Barbara Heath was born in 1954 in Sydney, New South Wales and currently lives in Brisbane, Queensland. Heath’s work – whether commissioned or ©Bh brand jewellery, major public artwork or bespoke architectural detailing – describes her distinctive approach to creating contemporary objects imbued with histories, narratives and symbolism. With an international exhibiting career spanning over 30 years and demonstrating her skills as an artist, jeweler and designer, Heath is represented innumerous public collections. She has worked in Brisbane for more than two decades and describes her studio practice as ‘Jeweller to the Lost’; a title that hints at the intimate collaborative nature of making meaningful objects to articulate personal stories on a human scale. ‘I work in a medium that is both precious and symbolic,’ says Heath, ‘in effect a sign language carried on the body; expressing ideas of continuity, belonging and inheritance.’ As the work crosses from human to large urban scale these narratives expand to scope ideas of place and of a collective history.
By the time Barbara Heath visited Horsham, the town and the surrounding Wimmera region of Western Victoria were in the process of recovering from a decade-long drought. To inform her work, which was initially to address issues of drought, Heath held a number of planned and fortuitous conversations with the assistance of Horsham Regional Art Gallery staff. Through this process, she came to focus on the changes in agricultural practices in the area. The list of people with whom Heath consulted is lengthy, but Dr Bob Redden, Curator Australian Temperate Field Crops Collection of the Grains Innovation Park, became her main contact. In an email of August 2011, Dr Redden wrote to Heath: 'Now with unprecedented population levels and growth, there is a risk of disconnect and taking food supply for granted, even with climate change. Humans will need to change if they wish to continue their increasing diverse interests, but will need to prioritise agricultural research, better understanding our available genetic resources, plant growth and development, and imaginative paths to harnessing science and truly earn the title Homo sapiens.'
Land race is Heath’s direct response to the urgency of maintaining biodiversity. Agriculture today requires economies of scale that change the social landscape and limit population diversity. This results in the erasure of many small communities, loss of connection to the past and cultural loss. Dr Redden explained his department’s work to ensure plant gene diversity by sourcing and saving seed from land race crops. ‘Land race’ is the term used to describe heritage seed varieties now being displaced by International Seed Uniformity Standards. Heath’s Land race series shows distinct levels, from colourful biodiversity in the soils at the base to the patterns of farming practices above. Each Land race also features a remnant plant species that reaches up and through the tractor track patterns: briar, apple and aloe.
In so many ways the blanket displacement of crop gene diversity mirrors the disruption of small ‘whole’ rural communities. Somehow the urgency of the hunt for remaining land race varieties, in the face of all the implications of risk inherent in the seed uniformity standard, might also mirror a way to resolve the social implications of escalating rural change. Barbara Heath 2011