Caring for Plants Is an Art Form

Wave Pool's 'People Via Plants' installation project encourages participants to drop off ailing (or lonely) plants, leave them in the care of artists-in-residence and bring them back home later this month.

click to enlarge “The Secret Life of the Tomatodendron” (detail) - Photo: Valerie Molnar and Matthew Spahr
Photo: Valerie Molnar and Matthew Spahr
“The Secret Life of the Tomatodendron” (detail)

At last! An art exhibit you can bring your favorite plant to.

In fact, Wave Pool’s People Via Plants installation project, which gets underway Sunday and continues through July 23, is for your houseplants as much as it’s for you. Those whose plants are ailing — or are lonely for companionship — are encouraged to bring them from noon-5 p.m. on Sunday, pose with them for an official “before” portrait in front of a mountains-at-sunset backdrop, and then leave those plants in the care of artists-in-residence Valerie Molnar and Matthew Spahr. (People can also drop off plants anytime during the artists’ stay.)

Then on July 23 from 7-10 p.m., during a dance party/plant celebration, people can get “after” photos taken and bring their plants back home, stronger and healthier for the experience. It’s like sending children to camp for the summer.

In between those dates, Molnar and Spahr will watch over their charges in their temporary plant rehabilitation center within the Camp Washington gallery’s building. There will be pop-up greenhouses where the artists can repot, feed and provide comfort for the plants, offer lighting with subtle color gradations to mimic sunset and play plant-appropriate music for 12 hours daily.

“They love Elvis,” Molnar says by phone from her home in Richmond, Va.

How does this all qualify as art? Molnar, 33, is a painter who received a bachelor’s degree from the Cleveland Institute of Art. Spahr, 38, is a sculptor whose undergraduate art degree is from California State University, Long Beach. They met pursuing master’s degrees at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. They have been mounting People Via Plants projects in various locales since 2012.

To them, this works as time-based art, social-practice art and more. There is a sculptural aspect to the way the plants, while on public display, change form as their health improves.

“The things we will be doing are experience-based and outreach-based,” Molnar says. “We’re teaching informally about color, images and how something can stand on its own or work with other objects.”

While the duo is completely serious about their devotion to improving a plant’s health during their stay here, there is a bit of Fluxus-like amusement to the whole enterprise. Their time here will be, in some ways, a happening.

“The kind of person who would agree to bring a house plant to us and say, ‘I did this to promote its healing’ would also understand that there is lightheartedness and humor involved,” Molnar says. “We blur the lines on where to stop with the normal stuff when we start thinking about what would make the plants the absolute happiest.”

“There is definitely a metaphysical side of it,” Spahr says.

The clearest example of that comes on July 16, when local artist and librarian Steve Kemple offers a workshop on the metaphysical care of plants. His presentation will feature music and poetry along with plant-care advice.

Wave Pool, the innovative nonprofit Contemporary gallery and art center, brings artists-in-residence here through its “Art Space is Your Space” program. Calcagno Cullen, who founded Wave Pool with husband Geoffrey, explains why the jurors who evaluated artist-in-residence applications chose Molnar and Spahr. 

“The jury was really in love with the visual aspect of it,” she says. “The way they were able to take material like plants and make it very sculptural put them over the other finalists.”

The largest plant they’ve ever received was a Hope split leaf philodendron, about 4 feet high and 6 feet wide, from leaf to leaf. 

“It was actually in pretty good health,” Spahr says. “I think the person who dropped that off was just excited for the plant to experience a new environment and be around some other plants for a while.


PEOPLE VIA PLANTS occurs Sunday through July 23 at Wave Pool. For more information, visit wavepoolgallery.org.

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