Artists reinterpret 18th-century botanist's shipping boxes

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"Arca Botanicum" by Dixie Biggs and Ray Jones uses walnut, cherry, and boxwood from Bartram's Garden. Artists used wood salvaged from 13 varieties of trees that were damaged or toppled in a 2010 storm.

John Bartram was known for the wooden boxes he filled with botanical goodies from the New World and shipped off to wealthy customers in England and beyond.

Though long gone from marketplace and memory, those utilitarian boxes and their quirky contents - plants, seeds, and "curiosities" such as birds' nests and live turtles - supported the 18th-century botanist's influential research and plant nursery.

Now, they serve as artistic inspiration for an unusual exhibition called Bartram's Boxes Remix, a collaboration between Bartram's Garden in Southwest Philadelphia and the Center for Art in Wood in Old City. Artists who work in wood, metal, glass, print, video, and other media were asked to "remix" the history, materials, and legacy of Bartram and his boxes.

It may not seem so at first, but "building a show around a box is actually a very powerful concept," said Maitreyi Roy, executive director of Bartram's, the oldest surviving botanic garden in North America.

"Out of these boxes emerged some extraordinary landscapes across Europe," she said, "and they highlight one of the first innovations in the global transportation of plants . . . which today is a huge industry."

The show runs from May 2 to July 19 in Philadelphia and then travels for two years. Organizers hope it brings new audiences to both the garden and the art center, and exposure for John Bartram, who, it is often said, is more famous in England than he is in the United States.

The show's roots lie, quite literally, in his garden. Artists are using wood salvaged from trees lost in a violent storm that ripped through it June 24, 2010. More than 50 trees of 13 varieties were damaged or toppled, including an 80-foot cucumber magnolia dating to 1840.

"Working with wood is working with live material that continues to live, and what's great is . . . there's a history to that tree," said Albert LeCoff, executive director of the Center for Art in Wood, which conceived the show.

Six months after the storm, the call went out, attracting interest from more than 100 artists worldwide. In 2011, 58 attended a retreat at Bartram's, where they examined the storm-ravaged wood and absorbed the history and mystery of the garden.

Ultimately, the center accepted 36 projects from artists in 12 states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, plus Canada, Ireland and Japan. They were given 14 months to complete their work, which will be offered for sale at the show at prices ranging from $2,000 to $38,000.

Poet Beth Feldman Brandt and Claire Owen, an artist who makes books by hand, call their entry "Caretaker Box." On one side of the cloth-covered box are portraits painted on slices of a cucumber magnolia branch; the other side has pieces of boxwood with rice paper, printed text on dyed paper, and a found-object collage. Brandt's poems accompany the piece.

The tiny portraits portray Bartram and his family; a freed slave who worked for him; and Joel T. Fry, the garden's current curator.

"As grand as all the historic sites are - and they are, whether they're a garden or a museum - it's really always about the people who make it possible and continue to make it possible," said Owen, of Germantown.

In a book accompanying the show, Fry describes Bartram's boxes as simple and square, sized according to their content, and made of whatever materials were at hand.

Filled with live plants and up to 400 kinds of seeds, their ocean journey was fraught with difficulty. Plants might be destroyed by rats or cats aboard ship. Boxes could be stolen by pirates, ruined by weather, tossed about like a sack of rice.

Packing, too, was a problem.

"After much experimentation," Fry writes, "by the 1750s it became clear that sending plants bare-rooted, without soil, and packed and cushioned in moist sphagnum moss was the best method, and the success rate increased greatly for live plants."

"Live plants" resonates with artists Benjamin Neiditz and Zachary Webber, both of West Philadelphia, who created "Aphrodite's Mousetrap" for the show.

The project, made of green ash wood, incorporates papier-mache, roots, stems and leaves of real plants, tiny motors, and electronics. It features mechanical Venus flytraps or Dionaea muscipula, which Bartram and his son William discovered on the border between North and South Carolina in 1762 and soon sent on to customers.

Imagine their delight - the suspense - at opening a Bartram box and finding this odd-looking plant, then discovering that its jawlike leaves ensnare hapless insects!

When a visitor to Bartram's Boxes Remix raises the lid of "Aphrodite's Mousetrap," motion-activated sensors will bring the "plant" to life. Crazy, yes, but no more so than a Venus flytrap in the 1760s.

Neiditz, an exhibit fabricator at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, loved working on this project with Webber, an educator at Bartram's, because it's "grounded in actual history but also allows room for a fantastic narrative to be highlighted.

"It gives history a bit of a twist," he said.

 


ART EXHIBITION

Bartram's Boxes Remix

At the Center for Art in Wood, 141 North Third St.; and at Bartram's Garden, 54th Street and Lindbergh Boulevard, from May 2 through July 19. The book accompanying the show will be available for $49.99 at both venues.

For more on special events at the Center for Art in Wood, including a reception and dinner with the artists, go to centerforartinwood.org.

For more on bookmaking events at Bartram's Garden, including a bookmaking workshop and picnic, go to bartramsgarden.org.


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