The Leap Stories #83: Natasha Morgan from landscape architect to multi-disciplinary creative

When Natasha Morgan drove to Daylesford in regional Victoria dreaming of purchasing a weekender for her young family, her life paradoxically both fell apart and fell into place.

Natasha is trained as both an architect and landscape architect, and pulling up the driveway of Oak and Monkey Puzzle with its wide spaces, colonial plantings and historic homestead she was beckoned to claim it as her own – not as a weekender but as her main residence. It was a clarion call after a few years wandering the ether of new motherhood, juggling professional roles, and experiencing unprecedented anxiety (a common byproduct of caring for babies who won’t sleep). As a designer of ‘space’, Natasha could suddenly envision a unique, creatively crafted life that would allow her to combine her professional training and personal curiosities in ways she couldn’t in her city and corporate spaces.

Natasha sold her ‘never going to sell’ property investment in the city, resigned from her professional career and went about reinventing her life at Oak and Monkey Puzzle. Today Natasha runs and hosts workshops and events, sells homemade produce and flowers from the gardens she tends, offers consultancy and is in the process of building an accommodation offering.

But that’s not what she set out to do on that drive to Daylesford. Natasha was invited, pulled, downright wrestled to the ground to make the property her own. It demanded she claim a space to honour the curiosities and callings that lived within her.

I once heard a quote by modern day philosopher Alain de Botton that said…

People only get really interesting when they start to rattle the bars of their cages. – Alain de Botton

Professions can become cages. So can absolutes and expectations. And locations. Perfectionism is certainly a cage. Natasha Morgan is a rattler. Maybe you are too.

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Beautiful Natasha, founder of the wonderful Oak and Monkey Puzzle. Photo by Armelle Habib with a story by Heather Nette King for Fairfax Media.

What did you want to be when you grew up and why?

As a kid, I don’t think I ever knew. There were things I loved doing, but there wasn’t a label that seemed to fit. My childhood memories of the things that made me happy were explorations, plants, flowers, growing things, the natural world and a sense of independence.

Being raised as the daughter of an immigrant there were high expectations to achieve and make something significant of myself, relegating childhood loves and explorations into ‘hobbies’.

Independence, especially financial independence, were things that were modelled to me growing up. As a young girl I was told to never rely on a man. I was never told I couldn’t do something, in fact, I was raised knowing I could achieve anything; anything I wanted at all – if I worked hard enough.

As I got older an internal pressure and set of self-imposed expectations grew. I placed value on what I did rather than who I was and measured my worth as a human in this way. I toyed with the idea of medicine later in high school but after spending eight months away from school in year 11 with a serious illness, I realised that whilst helping people through medicine was an admirable profession, it wasn’t my calling.

From here I was lost, seeking the advice of careers counsellors, undertaking personality and vocational testing, searching for a label that would seem to fit.

Through this process, one of the professions suggested was architecture, something my step-dad had suggested many times whilst growing up. I was creative. I could draw. I was interested in the cultural world around me.

What did/do you study?

As a deep introvert, for all but the most recent years of my life, I’ve spent much of life observing, studying, and modelling the things around me. I never felt comfortable trying things I wasn’t sure I could be really good at. The fear of failure, of looking silly, is something I’m still learning to overcome.

And yet ironically from a young age, I was empowered with all sorts of extracurricular opportunities: holiday camps, study and life skills camps (often on my own and sometimes interstate), alternative and seemingly esoteric practices and philosophies, occasional dinners at top restaurants with famous international chefs, opera, ballet, musicals. It was a rich and varied intellectual, human and cultural education and one that I don’t think will ever stop.

Three years into an architecture degree the excitement faded. I was yearning something more. I struggled and avoided classes. My self-esteem took a big blow as I fell further and further behind. I was convinced I was one of those students the lecturers knew were never going to be any good. But my persistence and tenacity have always been greater than the desire to give up. I’m a believer in ‘doing’ something rather than ‘trying’. At 26, after literally torturing myself for several years battling architecture, I took on landscape architecture as a double degree, giving a context to the last few semesters of my architecture studies and for the first time finding myself in a place where I felt like I fit.

Completing degrees in architecture and landscape architecture gave me a rigour in critical thinking and design investigations. Feeling like I fit gave me a confidence I’d never had before.

