Infinite patterns of an intricate beauty
CAMPED out in Western Australia’s remote Cape Arid for weeks at a time, nature artists Philippa and Alex Nikulinsky savoured events they came to call happenings, epiphanies and soul pictures.
A happening could be watching a tiny honey possum sipping nectar from pale golden banksia cones. The epiphany was noticing that this unique WA marsupial, allegedly nocturnal, was scampering about in broad daylight. Philippa writes: ‘‘ After three days watching it, I could predict the particular path it would follow down a leaf and on to another flower.’’
Soul pictures were sublime moments that eluded capture, such as a heart-stopping encounter when a marble-skinned python slid languidly over Alex’s feet. Or the instant when they stumbled on a grove of mustard-yellow Christmas trees, elegant as a classical landscape, that framed the granite massif of Cape Arid.
This husband-and-wife pair have produced an exquisite pictorial record of this littleknown wilderness, a national park on the doorstep of the Nullarbor Plain. For Philippa, Cape Arid is the latest in a string of publications honouring the flora and fauna of her home state, including seven watercolour diaries and five books, one of which she was invited to present to the Queen during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth last year.
Alex Nikulinsky is a latecomer to art: in his mid-50s, he swapped his statistician’s job for art school and care of the couple’s four sons while Philippa made frequent field trips to the bush. Cape Arid is his first book.
These days, they travel together in two heavily laden four-wheel-drives. He stays in their bush camp painting composite landscapes in Chinese ink; she disappears for many hours, binoculars, camera and pencils in hand. In thick notebooks, she renders the intricate detail of each plant, insect or mammal encountered on that day.
Later, back in her glass-walled studio in Perth, she works each natural element into a complex composition, pleasing to both scientific and artistic eyes. Biologists have been able to tell which insect species live on certain eucalypts by looking at her accurate renderings of nibbled leaves. By Philippa Nikulinsky and Alex Nikulinsky Fremantle Press, 64pp, $65 (HB)
The pair’s powers of observation have been honed across five decades of companionable nature-watching. A Cape Arid orchid has even been named in Philippa’s honour; look closely at the attractive tangle of wildflowers in her Hill Springs tableau and you’ll spot a cherished Granite China orchid, or Cyanicula nikulinskyae.
Cape Arid National Park, located 1000km east of Perth, is a sandy expanse that nurtures incredible biodiversity. But it can also be daunting, racked by howling winds, searing summer heat and dense clouds of flies.
The first of 11 camping trips, made across four years, began badly. After their marathon drive, the Nikulinskys arrived to discover that Cape Arid had been ravaged by wildfire.
They soon realised it was a blank natural canvas that time would embellish. ‘‘ Every plant that comes up after fire has a moment of glory,’’ Philippa says. ‘‘ The first little orchid, the first sedge to come up from the blackened ground is magical. We watched as things grew until, by the fourth year, we were witnessing the whole wildflower bonanza.’’
Infinite patterning in nature excites Alex’s mathematical mind: ‘‘ Between the horizon and the dark colourless mass of indifferent foliage is a filigree of fractals.’’ For his wife, infinite detail finds order and careful composition on the page: ‘‘ Each plant is special, but they live in community. One is hiding another, or intertwines, and insects, birds and spiders live among them. It’s the integration of nature that appeals to me.’’
Jotted field notes and spare writings all convey this couple’s fierce loyalty to a difficult and beautiful place. Alex says: ‘‘ So often, in places like Cape Arid, people wind the window down, there’s a blank look and they turn around and leave. But over time, eventually, the place speaks to you.’’
The tangled web of life . . . an illustration from