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HELEN ANSELL Textiles and Paintings
The failure to recognise the qualities of regional cultural product and practices is an experience that Western Australia’s Helen Ansell is familiar with. Yet, despite the challenges inherent in living and working in the regions, Helen has continued to sustain an arts practice dedicated to celebrating the unique and distinctive identity of the Australian landscape. Helen’s work is inspired by the flora and fauna of remote Western Australia and demonstrates the deep attachment that many people living in the bush have to place and the natural environment. Helen also exemplifies the spirit of innovation that can be found across the regions where resourcefulness is essential to survival: she has taken an experimental and bold step to translate her paintings into textiles, creating a new platform Banksia Pods - 61 x 61cm, acrylic on canvas (left)
Gum Blossom Fuschia and Grape textile design for fabric (next page)
for expressing Western Australia’s distinctiveness, one that is deeply embedded in an appreciation for local culture. FORM’s regional development program champions creative practitioners who show a willingness to explore and experiment, supporting them through access to curators, creative resources and tools that assist in enhancing their arts practice whilst bringing their unique vision of the bush to the wider world. Our programming in regional areas, particularly in Port Hedland links communities to experiences and activities that energise creativity. Through the Courthouse Gallery FORM provides a comprehensive exhibition and public program which is designed to offer value across the community, and create pathways to a better quality of life, catalysing positive change. Our programming is driven by the belief that most vibrant places to live are the ones that nurture dynamic creativity, showcase cultural diversity, insist on quality, and are shaped with people in mind. Creativity is one of the strongest, most authentic ways of articulating, visualising and teasing out a culture or identity. The creative sector plays a vital role in sustaining vibrant communities, and must be accompanied by genuine investment in the regions through a balanced combination of physical infrastructure redevelopment, community engagement and cultural programming. We believe that to build long term sustainability for arts and creativity in rural areas, the disparate and diverse art forms created by local people must be celebrated and encouraged. Whilst this may involve an element of risk, without this support, creative expression that achieves artistic excellence and articulates the value of Western Australia’s regional identity cannot be fully realized.
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Arts and creativity can play a key role in the revitalization of rural and remote communities in Western Australia, providing social, economic and cultural development that in turn helps to foster and strengthen identity. Arts activity can enhance participation and creativity in public decision making, strengthening community capacity, identity and sense of place. However, there are many obstacles faced by regional arts communities, including insufficient services and facilities to overcome the tyranny of distance, which is often exacerbated by the city-centric approach of funders and gatekeepers.
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BEYOND THE FENCE LINE
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I’ve always had a close affinity with the outback, the desert. When I find myself surrounded by red dust and miles of flat horizon I feel a sense of home. Wildflowers are one of the hidden treasures found there; they transform the landscape into fields of colour beyond where most people can see them, beyond the fence line. - Helen Ansell Helen Ansell has a deep sense of connection with the Western Australian landscape and refers to the area where she lives outside of Geraldton as her backyard. Whilst she has an affinity with the Mid-West, Helen has also travelled extensively throughout the State which is the inspiration for her paintings and textiles, illustrating her interest in the broader Western Australian environment, particularly its fauna and flora. Helen is a self taught artist and her work has emerged outside the academy. She continues to live and work on the margins, isolated from the nexus of artistic production in the city. Whilst residing in regional Western Australia has presented Helen with obstacles to pursuing an arts career, working with the distinct social and cultural context of the regions has allowed her space for creative experimentation. Helen’s vibrant decorative paintings have an unmistakable sense of composition and colour, with meticulous