Practising landscape architecture with one of the country’s most esteemed firms, of which six years were spent working on a botanic garden of international significance and numerous awards, honed my technical, design and project management skills. Most importantly working on a project of this calibre and at such a high level gave me permission, once I had my first child, to explore other aspects of my creative interests. Whilst still working part-time I undertook business seminars, floristry and other creative workshops and later additionally worked part-time with an extraordinary florist. I haven’t stopped studying or learning since.

 

 

What has been your most scary/courageous leap you’ve ever made (preferably in your business/career/life direction)?

In 2013 I found a country property that had me captivated and utterly inspired. Throughout my two maternity leave periods (18 months apart) I spent time making lists of the things I loved doing, the things I was passionate about, and it wasn’t until I serendipitously found Oak and Monkey Puzzle, 15 minutes from Daylesford, that for the first time I could see how my academic background teaching in landscape architecture, my professional practice, interests and creative aspirations could come together in one person and one place.

This place spoke to me in a way that left me no choice. I literally said, “Fuck! How am I going to make this happen?” I sold my retirement fund – the investment property I was never, ever going to sell, and four months later we sold our family home in the city.

I called this new venture ‘Natasha Morgan’ as it’s the only thread that held it all together. I asked some dear friends and colleagues Caitlin Perry and Tom Harper to work with me on the branding and website, found the most amazing stylist Stephanie Stematis and photographer Lauren Bamford, asked Amber Creswell Bell to look over the copy I had written, drew the illustrations myself and showed no one until I was completely and wholeheartedly happy with it all – not even my partner at the time of 11 years.

This was all about me and if I was happy that’s all I needed. I didn’t want anyone’s approval or critique. It just had to feel 110% me and I had to absolutely love it.

When all the bits were pulled together, the website went live and we pressed go on launch day, there was this unbelievable fear. All I had was an Instagram account where I recorded my tree change story, a press release and website. My business, that had never had a ‘client’ walk through the door, was based in rural Victoria 15 minutes from anywhere. I didn’t even have mobile reception here. What if I was beckoning out to the ether, putting everything on the line, and there was no one to listen, no voices on the other side? It was an incredible leap of faith and a gut-wrenching moment. Thank goodness voices started listening from the other side.

 

What were you doing before you made your leap?

Life had been a roller coaster since I became pregnant with my first child in 2011. I had been working intensively and almost exclusively on The Australian Garden Stage 2, Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne for six years. I was craving immediacy to my endeavours and I was feeling that there were other aspects of my creativity that needed to be nurtured. I just couldn’t seem to work out how to bring them together into something cohesive.

Our old home in the city was a scout hall and the hall (our living space) was cloaked with several chalkboards. Over a period of three years, I scribbled quotes, inspirations and the things I loved doing. I was sure that I’d have it sorted, clear and mapped out by the end of my first maternity leave. Ha!

I had always been the sort of person that over prepared for ANY scenario, was already thinking 10 steps ahead, and was diligent, systematic and organised. I had postponed my maternity leave twice to make sure I had tied up any possible loose ends in my senior landscape architecture role. I’d briefed staff, systematised every aspect of the project I was working on and had spreadsheets linking documents and tracking all the issues.

Twelve weeks after having my first child, for the first time in my life, there was something I could not control. I mean for fuck’s sake I could manage the design and delivery of $15 million internationally award winning botanic gardens but I could not get my child to sleep. I felt raw and exposed. I felt helpless. I felt disconnected and terrified.

I learnt for the first time that I had spent my whole life building the most magnificent and hole proof armature to counter uncertainty, the fear of failure and ensuring I was good at everything I set my mind to. Life felt like it spun out of control. I stopped going out. Avoided visitors. Life revolved around darkened rooms and getting a tiny person to sleep. I sought out help. I was told I should ‘go for a walk’. I joined a support group and commenced a long journey of getting to know myself.

When I returned back to work part-time a year later I had no more answers than were already on those chalkboards. I searched for workshops and courses, business mentors, work experience with a florist, and started thinking purposefully about my dreams. Eighteen months later my son was born, and 12 weeks after that, despite my previous experiences and being sure the second time around I’d have it all under control, a paralysing anxiety took total control. I stopped sleeping. I stopped eating. I spent every waking moment listening for my child until I was at complete breaking point and I decided I needed the sort of help and support I couldn’t get at home. It was the beginning of the most unbelievable, profound and rewarding adventure. Life could not continue one minute longer as it were. I had to do something and I’ve never looked back. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to endure, but without a doubt, the most life changing.

