It’s quite the spectacle: using mediums from glass-blowing to video, 13 local artists, finalists for the biennial Waterhouse National Science Art Prize, have turned the shapes, colours and mathematics of nature into stunning pieces, now on display at the South Australian Museum. We caught up with them for a chat about their work.

Malcolm Koch’s Lithium Mesh appears to be an abstract work, but flip the canvas and you’ll find it covered with equations and notes on the nature of atoms. Koch “paints” in what he calls “quantum brushstrokes”, drilling through folded plastic at various points to represent the physical nature of atoms.

“We can’t actually see things at the quantum level, but we can understand it mathematically,” Koch says. “If we can understand and visualise these things, we can better deal with the scientific issues of our time.”

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Climate change is a consistent theme in this year’s exhibition. Mikiah Nguyen’s Bleached is a bubbling underwater scene warning of the demise of the Great Barrier Reef. “Sadly, the coral is dying,” Nguyen says. “I hope my work leads to something being done about the reef and the planet.”

Migrant Sara Farizeh’s The Wheat Field calls for environmental action and investment in renewable resources. She spent five months painting her entry, while working full-time in IT.

“Back in Iran, I went to a wheat field, worked a lot on the soil and seeded it, but I didn’t get a chance to see the wheat growing before I migrated to Australia,” she says. “When I finally saw an image of the wheat field I started crying. I felt I’d missed something that I didn’t quite treasure enough.”

Cathy Beckwith’s piece Land Marks is an observation of the Flinders Ranges and the contrast with the region’s man-made elements.

“What I like to do when I paint is start with a basic structure, but fill it with little pockets of chaos,” she says. “I want to blend a bit of botanical, natural form with architectural elements. Land Marks explores the alliance between human creation and nature, which is reaching a critical point in the 21st century.”

Madeline Prowd’s glass-sculpture work Eucalyptus Pauciflora is based on the natural shapes and colours of snow-gum trees. “My inspiration comes from the form and colour of the Australian landscape, but also the idea of regeneration.”

Jill Lipsett’s painting Retina is an artistic depiction of the human retina. “In my work as a pathologist, looking down microscopes every day, I’ve always thought how beautiful the tissues are,” she says. “We walk around with all of that inside of us and people just have no idea.”

Sami Porter also took the close-up approach. Prolific Virtue is a sculptural work depicting microscopic pollens, based on her university thesis. It portrays part of the process of plants being born. “The ceramic sculptural work details an imagined supposition of life spilling forth.”

Miniature metalwork by Paul Zalkauskas, titled On the Move, also celebrates the “little things” in life. “It’s the contrast of man-made car and nature’s beetle,” he says. “It could be driving on a road, or crawling along the dirt.” Zalkauskas blurs the lines between nature and contemporary creation.

White Fella Fish Trap by Victoria Beresin also blurs this line, taking consumerist, industrial civilisation back to more nature-focused times. Her piece, inspired by the animal traps handmade by Indigenous Australians using natural fibres, is constructed from hundreds of discarded soy-sauce bottles.

“I wanted to build a fish trap out of our [modern] materials, with a focus on recycling and using what’s available,” Beresin says. “If we were perhaps a bit more modest in what we take from the oceans and rivers, we would probably have a better chance of survival.”

In a short video work, called Murder Mystery, Anne Glam portrays the almost unearthly movements of jellyfish. Glam’s piece highlights “how life in the ocean is going to change, with the water becoming more acidic and more polluted”. The screen fading to black after a jellyfish “attacks” the camera implies death.

Bronwyn Kirkman’s Albert’s Basket – A Gift to the Gods and Jayraj Somers’ Nature’s Persistence also made it through to the final round of the prize. Kirkman’s nest of gold-leafed animal bones asks what we value in life, while Somers’ infinite hallway of lights, held for a moment in the varnished trunk of a tree, makes us wonder if anything could last forever.

The exhibition’s works are as varied and charming as nature itself. Our talented South Australian finalists tackle some of the greatest environmental issues of our time, explore minute patterns of life and encourage us to appreciate the world around us. See it while you can.

The Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize exhibition is showing until July 31 at the South Australian Museum, North Terrace, Adelaide, from 10am to 5pm daily.