18 Oct 2017

Artist Erin Forsyth wants you to care

2:35 pm on 18 October 2017

We chat to Erin Forsyth about her illustrations of threatened native species that are on display at Whitespace Gallery. 

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Photo: Erin Forsyth

Whether it be the ground dwelling bats, male frogs that carry babies on their backs or parasitic plants with wooden flowers, artist Erin Forsyth has always loved everything about New Zealand’s native ngahere (bush). 

As a teenager, she found solace walking the tracks of Northcote and Birkenhead. Her nana was a florist and her grand-dad had a pet shop, so her interest in flora and fauna had always been there. 

Forsyth’s delicate works in her current show at Ponsonby gallery Whitespace depict threatened native fauna and flora. Her hope is that her work will enable viewers to understand why the plants and animals of Aotearoa are so special, and how human activity is impacting their chance of survival. From this, she hopes people will be more connected to their role as kaitiakitanga or stewards of the environments they are connected to. 

To achieve this, Forsyth combines scientific classifications with plants and animals’ place in te ao Māori. 

In 2011, Forsyth met potter Barry Brickell at the Michael King Writers’ Centre, while she was walking on a project at Devonport gallery Depot Artspace. Brickell spoke of years as a youngster spent exploring the area trying to identify native plants from a book that he had. Forsyth has some old Reed Publishing books in her collection, but was inspired to look out for any information she could find on New Zealand's native plants and animals. 

In 2014, an exhibition called He W’akaputanga Mai o te Rangatiratanga [the New Zealand Declaration of Independence] was hosted at Depot Artspace. Forsyth laid out a booklet featuring words and images from the 13 artists involved. 

“It was very insightful, and I was taken aback by my lack of knowledge of the history of Aotearoa, New Zealand.”

During this time, she was working on multiple jobs - including overseeing publications at Depot, managing a shared studio space, Method and Manners on Upper Queen St, taking on freelance work as an illustrator and muralist, and event coordinating for Auckland Artweek. “It became really clear from He W’akaputanga Mai o te Rangatiratanga that I needed to dedicate some time to study, as I wasn’t at all comfortable with my level of knowledge on the subjects I was working with. I also had a lot of responsibility in my different roles, so I resigned from the Depot, Method and Manners and my role with Artweek, so that I could really commit to research and development of this current project.” 

New works by Erin Forsyth at Whitespace:

Pepeketua / Maud Island frog

Pepeketua / Maud Island frog Photo: Erin Forsyth

“I’ve been working a series of contemporary scientific style illustrations of native and endemic flora and fauna paired with simple descriptive information, for almost two years now,” Forsyth says. 

“Before I started, I noticed that the main work people refer to when discussing bird life here is Buller’s Birds, which is definitely beautiful, but is from the 1800s and doesn’t provide any up-to-date information about each species. 

“With plants it is often the Flora Series, which is a great reference tool, but maybe not so accessible for those without any botanical knowledge.”

Forsyth says neither of these works, or any other landmark works on the environment, are published in in te reo Māori. 

“People tend to talk about the wonders of biodiversity here in Aotearoa, New Zealand and some travel from all around the world to experience it. But as we don’t actually learn much about it in our schooling system, many New Zealanders don’t know what biodiversity means,” she says.  

“The term biodiversity refers to the biological diversity of an area - the diversity of ecosystems, habitats and plants and animals in a region. Because of the shape and location of Aotearoa, there is a wide variety of natural ecosystems - wetlands, grasslands, estuaries - and these are inhabited by largely endemic species (plants and animals not found anywhere else). Also, because of the relative geographic isolation from any other major landmass (the closest being Australia,) many of those species have evolutionarily distinct characteristics, as they have evolved very little when compared to related species found in other countries.”  

In New Zealand there are bats that crawl and burrow, frogs that don’t have tadpoles, flightless birds, fresh-water fish that go into the ocean to spawn and trees that are hundreds of years old. 

“I think most people would find this really exciting but there’s not huge opportunity for the average person to learn about it. I mean, I wasn’t sure if there were really bats here and I definitely wouldn’t have thought there was more than one type.”

Prior to this series, Forsyth was known for more psychedelic graphics for brands like Stolen Girlfriends Club, Jimmy D, Jane Sutherland, Damaged Goods Magazine, Tiger Beer, Converse and various punk bands and record labels. 