brushwork and a celebratory spirit which enlivens the canvas. Helen’s choice of subject matter is an expression of the memories of living close to the land. Helen’s interest in wildflowers has been catalysed by the time she spent as a child on her father’s station collecting native seeds and her experiences growing up in Ululla, a remote Aboriginal community outside of Wiluna where she learnt the Martu language and often visited Country with older women. Assisted by FORM and the Geraldton based creative practitioner Peta Riley, Helen has translated her paintings into textiles, a natural evolution of her work on canvas which illustrates her preference for pattern and surface embellishment. Helen is striving for a new interpretation of nature with design driven work which depicts wildflowers, birds and plants. ‘I’m interested in how a small ordinary flower is blown up to be larger than life, each colour is dramatised, each shape simplified.’ In her finely composed paintings, Helen paints elegant, long-stemmed kangaroo paws, sunbursts of protea, and banksias blossoming in bold, graphic forms. After Helen spent three years in Edinburgh, Scotland, she returned home with a renewed way of seeing her environment, and Western Australia’s place in the world. Helen’s desire to infuse her paintings with a distinctively Western Australian visual language led her to explore the ideas about developing a national art as expressed by Margaret Preston, an artist whom by the 1920s had become one of Australia’s leading modernist artists. Preston argued that, ‘Australian artists must feel inherently the difference between their land and that of others … the
Yellow throated Minor/ Candlestick Banksia - 61cm x 61cm, acrylic on canvas (above)
Helen Ansell with her brother at Albion Downs Station, Leinster photograph by Don Miller, 1992
tremendous difference in our flowers … so our treatment of our flora must be different. If it isn’t, then it is merely copy and repetition’.1 In developing a national identity for Australian art, Preston advocated that Aboriginal motifs and symbols should be included to produce art that is distinctively Australian. ‘In wishing to rid myself of the mannerisms of a country other than my own I have gone to the art of a people who had never seen or known anything different from themselves … These are the Australian Aboriginals and it is only from the art of such people in any land that a national art can spring.’2
incorporated Aboriginal symbolism into her work: a crosscultural borrowing which is fraught with complexities. The appropriation of Aboriginal art and design has a history of exploitation and abuse in Australia with numerous examples where copyright has been infringed upon for commercial gain. This ranges from the unlawful reproduction of work to the non-payment of artists for the usage of products. Even well-meaning appropriation where Aboriginal art is utilized as a source of inspiration can simplify and obscure the way in which Aboriginal art and design elements belong to communities and individuals with particular heritage, identity and cultural expressions. In these instances there is often a failure to acknowledge the intellectual property rights or custodial responsibilities inherent in some Aboriginal art that is inextricable from identity, land, law or spirituality.
Helen is influenced by Preston’s philosophy and identifies with her struggle to develop a postcolonial visual language to articulate a distinctive Australian identity. Drawing upon her upbringing in remote Australia, Helen has
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Sharmila Wood (FORM Curator)
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Helen’s work suggests the influence of an Oriental aesthetic in her combination of form, lines and handling of space, illustrated in the fanned wings of birds in flight in her painting Willy Wag Tail, the delicately curled leaves and pretty blossoms represented in Kurrajong, and the singular flat, graphic decorative motifs in Bird flower. Helen comments that she continues to be inspired by pan-Asian design aesthetics as pointing out that it is the ‘elongated pictorial formats, asymmetrical compositions, and aerial perspective, with spaces emptied of all but abstract elements of colour and line’ that influences her work. This interest has been stimulated by the ongoing travel and trade between Asia and regional Western Australia and the subsequent imagery that circulate in popular culture.
efforts to develop a distinctive visual language to represent Western Australian botany winning a category In the Hedland Art Award (2011), her efforts have been largely unrewarded. Yet, Helen continues to see beyond the fence line in work that reaches towards her own unique and vivid vision of life in the regions.
1. Margaret Preston, ‘An inherent Australian art’ early 1940s, Margaret Preston, Art and Life Art Gallery of New South Wales, 29 July to 23 October 2005 <http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/sub/preston/artist.html> 2. Margaret Preston, ‘The Indigenous Art of Australia’, Art in Australia March 1925, Margaret Preston, Art and Life Art Gallery of New South Wales, 29 July to 23 October 2005 <http:// www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/sub/preston/artist.html> 3. For further reading: Michelle Grossman, Blacklines: Contemporary Critical Writing by Indigenous Australians Melbourne University Publishing, 2003
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Helen’s desire to draw upon the visual richness of Aboriginal art is complicated, yet she has also demonstrated a sincerity and commitment to genuine engagement and collaboration with Aboriginal artists, and one of her greatest honours is being invited to collaborate on a painting with Aboriginal artist Jill Churnside. Helen has also received permission from artists at Wiluna to use dots within the context of her artwork and over the years has developed personal relationships with Aboriginal artists from her time spent working in Yalgoo, Wiluna, Northampton and the Greenough Regional Prison. ‘I have been very influenced by the Aboriginal artists I’ve worked with over the last eight years,’ she explains. These experiences have allowed Helen to develop a dialogue of interaction and exchange that crosses the racial divide, leading to the trading of skills and expertise.
