Category Archives: photography

leaf litter

ARACEA, Dieffenbachia sp.

ARACEA, Dieffenbachia sp.

SAPINDACEAE, Acer saccharinum

SAPINDACEAE, Acer saccharinum (yes, it's a pun)



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

Leaf Litter

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.

a selective memory

catepillar before blog

tobacco horn worm, speckled with fate

caterpillars blog

Florence's drawing

the husk of the host

the husk of the host

In September we found a few tobacco horn worms on our tomato plants, and decided that we were willing to share our produce in exchange for the privilege of seeing the world at work in our front yard.  But the wonder and beauty turned macabre when two of the worms were parasitized by Braconid wasp larvae.  Our 4 year old was not prepared for this plot shift.  One morning soon after this discovery, I went over to see the drawing that Florence had been making.  She told me that she was making a drawing of the caterpillars so that she could remember them as they were before the wasps got to them.  I could hardly think of a better reason to make a picture.  In an academic context it is particularly easy to lose track of the fundamentals which would otherwise guide my creative action.  I am distracted by nuance.  To see things in a particular way, and to convey that vision–to drag a selective past into the present with insistence, relevance, and a joy clarified by sorrow– is something worth doing.

between oceans and rivers

tidal flats wedged between the ocean and the intercoastal waterway

the marsh, wedged between the ocean and the inter-coastal waterway

marsh wood blog

weathered salt (red) cedar trunk with perennial glasswort

While at the beach in North Carolina, I like to turn my back on the long row of beach houses and follow the winding game trails out into the marsh.  It is a type of selective experience not unlike the viewing of a painting– a decision to forget about what is behind you, and to be absorbed into that which fills your cone of vision.  The differences between distant observation and actual immersion are striking.  Everything is crisp and bristly in the marsh.  What seemed solid now compresses, and what seemed still now moves.  With each crunching step I play the role of mythic monster as thousands of fiddler crabs flee before me, comical in their bumping and stumbling.  The marsh is a subtle topography of low and lower, the subdivisions most noticeable in firmness of footing and shifts in flora.  Glasswort gives way to cord grass, which then inches up into black needle rush.  The plants tolerate varying degrees of immersion during tidal flooding, so small shifts in elevation can result in significant shifts in plant life.  The marsh is well stocked with edible plants, including the glasswort pictured above.  More seductive is the passion fruit, which unfortunately was not yet ripe. I saw passion flowers for the first time while living in Key West, FL.  Initially I mistook it for a fake flower, so strange and wonderful was the bloom.

a passion flower, in all of its ridiculous glory

a passion flower, in all of its ridiculous glory

passion fruit hanging from the vine

passion fruit hanging from the vine

a gulf-fritillary catepillar devouring the leaf of a passion flower vine

a gulf-fritillary catepillar devouring the leaf of a passion flower

Southern Fox Grape

Southern Fox Grape
Pindo Palm fruit

Pindo Palm fruit

Southern Fox (muscadine) grapes lined the marsh invasively, climbing over anything and everything available.  They ripen to a deep purple, but even the green ones can be refreshing in the heat of summer.  The fruit of the Pindo Palm is also quite good, and the tree is often used residentially for landscaping.

all good things…

documenting the lonesome pine, photo by Christine Amick Sarra

documenting the lonesome pine, photo by Christine Amick Sarra

a bottle on the old dump site, under the oaks

a bottle on the old dump site, under the oaks

We just returned from our annual trip to the east coast, where for the past seven years or so Christine and I have been juggling several different projects.  While the sites in North and South Carolina maintain a certain degree of magic for us, we both had the feeling that some of the extended documentation and artworks were drawing to a close.    The task ahead is to try to determine what has been accomplished, and what the best forms/forums might be for presenting the work.

One nice piece of my summer reading has been The Stones of Emptiness, a book of poems by Anthony Thwaite.  The selection below was serendipitously juxtaposed with my time on and overlooking the tidal rivers and mudflats of the Carolinas.

At Pagham Harbour

These are salt acres, the sea’s tithes

Drenched twice a day, worked by the crab and gull.

At low tide mud heaves and breathes

But only in waiting for the levelling pull

Each wave makes as it fills the harbour mouth.

Coarse grasses stand

Stiff before even the strongest wind.

No hedges here, or walls, or any path

Except for the birds’ frail tracks,

The scribbled spoors of crabs, and scattered rocks.

No one can tell the way the paths

Ran once, and who has walked them, over there

To Manhood, maybe, where the water bathes

Its buried church.  The sea smothers the air

And we breathe salt and hear only the sea.

I think about

That ninetheenth-century parson who looked out

And saw a wall of water half-fill his sky,

The sea marking its bounds,

Breaking its barriers, inheriting its lands.