“I’m pretty comfortable working to brief - but for this project, it’s like I am my own client. I get to combine my skills as an illustrator, writer, editor and publisher and have complete creative control. 

“It’s pretty much my dream job.”

Talk us through some of your works on display: 

The pepeketua (native frogs) included are all endemic, not found anywhere else on earth. There are four species, all of which are in the Leiopelma genus. A further three species of pepeketua were documented, but have become extinct since European arrival.

Pepketua have evolved very little since Gondwanaland, having few natural predators to avoid, and are so-called ‘living fossils’ from another time. They have several unique characteristics: round (rather than slit) eyes, they do not croak regularly (if you hear a frog in Aotearoa it is an introduced species), they have no outer eardrum, and they do not have a tadpole stage -  but hatch as formed froglets, which are transported by the male, riding on his back! Only one species is semi-aquatic and spends some time partially submerged in shady stream-sides (L. hochstetteri). The others prefer the damp forest floor.

The Archey’s frog (L. archeyi) is number one on the EDGE species list – Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered, while the Hamilton’s frog (L. hamiltoni) is one of the rarest in the world with a population estimated somewhere below 300 individuals. But many New Zealanders have never heard of them.

Pepeketua / Archey’s frog with froglets

Pepeketua / Archey’s frog with froglets Photo: Erin Forsyth

Myrtaceae. Myrtle rust is a fungal infection, which damages and kills plants in the myrtle family Myrtaceae. It was discovered in Aotearoa for the first time in May 2017 and it is spreading. 

Myrtle rust may have devastating effects on endemic species including pōhutukawa, rāta and mānuka, some of which are already endangered and many of which are culturally and economically significant. 

If you think you see myrtle rust do not touch it or interfere, as this will only spread the disease. If possible, photograph the lesions and call the hotline: 0800 80 99 66

Kahu kowhai and myrtaceae

Kahu kowhai and myrtaceae Photo: Erin Forsyth

The pekapeka-tou-poto or lesser short-tailed bat (Mystacina tuberclata) is one of two species of native bat present in Aotearoa. A third, the greater short-tailed bat (Mystacina robusta), was last sighted in 1967 is considered extinct. 

These guys have short, velvety grey fur which forest debri easily brushes off. This is important, as they spend most of their hunting and foraging time on the forest floor - an unusual characteristic, as most bats catch their prey in flight or ‘on the wing’.

The pekapeka-tou-poto has the unique ability to fold its wings and tuck them up under a thick fold of skin close to the body. This enables their forearms and ‘thumbs’ (which protrude at the top of the wing) to act as front limbs. They use these, with their powerful back claws, to crawl and climb quite swiftly. 

Pekepeka-tou-poto roost in groups in old growth forests, often in the hollowed trunks of ancient kauri. These activities make them especially vulnerable to predation. The communal roosts are not dissimilar to tree-hole nests of many native bird species, in that they often have only one entry/exit point, so if a predator comes in they may become trapped. 

In one recorded incident, a single feral cat took out more than 100 in a matter of days. Although they have a good strong bite – one bit the keeper at Auckland Zoo, Debra Searchfield, while I was there filming a weigh-in – this tiny native, only the size of a small kiwifruit, just simply cannot defend itself from mammalian predators.

Another fun fact is this bat’s relationship with the pua o te reinga (or flower of the underworld) known to Eurpoeans as the wood rose or Dactylanthus taylorii. This is New Zealand’s only fully parasitic native plant. It grows underground, by attaching itself to the roots of a host tree. It is tuber-like in appearance, and shoots up male and female flowers while remaining hidden underground. The bats are attracted to its strong smell and have been seen with their little snouts covered in the dust of their pollen, aiding the pollination of this special plant in their activity. However the smell is also apparent to rodents and other predators, making this a risky business for the little bats. Another unusual aspect of the plant is it’s ‘wood rose,’ which is actually formed by the host tree in reaction to the parasitic attachment. This became quite a commodity of trade during the peak of European collection of natural ‘exotic’ obscurities in the1800s (this craze may be better described as a frenzy, when the devastation it created is considered). But it has since been discovered that the plant actually derives its nutrients from this ‘rose’ and to remove it is to kill the plant. Due to this collection and the browsing of introduced animals, pua o te reinga is now itself a threatened species. 

