Natural Beauty: A Moment with Artist Kohl Tyler-Dunshea

We chat to the flora-obsessed Auckland artist ahead of her first solo exhibition


Kohl Tyler-Dunshea in her studio. Picture / Supplied

Kohl Tyler-Dunshea has a talent for capturing the exact quality of what makes a given leaf or flower beautiful, whether that's its colour, texture or delicacy. With a focus on plants she's grown, foraged and pressed herself, or gathered for one of her live installations, Kohl's immense respect for nature is present in all of her projects. Her intricate strokes of watercolour highlight the beautiful details you may miss when you pass a pot of flowers or a hillside of nasturtium, Kohl's work is a reminder of why nature is worth treasuring.

While that may seem obvious on one level, coversations over whether New Zealand lives up to its much-hyped clean and green image, or whether the Waitakere Ranges should be closed to protect them from the public, are just some of the debates that show ecology to be an incredibly fertile ground for exploration. Knowing there's more to Kohl's work than meets the eye, we asked the Auckland-based artist a few questions about her practice, her first solo exhibition Purlieus at Hamilton's Skinroom gallery, and the best advice she's received as an emerging artist.

Where did your love of art begin? What made you decide to pursue it at university?
My love of making began from watching my mother. She paints, plays music, and dabbles in making textiles, and she always made sure that my sisters and I had stacks of paper, felt tips, paints, and other art supplies in the house. I was fascinated by the contemporary art scene, and so excited by the prospect of dedicating four years of my life to learning about art and making work, I knew I had to go to art school.

Kohl Tyler-Dunshea's work focuses on both native and introduced plant-life. Picture / Supplied

What's the most useful thing you learnt while at Whitecliffe?
Work ethic. My lecturers made it very clear that if you want to get anywhere you have to treat your art practice like a full-time job.

What spurred your interest in plants, particularly native species?
I grew up in a rural town where there wasn't really much to do, so I’d often end up exploring the native bush with friends. It was during that period that I discovered the value of the biosphere and really engaged with it. I find Aotearoa's native species fascinating, they have evolved in isolation on an island for so long that they are remarkably unique. I also have an urge to protect the country's most vulnerable species, like the Northern rata, or the kauri.

Can you tell me about the work you submitted to the Estuary Art and Ecology Prize?
My work Offerings was an interactive installation comprised of live native plants, an Ultra Violet LED light and a found table. All of the plants were specifically chosen because of their ability to filter water, reinforce riverbanks and provide habitats for the wildlife of the Tamaki Estuary.

Audience members were invited to take a plant and place it either nearby the estuary or at a location of their choosing. Judge Anne Tonga awarded my work first prize and said: "At the heart of this project is a transfusion of ecological values and Tyler-Dunshea’s ability to think beyond the gallery walls to find ways for artworks to have real-life applicability. The artist's pursuit of the potential of art to positively impact the Tamaki Estuary is ambitious and, for this reason, awarded the first prize."

Taurepo pattern designed by Kohl for shoe company Merchant. Picture / Supplied

What do you seek out when you're running low on inspiration?
Sleep! And human connection. I can get a little stir crazy if I spend too many hours painting inside.

What can we expect from your upcoming exhibition at Skinroom gallery in Hamilton?
Watercolour paintings, writing by Jodi Meadows, an interactive installation, not to mention the flowery wheat beer crafted especially for the exhibition by Beerloft Brewery.

What are the best and worst pieces of advice you’ve been given as a young artist?
The best advice I've been given was to not be afraid of rejection because rejection isn't failure, it's something to learn from. When you're an artist you have to continuously put yourself out there with hope that you will be received well by critics, gallery owners, judges —  the list goes on. Wow, the worst advice was probably the time that someone told me, very adamantly, that I need to sell my art on a Facebook page... That conversation got awkward quickly.

Lobelia grown, pressed and painted for Merchant. Picture / Supplied

Do you have other creative outlets, other than painting?
I'm an avid gardener — that counts right?

Which other New Zealand artists do you admire?
Anne Shelton (especially her Olympic Oak series), Sarah Smutts Kennedy because of her environmental ethics, and Judy Millar — I’m in awe of her prolific painting.

•  Purleius opens Friday August 11 at Skinroom gallery and runs until August 27. 123 Commerce St, Hamilton. Follow Kohl Tyler-Dunshea on Instagram.

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