Orchids in the Blue Mountains: An invitation Into Mystery

sculptor joel mitchell

Artist Joel Mitchell with his sculpture in Blackheath. (Photo: Maja Baska)

Story by Hamish Dunlop

Artist Joel Mitchell tells the story behind his public sculpture in Blackheath, Reveal: A Celebration of Blue Mountains Orchids. He talks about his inspiration, the beauty of intergenerational collaboration and how the artwork, in-situ, invites us to experience the wonder of the natural world.

Key Points:

  • A new public sculpture, Reveal: A Celebration of Blue Mountains Orchids, was recently installed in Blackheath and opened at the All About Orchids event in March.
  • Artists Joel Mitchell hopes his organic, orchid forms will open people to a deeper awareness and appreciation of nature.
  • The project involved collaboration with artist mentors including local Terrance Plowright OAM, three generations of the Mitchell family, and Joel’s sculpture students at Wycliffe Christian School.

Joel grew up in Springwood but spent much of his childhood exploring the bush around Blackheath. He canyoned and climbed and ultimately became an outdoor guide in the Mountains.

“I’d be climbing on an escarpment and come across a flowering orchid growing out of a crevice,” he says.

“There was a real sense of discovery being in nature and finding beauty in unexpected places.”

blue mountains orchids

Endangered species: Corunastlyis reflexa – Reflexed Midge Orchid, Thelymitra atronidtida – Black Top Sun Orchid and Thelymitra venosa. (Sabine Hanisch)

As a child, he also relished visits to his grandfather’s orchid greenhouse in Earlwood. “I remember seeing him fertilising and watering the plants, really caring for them,” Joel recalls. “And then at a particular time of year, the incredible blooms would emerge. An extravagant kind of beauty just bursting out. It really captured me.”

The invitation

Joel hopes his organic, orchid forms will open people to a deeper awareness and appreciation of nature. “There are so many different habitats and microclimates and interconnections between plant and animal species. I hope my sculpture acts as an invitation for people to explore the natural world. To experience the sense of discovery and beauty I do.”

A detail of the sculpture at night. (Supplied by Joel Mitchell)

Family collaboration

One of the most special elements of the project for Joel was the intergenerational collaboration. “One of the things I love about more substantial projects is the opportunity to connect and work with all sorts of different people you wouldn’t normally have the context to work alongside,” he says.

Joel had hours of conversations with two senior artists, Australian and Blue Mountains local Terrance Plowright OAM and American artist Salem Barker. “Terrance is one of Australia’s great public sculptors,” Joel says. I have huge respect for Salem Barker as well. I was grateful to spend a week with him a couple of years back, learning in his studio. Over the course of this project, I discussed design elements and engineering challenges with them both. It was a valuable process.”

From left: Zac Mitchell, Dan Mitchell, Rob Mitchell, Joel Mitchell and Barry Mitchell.

From left: Zac Mitchell, Dan Mitchell, Rob Mitchell, Joel Mitchell and Barry Mitchell. (Maja Baska)

The project engaged members of Joel’s family too, including his son Zac. His cousin Dan Mitchell, a skilled metal fabricator, built a lot of the internal components. His cousin Rob Mitchell designed the lighting and his uncle, Barry Mitchell, built a lot of the circuitry. “It was lovely to have family in the creative space,” Joel explains. “Each person bringing a really valuable skill set.”

Joel’s son Zac is in year 10 and was involved in the project. “It was so special to have Zac as part of the team,” Joel says. “I taught him to weld, and he was involved in the metal fabrication at key points. He made an amazing contribution, and it was wonderful to see him building skills and collaborating. I was able to pay him for some of his work too: another way of recognising the important role he played.”

An artist in residence

Joel in the workshop at Wycliffe Christian School (supplied by Joel Mitchell)

Wycliffe Christian School in Warrimoo provided Joel with an artists’ residency to complete the project. This included a fabrication space and the use of tools and machinery. As a part-time sculpture teacher at the school, Joel was in turn able to provide his students with a unique opportunity.