The first of the video series which comes out today October focuses on native bats. This first one has an interview Ben Paris, who works with the pekapeka-tou-roa, long-tailed bat (Chalinobus tuberculatus) and Deborah Searchfield from Auckland Zoo, who is the native bird specialist there, but also the keeper of the pekapeka-tou-poto. She’s given me some really great footage from her personal collection and I also got to film a weigh inside their enclosure, which was very special. I can’t wait to film more episodes! Each one will focus on a different species and feature an interview along with some snippets of me making the illustrations.

Pekapeka-tou-poto, lesser short tailed bat with Dactylanthus taylorii

Pekapeka-tou-poto, lesser short tailed bat with Dactylanthus taylorii Photo: Erin Forsyth

The paihamu/possum (Trichosaurus vulpecular) is the first work you see when you enter the gallery. There are some 30 million present on the mainland and they need to go! They eat almost everything in the bush, destroying an estimated 21 tonnes of plant matter every night. 

I have depicted the possum with a baby on its back (as they procreate really fast!) and eating the egg of the Kereru (Hemiphagus novaezealandiae) to show just how bad they are. 

I used a very tiny brush for this work, the same as was used to paint the individual scales of the lizards and it took maybe 40 hours to complete.

Predator Free 2050 is not soon enough! Possums suck eggs. Literally.

Paihamu/brushtail possum (Trichosaurus vulpecular)

Paihamu/brushtail possum (Trichosaurus vulpecular) Photo: Erin Forsyth

Tahi, rau, mokomoko. (Lizards on Tecomanthe speciosa.) The rationale for this work is a little complicated and differs somewhat from the straight anatomical studies. I had wanted to show the variety of lizard species that are present. There are over 100 identified species, with more that are yet to be officially named (receive taxonomic classification). I discovered that there are eight genera of gecko and only one genus of skink. I tabled information from various reports to ascertain which gecko species to represent. There is one from each of the eight genera and several skinks depicted. (Full list here)

They have such distinctive colouring and textures that many people never get to see. Of the known species, something like half are threatened in some way, mainly due to habitat loss or predation. So it seemed really important to have a work just about them.

The lizard has a very special place in tikanga Māori relating to the ngahere. Without assuming any authority in saying this, it has been widely observed and published that a lizard is often a representative or physical manifestation of the mauri (life-force) of a particular ngahere. In this role as mauri, it is a go-between to be respected for the ability to communicate with man and the spirit or under world. Mauri of a ngahere is also indicative of its health.

I think it is important, and I wish to observe this knowledge in my work. It is obvious, at least to me, that these animals have a powerful spiritual aspect to them and their health and abundance relates to the health of their environment. Out of respect, this work is positioned so it is the last work you see when entering the gallery. This custom relates so clearly to the concept of indicator species but also allows for so much more by respecting the intrinsic value of each individual animal. 

I have tried to capture the lizards’ likeness, suspended in time and space. The background is worked up layers of carbon black, pthalo blue and silver glitter, which is sanded and varnished to create depth. The lizards peer out at the viewer from the twisted Akapukaea (Tecomanthe speciosa) vine. There has only ever been one of these vines discovered growing in the wild, so to my mind it has it’s own mystery. Two of the skinks, to the left and right centre of the composition, I painted from photographs of study skins in the collection of Te Papa. I included these to add movement and suspense to the work, it is unclear if they are falling, floating, dead or asleep.

This was the final work I prepared for this exhibition and I was perhaps a little more contemplative when I envisaged the composition. The mark making is meditative and there was great pleasure in seeing them come to form.


🐉 🐉🐉 details of 'Tahi, Rau, Mokomoko - One, 100 Lizards' acrylic on board. I only finished this early Tuesday morning before install. It's easily the largest and most experimental piece currently being exhibited @whitespacegallery there are over 99 recognised species of native lizard (which the title alludes to) and more yet to be classified. Of those over 50% are threatened and at risk of extinction due to habitat destruction/degradation and predation (the main threats to most native fauna). The native species are gecko or skink (Tuatara are not lizards they are the last remaining Sphenodon spp.). One species from each genus of gecko is represented in this work along with several skink species. Most are geographically isolated so wouldn't naturally be found together. Here they are seen on a twisting vine of Akapukaea (Tecomanthe speciosa) of which there has only ever been one plant found in the wild. This beautiful vine has been cultivated extensively and is actually growing in the fernery of the Auckland Museum Botanical Gardens. The holotype was collected on Manawatawhi, Three Kings Islands by W.R.B Oliver in 1948 and remains in the Auckland Museum herbarium 🌿🍃

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What do you hope to achieve from this project, both personally and for the people who experience it?

