Wonder is such a positive emotion. It combines delight, discovery and gratefulness. For me, the place where I find wonder is in nature. I am inspired by the way that nature has found a way to live in every part of our planet, and the way that every lifeform is perfectly adapted to its unique role. Life itself and its myriad forms are truly wondrous to me.

Artist Patricia Piccinini standing inside Skywhalepapa 2020, commissioned with the assistance of The Balnaves Foundation 2019, purchased 2020 © Patricia Piccinini

When I am asked what the Skywhale is about I always return to the idea of wonder. I conceived of the Skywhale as a direct response to the extraordinary reality of the actual whales that inhabit our seas. When you think about it, they are pretty improbable. They are mammals, not fish. They evolved from small pig-like animals to make their home in the depths of the oceans. Like us, they breathe air and give birth to live young and breastfeed. Unlike us, they do all this underwater. Their breastmilk consists of a thick cream so it doesn’t dissipate in the water. That the biggest creature on earth, the blue whale, evolved from land-dwelling creatures with hooves is just wondrous.

Imagining that the whales’ ancestors might have evolved to be airborne is similarly improbable, but perhaps not impossible. After all, bats have done that and bats are also mammals. Bats aren’t birds — their wings are made up of skin stretched between their fingers and they give birth upside down.

A woman is seated at a desk drawing in a sketchbook

Patricia Piccinini sketches her skywhale family

The story of the skywhales begins with my sense of wonder at the process of evolution. It also comes from the realisation of just how lucky I am to be part of it. I am fortunate to be alive and to witness everything that the world has to offer.

Nature does not exist to serve me. It is not a resource for me to exploit. Yet somehow it is here for me. It nurtures and supports me. And so, the Skywhale was born. With her giant mammaries she is obviously a mammal and a carer. Perhaps her voluminous belly is full of levitating hot air from gas-producing bacteria, allowing her to slowly weave her way across the landscape catching the air currents instead of sea currents.

These ideas of wonder and luck are perfectly suited to hot air balloons. With their grand scale and majestic beauty they gracefully float above us. They inspire in us a sense of wonder. It’s inherent in the medium. We are lucky to see them because the conditions must be perfect. The weather needs to be just right for the skywhales to fly, so when they do it is even more special.

A giant hot-air balloon is ready for take off in a field. It is in the shape of a skywhale.

Skywhalepapa during a test flight in December 2020

I was so happy that the Skywhale was embraced by the Canberra community. She has featured on beer cans, in political cartoons and on tea towels. People have made ceramic, Lego, papier-mâché, glass and cake skywhales. I’ve even seen beautiful tattoos of the Skywhale on the bodies of people who love her.

People could imagine that she was a mother and I was often asked where her children were. So, eight years later, I am so happy to be able to answer that question with Skywhalepapa. In this new work we see the male of the species, and he is looking after the young ones. If Skywhale is about wonder, then Skywhalepapa is about care.

I don’t know if these skywhale babies are his or hers or their babies. What I do know is that they are both caring for them. The point of this work is that care is something that belongs to all of us. Care should not be gendered. Care is not a human thing. Care is something we can all share and it is the carers who are the heroes of our community.

Patricia Piccinini with Skywhalepapa and Skywhale

“When we see Skywhalepapa caring for his young we are reminded that care is not just vital, it’s admirable. I hope that Skywhalepapa shows us that caring is a theme that warrants making a grand and enormous artwork about, because it is rarely seen this way.”

Care is something that has never been more vital than it is today. Whether it is the pandemic or the environment, we need to care about the people and the world around us. It is care rather than selfishness that will turn things around.

I hope that when people see this giant creature looking after these little ones they will see this beautiful sign that everyone can care. Skywhalepapa is so strong and beautiful. He carries the children on his shoulders, in his arms and in his tail. He doesn’t let any of them fall. It’s a big job and an important job. I was inspired by my visits to the bats that roost near my home in Melbourne. In summer you can see them with their offspring, who must be held constantly until they are old enough to fly. I often think about them when I think about my own children, whom I wish I could protect in the same way.

Patricia Piccinini inspects the inflation of Skywhalepapa during a test flight in December 2020

One of the ways we have defined nature comes from the Darwinian story of competition. The idea of ‘survival of the fittest’ was a defining social story of his times and it persists to this day. However, another way of understanding the way nature operates comes from contemporary science and indigenous knowledge.

We now see that there is a lot of collaboration and cooperation in nature. Recently I read the theory that cells developed a nucleus by allowing another cell to come in and inhabit them, and this incoming cell then went on to become the organising part of the cell. This is evolution by inclusion rather than competition.

We now know that all life is genetically related and needs other life to survive. Like many, I believe the only way forward for humans is together with other animals. Other animals are just as evolved as we are and just as deserving. Perhaps ‘survival of the fittest’ is just a convenient way of justifying treating nature in a thoughtless and uncaring way.

A birds-eye view photo of two hot-air balloons in the shape of skywhales. They are tethered to the ground, but inflated and ready to take flight.

A test flight of Skywhale and Skywhalepapa was conducted in December 2020 in preparation for the Skywhales: Every heart sings national tour.

When we see Skywhalepapa caring for his young we are reminded that care is not just vital, it’s admirable. I hope that Skywhalepapa shows us that caring is a theme that warrants making a grand and enormous artwork about, because it is rarely seen this way. In the past, care, especially the care of children, was largely unheralded, underpaid and undervalued. However, in my lifetime I have seen a wonderful opening up of the idea of parenting, with more dads getting more involved in the work of raising children. I can only hope this might lead to a larger revaluing of care in general as a vital human responsibility.

When I think of the skywhales flying all over the country I imagine them as a wondrous celebration of the value of care. When I see them in the sky they make me reflect on the wonder that we can find in nature and also in the many diverse families that surround us, and their extraordinary stories.

This essay by Patricia Piccinini is from the March 2021 issue of Artonview.

More on Patricia Piccinini and the skywhale family

End of article.