A Petite Green World

Amy Wong is a painter, scientist, and teacher – but is perhaps best known as a creator of worlds. Miniature, botanical ones, that is. Over the past 3 years, Amy’s Melbourne-based studio, Petite Green, have been re-working the classic concept of the terrarium as simulated natural environment to produce new, narrative-driven mini-scapes, complete with human characters and stories. One sunny morning I met up with Amy at her terrace house and studio in Melbourne’s leafy Fitzroy North. Over a cup of green tea in her old, succulent-filled courtyard, we spoke of ancient Greek mythology, zombie apocalypses and soil science, and how the evolving conditions of urban living are changing the way we relate to plants.

Tell me about your background – how did you come to be the creator of tiny, botanical worlds?

I’ve been making things with plants for pretty much as long as I can remember. I’ve always been obsessed with growing. My boyfriend at the time asked if I could make a terrarium for his birthday and so I started doing some research into that. I actually have a background in soil science but have also studied painting, and its because of that, I think, that I want my creations to be more than just your ordinary terrarium – I want each piece to tell a story as well.

The function and meaning of terrariums has changed a lot over time. Where do your creations sit against the more classic concept of the terrarium?

Originally, in the 1800s, when Nathaniel Ward designed the first terrarium it was for transporting plants across the world. Then he wanted terrariums to feed the hungry. Now, I think, with most terrariums these days being open rather than sealed, it’s less about creating something scientifically accurate or useful and more about possessing something that’s aesthetically pleasing. All the terrariums I create are, as much as possible, to scale. I want the plants and the figurines to relate to each other in a realistic way, rather than just being an odd jumble of plants and objects thrown together.

So a large part of your interest is in story-telling, rather than re-creating or simulating natural environments in a scientifically accurate sense?

Yes I think so. Even though I approach the creation of the terrarium from a scientific, technical perspective, I want people to appreciate it from an artistic point of view.

Let’s talk more about this artistic side. You’ve made zombie scenes, murder scenes, yet also more everyday scenes – families on boating trips, holidays to the beach. From where do you draw the inspiration for these scenes?

From movies and television series, books as well. A lot are commissions, like the one I created based around the Attack of the 50ft Woman. The client – a man – asked me to make that for his wife – it was his wife’s favourite movie from the 50’s. The female figure in the terrarium in fact represents the client’s wife, rather than the original character in the film.

And zombies, ever since I can remember I’ve loved zombies! Every zombie scene I do is unique, some have to do with ideas that seem to come out of nowhere, and some are based on what a client wants. One client requested a Britney Spears zombie scene in his terrarium because he absolutely despised Britney Spears and wanted to see her as a miniature zombie, descending into the crowd from a miniature stage.

Is there a genre of scene that you particularly like working on?

Okay well I’m a bit twisted so I like the dark, twisted scenes the most! We’ve just finished an Alice in Wonderland terrarium, which was definitely not just your happy, pretty Alice scene. It was a lot more morbid. We’re talking bleeding mushrooms and the poor Madhatter lying dead on the floor!

A preference for the macabre – actually sometimes when I peer into your terrariums, even the seemingly innocent ones, I often have this impression of an undercurrent of maybe something darker, or more ominous, something unseen. What do you think of this?

I think just about everything miniaturized could be seen as a little bit twisted, because everything seems so realistic even while it’s all trapped and frozen under a glass dome.

The humans are frozen but the plants are still growing. So there’s this tension, this threat, that the plants and the natural world might one day overwhelm and destroy the humans.

I think so.

Is there a genre of scene that has proved most popular among clients?

Actually, I find that in Melbourne people seem to prefer the happy family scenes whilst in Sydney people tend to gravitate towards the darker, more morbid scenography.

Interesting – I wonder what this says about personality types in the two cities then!

Yeah, I don’t know! I didn’t think it would turn out that way at all, but it has.

On the subject of scenography, could you tell us what, for you, makes up the elements of a successful scene?

