Two Tears In A Bucket

The subject matter of Denise Pepper’s first solo in five years is personally traumatic, with profound messages conveyed through the unusual language of floriography.

LYN DI CIERO

♦ Denise Pepper in her studio. Photo Lyn DiCiero. 

Disenchanted with the arts and facing the prospect of her first solo in five years, Denise Pepper came up with the title Two Tears In A Bucket for her exhibition at Stala Contemporary, slang she says for ‘f***k it.’ “It’s how I felt at the time,” says Pepper. She began creating a body of work with little meaning, until she was suddenly confronted with the shocking domestic violence murder of a young woman she knew who left behind a 5-year-old son. “A friend of ours, his grandmother, is now raising this 5-year-old boy, but I was so consumed by the horror of this situation that the whole body of work had to be pushed away, and I couldn’t go back to it.” As she continues, Pepper quietly and unconsciously clenches her fists in a sign of confusion, anger and anxiousness, bravely revealing her own father had been bashed and murdered some 20 years ago in Townsville, the perpetrators later caught. It is clear the emotional pain is deep. She says this latest incident sent her into post-traumatic stress. “I don’t think I ever dealt with all that stuff 20 years ago,” she says.”You don’t realise how things kind of sit dormant in your stomach.”

Pepper graduated from Edith Cowan University in 2006 and has exhibited widely since. Her highly crafted and unapologetically decorative works have won a swathe of awards over the years, yet after nearly 20 years of creating both large and small-scale much-admired sculpture and being involved in countless exhibitions she says preparing for Two Tears In A Bucket has been her most challenging. “We can put words in the newspaper, we can say things on the news, words get spoken, but we no longer listen to words anymore I think.” She became fascinated by floriography, the hidden symbolism of flowers, used to convey messages for thousands of years across different cultures, and popularised in Victorian times as a way of communicating without words. “Back then people were very polite,” says Pepper. “You could wear a bouquet, and if it was a pink and white striped carnation for instance, it would be, ‘I’m sorry, I’m not interested in you’.” 

Using floriography as the vehicle for her message about domestic violence in Two Tears In A Bucket, Pepper’s work flourished. “I wanted to approach it in a gentle way, not in a brutal way and not in your face. It’s a very sensitive subject. So I really wanted to approach it with sensitivity,” she says. 

The result is a whole spectrum of coloured flowers which have been suffocated with an acrylic compound and then spray painted. “They are a flower, but they’re no longer that flower,” she says. A suite of bunches of treated flowers are intended to run along a wall. “Each flower will have a metal tag attached to it as in a botanist tag, but they will have words, and those are words that I am giving to those plants, not necessarily what the plant meant in Victorian times, because they’re being kind of modified,” she says. Australian flowers have been included, with Pepper giving them words and symbolism, such as bottle brush for resilience, and Sturt’s Desert Peas for courage, but she says many will have double meanings. “I think if a person came and saw the exhibition, they would not necessarily know what the work is about because it does not have that dark representation,” she says. “They could accept it for its meaning as referencing domestic violence, or they could accept the work purely as a work of beauty.”

Pepper, still working through trauma issues, says she has good days and bad days. “The exhibition carries trauma. It hasn’t even been 12 months since this incident or this trauma happened, so I’m still very emotional about it. I try to be very brave, but quite often, my husband and I still cry about it.” 

Two Tears In A Bucket is on show at Stala Contemporary from 15 June to 6 July.

Soured Milk, detail, by Denise Pepper. 

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