Regional artist Zela Bissett produces work in matter infused with spirit.

Someone very close to me has produced this beautiful and insightful review. I am humbled.

Queensland artist Zela Bissett redefines the meaning of botanical art with her unique works composed of plant fibre, containing actual plant fragments and decorated with inks brewed from bark, berries and fruit. Zela uses plants seasonally harvested from her permaculture garden, or weed plants she collects from walks in her local area to make her paper.  A rustic and earthy aesthetic results from the limited palette achieved by working intentionally with natural plant fibres and earth minerals. She sees these constraints as consistent with finding ways to live sustainably on Country. A lifetime of living frugally, walking with knowledgeable others, listening carefully and humbly aspiring to remember and understand have produced an individual capable of what David Orr has termed “ecological literacy”. Walking with Zela, one sees how she recognises plants suitable for paper-making due to their fibrous stalks, calculates which barks look likely to contain enough tannins to brew ink, harvests sparingly and takes care to leave enough for regeneration. If you listen you may hear her whisper thanks to the plant for its generosity. It is no surprise that this artist-scientist made the leap of understanding that brought forth the works currently on show in widely diverse parts of the country.

In the Queensland port city of Gladstone, just below the Tropic of Cancer which delineates the Tropics to the north from the sub-tropics just south, Zela is showing work made with Kombucha pellicle. In her life as an educator, after completing a Master of Environmental Education, Zela was seconded by the Education Department to work as a Science Spark, a consultant and mentor to classroom teachers. Immersed in the pursuit of ways to impart ecological understanding to students in a holistic and imaginative way, she linked the ideas of increasing plastics concentration in our oceans with the importance of phytoplankton as the nutrient source essential to ocean life. 

The next step was identifying the pellicle (film from the top) of the Kombucha SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast) as a bioplastic. Drawing on abilities as a sculptor and designer honed during her first qualification in Fine arts, she created plaster moulds which allow the pellicle to take on the form of a giant coccolith, the calcite plates which coat many phyto-plankton. These intricate circular, radial or spherical forms are incorporated into works of aesthetic appeal, imparting information straight to the heart, a mute appeal for one of the tiny voiceless organisms upon which we ultimately depend. 

Zela’s forthcoming exhibition Paper Hero, in the leafy Melbourne suburb of Kew, is a testament to her years of experimentation with plants which contain sufficient cellulose to form paper. A visual  literacy gained through decades of trials and careful observation, allows the artist to achieve colours, textures, strength and flexibility through cooking, beating and blending more than 50 different garden and native plants. Accumulated knowledge has resulted in a collection of “papers” which form an earthy-toned palette. Caught up with the excitement of trying new ways with fibre and pulp, she employed her keen eye for the offerings of the grasslands, forest and heathlands of her homelands to assemble works which orchestrate the possibilities of diverse vegetative families. The fibrous stalky plants yield cellulose which is the key ingredient in the body of paper. Good sources of this type of fibre include banana trunks, ginger, galangal, cardamom, and even lemongrass.  Native plants that make very good paper are lomandra, dianella, bullrush, wetland sedges and reeds. A different group of plants work as formation aids whose purpose is to keep the cellulose fibres in suspension in the pulp vat. Rather than use commercially produced compounds, Zela has found ways to use okra, ceylon spinach and aloe vera that grow in her garden. Yet other plants offer colour and decoration: fine tendrils, petals and fibre strands are embedded while the sheet is still soft, when they bed in and attach. 

The collage-like assemblages which result from combinations of these plant derived elements can resemble landscapes, gardens, forests and bouquets. Textures are highlighted with charcoal or ochre, with occasional flashes of shine. Twining string from long strands of vines such as hibiscus and banana is a repetitive and meditative action which she uses to ponder next steps and to make strong cords with which to enclose, support and strengthen assemblages. The female form is an archetype for the fecundity of the nature world, and is a motif seen repeated in cast paper, fibre and clay.   

Finding a way to utilise the raw materials she has accumulated articulate her long-held concerns around ecological sustainability, social justice and awareness of the spirit underpinning the material world seems to have been the key for this versatile artist to find her mature style. In the Bunya Mandala series, Zela approaches a shamanic contemplation of the qualities inherent in her materials. The discovery that she could make paper from fibres enclosing the Bunya kernel, an important traditional food in the sub-tropics, allowed her to utilise all parts of the plant in keeping with what Robin Wall Kimmerer calls “the honorable Harvest”.  Months spent experimenting with cooking times and preparation methods led to assembling bunya substance into sturdy sheets and curvaceous forms. These were combined with other important members of the associated biotic community of the Bunya forests, especially the cunjevoi lily, resulting in the creation of a series of works which emphasised the form of the circle and possess something of the devotional character of sand mandalas and sacred spaces. 

In forming and shaping substance Zela unfailingly experiences a profound respect for the formative spiritual forces underlying this world of matter. Always disposed towards an intuitive way of working, understanding the materiality of such unique and unexplored substance meant she had to work within its limits, empathise with its essence. She had to dig deep to sense the possibilities and limits of her papers, brews and twines, to anticipate innate brittleness or softness and also to rely on aspects of strength and versatility. Always present is a deep and genuine gratitude for the blessings bestowed by the kingdom of plants.  

Showing such work is a delicate matter. Vulnerability was the hallmark of her now-closing exhibition at The Centre, Beaudesert. Zela found gallery director Irene deeply empathic to her narrative of fire and recovery in a place dear to the artist’s heart, K’gari, the great sand island on Butchulla lands. She hopes to find an equally understanding home to show the Bunya mandalas on Country where the Bunya is known and loved.  

Aracauria Symphony

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Susan Zela Bissett (Zela) is an educator, writer and artist with a lifetime involvement in environmental education and advocacy. Zela was born on Butchulla Country in Maryborough and has worked as an artist, educator, permaculture gardener, studio potter and consultant. She is passionate about sustainable lifestyles, maintaining habitat for wildlife and about unleashing the creativity in all of us.

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