 

Who have been the biggest 3 – 5 influences in your life, in terms of your career and doing work?

Lee Ariav – In my first year of studying landscape architecture at RMIT there was a visiting academic from Israel who led the design studio I was a student in. Lee is one of those committed, deeply invested and genuinely interested teachers. He is the sort of teacher Robin Williams would play in a film. Lee had a faith in me that I hadn’t experienced before. He challenged me and pushed me. He encouraged me and helped me believe in myself. His words ‘you know more than you think you know’, and ‘all the answers are within you’, whilst they could be the words of any new age guru, have stayed with me for life and were exactly what I needed to have faith in my own creative intuition. Those words set me on my path.

Robyn Holt – In 2013 I attended a business seminar with Robyn Holt at Megan Morton’s The School. It was the first time I stood up in front of a crowd and told them of my dream. I had just purchased our property in Spargo Creek. I was inspired and my vision was being formed. I left that day empowered, utterly moved, confident and driven. I could see that Oak and Monkey Puzzle was the light at the end of the tunnel. Nothing had ever been so clear. I left that day with a technicolour vision, a strategy to get started, and also a wonderful mentor.

Josh Bowes – Not long after purchasing Oak and Monkey Puzzle I was driving in Daylesford when I saw a stone wall, not just any stone wall but the most beautifully crafted drystone wall. I slammed on the breaks, reversed back and through the open window took a snap. After my experience working on The Australian Garden, I knew craftsmanship of this calibre this was rare. I posted it on Instagram with just the words ‘Some of the prettiest stonework I ever did see’. An Instagram conversation between strangers and a week later there was knock on the door and it’s been an inspiring creative friendship and rich series of collaborations ever since.

Josh is an artisan, a stonemason, an artist, a sculptor, but most importantly he is one of the most humble, thinking and enormously talented individuals I’ve met so far. I asked him if he would consider teaching his craft, and alongside my Garden Design class, I launched the workshop offering at Oak and Monkey Puzzle in January 2016. We’ve now run nearly 10 drystone walling classes, are rebuilding the old gold-rush era walls of the Daylesford region and are dreaming up new community orientated projects in a spirit of contribution and kindness.

 

What did you have in place before you made the leap?

All there really was was a dream manifested through a need to follow my creative loves, facilitated by a magical property and a vision of what that might look like. There wasn’t even a business plan or any of the business things you are supposed to do. I was winging this big time!

All I had was a five acre canvas studded with the most amazing colonial era trees and an old 1860s weatherboard home, 10 years experience in teaching landscape architecture at universities, some long service leave, two young children I could not find places for in daycare near home and that dream I walked away with from Robyn Holt’s class.

 

What was your defining ‘I can’t do this anymore’ moment that led you to the leap?

My defining ‘I can’t do this anymore moment’ was a progressive one punctuated with some pretty big life changing ups and downs as I’ve mentioned: from the time of my first pregnancy continuing right up until January 2016 with the first workshop offering. I never felt like I had a choice, literally, and when I found Oak and Monkey Puzzle in 2013 it was the light at the end of the tunnel that just HAD to become a reality. I’ve never felt so compelled by a place. I finally felt that this place was the answer to all those questions I’d been searching to resolve. For the first time in my life, I just knew this was going to work. I can’t explain how I knew. I just did. I still haven’t lost that knowing. There’s a tonne of things I’m completely uncertain about, but this ‘business’, or let’s call it my ‘creative life’ is not one of them.

 

 

How did/do you overcome/work with the fear that comes with leaping? How do you decide to choose courage?

There’s been A LOT of scary moments since 2011 but resigning from my role as a Senior Landscape Architect in Melbourne was probably one of the scariest and requiring the greatest courage. There was an immediate sense of panic like I’d cut the umbilical cord, not just from a financial sense but also in a professional capacity and one that was deeply engrained in my sense of self-worth. I felt I had given up my ‘profession’. All those years I had studied and struggled, it was like I was throwing it all away. I really wrestled with telling people what I dreamed of doing. I was embarrassed that I’d set up a little flower and jam stall at the property’s front gate. To me, it sounded so self-indulgent and quaint. It wasn’t until I actually had the courage to slowly start telling people (probably more like hinting to initially), and one after one they told me “you’re living the dream”, that I felt my choices had been validated. And yet to me, felt I had no choice but to follow this path I had now envisioned. It was an ongoing tussle between head and heart that slowly felt as right intellectually as emotionally.

