August 22, 2017


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Night at the Herbarium

Artists explore botanical themes in a group show at the Edge Gallery

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/2/2015 (908 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Remember plants?

They're green? Live outside? Turn sunlight and carbon dioxide into oxygen and glucose? Me neither.

Ken Gregory’s Electrica herba likens technology to an invasive species. Above: Flora of the North by Dawn Wood.

Ken Gregory’s Electrica herba likens technology to an invasive species. Above: Flora of the North by Dawn Wood.

It's going to be a while before we can hang with our leafy friends outdoors, so it's nice to know we can keep in touch at the University of Manitoba's Vascular Plant Herbarium. Open to both researchers and the public, it houses about 77,000 dried plant specimens, some dating back 100 years or more.

For two days last November, it also hosted a group of artists who met to explore the collection, peer through microscopes and draw. A few months later, that field trip has yielded Dry Media, a group show at Edge Gallery showcasing botanically inspired works. A sweet, lively, and well-rounded exhibition, its timing couldn't be more welcome.

The works are diverse, and no surprise there: plants themselves take varied, complex forms that would put the most inventive artist or designer to shame. Interesting parallels crop up throughout the show, however, instances of convergent evolution.

Chantal Dupas and Dawn Wood both offer meticulous, carefully observed takes on botanical illustration (both volunteer at the herbarium, so the attention to detail is probably no coincidence). A luminous watercolour by Dupas captures the gradual withering of one specimen, while Wood's Flora of the North drawings celebrate the native plants of Wapusk National Park.

Toby Gillies does some gonzo botany at Portage Place Mall, arranging covertly taken samples of the exotic, indoor flora to form an abstract mask. Actual botanist and herbarium assistant curator Diana Sawatzky has a more rigorous approach, sewing a beaded map of sites in the province where scientists have collected field horsetail (a 375-million-year-old "living fossil" species). Displayed in its embroidery hoop, the piece elegantly charts connections between women's traditional knowledge (plant identification, sewing) and modern field research.

Also with an eye to craft, Lesley Nakonechny knits a shawl hand-dyed with blueberry juice and studded with dried plant material, while Jessica McKague presents a glittering, beaded enlargement of a tiny plant structure (a possible homage to Ruth Cuthand's beaded diseases, recently at Plug In). Melody Morrissette and Becky Thiessen both look to floral and foliate patterning in decorative art, crafting crisp digital repeats based on Manitoba maple seeds and a hand-stencilled wallpaper pattern, respectively.

Aceartinc. helpfully sent a delegation of witches and perverts to stir things up (I say this with love in my heart). Board president Helga Jakobson, one of the event organizers, exhibits a ritual rubbing taken from a diseased, doomed elm and another relic from a "protection spell," a drawing made with smoke from burning branches. On opening night, artist, storyteller, and Aceart co-director hannah_g spun the tale of a mind-altering, mystical and mildly erotic initiation ritual held by a secret society of "midnight florists." Seth Woodyard (also on the Ace board) probes the remarkably hairy (albeit microscopic) sex organs of several plant species, whipping out his Pinus (P. banksiana, jack pine, and P. strobus, eastern white pine), in a series of trippy nude self-portraits.

Last, and most apocalyptically, Ken Gregory and Shawn Jordan use plant forms to address human impact on the environment. Gregory's Electrica herba is a feebly chirping electronic flower that likens technology to an invasive species. In her "Post-Anthropocene" works, which span drawing, installation and video, Jordan draws an unnerving parallel between towering, dead sunflower stalks and high-power streetlights. The title refers to the proposed epoch following extinction.

And on that cheerful note, the season for Dry Media is short: the show closes at Edge March 4.


Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg based artist, writer, and educator.


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