Wow. I have many dreams for this project, but what people may take from it is hard to guess. I really hope this project will make information about these species not only more accessible but more appealing! I think frogs and lizards are beautiful and I want to show that in my work. I want to honour our indigenous language, knowledge and perspective that has developed over hundreds of years! I want people to know what riches we have here, so they will be inspired to improve their own environments - whether it’s trapping in their own backyards or planting trees with a local community group. Everyone can help! For me, I want to see and learn and paint more and more!

It’s a thrill to get to actually see the animals and plants I’ve been studying, to visit museum collections, captive breeding programmes, forest remnants and just get out and appreciate what there is here. I’ve spent so much of my life in the city and it is so energising to get out!

Another big part for me is meeting people, even if briefly, and learning how other people experience their environment. I typically work in a quiet room communicating with clients over email, alone except for my bird friend, so this is quite different. I get to learn so much every day I am working on it. Sometimes the knowledge is technical, sometimes scientific and sometimes cultural.


💅💅💅 #weekendvibes

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Work wise for me it’s a dream job where I am the client and so have creative control. I’m so used to being told what to draw or paint and even what aesthetic to use so this is a real treat. I’ve always been really wary of being pigeonholed for making a particular style of work, but nevertheless my work has been labelled ‘street art’ or ‘punk rock’. Although I acknowledge that I have had really great opportunities from working in these aesthetics and truly being involved in the subcultures they stem from, I’d reached a point where this style of work no longer challenged my technical ability as an illustrator. So yes, good to finally stretch my wings.

I guess I hope that, like me, if people understand why the plants and animals of this place (and the actual place!) are so special, and how human activity is impacting their chance of survival, they will be more connected to their role as kaitiakitanga or stewards of the environments they are connected to. 

At first I was hesitant because of my lack of knowledge, but now I am compelled by a sense of urgency. It really feels as though people need this understanding to take action. These are not just pretty plants and birds. They are living things that need understanding and active support from the people who share their environment to ensure their survival.

It’s taken me some time to realise my own commitment to this and that I don’t need to wait until I get a degree to do it. Most of the information I need is readily available and, though I’m no expert on the subject, I am sharing as I learn. I’m also interviewing people who are experts and making those interviews available online. It’s quite crazy how my unique skill set is actually helping to make this happen. 

The first works in the series are currently being exhibited at Whitespace Contemporary in Grey Lynn. Fine art reproductions and the first video interviews will become available today, [October 18] at 5pm. These illustrations will also later be later scaled down to produce learning sheets (illustrated posters with species names in te reo Māori, English and Latin and short descriptions and facts about what makes each one unique in Māori and in English).

There’s also a video series, the first of which comes out on today and focuses on native bats. Each video will focus on a different species and feature an interview along with some snippets of me making the illustrations. There are honestly so many amazing endemic plants and animals. I really see this as just the beginning.

Has it changed the way you view New Zealand?

I definitely am aware of how much there is to learn. Each area within the country has its own unique flora and fauna, and a people who relate to it. In recent years I have found it quite difficult to look at modified landscapes like farmland. I wonder what it would’ve looked like before European settlement. It sets off a lot of questions for me to travel past kilometres of irrigated land with a few scattered cattle and not a single tree. I don’t personally find anything that magical about the prospect of living in a country whose only animals are farmed, but it’s not about finger pointing either. I love this place and all the people that have found their way here. But the socio-economic and environmental trends that we are witnessing are concerning and it is not enough to rely on central government for change. These issues are resultant of action or inaction of previous generations.

What is left for future generations depends on our what we do today. I am also a nerd so I stop to look at plants everywhere I go and try to identify them in Māori, English and Latin - sometimes taking photos for reference.

Erin Forsyth's works are on display at Whitespace gallery, 12 Crummer Rd, Ponsonby, Auckland.