Now this ‘Natasha Morgan’ thing actually seems to be working, each creative conversation, collaboration, or meeting of minds gives me a little more courage to think bigger, deeper and more creatively. It’s a beautiful process to be scared, put yourself out there, honestly and openly, and invite others to come along on the journey with you. I remember all too clearly the fear I had initially in asking stonemason and artisan, Josh Bowes, if he would be prepared to teach his craft here. This was a stranger, who I just happened to stumble across his work and share it on social media, who unbeknown to me then, happened to have some coincidental commonalities. He had studied at RMIT in landscape architecture for a period of time, and he had always admired the property I had now bought. But despite a couple of random coincidences, my business was still just ideas. There was nothing concrete, just the words that I shared about my vision. What if it didn’t work? What if this person had agreed to share his craft but no one came? Then what? Since that first collaboration, however, it’s lead to the next and the next. Each and every collaboration starts initially as a conversation, and if there’s a meeting of minds it grows into something bigger. In order to connect in that way you have to be honest, allow yourself to be a little vulnerable and share ideas with a spirit of generosity. I’ve learnt from my own experiences that everyone is human. They all have their own shit going on; just some are better at hiding it than others. And coming through life as an introvert, that realisation has helped me to connect even when I’m scared.

Being a naturally anxious person means that courage is always a choice for me. It certainly doesn’t come naturally. Over many years I’ve learnt lots of techniques and tools that work for me in different ways when I feel like I need to dig deep. I’m really fortunate that I was exposed to lots of different ways of being from a pretty young age. I was taught that everything is a choice. Even not choosing is choosing. My strength seems to be my ability to have a vision and to see the potential in things. I am constantly visualising how I want things to be and somehow it is manifested through that process.

I tussle with courage daily. When the chaos, emotions or levity of life becomes too great I have a special place to which I retreat. A short drive from town, I sit on her rock outcrop overlooking water and instantly feel grounded and part of something much bigger than me. It’s not uncommon for me to stop there for the briefest of time to check back into the quiet side of life. This is where I connect back into courage, dust myself off and take the next step.

 

How did you fund your leap?

When I couldn’t find local childcare options in those first few months of moving to the country, I was left with no option but to take the long service leave I had accrued. I was still holding onto my city position. I didn’t yet feel safe enough to cut the umbilical cord to my ‘professional’ life. There was so much uncertainty but being forced to stay home was exactly what I needed.

In addition to that, there were some surplus funds from selling my ‘retirement fund’, my very first flat, the one I was never going to sell. I worked some part-time jobs including at an organic flower farm getting my hands back in the soil.

What other leaps have you made?

There have been so many. Most have been personal, but this last year has been a series of small leaps all adding up to each other to bring me here.

What leaps didn’t work out? What did you do about it?

I’m not sure I’ve ever had a leap that didn’t turn out well. I suppose it just depends on your definition of ‘well’. For me, every little (or big) leap has brought me one step closer to who I am. There have been plenty of challenges, failures and difficult times, but I truly feel it’s these encounters that create the most rewarding journeys. I certainly wouldn’t be where I am now had it all been smooth sailing.

What are you most fearful of? How do you deal with it?

Nearly a year into being a single mother of two young children I fear not having anyone to share this with. Sometimes it feels like a hollow victory without a person to share your dreams with. I fear that I can’t sustain my brain never stopping. I fear getting tired. I fear getting sick or something happening when I’ve got no fallback position. This is an all or nothing. I fear giving so much that I’ve got nothing left.

And so my collaborators, my friends, the artisans, creatives, the thinkers, my conversations, the visitors and participants, this community; they all become my partner in crime. I look for reciprocity and filter out those that aren’t prepared to give as much as I’ve got to give. I keep it evolving, open and flowing. I never know where a chance encounter or conversation is going to lead me but I have a strange, unwavering and previously unencountered faith that this will keep growing and getting better and richer and more meaningful along the way.

I fear giving more to this ‘Natasha Morgan’ than my children. I fear losing my anonymity – after all, underneath all of this, I’m an introvert that learnt how to speak.

How would you rate your level of happiness about making your leap?
1 being sad, 10 being rad.

