This semester I have been taking a night class called Plants of Missouri with Dr. Peter Hoch of the Missouri Botanical Garden. Dr. Hoch was kind enough to allow me to create a body of art work instead of a more traditional research paper as an investigation of the topics covered in the course. In his book Plants, Man, and Life, Edgar Anderson observes that the plants most familiar to us are, paradoxically, some of the least understood. This struck me as synonymous with my own observations regarding a growing collection of objects culled from the trash that blows or is dropped into my front yard. I spent half a day at the Missouri Botanical Garden Herbarium with Anna Spencer learning to properly mount and label plant specimens. I did my best to apply these standards to the production of my own collection– silk and plastic leaves, grass, flowers, and even jewelry that I have collected from my yard and neighborhood. Each specimen was identified as closely as possible, although I did take some liberties when puns were irresistible or when the plant was too fictitious. The seed packets (small envelopes attached to each specimen sheet) contain not just plant matter but other objects of interest or oddness, the qualifying factor being that each was an item which had been lost or discarded and then found by me. I include my artist’s statement here:
“An artifact, by definition, is something produced by man, something which we would not have had if man had not come into being. That is what many of our weeds and crops really are. Though man did not wittingly produce all of them, some are as much dependent on him, as much a result of his cultures, as a temple or a vase or an automobile.
…The vegetation of many a remote mountain range is better understood than the common flowers and weeds in your garden.” – Edgar Anderson
I have taken Edgar Anderson’s observations as a challenge, and this collection of specimens represents my attempt to gain an understanding of, or to insist upon, the significance of some of the most familiar aspects of my own front yard. My house sits on the north side of Delmar Boulevard in the most remote corner of the Central West End. Anderson mentions the persistence of sunflowers along roadsides, but when we purchased this house ten years ago I quickly realized that the most common volunteer on my lawn and in my garden would be trash. The daily chore of picking up this trash is often annoying and sometimes nauseating, but occasionally it becomes quite funny and interesting when I find remnants of silk or plastic plants. These are the culture’s annuals, the opportunists on disturbed ground. But their succession is social, not botanical, and I found my yard to be what I would now describe as an ecotone, a transitional space between nature and culture.
This project is fraught with paradox, and it begins with our culture’s stiff imitation of living organisms: we cure death by removing life. It preserves what has been discarded, makes use of the useless, and adopts scientific forms for artistic ends. I accept this tension because it so well captures the complexity of our lives, the lacework of personal and public experience which allows small things to be meaningful to us in large ways. While insisting on degrees of certainty, I have allowed for just as much mystery. Each specimen emerges as a unique web of educated guesses, assumptions, facts and fictions. They are stories spun out of botanical fragments which are complicated, corroborated, and implicated by the objects that accompany them.
The next stage of this project will be to create a proper digital archive of the specimens, at which point the inclusion of a color target and scale add the density of information. This is my preference for presentation as a fixed image– those included above are just snapshots, a glimpse for the time being. The works are meant to be more interactive when seen in person, as the slow revelation of ingredients as they are found in the seed packet shapes the story that unfolds on each page.