media channels and my PhD research which has opened this amazing pathway as a creative that seems to be growing each day. I am now finding a lovely flow between my textile design practice, my teaching work, my PhD and my general happiness.

When and how did you meet Nerida Hansen?
I contacted Nerida in 2019 hoping to be part of her team in some way, shape or form. I knew Nerida was quite busy so didn’t expect to hear back, but instead she called to chat about my work, which a lovely surprise.

I love Nerida’s passion for patterns. She has a keen eye and knows a good work when she sees it. Her print quality is so beautifully considered.

I’ve sent through my folio a few times since then hoping to find the right time to be part of the range, and that time happens to be now.

Tell me about your upcoming designs for Nerida Hansen Fabrics. What were your inspirations for this body of work?
The pieces now are all part of my responses to my wildflower walks. I don’t work in collections, instead I see myself as slowly adding to the single body of work. The designs are all based on native wildflowers.

The Wallum Banksia is a beautiful banksia named after the local indigenous word for banksia wallum. The plant is full of character, and its spent cones are said to be part of the inspiration for May Gibbs’ Big Bad Banksia men.

My love of banksias is well known, and the work I call The Banksias is actually called Red Honeysuckle and Mountain Banksias. It depicts a cluster of a couple of flowers, there’s even a coconut ice grevillea in there. Separately they’re all beautiful flowers, but together they hum.

Another design included Mirbelia Twigs documents one of my favourite wildflowers the mirbelia. It’s the tiniest flower you’ve ever seen, maybe 2mm in diameter, but the colour is so rich and bright! It’s certainly worth hunting through the undergrowth to find it.

Paperbark is inspired by the flaky layers of bark of the Melaleuca quinquenervia. This is a really abstracted piece that looks solely at colour and shapes. Our street is lined with paperbarks that smell incredible every couple of months. Unfortunately, my son has allergies, so that smell is a fantastic reminder to get out the Telfast!

Do you enjoy seeing your designs on everyday objects and garments?
This is the best part of the job. It’s so fantastic to see something go from a sketch to a garment or object that people choose to include in their life. I love that, by wearing or owning my designs, people can learn to see more of the wildflowers around them.

My hope is that, when you know more about these amazing patches of native habitat, that when you get the chance, you might make a decision that will protect them from destruction.

Do you have a typical day, what does it look like?
No, not at all. Some days are teaching days and I’m teaching classes at Torrens University about design principals, textile design or fashion history. Some days I’m researching my PhD, looking through articles on ecofeminism or exploring the work of some amazing botanical illustrators in history. Other days I’m a mum, trying my best to parent my wild things.

The time when I’m a pattern designer, is actually only the sprinkles of time in between all of that, so each design sits with me for quite a while. The journey from inspiration on a wildflower walk, to sketch, to repeat and then entering my folio may take a couple of months. It’s not a rapid thing. So, by the time they leave the nest I feel like I know them well.

Who has inspired you the most to date and why? Whose careers do you follow?
There are so many incredible women who inspire me every day. Through my PhD I’ve had the chance to research the history of women who have created the botanical guidebooks that I adore. Women like Kathleen McArthur, Estelle Thompson, Vera Scarth-Johnson or Jean Galbraith.

I have always been a huge fan of people who are willing to take fabric and textiles to a wild level of colour and shape, so the work of Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson are my ultimates.

However, mostly it’s been wonderful to be inspired every day by the work of the growing surface pattern community in Australia. If anyone gets the chance, I recommend they get a copy of Pattern Pulse by Rachael King which documents just a small collection of some of the designers working in this community at the moment. Many of whom are part of the Nerida Hansen community!

One of my absolutes is Brook Gossen, who, is an undeniable talent and a cheerleader for everyone around her. I’ve been very lucky to find someone who I can chat to about life, kids, art, design, software and even repeat structures. I love watching her career build bigger each year.

Marni, do you have a dream collaboration or project that is on your ‘bucket list’?
I think as a slowly align my values with my practice I think more and more about working with environmentally centred companies who really want to make change.

I am not sure what that looks like but I’m open to see what appears.

What is in the pipeline for you for 2021?
In 2021 I was meant to slow down a little, but that’s really not happening. What has been nice has been extending my practice into some exhibition-based work.

I created a work for an art show earlier this year that showed as part of Melbourne Design Week, which was a great feeling. So, I have a second artwork showing in Bundaberg Regional Gallery as part of the Wild/flower Women exhibition series in November. I’m really looking forward to it.

I recently wrote an article on an exhibition for the National Gallery of Victoria that will be published later in the year. The article discusses wildflowers depicted within the Japanese shell matching game called Kai-awase. It’s such a stunning exhibition, I can’t wait for everyone to see it.

Alongside this I will keep ploughing through my PhD research. As part of it I have been spending a lot of time in the wetlands near my home. My mother raised us with a deep respect for the importance of wetlands and their ability to regulate our river systems.

All that time down there has flooded me with design ideas, which has inspired the patterns I’ve been working on. These will emerge when I get a few more sprinkles of time!

Name three words that best describe your style of art.
Sharpies, wildflowers and celebration

What advice would you offer to those that are starting out as an artist?
My biggest piece of advice would be to spend the time in the process, rather than focusing on the outcome. Get to know yourself, your style and what you can bring to the table. Figure out what your story is and what work you’d really like to see in the world.

If you could chat to your younger self, what words of wisdom would you say?
Embrace your weird. Don’t worry about the trends or what anyone is working on. You’re a little bit different. You’re walking on your own path and that’s ok. Just embrace it and enjoy it.

Spoil yourself with Marni's designs at www.neridahansen.com.au and www.futurefolk.com.au.