Mayra Martinez didn’t grow up a gardener, but when plants came into her life, they seemed to her like a gift always quick to die. One day, Martinez instead realized that so many plants were still alive, and she understood how caring for them was a way to care for herself.
“I feel more relaxed, more calm now,” Martinez says of her art. That peace radiates in her multidimensional work, using every part of plants from foliage to flowers, and making everything from dye to jewelry to medicine. All the plants Martinez uses in her work were born in her actual garden, which was once nothing more than a nondescript front yard. Now, it’s bursting with plants — offering Martinez lessons on patience and determination. “You may not care for them really well, but they still want to live,” she says of her flora.
Daylilies can survive drought and frost and are almost indestructible, but Montoya Williams has the ability to slay the garden’s Achilles’ heel. Daylilies are Williams' favorite plant, and she’s found a world of healing beyond their star-like petals. “I know my mental health is not OK if my plants are suffering," she says. "In a way they become a meter for yourself. ...You have to be quiet, you have to be patient, you have to be consistent.”
Williams explores decolonization, Afrofuturism and the trauma that flows through our DNA through mediums like photography, installations and digital collage. The artist found plants through her love of cooking and now uses gardening as a way to honor her ancestors. She considers wilderness, plants and the fertility of the earth as a metaphor for black people — specifically, in the ways that they give to others and receive exploitation instead of thanks. “We create something out of nothing,” Williams says of African American culture. “We create these ecosystems where other people are allowed to thrive.”
Soul goddess Nina Simone once said that the duty of an artist is to reflect the times. James Talambas does just that in his art, which documents humanity’s relationship to the environment as Earth is altered by human existence. Whether calling attention to 2,524 earthquakes to strike our region in a single year due to fracking, or addressing the Syrian refugee crisis, Talambas speaks to the land and the lives behind the news headlines. “Our planet is dying and our lifestyle has a lot to do with it," he says. "We’re not being very empathetic towards each other or the world. In the Anthropocene we’ve done a lot of mis-stewardship.”
Talambas takes his stewardship very seriously. As a vegan, he’s concerned with reflecting a sense of collective responsibility to other living things. His recent exhibition, Only You, was a love letter to a mother-in-law's tongue plant that he’s lived with for over a decade. Talambas calls it a collaboration with his friend the plant, and a way to give a voice to something that had offered him shelter. He interpreted the plant’s feelings via sound by connecting electrodes to its leaves, letting it speak or be silent or sing through eight speakers. Its energy changed when it was touched or when people moved around the room. And if the plant itself was so moved, it boldly sang the song that inspired its name.
Another project, Breathe, was a collaborative piece with artists who shared stories of their mental illness — 250 pots held lavender plants in a room that also housed a light piece and auditory meditations. Combined with the smell, the installation was a total sensory experience. Lavender is a calming herb used to ease anxiety and depression, and Talambas says plants were an integral part of his own healing. “In the process of trying to overcome my anxiety and depression, I found a lot of solace and rejuvenation in plants and in taking care of plants,” he says. “It’s a good way to show energy and love toward something that’s living and then have that love come back to you.”
Marcia Brown only started incorporating plants in her paintings recently, but her relationship with them goes way back. Brown's mother had a house full of plants, and now one of her trees takes up residence in her daughter's living room. “I talk to it and it continues to flourish,” Brown says. “This is how I communicate with my mother.”
Brown, also a poet and education consultant, has been painting for five years and now includes pieces of the natural world she finds on her hikes on her canvas. She says that incorporating plants makes her conceptualize paintings more and consider what she wants them to say, while honoring the nourishing Earth. “The universe is infinite and you can see that abundance in plants,” she says. “They always grow.”
That growth is not always evident to people taking cursory glances at greenery. Brown likes the calla lily for the intricacy of how it grows, for the striations and colors inside its coil, for how it requires attention to grasp the entirety of its beauty. “It reminds me a lot of myself, all the twist and turns, all the changes I’ve gone through.”
