Earth Art at the Royal Botanical Gardens

Earlier we blogged about the environmental art of Andy Goldsworthy and the phenomenon of earth-sensitive art in a review of art critic John Grande’s book, Balance: Art and Nature

Earth Art logoThe Royal Botanical Gardens is hosting an Earth Art Exhibit, curated by Grande and sponsored by PRIME Gallery in Toronto. The Royal Botanical Gardens is the largest botanical garden in Canada within the Niagara Escarpment — a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.

Earth Art is also known as ephemeral art or environmental art, which has evolved from our growing environmental consciousness. The Gardens’ Earth Art exhibit showcases renowned Canadian and international artists who use natural materials and plants to create inspiring one-of-a-kind installations.

Earth Art began in the late 1960s with the seminal Robert Smithson piece known as Spiral Jetty. Created with a bulldozer on the shore of Great Salt Lake in Utah, his raised earthwork sculpture spirals in on itself — an utterly useless jetty on a half-dead lake. It can be seen as both beautiful and as a comment on the ultimate futility of our attempts to bend nature to our will.

Of the Earth Art exhibit at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Grande states that we are no longer in the age of such vast earth-moving projects. For the past 25 years, artists have been developing a more intimate approach to site and environment, which celebrates the harmonious union of artists working with materials found from the land, and creating a new sense of wonder, illusion and place. Truth to materials remains an axiom, but here we have the injection of ethics in the decision of which materials to use. And many variables play a role in outdoor nature-based art, including weather, climate, vegetation, other living species, the quality of light, and the seasons. What follows is exciting and dramatic.

Willow WindsEmilie Brzezinski has created a stand of willow trunks within a Stonehenge of gnarled old cherry trees at the Royal Botanical Gardens. It is entitled Willow Winds.

“Having found trunks of corkscrew willow for my installation, I felt, above all, I was to respect the wood. For this reason, I didn’t use my usual format of vertical wedges to carve the trunks. Rather I used the remarkable array of joyful and bubbly bark, characteristic of the old trees of this species, to speak for itself. The ‘human input’ focuses on the upward thrusts of the trunks to make up the gestures of the composition. Thus, the sculpture is in large part a found object that has been adapted to my sculptural needs.”

Yolanda Gutierrez has placed plants and relics around a grand old pin oak in the Arboretum for an installation called Abuelo Arbol (Grand Father Tree).

“The point is the tree — a 150-year-old pin oak. I want to help people remember what the tree means for ancient cultures. For the First Nations Aztec in Mexico and the Iroquois in Ontario, the tree is the connection between earth and sky. Imagine the tree as a conduit through which energy spirals up from the earth and down from the sky. The Iroquois would carve a mask or face in the tree and perform rituals and dances around it to bring it energy and a spiritual presence. In this installation, the spiral patterns of the movement of energy in the ground involve complementary opposites, always in movement. The earth rows follow the outer lines of the spiral designs with healing plants — sweet grass, tobacco and sage — planted in them. The white painted sticks rise in height to suggest the spirals, while spiralling white flowers appear on the tree trunk itself.”

Grand Father Tree

NestsSharon Loper’s exhibit, Nests, comprises synthesized hummingbird nests. Two oversized, fabricated hummingbird nests, ranging from 0.6 to 1.5 metres in height, are constructed from metal bars, wire, hemp hair, cotton batting, and gathered natural material. Loper states, “The nest represents nature in its most perfect symbolism, in that the nest is shelter, an enclosure, a safe place where life is sustained. We all live in a time when hyper-reality is the norm. The nest brings us back to less complicated values and uses nature as a vehicle. The nest is a window, a place where life begins.”

Deep in the woodland glade, Bob Verschueren has created XIII/08.

“Since 1978, my arts practice has been entirely oriented towards nature, using nature’s bounty as material and as the source for my inspiration. Using vegetation involves working with living material and time. Each installation is a metaphor for the fragility of the human condition. My installation, XIII/08, consists of three large urns out of which flow white fir branches, signifying that the landscape of Hamilton is punctuated by waterfalls. These waterfalls are, for me, the perfect expression of the continuing flux of life.”


Reflections FlowingReflections Flowing is a site sculpture that touches the earth lightly, if at all. Roy Staab, who created the installation in Grindstone Creek Marsh and who is shown during the installation, says, “I think about being ‘in tune’ with nature. In this work, I use an S-curved line and consider the length of open water for its size. It is made of fragile vegetation gathered from the Royal Botanical Gardens — phragmite reeds and saplings that are invasive yet wonderful for making my art. The reeds are interlaced into the saplings. The quiet area of Grindstone Creek Marsh permits my art to almost be a part of nature, especially when reflected in the water. It is vulnerable in the stream, for a moment of life.”