Demonstrating her willingness to work collaboratively and explore a confluence of stylistic influences, Helen has partnered with the Geraldton based creative Peta Riley, who has translated her paintings into designs for textiles and other products. FORM’s Elizabeth Davis and I also worked with Helen and Peta to catalyse an exploration of colour which would bring a sense of ‘pop’ to the textiles, and expand their application to a range of products. By considering the interplay between cultures in regional Western Australia, Helen draws together the disparate influences that reflect her experience living and working remotely while she has had some recognition for her
Mitiji (white woman) - 120 x 120cm, acrylic on canvas (right)
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Mulla Mulla - 61 x 61cm, acrylic on canvas (previous page)
Willy wag tail - 61 x 61cm, acrylic on canvas (right)
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One of the things that really struck me after moving home from Europe were the wild, striking shapes and colours of Western Australian wild flowers, they are unlike any others in the world.
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AN EXTRAORDINARY RICHNESS Stephen D. Hopper AC Professor of Biodiversity The University of Western Australia
Since the time that William Dampier and his crew first recorded a European perspective on Australiaâ€™s North West late in the 17th century, the Pilbara and adjacent regions of desert and pastoral country have intrigued explorers, settlers and tourists alike. Home to diverse Aboriginal people for more than 45,000 years, these rugged arid landscapes have a flora that is beguiling. Such wondrous plant life has been revealed progressively through an exponential increase in botanical activity over the past three decades, stimulated by environmental management requirements associated with the minerals boom. Even in the harshest drought, perennial plants bedeck the landscape, tough and resilient. After cyclonic rainfall, the region becomes a garden, the red rocks, sand dunes and wetlands enlivened with wildflowers of superlative colour and abundance.
Thus the rangeland and desert wetlands, so important as refugia for native biodiversity and for Aboriginal people, are clearly the very places where human impacts are greatest here and throughout the Australian deserts. Each wetland has low species richness but very patchy distributions of species across the landscape. Indeed, about half of the wetland plants were recorded only once in 58 wetland areas sampled in the 2000 botanical survey, indicating dramatic changes in wetland biodiversity across the landscape.
This, the Western Desert Fringe, is rangeland or pastoral country, mostly on granite bedrock. In 2000, a comprehensive biological survey was published for the greater Shark Bay region occupying the sedimentary southern Carnarvon Basin, some 75,000 square kilometres flanking the Indian Ocean between the Minilya and Murchison Rivers. Some 2133 plants were recorded, an extraordinary richness. The largest families include the myrtles, daisies, grasses, chenopods, peas and wattles, quintessentially Australian in character. About a quarter (574) of these Carnarvon Basin native plants are only to be found unprotected outside conservation reserves, many (265 ) from wetlands, places especially important to pastoralists for watering stock and for reliable feed.
Kangaroo Paw - 61 x 61cm, acrylic on canvas
Karara Seed Pods - 61 x 61cm, acrylic on canvas
Some 88 species of weed were also recorded in 2000, the most pernicious invading fertile riverine sites especially along the Gascoyne, Wooramel and Irwin Rivers. Buffel grass was the most serious weed, joined by Mosman River grass (Cenchrus setigerus) and castor oil plant (Ricinus communis).
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North of the Great Western Woodlands and Goldfields, beyond the 300 mm rainfall boundary of the South West, lies a vast arid region extending to the Pilbara. It embraces the catchments of large rivers flowing westwards to the Shark Bay region â€“ the Murchison, Gasgoyne and Ashburton.
