Artist Jess Dare has always loved little things. She crafts delicate pieces inspired by nature in an impressive shed (studio) at the back of her Magill home. As a contemporary jeweller, she views the world in minute detail, sitting for hours creating tiny petals, flowers, and botany-inspired pieces using a technique called flameworking. “I was always really creative as a little girl,” Jess says. “Making clothes for Barbies, and daisy chains in the back garden. We spent so much time in the garden as kids.”
Jess and fiancé Marcus Ramsay’s most precious little thing is the most recent addition to their family: 18-month-old Banjo. Their son is a delightful fellow, all smiles with a mop of red hair and a curious nature. “We recently had to move anything precious or breakable out to my studio,” she says. “He gets into everything!”
Managing motherhood and a fulltime art practice is challenging. “I freaked out when I got pregnant. I was like, ‘How am I going to do this?’. To have an arts practice, you do have to be sort of selfish and really focused.” Luckily, Marcus (who works for Telstra) is incredibly supportive. “He’s the rock.” Jess smiles. “He’s very grounded and I couldn’t do what I do without him.” That includes national and international exhibitions and international residences for three-and-a-half months at a time. In 2014 Jess completed an Asialink Residency in Bangkok, Thailand, where she researched traditional floral garlands, and in 2015 took up a residency in Shanghai, China at YiWei Art Foundation’s 3W Studio. There, supported by Guildhouse, she taught workshops and researched Chinese culture.
“[Marcus] kept things running at home. He’s been incredible. When we found out I was pregnant I thought, ‘Have I done enough in my practice to have some time off that people won’t forget about me? Can I keep up the galleries that I supply?’ I had all these commitments that I had agreed to and I have a fear of letting people down. That was hard, but I worked up until two days before I had Banjo.”
During that time, Jess worked on the biggest project of her career: the permanent, public memorial for the victims of 2014’s Martin Place siege in Sydney. The piece, called Reflection, was designed by Sydney architect Professor Richard Johnson AO. His design included 210 individual flowers. “He won the proposal, on the provision that he got to select the artist that makes the work.”
He chose Jess and she was surprised when he called her at Gray Street Workshop in Thebarton (Jess is a partner of the workshop alongside Catherine Truman and Sue Lorraine). “He said, ‘I don’t know if you’ve heard about the siege in Sydney… I’ve made this proposal, I’m interested in your work, is it possible to meet you?’ It was so surreal.”
This was back in April 2016. His concept involved cubes with flowers (or something representing flowers) inside. These were inlayed into the Martin Place paving so that people catch sight of the delicate tributes when they look down. They represent the flowers that filled Martin Place in the weeks following the siege. It was a mammoth and unexpected honour to work on. “People left more than 100,000 bunches of flowers [at the site]. It affected so many people.”
Jess scoured photographs of the floral tributes and initially chose 10 individual flowers to depict. “Initially when I was going through images I was in tears most days because it was so heavy. How could I possibly do anything that would be enough? I just had to withdraw a little bit and focus on the flowers, because otherwise it would have been too overwhelming.”
The original proposal was to make 200 flowers (she eventually made 264). “My concept was 10 flowers in different colours, and 20 of each. That was presented to the government and design committee, and they really liked it. The design evolved to incorporate 12 different flowers, including a cluster of golden sunflowers for victim Tori Johnson and a cluster of aqua hydrangeas for Katrina Dawson. The whole while this was really surreal. It just went from there.”
She painstakingly created each brass, powder-coated bloom in her backyard studio – with each flower, her belly grew. “I had a really great pregnancy,” she says. “I made so much stuff. The Martin Place project was supposed to have been finished before Banjo was born, so when it got put off I was worried how it would work.”
The inquest into the siege went longer than expected, causing delays. “They were expecting three months, it went for 18. We weren’t sure if it was going to go ahead.” Then, she had Banjo. “Richard called me over the Christmas break when Banjo was only eight weeks old and asked if I was still interested in continuing. [Back then] having a shower was a struggle so I didn’t know how it would go. I really wanted to spend quality time with my baby. I had five months off and [over] the last seven months I was working on it full-time, pretty much seven days a week. Often until 1 or 2am. We’d do Banjo’s night time routine, feed him and put him to bed. It was hectic.”
Help from their family was priceless. “I look back now and I don’t know how we pulled that off, it was a community effort for sure.”A workspace just a few steps from home helped, too. “I’ve got the [baby] monitor out here,” she says. “I couldn’t have done that if I had a studio away from home. In the past I would work day after day after day, and I’d just pick up where I left off. Now I have to have bursts of creativity on days where someone is looking after Banjo.”
Attending the unveiling of the Martin Place memorial was an emotional experience. Her family flew over to be there with her during the ceremony. “After it was over everyone got up from their seats. The families went up first, then some of the hostages, and they were all talking but looking down at the work. People were getting down on their knees to look closely at it.”
It was a moving moment. “From a distance, you wouldn’t know it’s there, it’s only until you’re upon it and then you’re surrounded [by flowers]. It’s been really interesting watching people interact with it, especially children. It’s a really subtle thing – not a monument that you see from far away. I handmade all the flowers so they’re all slightly different. You could just walk over it and say they’re just flowers, or you could spend time and see how different they are.”
Now, back at home in Adelaide’s foothills, Jess is focussed on her next exhibition at the Museum of Economic Botany during August. It focuses on glass. “I’ve been just making metal flowers for ages now and I’ve not made any glass stuff for ages so I’m really itching to get back into it. Glass is so instantaneous and quiet, and the metal is dirty and loud. I need a little bit of that after the Sydney project.”
Their renovated 1960s home was previously owned by her parents. “We bought it from Mum and Dad in 2014 and started renovating the kitchen. I love cooking and now Marcus loves cooking so that’s been really nice. They spend most of their time in the lounge room (“because Banjo likes to climb on things”) and each room displays beautiful art pieces purchased by Jess each time she finishes a major project. It is their haven.
“We love to travel, but we love coming home and we love living in Adelaide. It’s just so easy here, and we can afford to have a house. If we were in any other state of Australia, I wouldn’t be able to afford to be an artist and do what I do, and have a house and two studios. I am so spoilt!”
Martin Place feels a world away but she thinks of it often. “The whole time it just felt really surreal for me to be a part of it and for them to have selected me. It was a weird choice: a jeweller from Adelaide. I don’t even know how Richard got on to me but I was incredibly honoured to be a part of it.”
See Jess Dare’s intricate work on display at her upcoming exhibition HOLD: To hold still. To contain. To hold dear. It is a collaboration with Victorian based glass artist Amanda Dziedzic. See it at the Museum of Economic Botany from 5 August 2018.
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