We first came across Morgan Allender for her wonderful work in flowers. Under the name Tenth Meadow, Morgan built a following with her unruly, wild arrangements and a small flower farm she so beautifully documented on her Instagram. Morgan has since pushed pause on this chapter, but is still courting nature’s perfection through her painting. Her works are large scale, other-wordly floral depictions, that silently capture the serene intimacy you feel when alone in nature. We talked with Morgan in her Adelaide studio about her art and affinity with the natural world.
Portraits by Maddie Fimeri.
You're a painter and passionate gardener who has also worked with flowers — can you describe your varied career path and why plants and flowers have always been intrinsic to what you do?
I think that so much of it is that early conditioning you receive as a child. My father is a nurseryman and my mother an artist and gardener. I grew up with plants and art as a natural part of everyday life; running around dad’s nursery covered in soil, watching them propagate cuttings etc. Mum taught me the names of plants and flowers as I learned to talk and I was lucky to live in a house with art on all the walls. I was taught to value art and nature as important, and needed, parts of our culture. So it’s been a natural progression, and the crossover between nature and painting unavoidable really, it’s hardwired.
Your paintings are dreamlike and abstracted with windows of realism. They capture nature at those magic hours of dusk and dawn with the beautiful incandescent light. Can you describe your aesthetic and how you play with scale and light?
My paintings tread boundaries between landscape and still-life, and realism and abstraction. Really they are about capturing a sense of time and place as I have seen it, and then translating that experience on to others. Usually this is centred around my experiences of being in nature. I’m interested in the binaries of nature and I hope that these complex opposites are in my work also, qualities like light and dark, delicate and weighted, calm and tumultuous, beautiful and brutal. I think people are like that too: contradictory. If my paintings speak to people in some way, if they see something of themselves in them or if they are moved or transported somehow, then for me they are successful. Light, colour and gesture are the parts of painting that interest me the most. I mainly work very large because I want the paintings to be experiential, to envelop the viewer, so they need to be bigger than human-scale.
Where did you study painting, and what artists do you look up to?
I studied at a small independent art school, concentrating on painting and art history (Adelaide Central School of Art). It’s an amazing school, built on the classical atelier system where all the teachers are practising artists themselves, and there is a gallery in the centre of the school, really inspiring and inclusive, everyone knows everyone’s name like a big family. Ten years later I am still studying painting everyday in the studio, it never ends.
My favourite painters are Howard Hodgkin, Claude Monet, Joan Mitchell, Hockney (the later landscapes). I love Loongkoonan, Hernan Bas and Per Kirkeby. I look up to Cecily Brown because she is so prolific, her work has a fearless energy; I follow her on Instagram and she seems to genuinely give zero f’s what people think and say, I’m still working on that.
How do you begin a painting, can you describe the process and time it takes, and do you paint these from a photograph?
I work from a combination of intuition and memory. When I begin a painting I have no idea of how it will turn out, how it will look, but I’m always trying to capture a feeling. The limitless potential of that feels so exciting. I begin a work by building up the paint in thin layers, or sometimes wilder energetic brushstrokes and the first layers are the part I love most, which I think is when I am working most freely, “in the zone” so to speak. Lately I have been making paintings that keep that sense of energy and abstraction right through to the finished piece. The other day my friend Jed called it “the slow descent into abstraction”, which I love. My newest works are all abstracts that evoke the feeling, or specific memories, of walks in nature.
I used to work from photographs more and now I just use them for colour inspiration, or if I need to draw a certain shape like a leaf or a blade of grass. The time it takes to make a painting is highly variable; it could be a week or it could be years.
There are so many wonderful written words on nature and flowers, do you have any favourite authors or poets that inspire your work?
I read a lot of nature writing, I tend to gravitate towards writing about travel, journeys, the seasons and being in nature, there is so much wonderful writing in this genre coming out of the UK in particular. Robert Macfarlane is fantastic, everything he writes is beautiful and gracefully worded and makes you want to be outdoors. I can honestly say his writing has changed the way I look at the world. I have recently discovered Mary Oliver, completely inspiring and life-changing writing and poetry. I am currently reading Ali Smith’s Autumn, and then Winter, wonderful.
What are some of the biggest lessons you have learnt from gardening and working with nature?
- That we can never control everything absolutely, that sometimes you just have to let go and let things roll (an important lesson for a perfectionist control freak like me).
- That things will grow and happen at their own pace, when the time is right.
- That there are forces much bigger than us at work, and we are so small, just a tiny part of something bigger.
- That there is beauty, inspiration and hope everywhere if you know where and how to look for it.
All of these lessons can be applied to people and situations, and also to painting. The parallels between the process of painting and the workings of the natural world have been the biggest inspiration in how I approach my creative practice,
Can you tell us about your beautiful property that appears in your Instagram?
It’s an 1850s stone shepherd’s cottage which we (my partner Justin Hermes and I) have been slowly fixing up over the past 8 years. When we found the place it was partly dilapidated with floors caving in and bats in the roof but it had so much romantic potential! And good soil for gardening! I signed the contract on the place without even going inside the house, I was so in love with the surrounding land which dips and folds around a series of dams in the valleys. We have a small parcel of land by local standards, about 5 acres, about an acre of which is cultivated garden with flowers and trees. This is where my painting studio is, in a converted hay shed. The rest of our land is inhabited by our beloved little flock of Southdown sheep.
Being an artist, how does your eye for colour and shape inform what your wear?
I am trying to be more fearless with my paintings, and similarly more fearless with what I wear. Dressing to please only myself, to feel good. Friends will point out that I dress to match my paintings, but I think it’s just about favourite colours. I like looking at muted, soft colours. I like clothes and artworks that have movement, that make you feel something.
Do you have a daily uniform?
I was going to say no, I’m not that organised, but maybe it’s yes, except I have two uniforms:
In the studio and garden I dress for necessity – both processes are messy and dirty and I need clothes that will move with me easily, protect my body and stay out of my way. Jeans and shirts, thermals, blue French-style work jackets. It’s not glamour and it’s hard to explain but sometimes I feel quite chic with garden dirt on my face.
The rest of the time, it’s dresses, blouses, mainly vintage. I guess I’m drawn to longer silhouettes that feel dreamy and romantic – soft colours, beautiful fabrics, delicate details. I like the nostalgia of vintage and vintage-inspired cuts. This way of dressing makes me feel the most powerful, it’s like an armour, and maybe also an escape, from the practical and the mediocre.
What is your most treasured piece in your wardrobe?
It’s something that I never wear but will always keep with me. A handmade appliqué vest stitched by my mother in the 70s (for herself). It is in various shades of rust and caramel with a stylised butterfly motif across the back.
What are some of your favourite plants and flowers?
Violets, regale lilies, species roses, waterlilies. Flowering trees, especially spring blossom, ornamental cherries. Stately trees – I hope to plant an oak arboretum one day for future generations, it’s a legacy I would be proud of.
What is a hardy, easy growing plant or flower everyone can grow in their garden?
Bulbs! They can be planted in a small pot on a balcony or in swathes of hundreds across a field, something for everyone. For me, no other type of plant embodies that childlike wonder of watching something grow out of the earth. You mentioned to me that you have been watching the snowdrops pop up out of the snow in your London front yard! Magic.