In the Arboretum, Nils-Udo’s installation, Towards Nature, brings together four earth ramps that lead into the inner areas of a tree.

“The ramps are of varying lengths, the longest being about 12 metres. These bridges move from the earth upwards. Visually, they are illusionary, symbolizing our unconscious links to nature. The bridges act as a visual point of entry into the tree and are covered with plants, earth and grasses. The tree is central to all of this. Towards Nature is yet another metaphor, to illustrate this theme, as with many of my works, of that artificial gap between human culture and nature, and so this series of bridges toward nature. These are bridges between nature and humanity, and my art seeks to bring us integrally closer.”

Towards Nature

Ground is a powerful installation by local artist, Simon Frank.

Ground“In an earlier work, Sketch for New Forest, I used oak sawdust and shavings, the waste material created when an oak tree is transformed into lumber, to ‘draw’ a full-sized oak tree on a gallery floor — temporarily returning the material to its original form. With Ground, I use a similar material, tree mulch, but with an opposite intent — to obscure or erase the form of a dying ash tree by burying the tree beneath the material/memory of other trees. Set in one of the avenues of trees in the Arboretum, Ground also playfully echoes and exaggerates both the topography of the site and the ubiquitous mounds of mulch placed around the base of many of the trees by the gardeners.”

With all of these installations, Grande has brilliantly presented us, strolling the beautiful gardens and natural areas, with interventions where a corner is turned, and we are suddenly confronted with a piece of environmental art that plucks a deep string in the human heart.

Visit the Royal Botanical Gardens website for images of the works in progress.

For more amazing environmental art, visit the Green Museum and its blog. This is an online museum. They do not have a physical space filled with a bulky art collection. Instead, as an online museum, their strategy for sharing environmental art reflects their values. They have a very small ecological footprint and can display a wide range of art works from around the globe and include directions so you can visit exhibitions and events first-hand. They are like a traditional museum turned inside out. Instead of visiting one big box filled with art they are many tiny boxes (monitors) encouraging visitors to go out to experience art in the context of their communities and ecosystems.

Another non-traditional museum is the Nomadic Museum, which travels from venue to venue. Its current exhibit is of stunning photography relating humanity and nature: Ashes and Snow.

Royal Botanical Gardens


7 responses to “Earth Art at the Royal Botanical Gardens

  1. Thanks very much for this. It looks a fabulous exhibition, which I am sure will remain in the memory for a long time.
    The Botanical Gardens look lovely in themselves – I did not realise they were within a Biosphere Reserve – a perfect setting for the art works.
    I particularly liked the look of the Roy Staab piece. I could sit quietly musing by it for many hours. In these days of eco-activism, important though that is, I feel that the value of beauty and contemplation is often forgotten.

    Now to have a look at the Botanical Gardens site….

  2. Hi.

    Thanks for writing about the Earth Art exhibit.

    I work at RBG and I was the one who made the Tumblr blog.

    I hope you had the chance to come check out the exhibit in person, along with the other Art in Paradise Exhibits, Sound Art and Sculpt Art.

  3. Rachel, nice work on the Tumblr blog. Thanks for sharing the artists’ work-in-progress efforts with us.

    We finally managed to get out to the Gardens last Friday, and spent the afternoon wandering around all the exhibits. I downloaded the sound art from the RBG website.

    Looking forward to the opening of the indoor exhibit on November 14.

  4. I am one of the artist of the RBG earthart exhibition.. I must tell you that my work was in a too vulnerable place and with all the rain and river flooding (river, water shed) the trees and other logs became disloged and were caught in my work. the quiet of the marsh and creek is always there but my art is disintegrating. nature is always the strongest and it must be that way. I am looking at this blog to find information on Emilie Brzezinski, whom I want to bring to Arte Sella in Italy…for her to make a work there. As Rachel told you about the exhibition, you have to be there and live with it [when the art is fresh and new]. Now I would like to make a new work suspended over the creek in a different way, out of the current. And artist learns from experiences.

  5. The images of the works in progress showed us the imagination and sheer effort that went into installing these works. I think one would want to go back every week to see the changes as they interact with nature.

  6. Ryszard Litwiniuk, sculptor

    I would like to get in touch with Bob Vershuen if he is still there.
    I have met him at the opening of the exhibition in RBG few mounths ago and I am a friend of John K. Grande.
    I live in N.Falls. It is not farr. I am a sculptor and I have my studio and r@gallery in N. Falls.
    Ryszard Litwiniuk.

  7. Ryszard Litwiniuk, sculptor

    Great work.

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