Gallery 3 - Microcosm Project - One Moreton Bay Fig Tree

View of the project's Moreton Bay Fig tree on a sunny morning.


“Microcosm” is the title of an art project I undertook which was based on concentrating almost two years' work on one Moreton Bay Fig tree growing in the Adelaide Parklands.

My rationale for the project

Trees are major natural elements growing amongst most human living environments (largely by human choice). They are homes, hunting grounds or temporary resting places for diverse populations of birds, small mammals, and insects ‘living in the wild’, and so provide opportunities for society-based people to ‘tap into’ the vitality of bolder, freer living. Trees also provide shade, oxygen, soothing white noise, charming bird calls, changing spectacles of light, colour and organic space, lovely ‘figurative’ organic forms, and often a ‘spiritual-like’ and peaceful sense of connection with the natural world. The appreciation of trees and the natural environments they provide are cross-cultural experiences, open to nearly all people. As models, trees naturally hold their ‘figurative poses’ for long spans of time and their ‘static nature’ easily allows for study through a range of seasons, times of the day, or various weather conditions.

By concentrating on one tree, I hoped to develop an ‘in-depth’ range of direct responses to a highly complex ‘individual’ organism (that might also suggest a scaled response to the huge population of similar organisms). I also wanted to express a variety of concepts involving this one organism (e.g. the tree as a provider of shade, the tree as a micro-environment, some of the growth processes within this one organism, the tree as an oxygen producer, etc.). By concentrating on the one tree, all of the resulting artworks relate to each other (even when using a variety of approaches).

I wanted to concentrate somewhat on the expression of form and space within the project. I feel that the interpretation of three-dimensional forms and space is the most basic and strongest aspect we derive from encountering a complex environment or structure – probably because of the superb binocular vision and brain hardware we have acquired from our primate ancestry for understanding three-dimensional form and space – living and moving with agility amongst tree canopies (coming back to trees again).

With this project, I produced mainly drawings. I also took many photographs (including 3D photographs), did a few pastel paintings, did some writing and put together some multimedia pieces.

Following is a map that shows the location of the Moreton Bay Fig Tree that was the subject of this project. It is located in the maintained Parklands that surround the city of Adelaide. This tree is in the Parklands directly between the city of Adelaide and North Adelaide.

location map

About this particular Moreton Bay Fig tree (Ficus Macrophylla):

This tree is a natural magnet for most people who walk past it. I have met many people there who feel that it's 'the best tree in Adelaide'. It is certainly a mighty organism, looking very healthy and strong.

While working at the tree, I have often been asked by other people walking past if I knew how old the tree is? Their feeling was that it looks about 400-500 years old. The problem with that is that Moreton Bay Fig trees are native to southeast Queensland and hadn't naturally spread to growing in the area around Adelaide. Therefore, the tree had to be planted deliberately, by people with the technical know-how and ability to transplant and transport a seedling reasonably quickly from an area a long way away. The likelihood was that the tree was planted after 1835 - the approximate starting date of the invading English colony to South Australia. A horticultural technical officer at the Adelaide City Council said that to her best research the tree was planted in 1875-1880, which puts the tree at an age of about 125 - 130 years old.

I first encountered this tree in 1983, reasonably soon after moving to Adelaide, and I spent considerable time then doing some serious drawings of it. At that time it would have been about 105 -110 years old. In the 20 or so years since then, I've only noticed very minor changes to the tree's forms, such as some of the extremities of the long horizontally extending boughs dropping a little. The tree seems to be going through a very stable time in its life.

I realised when I first came across the tree in 1983 that it was an excellent place to be at, but now I am seeing just how special that one tree is. It is a huge tree, with branching very close to the ground. One can easily get amongst its massive boughs and the spaces between them. That is something very unusual in itself. But the tree also has a vast network of twisting buttress roots that makes it feel like an inviting play ground. Being close to the tree means being in a changed environment; heavily darkened by the thick canopy of rubbery leaves, surrounded by many active birds with tropical calls in the canopy, amongst pleasant earthy smells of rotting figs and decaying leaves, and an atmosphere where one's senses seem to be heightened (there are masses of interesting details everywhere one looks).

The tree's canopy is approximately an elliptical shape: about 44 metres long by 38 metres wide, covering an area of approximately 1300 square metres (or one and a half average suburban house blocks).

The tree's exposed buttress root systems cover an approximate elliptical shape of about 25 metres by 23 metres.

Project goals:

  1. To create a body of related work, suitable for an exhibition, covering a range of innovative approaches and experiments.

  2. Expressions desired: accurate recording of interesting organic forms, looking at the variety of forms within one tree, expressing the size of the real tree, expressing a range of thoughtful concepts involving the tree, providing a meaningful and poetic record of the focus tree.

  3. To produce most of the artwork from the one tree (maintaining a relationship between all work produced).

  4. To successfully exhibit this body of new work at a professional art gallery and attract critical appraisal.

Artistic Details:

The new work was to explore:

  • the expression of form,

  • expression of orientation within an image,

  • the expression of the large size of the real tree,

  • the expression of many of the tree's interesting structures and 'isolated' forms,

  • and various concepts based on the organism,

using a variety of tools/approaches:

  • Direct observation, recording truthfully-observed relationships. Most drawing/painting is to be performed on-site – working from the richest source material – the real thing!

  • Using repeated cross-sectional lines that describe the forms’ structures and rhythms.

  • Placing ‘overlaid' grids on my drawn/painted surrounding elements such as the ground and within the space of the sky, to enhance the expression of true space encountered.

  • Experimenting with different approaches – some bolder with more energy, some more carefully worked which will all be developed to a high standard.

  • The use of 3-dimensional stereoscopic photography to capture forms mechanically (a selection of such photographs will also be displayed as part of the exhibition).

  • Exploring the inter-relationships between multiple images.

Some of the major concepts I wanted to attempt:

  • The construction of a huge complex structure from the processing of water, air, sunlight, and soil nutrients.

  • Trees and animals (an interdependence for life) – gas exchange, air processing, nutrition exchange, reproduction relying on animal messengers.

  • Why indications of 'muscle-type' forms, when there are no muscles?

  • Tree as a provider of shelter, and a provider of unique environments – providing homes for many types of birds and insects (I have encountered many spiders and mosquitoes there that I've not encountered anywhere else).

  • Every fig seed is a potential mature Moreton Bay Fig tree of similar size and weight to this tree. A tiny capsule capable of growing into an enormous organism.

The project began tentatively with a few exploratory drawings in September 2004. After finishing some other drawings and moving house through November and December 2004, I worked on the project from January 2005 and it 'officially concluded' at the end of July 2006. The fact is, many of the ideas begun in this project have not been satisfactorily completed, and work on the project has continued to this day (but not at the exclusion of other projects). I know now that the project was really just a starting point for many worthwhile ideas. I hope to refine and continue the project into the future.

Shown in this gallery are just a small number of pleasing pieces from the project.