My childhood home had a large garden my mother tended to after long days at the office or early on weekend mornings. The land on our property was rocky and clay-filled; it took several years of tilling the tough ground before my mother could even begin to think about laying out plans for garden beds. Over the course of several years, our garden expanded beyond the usual fare — plum tomatoes, cucumbers to be pickled, string beans — to include yellow corn, heads of crisp lettuce and fingerling potatoes. Some mornings I would sit, a cup of coffee or water bottle in my hand, and keep my mother company as she crouched, her knees sinking into the mulch, tending to her plants.
What always amazed me about my mother’s gardening was the way she found a use for every part of the garden. Weeds became fodder for compost; clumps of dirt were either broken down and tilled, or moved elsewhere for odd use on the property; twine once used for holding together bales of hay now held up struggling bean shoots. It was this quality — the utilitarian drive for maximum use — that I was instantly reminded of when I visited the “The Artist in the Garden,” a new exhibit located in the bottom level of the Haas Family Arts Library, which explores the influence of gardens and gardening on art.
The works which reminded me the most of my home garden were the pieces of paper made from weeds, particularly those by the New York-based Women’s Studio Workshop, and the paper and book artist Helen Hiebert. The paper is beautiful: light green and cream colored, with flecks of plant filaments throughout. The paper is testament to what good art does: not only display the unexpected (especially to those who are skeptical, like me) but turn something once abjected into something prized.
The main focus of the exhibit are on pieces which foreground the relationship between gardens and art. Works like “Music of the Garden” by Paul Johnson visualize, with shapes and color, the sounds present in a garden: the buzz of a bee, the squelch of a shovel, the chirp of a bird. The visualizations are circular, almost orbit-like, and draw connections between the ground and the heavens. And, in a fit of good curatorial choice, the book in the adjacent case does just that: Joseph Guy Lubbock’s “From Garden to Galaxy: Original Prints and Text” explores what the curators call the “parallel between the microcosm of the garden and the macrocosm of the galaxy.” Other highlights of the exhibit included miniature picture booklets of the four seasons, as well as a nod, in the form of a book awash in lush colors, to the garden where it all started: Eden.
Despite the broad range of work on display in the exhibit, I did feel there was a lack of representation from all forms and mediums of art. The placement in the Haas Library displays a primacy on visual art, but when one considers the exhibit’s connection to the Beneicke, a lack of literary artistry influenced by gardens is noticeable. While looking at the exhibit, I was reminded particularly of Seamus Heaney’s meditation on the connection between his agricultural background and his pursuit of writing: “Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests./ I’ll dig with it.”
However, even with its small lack, the exhibit ultimately achieves the harder task: drawing a topical thread between a large range of material, and, within the visual arts, a diversity of mediums and approaches. And, in this eyes of this viewer, it succeeds in channeling the lesson of my mother’s gardening sessions: everything, even weeds, have a use.
Joshua Tranen | firstname.lastname@example.org | @JTranen