Combining chemistry and Aboriginal art

Artist and scientist Stephanie Beaupark is combining her two passions for her PhD research.

Artist and scientist Stephanie Beaupark is combining her two passions for her PhD research into Eucalyptus dyes and culturally-safe research methodologies.

Stephanie Beaupark is a Ngugi woman and PhD Chemistry student looking to develop an Indigenous-led methodology for collaborations between Indigenous communities and researchers of hard sciences like chemistry.

Stephanie’s PhD will examine how academic and artistic collaboration occurs, and how current practices could be made more culturally safe for Indigenous people. As a case study, she will look at the chemistry of both traditional and contemporary culturally significant artmaking methods, such as using native plants to make eco dyes which she uses in her own artmaking practice.

The inception of Stephanie’s PhD case study can be traced all the way back to her second year of her undergraduate degree where an internship with the Centre for Atmospheric Chemistry saw her looking into Indigenous knowledges of the climate and weather patterns in Sydney.

“There was a seasonal calendar on the Bureau of Meteorology website, but we wanted to connect that to air quality and talk to people about that. So we developed our own set of seasons that was specific to western Sydney based on the last 30 years of weather data and local contemporary seasonal knowledge. The climate is very different depending on where you are and the time of year. The European model of four seasons is not applicable in many places in Australia."  

“This project inspired my interest in seasonal impact on Eucalyptus dye colour, because I was already making art with those dyes before the internship. I wanted to explore how the colour varies throughout each season, and I found that it does vary.”

That discovery was the basis for Stephanie’s honours thesis in 2020 where she looked deeper into the chemistry behind the colour variations. Her PhD is a continuation of the work she did then, with the additional exploration of collaborative methodologies.

“I want to extend that further by figuring out a methodology where hard sciences like chemistry can work alongside Indigenous communities, because this is quite a new area of research. It’s more focused on land management and caring for country, but I find that in the hard sciences like chemistry there’s a divide between community and the western science world. I want to bridge that gap through art.”

An artist herself, Stephanie hopes the PhD will allow her the opportunity to travel and collaborate with other artists in order to gain knowledge and create her own art using eco dyes derived from native plants.

“Depending on how Covid goes, I know there’s artists Australia wide who work with bush dyes, and I’d love to have a chat with them about their recipes and if they want those documented and to understand the chemistry more of how those dyes are made.

“I’d really love to go to Stradbroke and Moreton Island because that’s where my family comes from, and I’d love to connect more with my own country in that way.”

Stephanie is also a recipient of the Top Up scholarship for students completing their PhD, something she sees as a significant step for institutions such as universities in recognising the value of Indigenous knowledges.

“I think it’s an important part of supporting Aboriginal excellence, especially supporting those who are working with community and trying to make an impact for mob in their work. It just shows how far we’ve come in that we’re being shown respect, it demonstrates that our work and our perspectives are valuable to Western institutions like universities.” 

Supervising Stephanie’s PhD are Dr Agnieszka Golda and Professor Paul Keller. While both are non-Indigenous, Stephanie says both are very passionate and share her desire to answer the questions Stephanie’s research is asking.

“They have always been great at pushing me to make more, to do more, to be more. They have encouraged me to constantly push the boundaries of what can be achieved bridging the art and science worlds.”

Outside of her studies, alongside completing her honours project in 2020 Stephanie has recently curated an art exhibition hosted at the Wollongong Art Gallery. HERE+NOW: A Decolonist Visualisation of the Illawarra brought together emerging artists under the age of 30 from Indigenous and non-Indigenous backgrounds and showcased their works side by side.

“The exhibition was a way to start discussions within the Illawarra community about how important decolonising is to understanding each other and making a more inclusive world for future generations.”