Current Issue #488

A Thread Runs Through It: Heroes of the Reef

A Thread Runs Through It: Heroes of the Reef

Adelaide fibre artist Alvena Hall has spent years creating fibre artworks devoted to the beauty of corals, anemones and other marine life.

This includes the creation of a series of 12 (and growing) appliqués, quilted and embroidered panels titled Heroes of the Reef, in which she acknowledges the activities of individuals whose passion and professional lives have been dedicated to protecting the Great Barrier Reef.

Inspiration came from a reference book – The Reef by Iain McCalman – which in turn contained repeated references to another, much older book: The Great Barrier Reef by William Saville-Kent, first published in 1893. Saville-Kent’s book includes black and white photographs of marine life (images of remarkable quality given that photography was still in its infancy) and colour plates reproducing his hand-painted studies. Hall was determined to obtain a copy of the book and through a friend, a retired university librarian in Queensland, she managed to do so, purchasing a 1972 reprint. Thus armed with this book of fascinating illustrations and other books full of glorious colour photographs, such as Corals of the World by J.E.N. Veron and The Great Barrier Reef by Len Zell, Hall began researching marine life, and drawing and sketching their forms and textures. As her interest grew, Hall made the first of three one-week boat trips from Port Douglas to the Great Barrier Reef where she swam amongst the corals and fish, and took her own photographs.

'Reef - of Dreams and memories, Alvena Hall (Photo: Michal Kluvanek)
‘Reef – of Dreams and memories, Alvena Hall (Photo: Michal Kluvanek)

Using these various resources, Hall began designing and making quilted wall art panels based upon coral reef themes. These depict the turquoise and cerulean blues of the tropical skies and seas and, beneath the ocean’s surface, the colours and patterns of corals, anemones, fish, and algae. A large piece, Reef: of dreams and memories, set the tone for the subsequent collection, with the beauty of the marine life captured in fabric and thread.

On her trips to the Great Barrier Reef, Hall also saw for herself the large areas of bleached coral caused by climate change and pollution. With undisguised cynicism for the political will of state and federal governments to effectively address these issues, Hall conceived the idea for a series called Eyes on the Reef. This began as a commentary on the platitudes and empty promises of politicians and others (‘We’re keeping an eye on things’). But her anger at those who failed to take action to protect the reefs or address the dangers of climate change was overtaken by her admiration for those who had devoted time and energy to marine exploration, scientific research, filming and photography, and political activism to expose and oppose man made environmental threats, and she produced instead a series showing the eyes of those who had cared for and acted upon their concerns.

Hall felt growing respect for these individuals and began work on the series Heroes of the Reef. In each panel an individual is depicted in a stitched portrait with marine life relevant to their specific endeavours and achievements. William Saville-Kent, whose book started Hall’s work on reef themes, is shown looking down on coral forms he named. Other panels show marine biologist Isobel Bennett with Oulophyllia bennettae, a genus of stony corals which were named after her; coral scientist Dr J.E.H. ‘Charlie’ Veron, who named over 20 per cent of reef corals and built a taxonomic framework, is shown with Montipora capricornis, purple cap coral; poet and activist Judith Wright is shown with a conch shell, and marine photographer Len Zell with a coral named in his honour, Australogyra zelli. Contemporary marine biologist Dr Emma Camp is shown with images of containers of Acropora tenuis specimens gathered as part of a research project to breed corals with the intention to restock damaged reefs.

Emma C, Alvena Hall (Photo: Michal Kluvanek)
Dr Emma Camp, Alvena Hall (Photo: Michal Kluvanek)

Hall uses photographs as source material to stitch portra its onto hand-painted fabrics, and digital printing, free-machine stitching on vanishing fabric, and computerised machine embroidered lace to create the marine motifs. She then arranges and stitches these onto her base fabric made of hand-painted cotton sateen, and machine stitching additional textural elements in sea and sky.

Many of these works were included in a solo exhibition, The Reef and its Heroes, at Mrs Harris’ Shop in Torrensville, Adelaide (November 30 to December 16, 2018). When Hall met visitors to the exhibition, she was only too happy to tell the stories of the individuals she depicted in her works. With her passion for marine life and the coral reefs, her determination to pay homage to her heroes, and her dedication to her art, Alvena Hall is also a Hero of the Reef, using fibre art to highlight the ongoing destruction of the reefs and remind us all of the risks to this beautiful and fragile environment, but also the possibilities for action.

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