Written by John Williams, Images by Samuel Hartnett
Walking, however, was the solitary ‘freedom’ we were all given during lockdown. It was something to look forward to, no matter how routine it became.
It was on these ritual walks around her Freemans Bay neighbourhood that Karin began to take note of all the plants and flowers that she would have usually passed by without so much as a glance. She started to pick samples, bring them home, and study them, rekindling a passion she had always had for early botanical drawings – particularly those of one of her heroines, Mary Delaney (see sidebar), who made intricate paper collages of flowers and plants.
“I had been thinking about plants for some time but hadn’t formulated exactly what I wanted to do [with them]. I had craft supplies in my cupboards for the grandchildren, some crepe paper, wire, glue and coloured chalk – just ordinary things. I thought, well, I can do something [with these]. I’m a woman of my time. I can sew and make things,” she smiles.
During the first lockdown, whilst many of us were grappling with the then-novel concept of working from home, interior designer Karin Montgomery was uncovering a latent talent for making incredibly detailed plants and flowers from crepe paper, twisted wire and chalk. And, what started as curiosity, has burgeoned into three sell-out exhibitions of her work.
Karin quickly realised that she needed better quality raw materials – and more of them. She headed down a rabbit hole, researching products and suppliers, who, she discovered, were mainly in Germany and Italy. At that time, New Zealand was still getting deliveries relatively quickly. So she bulked up on specialist products, glues, powder paints, and coloured crepe paper.
“I also looked on YouTube: how to make flowers out of crepe paper. But they were all a bit naff – left me cold. Also, I’m not very good at following instructions. I get confused. I’m more of a hands-on, figure-it-out-for-myself sort of person. So I learned by making errors. I am a very determined person.
Karin experimented by soaking papers in water and dying them, then dying them again with a different coloured dye, to get the exact shades she needed. She also manipulated the paper to be thicker, thinner and finer – and stretched it and added a film to give her leaves and petals a shine.
Who’d have thought, good old crepe paper – the stuff we all used to make our Christmas decorations back in the 70’s, could be used to produce such fine and beautiful objects.
“I very quickly became very engrossed. I was absolutely in awe, and I still am of the plants,” says Karin, reaching out to a glass vase of red nerines and magnolia leaves sitting on her dining table. “I’m doing these right now. I need a few because I pull them apart to see how they’re formed. With Nerines, the flower comes out of this onion-skin, then you
get these buds, and out of them, you get all these flowers. It intrigues me incredibly. Nature really is absolutely incredible. It’s a cliché, I know, but nature is amazing.”
Once started, Karin moved ahead reasonably quickly. “My first efforts were pretty shameful and poor when I look back now. I used to go out into my garden and hold them up to my neighbours, and take pictures of them and send them to my two sons,” she laughs.
When the country re-opened six weeks later, Karin found she had amassed quitea collection.
Soon after the lockdown lifted, she and a friend visited Anna Miles’ gallery, just off K-Rd. In passing, Anna asked them what they’d been up to during lockdown, and Karin duly showed the images of her flowers. And that was that.
“Anyway, later that day, I got a call from Anna, asking if she could come and have a look [at the flowers], so that’s how it started. It was Anna, not me, who saw a little something there.”
Anna asked Karin whether she would like to put her flowers into a group show at her gallery. She agreed, and it sold out. There was then another group exhibition last December, which also sold out. And she has just wrapped up her first solo exhibition, showing 25 new creations – most of which had sold at the time of writing.
“More flowers, I have to say. I’m passionate about them. I absolutely adore making them, so it’s back down the rabbit hole. I love, as we called the last show, the minores – the unacknowledged. We don’t really acknowledge the magnificence of the plants and flowers around us. We might pick up the odd bunch from the dairy from time to time, but no one really looks at them – really looks at them.”
Does she feel she is documenting the plants – a latter-day Mary Delaney, if you like?
“Yes, I do consider them [to be] specimens. They are botanically correct. And because I’ve done them in paper, people look at them closely, as they should the real thing, but they don’t.”
Karin says that it’s also about capturing a moment – not necessarily when a plant is at its pristine best, in full bloom, but also in Autumn. “There’s beauty in the other end [of the lifecycle], not the new Spring growth, which is very lovely, but the part where everything’s getting a bit crinkly and falling apart – a bit like all of us. And that’s quite wonderful, too.” she laughs.
And, unlike freshly picked flowers, which are so ephemeral – they’re cut, they die, and then they’re gone – Karin’s flowers will keep their fresh looks – and their detail – for many years to come.
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