“I was able to open up the space at lunchtime to a select group of students. They were involved throughout the project: from the conceptual design phase to installation. The students would come in with their boots on, put on protective gear and help at whatever stage the project was at. It was such a special thing to hand on knowledge and skills I’ve been generously given over the years. I hope I’ve helped inspire them to lifelong practices of creating.”

joel mitchell at wycliffe school

From left: Zac with Joel and two Wycliffe Christian School students hard at work. (Supplied by Joel Mitchell)

Treasures to be experienced

When the work was being installed and the lighting completed, Joel says people came up and were curious about what was happening. “I was very grateful for the people who came and chatted to us,” Joel says. “There was a real sense that people were responding in a deep and reflective way and that they were moved by the sculpture.”

orchid sculpture at night

The sculpture at night. (Supplied by Joel Mitchell)

Since the work was installed, there has been a range of community feedback, most of it positive. “There is a lovely layer of symbolism in the artwork’s location near the Blackheath Rotary Clock and Neate Park,” Joel says.

“We live in this extraordinary place, where we come upon special things that can draw us into a deeper relationship with nature. I love the fact that my artwork is one of those treasures to be experienced. I hope it helps connect people with the place we live in.”

All about Orchids

Joel’s sculpture, Reveal: A Celebration of Blue Mountains Orchids, was launched at the All About Orchids event held in March this year. The event was a collaboration between the Blue Mountains City Council’s (BMCC) Cultural Development Team and Blackheath Area Neighbourhood Centre (BANC). BMCC teams including Bushcare, Planetary Health, and Waterways and Environmental educators, were on hand to share information and field questions.

The wild plant rescue stall at the All About Orchids event.

The wild plant rescue stall at the All About Orchids event. (Maja Baska)

The afternoon included honey tasting, flower-themed face painting, live music, and plant stalls to help you create your own native garden. Locally-based organisations, entertainers, artists and community groups took part. Participants included Blue Mountains Wildplant Rescue, Blackheath Horticultural Society, Brooke Face Painting, live music by the Bonnie Doon Duo, Gundungurra artist Kelsie King, children’s entertainer Kate Reid, and artist Freedom Wilson.

The Welcome to Country was given by Gundungurra woman Kelsie King, followed by an introduction by Blue Mountains Mayor, Cr Mark Greenhill. Joel spoke about the sculpture and the making journey. This was followed by orchid specialists and authors Sabine Hanisch and Ben Jasiak speaking about orchids in the Blue Mountains and surrounds.

Mayor Cr Mark Greenhill introducing the event.

Mayor Cr Mark Greenhill introducing the event. (Photo: Hamish Dunlop)

A book about orchids

The second revised edition of Sabine and Ben’s book, Native Orchids of the Blue Mountains and Surrounding Areas was released in 2022. It is the most comprehensive photographic and taxonomic review of local orchids to date. Joel himself was inspired by the diverse range of Blue Mountains orchids that number more than 200 species. This includes Corunastylis reflexa, a species re-discovered after 145 years by Sabine and Ben’s 8-year-old daughter, Arabella Hanisch Jasiak, in 2023.

Ben says that orchids in biodiverse regions like the Blue Mountains are a symbol of resilience and renewal in the face of adversity. “Orchids have a remarkable ability to adapt and thrive in ever-changing environments. We have seen them colonise new habitats, reclaiming territories once lost to human disturbance, and thriving in unexpected locations.”

Sabine Hanisch, Ben Jasiak and their daughter Arabella signing books at All About Orchids

Sabine, Ben and their daughter Arabella signing books at All About Orchids (Maja Baska)

Caring for the land is caring for ourselves

Despite this resilience, Sabine and Ben believe orchid conservation requires collective action and responsible land management and use. They think we have something to learn from orchids too: “Let us all draw inspiration from orchids’ tenacity and work together to ensure their survival for generations to come, preserving their beauty and biodiversity for all to enjoy.”

Blue Mountains Mayor, Cr Mark Greenhill expressed his enthusiasm for Joel’s artwork and reiterated the importance of the Greater Blue Mountains Area as a World Heritage site. “We live within an extraordinary region that boasts a diverse tapestry of flora and fauna. Joel’s sculpture is a beautiful reminder of this, to be enjoyed by both residents and visitors to Blackheath alike.”


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This story has been produced as part of a Bioregional Collaboration for Planetary Health and is supported by the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF). The DRRF is jointly funded by the Australian and New South Wales governments.

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About Hamish Dunlop

Hamish Dunlop is a writer, visual artist and environmentalist. During his career he has worked in communications, as an academic at UNSW and ACU and more recently in the conservation space. He is currently completing a Diploma in Conservation and Ecosystems Management. He lives on the bush in Medlow Bath and is a passionate bush walker, gardener and cold-water enthusiast.

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