March 2009 Issue
Columbus’ Franklin Park Conservatory spotlights artists who draw inspiration from the great outdoors.
Karen McCoyKaren McCoy marvels at the earth’s constant state of transformation ––especially when it comes to plant materials.
“When I work with a hard substance like brick or metal, my beginning project is basically my finished project,” she says. “That’s not the case with plant materials.”
The trick in working with natural elements, she adds, is learning to adapt and embrace the changes that occur in them.
The Columbus-based landscape architect and urban designer, along with 14 other artists from Ohio and other ports of call that include England and Japan, are showcasing their penchant for the-natural-world-as-muse philosophy in “Bending Nature,” on exhibit at the Franklin Park Conservatory through March 29. The historic Columbus institution is widely respected for its collection of more than 400 plant species and renowned collection of Dale
The show, which is the first large-scale group exhibit hosted by the conservatory, draws parallels between the visual arts and the science of horticulture, offering a fresh take on nature’s role in inspiring photography, drawing, sculpture, film and video.
McCoy’s affiliation with Franklin Park began in 2000, when she helped create a new landscape plan for the conservatory. It included development of a rooftop garden that was completed in time for the “Bending Nature” exhibit.
“We designed the rooftop garden to act as a background for the changing exhibits,” McCoy explains. “Although there are permanent pieces [including fountains] within the gardens, the plant arrangements are designed to change as exhibits do.”
The concept of the rooftop garden, she adds, is based on the fact that while the conservatory has a large plant collection, most of the foliage, flowers and shrubbery are displayed in natural habitats. McCoy’s goal, however, is to depict her vision as art.
“The challenge involved in working with natural elements is that they’re not static,” McCoy says. “You have to decide how you want them to be [interpreted]. Do you want the viewer to see a mature plant, or do you, as the artist or designer, want to highlight the growth process?”
The rooftop gardens are split between the Grove garden, which features stunning fruit trees and singular containers of ever-changing horticultural sculpture, and the Zen garden, which includes an assortment of bonsai trees.
Dorothy Gill Barnes, also of Columbus, appreciates nature for the multiplicity it offers. The artist, who has work permanently installed in the Brown/ Grotta gallery in Wilton, Connecticut, and currently works as a visiting professor of art at Ohio State University, creates sculptures and vessel-like objects out of wood and bark.
“The most important contribution nature makes is that it offers so much variety,” Barnes says, “From delicate grasses to heavy bark, it inspires me to construct something with the material in mind, whether it’s frail or tough.”
Barnes’ pieces involve intricate weavings and manipulation. She knits, crochets or sews delicate fibers into the wood she selects.
A focal point of the exhibit is Barnes’ “Marked By,” featuring 15 objects found in nature, each of which has been altered by a natural process: The sticks, chunks of wood and pieces of bark Barnes used have been gnawed, clawed and bitten by bears, elk, beavers and a gorilla from the Columbus Zoo.
The artist remains mindful of the fact that plant organisms are living things that should be respected. “If I use a tree in a piece, I either plant it myself [for a specific purpose] or wait until it has to be cut down anyway,” Barnes says. In fact, she often begins the design and weaving process years before the roots ever leave the soil, staying true to her aim of creating living sculptures.
“One of the trees in ‘Bending Nature’ was in the ground for six years, and it grew while I wove willow into it,” she says. “It stands 10 feet high, and only came down because of a nearby power line.”
For Barnes, working with natural materials is a creative experience that’s second to none. That’s because of the element of surprise that always awaits, she says.
“This is what makes it interesting... this is the fun of it,” she adds.