Alison Lester - Antarctic Arts Fellow 2004-05

Alison Lester sits at a desk
Alison Lester
Alison Lester standing on Ross Sea

When children's author and illustrator, Alison Lester, travelled to Antarctica in 2005 as an Australian Antarctic Arts Fellow, thousands of children were inspired by her journey, using her online diary and photographic journal to track her adventure.

Every night Alison emailed an account of her day so that children could follow her trip from Tasmania, on the icebreaker Aurora Australis, to Mawson and Casey stations, on the Antarctic continent, and sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island.

Alison's project

I travelled south on the Aurora Australis with an open mind as to what sort of book would result from the experience. I also went as the eyes and ears of children around Australia. Every night I emailed an account of my day to schools and families, encouraging children to draw my descriptions. These would be used as elements of paintings for an exhibition called Kids Antarctic Art.

Within a couple of days of leaving Hobart I was bombarded with emails from schools all over the world, asking questions or wanting to join the project. A friend set up a web page to cope with the increased mail, and the project was underway.

There was plenty to write about. The first leg of the voyage to Mawson took two weeks. I described the vast Southern Ocean – some days glittering and wild, with albatross skimming the waves, other days shrouded in fog. One incredible evening it was as flat as glass, reflecting a stunning sky; red and orange in the west, and pink and green in the east.

I told the kids about life on the Aurora; how it was bad luck to whistle, the fabulous meals, the signs everywhere, usually of people running, how things had to be secured to stop them flying around in bad weather and the strange noises the ship made. My studio was an old photo lab and the ship's ballast system passed close to it. Working in this tiny, windowless space, as the water moaned and gurgled through the pipes, I felt as though I was in the belly of some prehistoric marine creature.

I spent most days writing, painting and taking photographs. On hearing I was going to Antarctica, many people had commented that there wouldn't be anything to paint, that it would all be white; but they were wrong. The colours in the sky and ice changed constantly and subtly; soft pink, brilliant turquoise, indigo and bronze. Dawn was the best time for photographs and often my footsteps would be the first ones on the snowy deck. I was usually rewarded; once by a huge tabular berg framed by a lemon sky, another time by a strip of distant ice, glowing orange on a cobalt sea, and later by a pod of orca spying on the ship.

My perceptions were constantly challenged by the environment. As we steamed into Mawson in fierce winds, I realised that the waves breaking against the rocks were in fact frozen. What I assumed was mist around the Framnes Mountains was ice! And I thought the ice itself would be like snow, not the hard, blue stuff we skidded on.

I asked the children I was emailing to draw in response to my descriptions of Antarctica and thousands of drawings were waiting for me when I got home. I used these drawings to create images of Antarctica; the kids’ drawings and my design and colour. Sometimes a single image became a picture, other artworks were made from a collage of many children’s drawings. There were lots of pictures of the Aurora Australis, ranging from a tiny dingy with a tree growing in it to a futuristic aircraft carrier. I could see the picture I wanted to make immediately. On the bridge of the Aurora is a screen showing all her tracks in the Southern Ocean, and this concept became 'All the Tracks of the Aurora Australis'.

The Kids Antarctic Art project resulted in an exhibition of forty artworks. It was first exhibited at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in 2007 and since then has travelled to many galleries around Australia and overseas. Limited edition prints of the images on paper and canvas are for sale and the profits from these sales go to the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne.

My journal entries became a children's book, after my editor suggested the story be told by a child. The book features Sophie Scott, whose dad is the captain of the Aurora Australis.

In 2013 Sophie Scott Goes South was listed as a White Raven book by the Internationale Jugendbibliothek in Munich.

It was also shortlisted for Picture Book of the Year, 2013 by the Children's Book Council of Australia and as Best Designed Children's Book by the Australian Publishing Association.

My Arts Fellowship was a magic ticket to a world I could never have imagined. I became instantly addicted to Antarctica and returned nine months later, as the media artist on a tourist boat. I feel privileged and grateful to everybody who shared their lives and stories with me and I hope my books and paintings will inspire others to get addicted too.

Alison Lester

An exhibition of artworks created by Alison and children from all around Australia, called Kids Antarctic Art had its first showing at the Tasmanian Museum and Art gallery in June 2007 with a tour following.

View the exhibition online

Alison has also written a book about Macquarie Island, together with fellow Antarctic Arts Fellow Coral Tulloch. In 2012, the book was awarded the prestigious Eve Pownall Award for Information Books, by the Children's Book Council of Australia. The book has also won the Wilderness Society's Environment Award for Children's Literature, and the Whitely certificate of commendation in the children's book category from the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales.