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For change

Updated: Jun 17, 2020

Dr Tabatha Forbes is an artist, writer, tutor, amateur naturalist and environmentalist. Here, she talks kelp forests, botanical art, and mid-life-environmental-crisis.

What does a typical day look like?

Everyday includes a walk through the local reserve or down to the sea. The places I have lived (the orchard in West Auckland, the island of Rarotonga and now this South Taranaki coast) become my primary muse. In lockdown I’m working with the kids, reading, drawing and writing as much as I can.

What project are you working on now?

2020 pre-Covid 19, marked the start of what I jokingly refer to as my mid-life-environmental-crisis. Like every cliched mid-life crisis it provided me with an opportunity for change: I left my job (selling art+design), went plant based and bought a hybrid car. My latest project is called All Good and is an ongoing series that includes painting, installation and writing. My work still holds plants as its central representation and is politically concerned with the environment but I’m taking more of an active than passive engagement with those subjects.

What themes do you pursue?

Environmental perception – what connects/disconnects us from our natural environment (particularly through value systems shaped by history, culture, aesthetics, science, economics & politics).

Eco-mindfulness – a new term, I don’t like that much. In my (pre-mindfulness) DocFA studies, my research methodology was Productive Contemplation. The premise was similar to eco-mindfulness, exploring interconnectedness within our living environments.

What research do you do?

For the last two decades, most of my research has been in the fields of botanical art/science, ethnobotany, naturalism, environmental ethics and more recently climate change science.

Who are your biggest influences?

It changes from week to week depending on what I’m reading, seeing or listening to. I have my heroes in history but mostly they’re artists, writers and philosophers who have obsessed or connected with the environment somehow. This year my research has been based on the climate crisis so Jem Bendell’s Deep Adaptation: A map for navigating climate tragedy paper and all surrounding conversations on this have been influential.

How does your work comment on current social or political issues?

My practice has always been affected by the most dominant environment I’m living/working in and the politics surrounding it. We recently bought a house on a rough west coastal beach in South Taranaki. It's a wild and lonely environment that has a bizarrely proactive and equally conflicting view of how the reserve and subdivisions should be managed. There's a natural gas station behind us, dairy farms around us and a reserve in front of the house leading to the sea. I’ve always found the psychology of environmentalism baffling. My work is engaging more with the broader implications of global warming and ties back into the local political context. Currently I’m looking at the role of seaweed in marine ecology and what that means when sea temperatures and acidification occurs.

In three sentences, teach us something we might not already know.

There are parts of our marine environment that many of us don’t think much about. In the pacific islands the pretty coral reefs are generally understood to be an essential part of a healthy marine ecology. In New Zealand our kelp forests serve the same purpose, representing some of the most diverse habitats on earth.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read or seen this week?

I spend a great deal of time recording observations in my natural environment. I’ve always done this, but I’ve also always questioned its legitimacy as a worthwhile practice. This week I read Kyo Maclear's beautiful book, Birds Art Life Death where she talks about the pursuit of nature and beauty and that exact conflict between meaningful and privileged leisure activities such as bird watching (and painting plants). She writes, ‘What was partially true during the Victorian era remains partially true today: people who are busy struggling for survival do not observe birds for aesthetic pleasure.’ Yet, she argues despite the cynical view that it's a ‘middle-class luxury,’ the observation of nature, from a position of ignorance still has something to teach us. Empathy for one.

Where were you 3 hours ago?

I was walking through the long grass on the trapping track in the reserve to see the beach after last night's big storm.


Tabatha Forbes, Seaweed feet

Tabatha Forbes, Seaweed study on bubble, work-in-progress

Tabatha Forbes, All Good sign, work-in-progress

Tabatha Forbes, Shell Head, self portrait

Tabatha Forbes, Oaonui Beach South Taranaki

Tabatha Forbes, Current reads


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