Did I mention everything takes longer than you think it will? I have spent several days on the rakali, getting lost in Ferdinand Bauer's beautiful watercolour and the challenge of refining and refining. A few months back I found a definition of natural history that really resonated with me - "the patient interrogation of a landscape". This image became an intense conversation between me, Bauer, the rakali and the whiteboard, as I struggled to translate the subtle intimacy of a 19th century watercolour into the native media of a contemporary office space - partition walls, glass and dry erase markers. Memory, observation, trial and error, interpretation, concentration, expression, perseverance. There is something about drawing that makes you more aware of the processes of thought.
I remember something catching my eye in the silky darkness of Burnley Harbour one night, couple of years ago, when I was riding home from work. I stopped my bike. Something rippled and vanished under the water, suddenly appearing metres away, then disappearing again. I thought, that's impossible, there are no otters in the Yarra. The white tipped tail was the give away, that's how I later identified the mysterious creature. I've only seen them a few times since, after dark when the bike track and the river are quiet.
During my fellowship I planned to look at a wide range of early Australian natural history sources, starting with the best. So I requested the natural history drawings of Ferdinand Bauer. Reverently I opened the large solander box, and lifted out the plates one by one. There at the top was a beautiful, lithe rakali and I felt a wave of empathy and recognition for the artist and his subject. I like to think Bauer observed the rakali in some dusky waterway but I suspect his painstaking and delicate work was based on a considerably more compliant model. Though I hadn't thought of the whiteboard project at that time, a couple of months later, when Mark showed me the two metre wide glass panels over his desk in Rare Books, I immediately knew what the subject would be.
A detail of Rakali's head. I am rather proud of the whiskers.