Artist Clare James

Clare James' garden is so connected to her work as an artist, she even spent an entire month sleeping in it while working on a solo exhibition. Her delicate and ethereal artworks are inspired by the beauty she sees daily in her surroundings, whether it be a trail of slugs, a fallen seed pod, or a cluster of feathers and flowers. Clare and her husband, Mark, wanted to create a garden where their two daughters could get lost, where they could hunt for eggs and pick fresh fruit and vegetables, and where Clare could always find a posy of flowers. For this family, the garden is a natural extension of their home and they will often spend entire days outdoors, working, playing and eating. Sounds pretty idyllic, huh?

Clare with one of her beloved chickens.
A wonderful medley of plants captures the sun. Photography: Clare James
Clare's work is inspired by the garden around her. Photography: Clare James
Tell us about yourself
I am a mother, wife, sister, daughter, artist, crafter, gardener and animal lover. I learn the violin, I love to cook, I like working out how to build things, I bore people talking about my pets, I read gardening and ecology books in bed, read Mary Oliver poetry, I can’t knit and I can draw.
My garden is my favorite place in the world to be and I take photos everyday of little wonders happening in it.
I grew up with parents who value nature deeply. My dad is a botanist and an environmental scientist   with big ideas and big projects, his arboretum being one very big project that is amazing to watch grow. He grows much of his own food on his remote and very beautiful property in far-east Gippsland. My mum is a lady who spins wool and knits daily, whose beloved pets are always around her and who potters around her garden for the love of it. 
I am an artist who works from my little home studio, in Healesville. I paint with watercolour mostly, focusing often on details I discover in my garden. I am fascinated in invertebrates, spiders, chewed up leaves, cocoons, flower buds, seed heads, fallen feathers and over-ripe fruit. I can always find inspiration for my artwork in my garden. 
Last year I had a solo exhibition that focused on my relationship with my garden. I slept in my backyard for the month of March, for 31 nights, in an attempt to learn more and connect deeper with a place that I always love. I watched spiders spin their intricate webs and slugs eat the leftover dog food, I listened to the micro bats and watched the moon change shape and position each night. This experience led me to paint, draw, sculpt and write about these new discoveries.

What is the story of your garden?
My husband, Mark, and I bought our one third of an acre, with our little old house on it, eight years ago. The backyard was completely empty except for a couple of plum trees, a garden shed and some jasmine growing on some trellis. We saw the gardening potential immediately: North facing with lovely deep, rich soil. We were a lot more excited about the block than the house.
The backyard is quite ‘useful’ in that it has the fruit trees, vegie patch and pets. It does also have ornamental plants throughout it but is set out in the best way to get the most produce possible. The front garden is thoroughly ornamental. I love the front garden for many reasons. It faces north and west, so gets blasted with heat in summer, but this also means that we get the late afternoon sun shining through the plants. I have a lot of grasses, both low-clumping varieties like carex and tall varieties of miscanthus. I have echinops, sedum, salvias, succulents, agastaches and many other plants that I love to have in my garden. We have a largish area designated to native plants at the very front of the garden. This was once a large pittosporum and photinia hedge, which is now full of grevilleas, eucalyptus species, grasses, sedges and poas, banksia and other lovely things. It is a place we like to leave for wildlife, so I discourage the girls from picking flowers from here too often. It too collects the late sun in a very beautiful way.

Clare wanted to create a garden for her children to disappear into. Photography: Clare James 
Harvest from the very productive garden. Photography: Clare James
What changes have you made to it?
I was heavily pregnant with our first child when we moved in. Immediately, we began planting bare-rooted fruit trees and marking off the back third of the garden for the chooks. We spent the next few years planting and moving, removing and shifting, to gradually shape the empty space into rough areas, such as a vegie patch, orchard, chook run and ornamentals. These areas merge into one another, as bearded iris’s naturalise under the fruit trees and miscanthus, salvia, abutilon and red hot pokers survive and prosper in the chook run and grape vines shade our house. We don’t have many straight lines, but rather plant, and build walls and fences in curves. The vegie patch is the main area in the garden where a grid-like pattern exists, because we find it much easier to work in, harvest from and turn over rectangular beds for maximum food production.

Sedum, scleranthus, allium drumsticks, carex, miscanthus and dianthus thrive in the front garden.
Clare wanted a garden with an abundance of flowers for picking. Photography: Clare James
How do you like to spend time in your garden
We eat a lot from our garden. Each year we harvest great amounts of apples, nashis, pears, figs and plums, six varieties of citrus, fejoas, pomegranates, grapes, constant supplies of herbs and many, many vegetables. We get up to 50 eggs a week (or none at all in winter!) and, at certain times of the year, eat entire meals exclusively from the garden. My girls learned from an early age to wander around and pick whatever happened to be ripe that day, be it great handfuls of beans and plums in summer, mandarins that can only be reached from the top of the monkey bars in winter or carrots ripped from the ground.  
My husband, Mark, and I work well in the garden together. He is amazing at getting a job done. He will push barrow loads of mulch, compost or bricks from the front yard to the backyard for hours on end. There is no way that I could do this garden alone.  He is so much stronger than me, but also much, much better at finishing a job. I get incredibly side-tracked as I work, pruning something then moving something else then having to redesign a new area.
Together, we have created a wood-fired pizza oven, which in turn led us to level a large area so that we could sit and eat near the oven, which in turn led him to learn how to lay bricks etc. We really just make it up as we go.
We spend entire days from breakfast until after dinner out in the garden. Our daughters, Lylah (7) and Olive (5), are busy all day digging for mud, making cubbies, playing with our pets, or helping us while we work in the garden. It never really feels like a chore for us to be out there. 
Often, we light the fire bowl or the pizza oven in the early afternoon to cook our dinner. We bring a basket of bread, preserves, cheeses and pots of tea and coffee out throughout the day and generally stay outside all day. 

Afternoon in the garden with the chickens. Photography: Clare James 
Clare's girls enjoy a muddy outdoor romp. Photography: Clare James
How does your garden inspire you?
I get so much inspiration from our garden by walking around it every single day to look at changes occurring in the flower beds, tree buds, spider webs etc. I look at the changes both big and small that take place as each season changes and take hundreds of pictures of the garden (and pick myself flowers) almost every day. I base a lot of my artwork on my findings in the garden but for me it is more than finding inspiration. I get a sense of calm, connectedness and reassurance being in the garden. It is like a little sanctuary in what can be a hectic world and brings me back down to where I feel most content. I grow food because it seems like such a natural thing to do, maybe because my dad has always grown food in his garden. It feels good feeding your family from the backyard, from compost made from clippings and chook house straw that turn into brilliantly coloured, squeaky fresh and delicious vegetables and fruit. I cannot imagine not growing food.

A pretty posy from the garden. Photography: Clare James
A plywood gingko leaf Clare created. Photography: Clare James
Clare's work also appears on a striking range of cushions.
What are your must-haves for a garden?
These are a variety of plants that produce flowers throughout the entire year. I want my girls and I to always be able to pick a posy, no matter what season it is. I think having spaces of mass planting and more open spaces create interesting areas to explore. Using plants that I love and collecting plants (from seed or cutting) from other people's gardens not only saves great amounts of money but also gives me a connection to other places and people. I, too, love sharing plants and seeds from my garden with friends.

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Tansy provides a pop of yellow. Photography: Clare James
Afternoon sun streams through the garden. Photography: Clare James
Another of Clare's stunning paintings. Photography: Clare James