My boyfriend and I started a roof garden a few years ago, mostly lots of flowers with a few tomato plants, herbs, and some jalapenos. Around the same time, a good friend of mine sent me a huge Amazon box full of all different kinds of cacti and succulents – plant babies, as I like to call them. We’d been one-upping one another for Christmas presents. I had sent him a stuffed two-headed duckling, and this was his response. Between this gift and the roof garden, I had become pretty much obsessed with gardening. There’s something so gratifying about learning how to care for a living green thing and seeing it really thrive. Repotting it because it’s too healthy and big for its original pot, or seeing your stubborn cactus bloom for the first time, feels simply exciting. It’s ironic that I choose to live in Brooklyn where there’s very little natural green. I have to create it all myself.
When I was a little kid I believed my toys would come alive when I wasn’t looking. Sometimes I felt like they were silently judging me, and other times I worried they felt neglected. I slept with way too many stuffed animals because I didn’t want anyone to feel left out. Now that I’m an adult, some of those feelings have transferred over to my house-plants, which is only slightly less silly because at least they actually need me to survive.
Cacti and succulents can either be covered in razor sharp spikes or feel like smooth flesh. They can be jagged or plump, and some are even camouflaged to look like small pebbles and stones. Their flowers are secondary to their general beauty when it comes to desired attributes, which is odd when compared to other sought-after plants, like prized roses or lilies. They are definitively alien, with out-of-this-world shapes and coloring. Their tenacity to live is so great that if you remove a leaf from a succulent or cut a cactus in half, you can replant the new piece and both halves with continue to grow. They can do this themselves by getting too big, snapping and falling over to make new plants. They’re not very high-maintenance, and I really admire their strong motive for growth.
It’s ironic that I choose to live in Brooklyn where there’s very little natural green. I have to create it all myself.
In 2008, M. Night Shyamalan came out with the movie The Happening, and it was admittedly terrible, but it interested me because it exemplified plants’ will to live, albeit in a very over-the-top way. While I hope plants don’t start emitting toxins that make humans commit suicide, I don’t think I could fault them for it. I like the concept of plants being self aware, and maybe even communicating with each other. Ironically enough, scientific evidence has been proving plants can communicate with one another in very subtle ways. Ecologists state that plants attacked by herbivores may even be doing things like emitting volatiles that would warn the surrounding plants.
I once saw a time-lapse video of how a vine locates an object to climb. It grows upwards into a curl, and then wheels around and around until it blindly reaches for whatever is closest. It reminded me of reaching for a light switch in a dark room, when your eyes haven’t adjusted yet, but they do it so elegantly. Plants’ ability to adapt is fascinating. Even in a world where we’re making it increasingly harder for natural things to grow on their own, they somehow persevere.
Similarly, I’m not a Brooklyn native, and I didn’t even grow up on the East Coast. While I’m not exactly a country girl transplant, I still had to learn how to adapt. Living in a place like New York City where rent can be 50 percent of your income isn’t the most encouraging work environment. Most creative minds are especially pre-disposed to mental illnesses like depression, and in order to keep a handle on things we need to reach out and find our own ideal living conditions. You have to balance out the “working to pay my rent” with the “working for myself” along with the basic human needs like water, rest, sunlight, socializing, sustenance, and exercise. Take care of those things, so that the rest of your energy can be focused on making the best work that you can make.
About a year after I graduated from the Corcoran College of Art & Design with my BFA, I was in a pretty big rut. While my gardens were thriving, my work was not. In school, I experimented with a wide variety of mediums, ranging from installation, to hand-drawn animation, to performance, to painting. The work revolved around themes of femininity, sexuality, mental illness, self-esteem, and body image. Hair was a constant thread, as well as nude and partly-dressed women.
I was bored, and neglecting my studio practice because of it. In order to reconnect, I decided to open myself up and start over, and delve into an experimentation phase.
I think many young artists struggle after graduating from art school. The transition is tough, especially if you decided to move to a new community and start over. You don’t have all your peers and faculty to affirm your decision-making, or to push you in the right direction. I had managed some success with my older work, and assumed I should plow along with what I was doing since people liked it, but I had reached a plateau. I was bored, and neglecting my studio practice because of it. In order to reconnect, I decided to open myself up and start over, and delve into an experimentation phase.
When choosing a new subject matter, it seemed only necessary to incorporate my newfound obsession and paint plants. I wanted to have fun making work again, and to let go of all the seriousness of my work related to gender and personal experience. It made sense to start painting something I loved, and I started working on several paintings at once. The newer blank canvases are used as palettes for the works that are in their final stages. Over time I build texture and character, often adding spikes made out of molding paste, a nod to the tactile sense of a cactus. I also started giving the plants eyes (yes, sometimes even googly eyes) to illustrate the idea of the plants being self-aware, and maybe even producing reactionary feelings to what happens around them. It also helps retain their playfulness and weirdness.
There’s something to be said about taking a breather. Sometimes people assume being an artist includes a life of starving bohemian leisure, but I strive for scheduling, so that I don’t fall into too much leisure. On the other hand, there is this enormous pressure to make work, and outstanding work at that. That pressure can sometimes help, but it’s not sustainable. It was a little scary letting go of the artwork I had been doing for four or five years. It was like finally letting go of being an art student, and all those hours of critique in front of works that I didn’t really believe in anymore. I guess I felt bad for neglecting the old work, just like I did all the toys I didn’t really play with. But, just like dropping old toys off at Goodwill, or seeing plant babies reach new growths, I feel more unencumbered than ever with the new work. Sometimes you have to just let go and build something new.