Long before North Americans could pick up tomatoseedlings at their local hardware store, there was John Bartram. The 18th-century horticulturist supplied seeds to the likes of Thomas Jefferson and established the US’s first botanical garden near the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. But what gardening enthusiasts mostly remember him for are his boxes — 3-x-2-1/2-foot containers that he carefully packed with plant specimens and then shipped off to prospective buyers in Europe.
Bartram’s boxes quite literally gave seed to a new European landscape peppered with American foliage — everything from morning glories to poison ivy. More recently, they have inspired a remarkable series of artworks at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, Wisconsin.
It all began in June 2010, when a violent storm knocked down 13 varieties of trees in the 45-acre park called Bartram’s Garden that now occupies the botanist’s old estate in Philadelphia. The organization partnered with the local Center for Art in Wood and put out a call for artists to create modern remixes of Bartram’s boxes from the fallen timber. The results — 36 projects, first exhibited at the center last year — are incredibly thoughtful and detailed.
Highlights include Nathan Hansen’s “131 Rings” (2013), which features the remains of a 131-year-old tree; its ring-lined trunk has been sliced horizontally into several sections that rotate with the passing of time, so the very top layer makes one new revolution each year. Benn Colker‘s “Museum of the Maker’s Hand” (2013) is a miniature, traveling museum that contains several “gallery” boxes filled with tiny specimens symbolic of the creative act. Bartram, who had a deep appreciation for the little things in life, would no doubt have been impressed.
Bartram’s Boxes Remixcontinues at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum (700 North 12th Street, Wausau, Wisconsin) through August 30.