The tough life of a soil crust

By Andrea Wild

10 November 2015

2 minute read

Soil crusts can take hundreds of years to become fully functioning, biodiverse communities. Like cake replicas, they can be destroyed in seconds.

Soil crusts can take hundreds of years to become fully functioning, biodiverse communities. Like cake replicas, they can be destroyed in seconds.

“Don’t assume when you look out on an empty bit of land that there’s nothing there,” says Natalie Maras, artist in residence at the Australian National Herbarium, one of our natural history collections.

What is out there are soil crusts, communities of living organisms, like plants, fungi and lichens, that form a crust over the soil. Soil crusts anchor the soil in place, provide a home to critters and convert raw materials into forms more accessible by plants.

Such assemblages represent the perfect material for artists with a botanical bent and Natalie has developed an affinity with the subjects of her artistic residency.

“Soil crusts live at the interface of soil and air. They exist between two worlds, like the artist working in science. Unacknowledged, unrecognised, unknown, they perform a vital creative function. Their story is my story.

“One of my favourite experiences here involved kneeling in a drain with a scientist. We passed a hand lens between us to observe, and delight at, tiny Endocarpon fungi as people walked by not noticing us. This residency has taught me there is so much I had never looked for and never seen and how much artistic and scientific endeavour have in common.”

Now a full time professional artist, Natalie sees the role of an artist in science to view things in a different way.

“Botanical art has a long tradition, it’s centuries old. But photography and digital imaging have somewhat satisfied the need for artists to accurately record plant specimens. Today we can afford to bring an artist into a scientific space and just see what happens.”

In delicious happenings, throughout her residency Natalie has won over her science colleagues with sculptural cakes and other treats inspired by soil crusts.

Natalie’s soil crust-inspired sculptures and drawings will be on show during the Interface exhibition at the Australian National Botanic Gardens in Canberra from 11 November to 6 December 2015.

Video credit: Natalie Maras/Silver Dory Productions

This work was produced by Natalie Maras during her time working as Artist-in-Residence in the CSIRO Australian National Collections in 2015.