I react viscerally to storms. Growing up in Kansas, I’ve witnessed their destructive power. As a 3-year-old, I huddled under a mattress in a rental home with no basement while a tornado flattened every house on the street but ours. (I’m not a Dorothy, nor have I played one on TV, but I have heard my share of Wizard of Oz allusions.)
Perhaps that childhood recollection is why I love seeing good things result from storms. Bartram’s Boxes Remix, one of two summer exhibitions at the Woodson Art Museum “makes lemonade from lemons,” as my mom would say. After a 2010 windstorm that felled trees throughout the grounds of Philadelphia’s Bartram’s Garden, artists were invited to divert the debris from the chipper and use the wood to create works of art. The idea was to honor, through their contemporary artwork, the legacy of John Bartram, America’s first botanist who built colonial-era boxes to safely ship seeds and plant specimens from the New World to Old World clients. The contents of these botanical treasure troves eventually sprouted, spread, and transformed the European landscape.
Artists incorporate the theme of trans-Atlantic collaboration, transport, and information sharing into their artwork in fascinating, thought-provoking ways.
Ironically, a tornado ripped through Merrill and felled a wide swath of trees in 2011, the year after the Philadelphia storm devastated Bartram’s Garden trees. Wood sawn and provided by Merrill woodworker Mark Duginske at the Museum’s request for the Bartram’s Boxes Remix exhibition, was transformed into a table by Dave Jones, a member of the Museum’s facilities staff. Shannon Pueschner, Museum Visitor Services staff member and creative consultant to the curatorial staff, drew botanical designs that Dave carved into the tabletop, a thick slab of white pine.
Visitors now gather around this table in Art Park to make botanical rubbings they can take or leave to adorn Art Park walls. Strolling by, seeing family members and strangers alike clustered around the table, creating a rubbing and chatting side by side, makes me smile. This table invites visitors to engage in communal art experiences, deepening connections between generations and friends.
I’m certainly grateful that I emerged unscathed from that childhood tornado, as were the friends who stayed with us for several weeks after losing their home.
As artists remind us in such inspiring ways, it’s possible – with creativity, ingenuity, talent, and collaboration – to transform tragedy into beauty. Even bittersweet vines produce brightly colored berries.
What’s your story? How do artworks trigger memories and foster connections in your life? I make a habit of collecting such stories; it would be a privilege to hear yours.