Edith Rewa Barrett is an Artist, Adventurer and Native Plant Lover
Our connection to place and the way we see ourselves in the world are inextricably bound to one another. Like so many others, my own identity is an extension of the relationship I share with the Australian landscape I move within – the expansiveness, gradations of colour and abundance of plant and animal life of this unique environment immerses itself within the very make up of its inhabitants.
When I first saw the incredible work of Edith Rewa Barrett, there was so much about it that made my heart sing. Here was someone who adventures out into the great expanse of the Australian landscape, its richness and hidden plant life seeping deeply into her sense of self. Documenting her reverence for the native plant world with pen and paper, Edith brings the stories of her travels home with her, adorning silk scarves and art prints with highly detailed illustrations of the bush and the colours of the desert.
Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself, and your life with plants? My life with plants started early, peripherally absorbing my parent’s native garden and holidays in the bush by the sea. A move from Victoria to NSW for work post university (BA,Textile Design) left me with a lot of weekend exploring time and a growing interest in Sydney sandstone flora. Painting and drawing floral designs full time in a print studio kept my pencils sharp and trips to the Blue Mountains and Sydney surrounds had me eagerly drawing and learning about local native species. I matched my freelance textile design/illustration work with a move to Blackheath in the Blue Mountains which let me indulge in plant learnings, drawings and bush ramblings full time.
Can you also please tell us about your design brand, Edith Rewa? Edith Rewa has evolved over the last few years. Primarily it focuses on silk scarves, or ‘wearable head museums’, but recently I have been working on art prints and a small run of clothing. Everything I create for Edith Rewa is a sharing of my plant excitement and desire to encourage a reverence of native Australian plants. All drawings, paintings and patterns are a culmination of trips and time I have spent in different landscapes sketching and mark making.
How does your work reflect your identity and connection to place? I think my work is a pretty transparent reflection of my developments, interests, learnings, challenges and how I navigate through my daily life. Although I balance freelance illustration/design work with my personal Edith Rewa work, it is always the latter which stays uncompromised and true to me.
It is through my personal work that I navigate my way into a place, through walking and observing, learning, listening and drawing. I find the practice of sitting with a specimen in its natural space for long hours lets all this seep in nicely.”
You create the most beautiful and detailed botanical illustrations that are then translated into gorgeous fabrics, clothing and prints. Can you please talk us through your design process? My inspiration is almost always centered around place and a plant! From there I will spend time with the plant, deciding what aspect of the specimen I want to highlight in my drawing and the best angle or way to tackle the composition. I will usually sketch in pencil on location, and take photos and then head back to my studio to draw up the final illustration in pen. I scan this into Photoshop, and play with colour and pattern design from there. Once the design is final, I have the designs digitally printed on silk crepe de chine at Think Positive in Sydney and hemmed there also. The clothing is made by seamstress Jessica Allison in Sydney too – I am proud to be able to keep my production cycle as local and aware as possible.
You’ve travelled to so many incredible environments to see native Australian plant life. What have been some of your favourite places to visit? My most recent trip was to Kakadu and Litchfield National Park, which still feels pretty fresh and exciting in my head, such an extreme and beautiful environment. Some other favourites would have to be Karijini National Park, Cape Range (W.A), The Olive Pink Botanic Garden (Alice Springs) and alpine Tasmania.
What are some of your favourite Australian natives? Flannel flowers (Actinotus helianthi and Actinotus minor), Round-leaved mallee (Eucalyptus orbifolia) and pretty much any acacia… although Acacia pyrifolia does hold a special place with me.
Your latest collection of plant portraits captures the botanical identity of the Blackheath region where you lived for a time. What is it about this place that you were so connected to and how does your work reflect this? This was the first place I had lived where I was able to easily observe the daily and seasonal changes and cycles of plants both individually and collectively. I also had a lot of alone time whilst living there which I think allows for a more intense kind of connection with a place.
Daily bush walks quickly developed in me an affection for certain nooks of Blackheath, a place with quite a few distinctly different flora areas. A particularly special place to me was the clifftop shelf behind where I lived which was prolific – with heath top flora, scribbly gums, and one of my favourite views out onto Kanimbla Valley.”
It was here that I did much of my drawing for this collection of work, focusing on plants that shaped my personal experience of living there rather than the more commonly associated waratahs and rhododendrons of Blackheath, which get a lot of show time already!
You highlight the desert plant Eremophila neglecta and many lesser known native Australian plants in your recent collection, Field Trip. Can you tell us about your fascination with the less usual species? I am always driven to showcase a plant that might not necessarily have the usual spotlight, or perhaps to highlight an interesting feature of the plant – such as capturing the Acacia terminals in starry buds rather than bursting blooms! – or be true in some way to the landscape the plant inhabits. This is often why I like isolating the plants in a black expanse in my illustrations, so that the plant is at the forefront of the design.
With my Field Trip collection I wanted to celebrate some of Australis’s lesser known arid plant life and place them inside the silk scarves.
I think that the slightly tragic name of the Eremophila neglecta perfectly captured this notion, one of the less showy eremeophila species but so beautiful nonetheless.
What is it about travelling and seeing new places and spaces that inspires your creative spirit? There is nothing like travelling to start my pen itching and head buzzing!
I think it is a very natural reaction to new places – a sense of excitement at the unknown, an intense curiosity to learn, and above all, a sense of wonderment.”
I definitely take less for granted when I’m travelling and I think this always allows for a special lens of appreciation.
How does your clothing and textiles connect audiences with the landscape? I like to hope that by transferring onto cloth my drawings of plants and places that may not always be geographically or seasonally accessible in our daily lives brings snippets of landscapes to people. It allows for a curiosity and a place to keep memories and plants alive in a different sense.
Do you have a favourite project that you’ve worked on? Illustrating the cover and chapter headings for Holy Ringland’s novel ‘Lost Flowers of Alice Hart’ would have to be one of my favourite commission jobs to date. I was given a manuscript to delve into and a lovely long plant list to draw which focused on flora from a few different geographic areas of Australia.
Field Trip has probably been one of my favourite personal projects – lots of travel, drawing/painting and collaborating with friends and artists to make it all come together. Claire Mcardle designed an earring range to sit with the scarves, Nick Mckinlay shot a behind the scenes film, Georgia Blackie did all the photography and styling, Jessica Allison was the seamstress of the camis, and even a little collab Clutch Purse with Esther from Togetherness Design, phoar!
Was there an important person in your life who inspired your love of the natural world? My mum, Erica Nathan.
What do you love most about the Australian landscape? The diversity!
If you could be anywhere right now, where would you be? It has been a big end to the year so right now I am looking forward to a holiday in Tasmania in a couple of weeks!
Who are you inspired by? Margaret Flockton, Margaret Stones, Marianne North, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, John Wolsely, William Morris, Ngarra, John Olsen, Linda Jackson, Jenny Kee…
If you were a plant, what would you be? A pea (Sturt’s desert pea, Swainsona formosa, of course!)
The illustrations in this post are from Edith’s latest exhibition, Plant Portraits – Blackheath, a selection of plants that beckon to Edith from the Blackheath landscape.