Scaevola Purple Fanfare - 61 x 61cm, acrylic on canvas (above)
Tangerine Banksia, textile design for fabric (previous page)
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Further north, in Karijini National Park, Mt Meharry, Western Australia’s tallest peak occurs at a humble 1251 m above sea level. This is in the heart of the Pilbara, 178,000 km2 of geologically ancient complexity, the old granite and volcanic bedrocks overlain by sedimentary rocks from seas half the age of the Earth itself. At these ages past oxygen was excreted by photosynthesizing marine bacteria, precipitating iron, turning the seas red, filling the ocean floor with layer upon layer that hardened to become the signature red rocks of this desert upland, the most isolated mountainous region in arid Australia. The Pilbara has a desert coastal margin to the north stretching over 400 km from Onslow to the west end of 80 Mile Beach. To the west and south it is flanked by the Western Desert Fringe, including a small section of the sedimentary Carnarvon Basin and the more extensive Gascoyne Region of pastoral country. The Little Sandy and Great Sandy Deserts arc along the eastern boundary, parallel to the courses of the Pilbara’s easternmost Oakover and De Grey Rivers. The Hamersley Range, of which Mt Meharry forms an eastern high point, is indeed the centerpiece of the Pilbara. To the north the Hamersleys are separated from the lower east-west Chichester Range by the broad valley of the Fortescue River, with headwaters in the southeast Pilbara east of Newman. Its waters, when they flow, descend
Rose of the West (Eucalyptus Macrocarpa) - 100 x 100cm, acrylic on canvas (left)
west-northwest to empty in the Indian Ocean 500 km away southwest of Dampier. To the south, the headwaters and tributaries of the Ashburton River feed off the Hamersley Range and change the normally intermittent line of desert pools along the river bed into a formidable torrent when once-cyclonic summer systems unleash their fury near the coast and pass inland as rain-bearing depressions. Such bountiful conditions reveal a flora equally as stunning and diverse as that of the Western Desert Fringe, with even more plants finding refuge in the wetlands and mountain gullies. In the present catalogue and exhibition, artist Helen Ansell reveals this floral richness, translating some of her paintings into beautiful textiles, stimulating and engaging admirers into a broad conversation about such a stunning natural heritage. I commend her work to you, and hope that those lucky enough to see Helen’s work firsthand, or vicariously through this catalogue, are left with lasting impressions of a flora deserving of our care and sustainable protection.
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At the other end of the landscape spectrum, 1300 km north of Perth lies Mt Augustus, a large granite monolithic inselberg, still yet to be comprehensively surveyed for flora. However, based on what is presently known, Mt Augustus displays in microcosm the biological patterns and processes of the Desert Fringe highlighted above – the importance of seasonal wetlands as refugia for native biodiversity and their precarious existence due to human impacts; the dominance of widespread desert plants;, the occurrence of a small number of local endemics or rare species; and the presence of outliers of species from remote regions.
