In an elegant studio hidden under an old Queenslander house, one of Australia’s leading designers creates metal marvels inspired by the subtropical environment.

A jeweller since the early 1970s. and now a designer of public sculpture, 45 -year-old Barbara Heath’s life experiences are international and urban; she has studied in Melbourne, New York and San Francisco, and exhibited in Australian cities and in London, New York and Japan. Yet she feels her work owes its greatest debt to her local Brisbane environment; particularly to the lattice shade structures used in traditional tropical housing.

“My work is fairly simple, classic designs; I often have two geometric screens across one another,” she says, describing the basic mesh structure of many of her gold, white gold and platinum rings, brooches and necklaces. “It’s a very Queendland thing, (evoking) the shady protection of lattices filtering light into houses, and the play of light through tropical vegetation. I love these concepts of light and shade, the public versus the private space.”

Heath, who shares her old Queenslander with her husband, designer Malcolm Enright, a dog, two cats and a parrot, has lived in Queensland since 1983. But she still talks about the place with the passion of a newcomer making discoveries. “I arrived here on a yacht that I built with my previous partner in Sydney. We sailed up and down the Queensland coast, came to Brisbane and parked in the Brisbane River, and thought, ‘this is fantastic’.”

The venturesome spirit that led to the yacht trip was evidently instilled during a peripatetic childhood. Heath was born in Sydney, and her father’s work as a banker took the family to Melbourne, Wagga Wagga and to England (where she did her primary schooling) and back to Melbourne. Heath studied gold and silversmithing in Melbourne and Sydney before starting up her own studion in Brisbane.

“It was fantastic for me to be in Brisbane at that time (in the early 1980s),” she recalls. “I got a studio in the Metro Arts building and there was a strong creative force here, with a very stimulating and supportive arts community. It was a crucial aspect of my finding my feet as a designer.” Yet, as Heath points out, sales and commissions were often thin during the ’80s, causing many Queensland artists to “drify away” to greener pastures. “I think that’s changed now, which is very exciting for Brisbane,” she says, citing the new public arts policy as one of the factors now persuading artists to remain in Queensland. “Obviously, (the public arts policy) is going to afford an opportunity for local artists to do what they are good at. It’s also going to mean that we get local people exprerssing local issues, concerns, responding to the local energy.”

She adds: “The days are over that we need to get a big name overseas artist for our art. We’re not making the city beautiful for visitors . . . we’re making it meaningful for ourselves. We’re starting a dialogue: people say they like or dislike (a public artwork); maybe they’ll demand this kind of thing. But they actively engage with the work and have a feeling that the city identifies who they are.” The reaction of Brisbanites to public art is something that Heath can speak of with authority. Her first public art commission last year – a metal mesh sculpture called NET, resembling an outsize basketball net or an Aboriginal fishing net, affixed to the exterior of the Neville Bonner building at 75 Wiilliam Street – attracted a lot of comment, most of it favourable. And Heath’s next foray into the public art arena is likely to raise a few eyebrows. A sculpture called A TREE, A ROCK, A CLOUD, it will be installed by the end of this year at the corner of Creek and Elizabeth Streets. Described as a “transparent” rock, the piece will be constructed from stainless steel lattice panels (forming a rock-like pyramid) and will sit in a still pool of water. It will be surrounded by a golden cloud.

Heath says the new sculpture will respond to the nearby grouping of ancient fig trees and is intended to create a place for quite contemplation and appreciation for the stillness in nature.

About the time the new public sculpture is unveiled, Heath will be presenting an exhibition of jewellery at Craft Queensland gallery.  Titled “A little birdy told me”, the show will explore the symbolism of bird imagery.  Though Heath says she “never anticipated” that she would be designing large-scale sculpture, she seems to have no problem making the switch from small to large-scale design.

Of course, a good design which is symetrical and structurally strong should be capable of almost infinite enlargement. But perhaps it also helps that Heath thinks of all her work – whether for people or buildings – as a kind of adornment. She puts it this way: “I almost feel it’s jewellery for the building, a special little focus for that particular building or site.”