For me, it’s about having a good story, one that is believable. Even if it’s outlandish, if it seems like it could be possible, then people will be drawn into it. It’s about having a relationship – an interaction – between the plants, the figurines and the container holding them. I like to use magnifying glasses because it really lets people get up close to the plants and characters and immerse themselves in the little world.

Have you entertained any really strange requests or commissions?

There has been a couple! We did one based around an ancient myth called Costello where a goddess turns her cheating husband’s lover into a bear. Of course this was all set back in mythological times when everyone still did everything naked, so in the terrarium there was this scene full of naked people roaming around doing their business, and then, strangely, a bear just wandering off into the distance.

So, when you see the scene, would you instantly comprehend what’s going on, or would you need to ponder it for a while thinking ‘hmm… what is going on with this?!’

Definitely more of a ‘what is going on in there?!’ vibe. In another one that we did there’s a man massaging a woman on a bench, along with a film crew.

Some sort of porno?

Yes! It was set in the courtyard of an old mansion, with plants growing up all around.

What has been your most challenging project?

Probably the one I worked on for Mercedes Benz. We had to make twenty-four terrariums in the space of a month and every single one had to have a car scene in it, a Mercedes Benz. We made scenes with car shows, romantic drives on country roads, horse racing, even a wedding scene. Making miniature roads is really difficult, and making them so that they’re not toxic and kill the plants, even harder! We did heaps of tests to try and keep them both smooth and realistic as well as not toxic – in the first tests the plants just kept dying. In the end though we managed to pull it off.

So, no holds barred, what would be your dream project?

Well, someone approached me a while ago and suggested this as a possible idea, but it hasn’t eventuated yet. The idea was to do a giant, life-sized terrarium, complete with mannequins and all. That would be pretty cool!

What an interesting shift in perspective that would be for us – to move from the position of voyeur peering into a miniature world, to actually physically being a part of it. 

You’ve spoken previously about your passion for bringing nature indoors. How do you see the role of plants in the domestic sphere?

Plants perform a lot of different functions. Lilies, for example, physically alter the air by reducing toxins and improving air quality. They can also reduce anxiety. So having greenery and plants inside can really improve your quality of life. I think that’s why I’ve always kept plants inside. Also with people having smaller and smaller backyards, it’s becoming harder and harder for people to find space for gardens. Terrariums have become so popular because they’re easy to maintain and anyone can have one – they’re both portable and space-efficient. As the seasons change and the light in your house also changes, you can just move the terrarium from table to table, surface to surface.

Plants were a prominent part of your childhood. We’d love for you to share some memories with us.

So many memories! I remember we had a massive backyard with a giant vegie garden, and I used to just wander around the vegie garden all the time, smelling leaves, looking at the flowers. We had orange trees, tomatoes; actually we pretty much had everything! My dad used to show me how to do a bit of gardening, my mum would tell me about the flowers. I used to get my grandma’s old teapots and crockery and grow my own seeds in my bedroom. And outside my bedroom window I had my own little bamboo garden with a fishpond.

Are there any species of plant that you have a particular fondness for?

My first child was a frangipani! When I moved out of home, the very first plant I bought myself was a frangipani and I had it for ten years until I moved to Melbourne. When I left, I gave it to my old neighbour.

When you go back to Perth, do you ever go back there to visit? Check on how it’s doing, like an old friend?

You know what…that’s a really good idea! I should do that!

Amy, you grew up with plants, you’ve been making terrariums – where do you see your relationship with plants taking you (and us) in the future?

Plants have always been a big part of my life and I have no doubt they always will be. I think I’ve come to realize though, that for me, it’s become more about sharing the knowledge. Consequently, I’m changing my direction a bit. I’m focusing more on running workshops that teach the basics of terrarium creation. It’s about making sure that there are people out there that know how to grow, that have the knowledge to keep plants in their life. That’s what is important to me.

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All images courtesy of Amy Wong