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Rob Wilson

Portia Munson Brings The Garden into the Subway at Bryant Park

It’s difficult to miss the huge murals of flowers displayed in the bustling subway station of Bryant Park 42nd street. Portia Munson’s “Botanicals Below Bryant Park” is an installation of flower petal arrangements taken from the artist’s garden. With their vibrant colors and almost psychedelic effect, Munson’s large scale murals transform flower petals into extraordinary constellations that bring the garden underground.

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Munson started the project in 2002 as an ode to a family member who passed away. Inspired by the color, beauty and fleeting nature of the flowers in her garden, she started gathering and arranging them into mandalas. “It started as a much more personal project, an appreciation of a life,” the artist says.

Munson began gardening after leaving New York City, where she went to art school, as a way to transition away from fast-paced city life. At the time, she didn’t know gardening would end up as both a main focus and a source of material for her work.

“I think of flowers as healing. There’s just something about them that makes you feel good.”

Her flower pieces speak to how the often we overlook the beauty of nature and the magnificent color of petals and leaves, which take on new meaning and complexity when looked at closely in a constellation alongside other flowers. “I think of flowers as healing,” Munson says, “It would be a rare person who doesn’t like flowers. There’s just something about them that makes you feel good.”

In a subway station where most people are rushing off to work, Munson’s art engages commuters and travelers in a myriad of ways, engendering positivity and provoking smiles from passersby as others pause their commute to observe and take pictures of her work. “I like the idea that the flowers themselves, in their brightness and beauty, can have an affect on people,” the artist says, “and that you can put something out there that would make them smile.”

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A close-up of Portia Munson’s “Cosmos Sun”, which appears within “Botanicals Below Bryant Park”.

Using flowers as artistic medium inevitably involves working with the element of time. “The flowers wilt kind of quickly,” says Munson, who can only work on them for a few hours. “Some flowers are really hard to work with. They are so fleeting that it’s really hard to get them to stand up for a long time. I have to think about how the flowers are going to react to being picked and worked with.”

Munson’s botanical art includes foliage from April to October, and each captures what flowers were blooming the day it was created. As what flowers bloom when is an order that changes in response to the seasons each year, the prints serve as a time capsule of the transient element of the natural and the environmental elements at play on that day. “Each one of them is kind of my own version of being a scientist,” Munson says. “It’s a record of what was blooming on that particular day in the Catskills in the spring of 2013.”

For “Botanicals Below Bryant Park”, Munson was inspired by suzanis from Uzbekistan, a traditional form of textile art with vibrant colors and intricate patterns that women make to hang on walls for heat insulation. “Before I started this series, I travelled to Turkey and saw suzanis in the market in Istanbul and they were just so beautiful– I found them really inspiring,” she recalls.

“Each one of them is kind of my own version of being a scientist,” Munson says. “It’s a record of what was blooming on that particular day in the Catskills in the spring of 2013.”

Munson uses a high-resolution scanner to capture the full spectrum of texture, shape and color in her specimens, often revealing overlooked details of these flowers in the process.Arranged in an elaborate circular configuration, each individual flower becomes part of a larger whole. “I think of these pieces as making a more intense flower– a big amazing flower from all the flowers that are blooming on that day,” she says.

Munson’s work has been exhibited worldwide in museums like MASS MOCA and the Museum of Contemporary Art. “Botanicals Below Bryant Park” captures the transient essence of flowers and nature while displaying them in a hub of constant motion. As such, the piece bridges the gap between urban and natural life– two seemingly divided worlds.

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