Chroma Botanica: Flowers Become Paint in New NYC Art Exhibit
When Ellie Irons and Linda Stillman first conceived of Chroma Botanica, the new exhibit in Central Park’s Arsenal Gallery, the concept was just as much about creativity as it was art– the precursor to a display that is now inspiring visitors to trade in their acrylic paints for flowers. The two artists transform flowers and leaves into pigments for paintings, murals, and maps that highlight our relationship to nature in an urban environment.
The Chroma Botanica works range in concept from large murals to small intricate collages– an intimate study on the multiple facets of plant life. Linda Stillman’s Central Park Colored illustrates thick vertical lines of purples, yellows and pinks, made with pigments from the parks plants, while Ring Around depicts the rainbow of pigment that plants produce. Elsewhere, Ellie Iron’s Spontaneous Plant Clusters illustrates a close up of the streets near Central Park West, and the multiple plants that grow within a few block radius.
The two artists met through Wave Hill, where Stillman was the winter workshop artist in residence in January and February of 2013 (Irons had a display in the Spring 2013 exhibit). They saw that each others’ work and artistic methods shared a common theme, but they didn’t begin collaborating until after Jennifer Lantzas, the Deputy Director of Public Art for NYC Parks who coordinated this exhibition, thought of the idea of connecting the two artists in a show.
Stillman is based in the Upper East Side, and does most of her gardening in her house in upstate New York. Irons lives in Bushwick, Brooklyn, a local central to where much of her work is displayed. Throughout their collaboration, the duo took several field trips to different parks in the city like the Forest Park Greenhouse, the Greenbelt Native Plant Center, the Conservatory Garden, and the New York Botanical Garden to learn how the parks use flowers and document plants. During their year-long collaboration, Stillman and Irons also kept inventory cards to keep track of the plants they discovered.
Both artists now use plant pigments as a function of their craft, and yet they each have different extraction methods. Irons focuses on the life of “spontaneous plants”– those that grow without human support. In her handbook for painting with weeds, Irons explains the pigmentation process. The ingredients she uses are simple: honey, water, and liquid gum arabic (available at any art store). She further describes the process in a video, part of the exhibition.
On the other hand, Stillman’s works explore the intersection of gardening and art. For her drawings, she rubs flower petals onto paper directly, creating color on the page. Stillman came to this this technique in 2001, but didn’t fully start utilizing it until 7-8 years later. Ever since her residency at Wave Hill, she’s found herself using this process more frequently. “I love to garden and I love to make art. I think they are very similar things,” Stillman says. Though their methods are different, both artists are now focused on documenting the plants they use, as several of their works will now list the names alongside typical art media: garlic mustard, pokeweed, black cherry, barberry, oriental bittersweet, among dozens of other plants listed in a space typically reserved for words like “acrylic”.
Blending the artistic and the scientific, Chroma Botanica prompts the viewer (gardener or not) to engage with and ask questions about the role plants play in urban environments through the transformative process the artists have encouraged by dissecting and transforming all aspects of nature into art.
Irons’s work additionally explores the plants we often refer to as “weeds,” which are at best ignored and at worst intentionally destroyed. In a large map called Invasive Pigments Flow Chart, she charts the migration of each invasive plant, documenting its origin. She writes of their overlooked qualities in her handbook: “Like all plants, they stabilize the soil, reduce nutrient and storm runoff, cool the air, provide food and habitat for nonhuman animals, and sequester carbon.”
Stillman’s Garden Scroll is another map inspired by a garden she planted in the shape of the August calendar month. The scroll became a diary of sorts from May to October, the growing season, documenting both her garden as it evolved and her relationship with it, the scientific and the emotional coexisting on a single plane. A chart also includes the flowers growing alongside notes from her day, ala “8:30 — 9:30 watered garden with sprinkler”. “I have learned a lot about flowers because they are my art materials,” Stillman reflects. “I now grow specific flowers because they make nice rich stains, even if I don’t like them,” she quips.
Chroma Botanica, moreover, is an exploration of the ways art and nature intersect and mirror each other. The color scheme of the exhibit ranges from subdued pastels to deep burgundy and vibrant yellows. Each piece utilizes different painting methods, some very meticulous, others more impressionistic. Taken together, the exhibition asks viewers to reconsider the effect that plant life has on our surroundings; how it functions within the city; and it’s complexity and diversity– a rich kaleidoscope of detail belying the simple beauty of that which grows.