Seeds of Change

Kaleigh Rusgrove, visiting Fulbright Scholar 2019, Master of Fine Arts

Visual artist and Fulbright Scholar Kaleigh Rusgrove is illustrating environmental issues during her exchange from the University of Connecticut.

American student Kaleigh Rusgrove muses that it’s a rare opportunity for an artist to have the luxury of making art while not having to juggle a job. Thanks to a Fulbright Scholarship undertaken here in Australia at Western Sydney University, Kaleigh has plenty of time to focus on the visual stories she wants to share about our changing environment and possible futures.

Kaleigh credits her grandfathers on both sides for motivating her to make art with a camera. They were prolific nature photographers – migratory birds and beach sunsets mostly – who encouraged her to enjoy the adventure of capturing a moment in time as much as the final print.

“I started as a child with disposable cameras left over from parties,” she reminisces. “I’d set up little photoshoots with my sister and friends, hanging up a bed sheet as a makeshift background… then my family had a point-and-shoot with a sliding cover I was allowed to use and I slowly learned Photoshop on the family computer.”

Although she learned the craft of making prints from film during high school, Kaleigh says she’s always much happier making a beautifully crafted image in-camera, rather than putting hours into development and image manipulation.

“I think light is everything,” she says. “It’s what makes us feel something when we look at a photograph, it gives a certain mood or sense of time and place. We can bring a viewer to have the same experience, or even tap into subconscious memories.”

It’s a rare opportunity for an artist, she muses, to have the luxury of not having to juggle earning a living while making art. Thanks to a Fulbright Scholarship, Kaleigh has plenty of time to focus on the visual stories she wants to tell about our changing environment and possible futures.

“I started with climate change as a topic for my work and I felt overwhelmed because it’s such a broad issue,” she notes. “So, I’m focusing on seeds after learning about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which was reported in the media as a Doomsday bank. Every time I go out to the Australian PlantBank (a seed bank in the Australian Botanic Gardens, Mount Annan) I find out more about climate change from the scientists’ experiments and research.”

She’s discovered many of the seeds stored in the PlantBank, like any seed we might have at home, are only potential lifeforms. A surprising number simply won’t germinate, despite our efforts. Given the PlantBank represents some of our finest efforts at conserving native plant species, there’s a lot more work to be done on finding the best ways to nurture seeds for revegetation if we want to repair the Earth.

“There are mysteries of seeds and plants that aren’t figured out yet,” she explains. “It’s not a done deal that we can just plant more. We all need to be doing everything we can if we want the future to be hospitable for generations to come.”

Kaleigh enjoys sharing her new-found knowledge about the fragility of nature with everyone who sees her art or hears her talk at a public event, hoping that they will choose to live a life that’s better for the environment.

As well as regularly visiting the PlantBank, Kaleigh is exploring other life-improving research, such as experiments with EEG (electroencephalogram) devices at Western’s Campbelltown campus aiming to discover more about the causes and potential new treatments of dementia. And she’s particularly grateful for the guidance of her mentor Dr Michelle Catanzaro, Senior Lecturer in Design at Western’s Parramatta campus, who has introduced her to incredible research programs across the University community.

“Everyone at Western is very welcoming, allowing me to come out to meet them, taking some time out of their day to show me around,” she says. “Each opportunity leads to another one, helping me with my work directly or giving me access to their space or their research. I’ve learned there’s a lot of trial and error in areas such as science – and in a lot of ways that makes me feel like my own practice is okay too. We’re all trying things and hoping for the best.”

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About the Imagined Futures Project

“Imagined Futures is a project in collaboration with the Australian PlantBank of the Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust in Sydney, Australia. This project will document the facility’s seed bank and research efforts as well as narrative photographs depicting how these seeds could be used in the future. The images will reflect the importance of assessing current environmental practices and personal ethics for the future.”