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Secret Life of Paints

New exhibits at Sonoma County Museum marry artists with the natural world

By M. V. Wood

Sometimes it's within the very clutches of death that some people realize the meaning of life. For others it happens on that mystical night as they're staring up at the stars. For artist Amanda Haas, her epiphany came one day as she was backing out of her driveway. She realized that the meaning of life was right there, entrenched in exactly what she was doing day after day: backing out of the driveway, folding the laundry, pruning her rose bushes. It was the repetition of sunrise and sunset, light and shadow, the blooming and withering of life itself.

"After 23 years of living in the same house, I was backing out of the driveway, and I thought of all the other countless times I had done the very same thing," says Haas, whose installation piece That's All I Have is part of the "Botany 12" exhibit opening Oct. 15 at the Sonoma County Museum. "It hit me that this is what life is about. It's the layers upon layers of meaningless repetition that pile up to form meaning."

One part of Haas' artwork is made up of bags and bags of rose clippings. Not only do these serve as a metaphor for the repetitive cycle of life and death, but as each layer was created out of the repetition of clipping another and yet another withered rose, the layers piled up, forming a meaningful representation of the moments, minutes and several seasons of Haas' very life.

"I'm not sure why I ended up using roses to try and communicate this through my art," Haas shrugs. "It just seemed right."

According to Natasha Boas, curator of the show, more and more artists seem to be integrating plants into their work. "As a curator, I like to capture the moment, I like to capture where the rush of energy is at a particular time, and right now there's a lot around plants," she says. "There's something in the air. In my line of work, you see lots and lots of new art every day, and I just kept noticing all these images of plants and references to them, and the use of organic materials. And so I became curious about the artists' relationships to plants."

The resulting multimedia show, "Botany 12," consists of the works of 12 artists from Sonoma County, the greater Bay Area and New York. Area artists include painters Pamela Glasscock, Tony King, William O'Keeffe and Adam Wolfert. Some of the works, such as the pieces by Glasscock, seem like illustrations traditionally found in botany textbooks.

"You have to keep in mind that the illustrative tradition of botanica has always been at the intersection of art and science," Boas says. "The illustrations are a product of not only careful scientific observation, but also of myth and fiction and of our own human psychology. For example, Pamela is obsessively meticulous with her observations. She's very detailed and precise. And then she goes and takes these very precise, very scientific depictions of different plants and paints them all together on the same canvas, in some kind of fictional garden that would never occur naturally. I've told Pamela that she's a scientist gone mad."

Stephani Syjuco's works are similar to Glasscock's in that they too bear a resemblance to traditional botanical prints. But instead of cross-sections of plants, diagramming the pistons and petals and such, Syjuco renders cross-sections of gadgets and technology. The parallels drive the viewer to consider how, in this century, we have blurred the lines between the natural and the artificial.

The works of Philip Ross also explore that link between nature, technology and art. For this show, his piece is a self-contained battery-powered survival capsule for one living plant. In this manmade, controlled hydroponic environment, the plant's roots are submerged in nutrient-infused water while LED lights supply the needed illumination. The glass enclosures allow for a clear view of the plant. And the artwork itself allows for a clear view of how much technology and resources are necessary when a living thing is cut off from the rest of the natural world.

Although each of the works in the show depicts a different perspective in the relationship between the artist and plants, there is a recurring idea in that all the artists have a definite respect, even awe, for the world of flora. After all, in that relationship between people and plants, we need them a lot more than they need us. The catalog for the show carries an excerpt from The Botany of Desire in which author Michael Pollan reminds us to not jump too quickly to the judgment that humans are more highly evolved than plants:

"Plants are so unlike people that it's very difficult for us to appreciate fully their complexity and sophistication. Yet plants have been evolving much, much longer than we have, have been inventing new strategies for survival and perfecting their designs for so long that to say that one is the more 'advanced' really depends on how you define that term, on what 'advances' you value. Naturally, we value abilities such as consciousness, tool-making and language, if only because these have been the destination of our own evolutionary journey thus far. Plants have traveled all that distance and then some--they've just traveled in a different direction.

"Plants are nature's alchemists, expert at transforming water, soil and sunlight into an array of precious substances, many of them, beyond the ability of human beings to conceive, much less manufacture. While we were nailing down consciousness and learning to walk on two feet, they were by the same process of natural selection inventing photosynthesis (the astonishing trick of converting sunlight into food) and perfecting organic chemistry."

While "Botany 12" is being shown downstairs in the museum, the "Sonoma Botany" exhibit, which consists of 12 plants on loan from SSU and UC Davis, is being shown upstairs. All 12 plants have had an important impact on Sonoma County history and culture, and the exhibit serves to underscore this complex relationship between the world of plants with that of human society.

Included in the collection is the Blennosperma bakeri, named after the county's famed botanist Milo Baker. Also known as "Sonoma Sunshine," the endangered wildflower had a major impact on deterring development in the county's seasonal wetlands. Also included is the Apocynum cannabinum, better know as dogbane or Indian hemp. It is an indigenous plant traditionally used by Indian people for cordage and net-making. Once plentiful, it is now endangered; the 3.3-acre Dogbane Preserve just south of the Luther Burbank Center off Highway 101 is one of the largest stands of dogbane left in the western United States.


'Botany 12' and 'Sonoma Botany' exhibit Oct. 15 through Feb. 13, 2005. A free reception for the artists and public is slated for Saturday, Oct. 23, from 4pm to 6pm. Sonoma County Museum, 425 Seventh St., Santa Rosa. 707.579.1500.

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From the October 13-19, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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