Leonie Barton’s (Ephemeral) Life with Plants
Every summer I spend roughly two weeks of my holidays giving my garden a clean, a haircut and a feed. I know it’s probably not the right time of year to do it, according to those with greener thumbs than I, but it’s the time I have available. My mind benefits from the space the work brings, and my body enjoys the physical labor, hopefully ditching the Christmas kilos in the process.
In any other year, I would wander around my garden and get cranky about the jobs I shouldn’t have neglected over the last twelve months – like not finding a shadier spot for the rock orchids, not taming the ginger out the front that has disappeared some of my gardenias and still not finding a cure for my ongoing battle with the pennywort. I may easily spend hours plucking out the tough running grass, whose name I don’t know, the one that likes to play hide and seek in my mondo grass borders. It thinks I don’t know it’s there, as it spreads its underground networks, which I will remove (when I have more hours to kill) with the patience of a saint.
In any other year, but not this year.
This year my wander around the garden has slowed to a dawdle, in fact, I’ve nearly come to a stop. I’m too busy looking at my garden, seeing it with newer, sharper eyes. I’m seeing the details and the connections. A shape, curve, line, colour, a marking or a texture.
As I prune and trim, as I rip out or gently remove, I play. Nothing is wasted and no material enters the green collection bin or compost before being inspected for it’s potential merit as an element in my artworks. I’m not talking foliage and blooms destined for a classically painted still life, these hardly ever make it to my studio.
I arrange and rearrange garden clippings and offcuts with the ground as my canvas, looking for harmony and balance, persevering until they make visual sense (to me).
I make these compositions, document them through photography and then leave them to wilt, to shrivel and eventually blow away.
They are a reminder I leave to myself to look at my life and what it’s made of a little more carefully. To watch how I walk in this life and be aware of how quickly I move through it, to slow down and pay attention. To respect that nothing is permanent and everything will perish, even us.
I leave these ephemeral artworks not only in my garden, but out in the world too. I’ve left them in Queensland, New South Wales, Fowlers Gap (near Broken Hill), San Francisco, Yosemite, Sonoma, Shanghai and Singapore.
To date, there are 579 images in this series (the first 365 were sequential) and I have done it regardless of weather, location or circumstance. It has become a daily meditation.
Outside of my own garden, I don’t pick or pluck things, I use only what has fallen to the ground, remnant piles left unattended by councils, gardeners or via the trimming service provided by the cockatoos.
I don’t use any tools or props and I am generally alone. The artworks are left for others to experience (unless they have a plastic element in which case they are binned). I post the images to social media, which gives a context on size, materials and place. Sometimes people send me messages and photos to tell me they’ve found it, which is another nice connection. I feel like somebody who understands my message can show somebody else, just like somebody showed me.
So this year, unlike other years, the plants are my paint, my art materials. I would be lost without them. The plants have extended my creative life, as I now sell and exhibit these images. But mostly, the plants have given me a way to move through and communicate with the world I live in.