Green Birdflower - 61 x 61cm, acrylic on canvas (top right)
Red Capped Robin - 61 x 61cm, acrylic on canvas (bottom right)
Geraldton Native Rose - 120 x 120cm, acrylic on canvas (opposite page)
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A Different Kind of Desert - 200 x 120cm, acrylic on canvas (top left)
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Wiluna called Ululla. The landscape there is very flat and can appear quite monotonous at first glance – but holds a beauty all of its own. Whenever I had visitors at Ululla I took them to Mt Megalomania where we would sit with the quiet air so thick around us that you could almost hear it ringing in your ears whilst in awe of the vast expanse of hot countryside, watching the sun set and the colours around us slowly change. My time at Ululla always gave me a tangible connection with the land. Helen Ansell
Toothbrush Lemon, Blues and Blush Grevillea, Textile design for fabric (previous page)
Toothbrush Grevillea - 61 x 61cm, acrylic on canvas (right)
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over 20 years while I was growing up my Dad “ For lived on a station/Aboriginal community 75km outside
FORM in conversation with Helen Ansell and Peta Riley
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ARTIST INTERVIEW Peta Riley
Helen, can you tell us about what inspired the move into textiles? I have always been attracted to flat designs, shapes, patterns and colours which would lend themselves naturally to textile design – I couldn’t tell you how many times people have seen my work and said, “That would look fantastic on fabric” but although I was very interested in exploring this possibility I had no real idea how to move into this area until now. You are collaborating with Peta Riley, how did this partnership emerge and what attracted you to work together? Peta’s artistic talents lie in a number of different areas from textiles to sculpture to jewellery making and more recently graphic design, which has been ideal when it comes to exploring ways in which my work could be developed into various forms. We have worked and exhibited together in the past but it was Peta’s idea for us to join forces to create our own, Mulla Mulla. We both agree that it would not be possible for one of us to do what we are doing without the other. Can you both describe what first interested you in following the creative path and how you got to where you are now? Helen - I am a self taught artist. While studying at University I painted in my free time purely for enjoyment and had a house full of paintings as a result. On the suggestion of a friend I decided to hold my first solo exhibition of works in
2001 and found myself amazed to have a sell out show on the opening night. After University I decided to move to the UK for two years on a working holiday visa and while I was there I decided to pursue my art career more seriously. Upon my arrival back in Australia I was fortunate enough to be offered the position of Gallery Manager at the Tjukurba Aboriginal Art Gallery in Wiluna where I was first connected to FORM. Throughout my art career so far I have really enjoyed the balance of teaching while maintaining my own arts practice – of not only being able to pass the skills that I have learnt onto others but also learning a great deal from the many amazing artists I have had the privilege of working with (from Senior Aboriginal Artists to emerging youth) and being able to apply that to my own work. Peta - Creativity runs in the family, it was strongly encouraged and pursuing a career in the arts was very accepted. My great Aunt and Grandmother were operatic singers and my grandfather was a talented carpenter building houses and furniture. My grandmother spent many enjoyable hours with us just making things. She let us sew costumes and dolls clothes, we had a bag of clay so we could make tea sets, creatures and wind chimes, we used her precious watercolour paints to paint her collection of geraniums and she took us to community art classes. By the time I was 16 I decided that I wanted to do the fulltime art course at TAFE. I had to beg and plead for them to accept me, they were unsure I had the commitment because I was so much younger than other students. I specialised in ceramics and sculpture. Later I worked in the Online Learning department, creating and developing graphics for online courses. After this I worked at home on my own art practice exhibiting locally and nationally and taking many local and regional art classes. For the last 8 years I work lecturing in the creative industries at Durack Institute of Technology specialising in sculpture, ceramics, drawing, mixed media jewellery. 2011 saw us travel to Darwin to live for the year. It was just the break our family needed. Darwin has a vibrant arts scene and many opportunities for artists.
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Although Helen Ansell has always been drawn to textiles and design she did not begin translating her paintings into fabric until she met Peta Riley. Together they have formed the brand Mulla, Mulla. They spoke with FORM about their respective creative journeys and their plans for the future.
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We wanted a name that was original, catchy and uniquely Australian. Mulla Mulla is the name of a native Australian wildflower which is fitting. Although the Mulla Mulla flower is widely recognised by many, it’s botanical name is often not as well known. You work in response to the natural environment and beauty of Western Australia, what are some of the most memorable landscapes you have encountered and why?
