Meet: Jenny Kee, artist
Fresh from the excitement of seeing her Archibold Portrate Prize entry hung, we take time to chat with Jenny Kee about her icon - the Waratah.
Archibold Portrate Prize entry by Carla Fletcher. Photo - the art Gallery of NSW
Jenny Kee has always drawn her inspiration from the Australian landscape. Her opal designs have been used by Chanel, her koala knits worn by Princess Di and her costumes were part of the parade at the Opening Ceremony of Sydney’s Olympic Games. Linda Ross met her to talk about her latest inspiration, the waratah.
When did you fall in love with the Australian landscape?
I returned to Australia from London in 1973, and opened my frock salon Flamingo Park in Sydney's Strand Arcade, with my friend Linda Jackson. On weekends Linda and I went off on trips exploring the bush and I fell in love with it. I moved to the Blue Mountains in 1976. My whole passion for Australia came alive - I mean the birds, the trees, the flowers....
A peaceful setting in Jenny's garden. Photo - Cameron Feast
Tell me what the waratah means to you?
It's what it represents. I mean, this is a flower that comes out of fire. I have witnessed fires in the Blue Mountains, and then watched the waratahs come out and I can tell you that their petals look extraordinary after fire. They're not the same as just coming up in the bush. They have these extraordinary flame-like petals, and I'm quite obsessed with them. I don't live in the Blue Mountains for nothing: I'm surrounded by them! You know how Aboriginal people have their dreaming totems - they're a kangaroo or they're an emu...well I feel that my totem in this country is a waratah. I wear red, my lips are red, it’s the colour I love.
The Waratah, Telopea speciosissima. Photo - Cameron Feast
Any special waratah growing tips?
They need dappled shade, and well-drained Sydney sandstone soil. I feed them with native plant food every spring and prune them drastically after flowering, sometimes half the shrub one year and the other half the next. I prune to ground level to emulate fire. Sometimes the flower bracts can get a little wind burn but there’s not much I can do about that.
Photo - Cameron Feast
Describe your garden for us.
I created my garden to celebrate my totem flower and to fit in with the greater landscape here on the precipice of Blackheath’s Grose Valley. The dry stone walls, mass-planted native grasses and the waratah groves sit happily among gum trees. I grow both the straight waratah species (Telopea speciossisima) and the improved garden variety called ‘Shady Lady’. The garden fits in well against the backdrop of the valley and the house and garage. The house is a combination of the old timber shack and a contemporary iron extension, and every window and verandah has an expansive view of the valley.
Every window and verandah has an expansive view of the valley. Photo - Cameron Feast
For more than 40 years we’ve seen your work on silk, paper, wool, cotton, ceramics and canvas. What is your current practice?
I paint in my studio, and I only paint waratahs. My paintings are then printed onto silk and become luxurious scarves.
Jenny Kee in her element, her home studio. Photo - Cameron Feast
You can find Jenny’s scarves and much, much more online at www.jennykee.com