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The Horticultural Society of New York locates its office where it’s most needed and least likely: 13 floors up amid the vast concrete desert of Midtown Manhattan. There, several dozen agriculture and art enthusiasts gathered last week for the opening of Art of the Heirloom, an exhibition that celebrates the Northeast’s heirloom seeds and less-urban roots.
Each year, the Hudson Valley Seed Library, an organization that distributes hundreds of varieties of heirloom seeds, commissions artists to decorate their seed packaging. That packaging is then displayed at the Horticulture Society, or The Hort, and then other locations as a travelling exhibition. The seeds are open-air pollinated, resulting in a higher variation of produce than one would find at a supermarket. Such variation is increasingly important as big-agro businesses like Monsanto genetically alter and homogonize the earth’s bounty — for reasons of shipping, efficiency and predictability. Hence, seed libraries for heirloom seeds, where a tomato is celebrated for its unique taste, not its red no. 5
So far, 80 of the Seed Library heirloom seeds feature custom artwork, which seed-purchasers can hang after they plant the contents. This year, 26 new artworks in a wide variety of media and styles imortalize their respective fruits, vegetables, flowers and herbs. They stand against the background of The Hort’s displays of more traditional, encyclopedic illustrations from old books and old seed packets — ones that existed before the big-agro businesses of the world made heirloom seeds an issue.
Old illustrations of the Scarlett Runner, Triumph of the Frames, Black Valentine, as well as seed packets and ferns, try to efface the city below.
The pieces themselves are interpretive, sometimes literal. Natalie Merchant’s “Shanghai Baby Bok Choi” shows a mother carrying her baby, who is sprouting bok choi leaves as hair.
Jennifer Knaus’ “Endless Blooms Cutting Flower Mix” features those flowers bounding from what is presumably her self portrait.
In “Little Gem Lettuce Mix,” Jessica Poser creates the little leaves out of cut-outs cardboard packaging for foods that are much more processed.
For designers, the exhibition is an important lesson in designing for content. In fact, interpreting your assigned plant through art is the only mandate. The manner in which the pieces are created mimics the spirit surrounding the product they contain. To varying effect, the artists capture a plant’s life from just its seed.
For more pieces from the exhibition, visit SeedLibrary.org.