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Helen - I grew up in outback Western Australia and so hold a natural affinity for the red dirt and mulga plains. For over twenty years while I was growing up my Dad lived on a station/Aboriginal community 75km outside Wiluna called Ululla. The landscape there is very flat and can appear quite monotonous at first glance – but holds a beauty all of its own. There is a small hill in the middle of Ululla no more than six metres high and due to the flatness of the countryside you are able to view the distant horizon for 360 degrees from that hill – aptly named Mt Megalomania – as the entire landscape you can view is all part of the 300,000 acres that make up Ululla. Whenever I would have visitors at Ululla I would take them to Mt Megalomania where we would sit, with the quiet air so thick around us that you could almost hear it ringing in your ears - whilst in awe of the vast expanse of hot countryside, watching the sun set and the colours around us slowly change. My time at Ululla always gave me tangible connection with the land with minimal modern day comforts (no air conditioner meant you really felt it when it was 46 degrees during the summer). Having no television to offer an “escape” from reality, my days were often filled with rich and rewarding activities such as painting alongside the women under the shade of a tree, going hunting with the local Martu people (whose connection with the land is at a whole new level), telling stories around the campfire at night, sleeping under a billion stars and waking with the sun. I am truly grateful to grow up with such experiences. Peta - My landscape as a child was vastly different to Helen’s because my father was a wetline fisherman and so my life
was spent on and around the coastline of Jurien, Leeman, Geraldton and Carnarvon. I often went fishing with dad, it was tranquil and quiet floating on the shimmering blue sea. When the fish were pulled onboard, I was mesmerised by their beauty and richness of colours and the variety of species. When we weren’t fishing, my brother, sister and I were beachcoming and snorkelling, then we would spend time making things with bits we found. We made the best sand castles and even seaweed garments. I was addicted to looking at all the shapes, colours and textures under the sea, it was another world. We also spent time fishing the pristine waters of the iconic Abrolhos, Dirk Hartog and Bernier and Dorre Islands as it teams with some of the world’s best coral and marine life; it is an inspiration source for many of my painting and sculptural work which provide an income to our family. Some of my recent work features birdlife, paintings of the Greenough River (of which my property backs onto) and colours and tones of blue and turquoise which represent my life on the coast. While I have travelled to some amazing places in the world, I know in my heart that our beaches and outback are the best in the world. Which designers, artists or creative people do you admire? Definitely Iconic designers and business influences have been; Florence Broadhurst, Marimekko, Issey Miyake, Akira Isogawa , Morrison, Spacecraft, Nancy Bird, Elk, Ikea designers, Amy Butler and Abigail Borg to name a few.
Excerpts from an interview with Sharmila Wood
Orange Wattle, textile design for fabric (previous page)
Red, Orange and Citron Sturt Desert Peas, Textile design for fabric (right)
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Why have you chosen ‘Mulla Mulla’ as the name for your company?
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cyclonic rainfall, the region becomes a garden, the red rocks, sand dunes and wetlands enlivened with wildflowers of superlative colour and abundance. Stephen D. Hopper
Black and White illustration on paper (previous page)
Red Tailed Black Cockatoo - 100 x 100cm, acrylic on canvas (right)
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in the harshest drought, perennial plants â€œ Even bedeck the landscape, tough and resilient. After
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS This catalogue is published to accompany the exhibition Floribundus: Textiles and Paintings by Helen Ansell
Protea, textile design for fabric (cover & inside cover)
Published by FORM ISBN: 978-0-9872624-7-9 Designed by Glasfurd and Walker
Textiles designed and developed by Helen Ansell & Peta Riley in collaboration with Sharmila Wood (FORM Curator) and Elizabeth Davis (FORM) who provided creative direction.
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357 Murray Street Perth, Western Australia, 6000 T + 61 89226 2799 F+ 61 89226 2250 firstname.lastname@example.org www.form.net.au
Curator: Sharmila Wood Photography: Helen Ansellâ€™s paintings are photographed by Karl Monaghan and Bruno Zimmerman. All other photographs are courtesy of the artist and her father, Don Miller. Other FORM websites www.courthousegallery.com.au www.discoverthepilbara.com.au www.thepilbaraproject.com FORM gratefully acknowledges Principal Partner BHP Billiton, whose partnership with FORM over more than ten years has enabled strong community and cultural outcomes.
Government of Western Australia Department of Culture and the Arts
ÂŠ2012-13. All rights reserved. Copyright for artwork and photographic images are held by the individual artist and photographer. Copyright for written content and this publication is held by FORM. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form without prior permission from the publishers: FORM.
Floribundus means flowering freely and describes Helen Ansell’s joyous paintings which depict wildflowers from Western Australia. Featuring...