11+. I could have never imagined that life would evolve how it has. I had a vision of what I wanted and how that might look. I just knew that this would work, but this has surpassed even my wildest imaginings and I’m constantly in awe of how one opportunity leads me to another. I used to think ‘flow’ was some kind of crazy hippie idea but now it just happens to be.

What’s the biggest upside to making the leap?

Having the freedom to explore aspects of my creativity that I hadn’t been able to do before. Joining the most amazing community of generous and warm-hearted creatives, artisans and producers that continue to keep me inspired, dreaming up new collaborations in a way that has me buzzing, constantly forging new ideas and working out ways to make them happen.

What’s the biggest downside to making the leap? And how do you get through it?

The biggest downside is spending lots of time working on my own. But being part of this amazing community and making daily trips to my favourite cafes always end up in rich conversations, new encounters and another fresh idea. Whilst I feel I would benefit from more structured days and a little more self-discipline, I never know where each day is going to lead me and for now that seems to be working a treat.

What might be your next leap?

This journey has been so much more than just my own. Whilst I was designing, building and planting the productive heart of this amazing property, there has been an incredible series of fortuitous meetings, conversations and collaborations that have grown Oak and Monkey Puzzle into a beautiful and rich hub for all things creative. I would love to capture those stories – the collaborations and how they came about, but also the stories of those humble and talented folk, those that have shared so much with me whilst they often shun the limelight, whose worlds have serendipitously collided with mine.

I’m in the planning of a winter Creative Conversation series that will explore creative practice, the lens through which each of us views the world, our challenges and inspirations and so much more. I’m yet to work out how those conversations are captured and shared beyond the engagement of the day.

They say everyone has a book in them. Maybe it’s a book; maybe it’s a blog. The bits everyone sees through social media, magazines and journals is so incredibly curated and only captures a small slice of life here. I think I’m ready to share more than just the glossy pretty side of life.

I’m all about sharing, encouraging and generosity. I’d love to one day be able to facilitate teaching people and mentoring them to follow their own dreams, visions and aspirations.

I’m passionate about creating new projects where what I do here can benefit those further afield and more in need. I feel incredibly privileged to lead this existence and I feel that I need to contribute to something greater.

What are your favourite words to live by?

You never know how strong you are until you realise you have no choice.
A grateful heart is a magnet for miracles.
We must find time to stop and thank the people who make a difference in our lives. – J. F. Kennedy
You’re always one decision away from a totally different life.
Impossible isn’t something that can’t be done. It’s just something that hasn’t been done before.
Creativity takes courage. – Henri Matisse
Little by little one travels far.
Find the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. – Steve Jobs
Your dream job doesn’t exist. You must create it.
Every day in every way, I’m getting better and better. – Émile Coué (My entire life my step-dad has reminded me of this one) and so many more…

Who do you admire who also made the leap?

Cassie Lucas – Firecracker Cass studied landscape architecture with me and was the first of a group of us to make the leap to a multi-disciplinary creative endeavour.

My dad Wayne Morgan At 47 Dad left his life managing large legal firms and went out to retrain himself in financial and investment advice. At nearly 50 he had to get creative about his age to get his first job!

A piece of advice for someone with an itch to leap?

Have the courage to follow your visions. Work bloody hard, be kind and learn how to live with, and despite of, the fear.

Right now I’m:

Hearing: Adagio for Strings By Samuel Barber performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, listened to far too late at night. Hildur Gudnadottir, Zoe Keating, Ludivico Einaudi, Nervous Doll Dancing and anything else cello.
Eating: Seasonal produce from my garden, foraged pine mushrooms, local producers and some beautiful meals at Frank and Connie’s (Hepburn) and the best breakfast at Awkward Jeffrey (Daylesford).
Drinking: Craft cocktails at Belvedere Social (Daylesford) made with some of my seasonal syrups.
Reading: Brené Brown when I can keep my eyes open long enough.
Loving: Life, the seasons and two cheeky and spirited children.

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Can you remember a time in your life when you were called, pulled, shoved in a direction that you couldn’t ignore? Have you ever had something that shouted out to you? That grabbed you by the shoulders, looked you in the eye and said ‘This is what you’ve been looking for’?

Or maybe a whisper that won’t go away?  That shows up time and time again?  What might be possible if you gave into it?

Lovingly,

Kylie x

  1. Could not be more inspired. Such an honest voice with heart felt responses and thoughts.

    Reply

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