With farmers on one side of her family and gardeners on the other, Shamsy Roomiani was destined to be a plant lady. She’s made art her entire life, flavoring her view of the natural world with the Persian influence in her blood, through printmaking, photography, sculpture, installation and jewelry. “I’m working with the aesthetic area of plants, but I’m also interested in the medicinal properties,” she says. “I’m interested in deconstructing a plant and becoming familiar with it on all levels.”
This familiarity shows in Roomiani's work, which utilizes every part of a plant, from sepal to resin to root. Her shamstone sculptures have so many pieces of the earth enveloped in glass that one can only imagine aliens finding them in the future, frozen in time and showing the most beautiful pieces of a dead planet. “I feel like we have everything to learn from the plant world,” Roomiani says. “They can so quiet and so small, and still be so powerful. They’re so resilient.”
The artist also appreciates the strangeness of plants, like the passionflower. “All the weird textures and layers really intrigue me,” she says. Check out a whole room of weird textures and layers at Roomiani’s BedSpring exhibition starting Nov. 30, at the Sweet Tooth Hotel. “You’re walking on it, you’re touching it, you’re underneath it, you’re smelling it,” she says of the work. “You’re experiencing it on multilevels.”
After starting life as a florist, Katherine Tejada knows there’s way more to be found beneath nature's glamour. “Working with plants is accepting nature as it is," she says. "When I receive flowers or pick them or grow them, they come as they are.”
Years spent at a day job surrounded by plants came with its limitations, but also gave Tejada the gifts of access and knowledge. “I understand flowers so well that I can look at something and understand how it was created," she says. "The way a flower curves or grows differently depending on sun or placement, all these things are part of its beauty.”
Tejada showcases nature's beauty via floral design and photography. When Tha’ Mystics asked her to create a mood for their set, she turned Deep Vellum Books into a jungle. Giant monstera deliciosa leaves hidden on ladders and crystals waited to be discovered throughout the store. Another time, she made a poetry night feel like it happened in the reeds along the lake, instead of in the cement basement of the Bath House. Her photography is also earthy — weaving flowers through the hair of her subjects or using plants to set the tone of the picture. “It came naturally to include florals in my photography,” Tejada says. “Including plants has been very helpful to make people feel comfortable.”
Lisa Huffaker is a magickal forest faery zine queen disguised as a human. Her bathroom is home to rocks and pieces of a tree. Succulents guard the back of her house. As a teacher, she offers children a world of enchantment they didn’t know existed. Watching a room full of rowdy kids quiet down to stain watercolor paper with turmeric root and beets is a humbling experience.
Huffaker’s someone with all the muses on her shoulder — from singing in The Dallas Opera to teaching poetry workshops to making tangible pieces of art, to teaching little ones how to see the natural world. “When you can name a few trees or a few flowers, they become a living being instead of a mass of green,” Huffaker says.
Huffaker is OK with dead things, too. There’s a grove in California she’s walked in twice where trees were hollowed out by fire. There, she stood in the charred heart of a redwood and scooped up a handful of charcoal, which now lives inside an envelope in a zine of black printed vellum. “I’ve never felt so much like I could almost hear a living thing being,” she says.
Another time, she made a book inspired by spying on agave in other people’s yards. She says desert plants embody everything she needs to learn to do. “Desert plants find what they need and guard it in all these ways," Huffaker says."They teach us how to thrive and be alive and beautiful in less than perfect circumstances. They’re alive on their own terms, and they are tough and resilient ...They just grow,” she says. “I want to learn how to do that.”
Call her Hecate, call her Hephaestus, call her obsessed with Chronos. Daniela Cruz is trying to figure out time. She collects little bouquets of nature and photographs them, then observes how they transform over many, many hours. “I’m interested in cycles," Cruz says. "What is the cycle of the plant as it’s losing its life and energy?” She watches a plant go from living to dead, then sets its dead body on fire, harnessing its soot, showing us how to find light in darkness.
Cruz juxtaposes plants and wood with more industrial materials like cement and brick. Her photographs show a fascination with lines and shapes, and make us consider the history of something traditionally treated as an object. Her work also shows how plants can relate to people or the self, or the way so many across the world are silenced and disenfranchised. Plants can represent people who are not given a voice. “[Plants] are cut down or literally ripped apart with machinery,” Cruz says. “They sit in this duality. They’re thought of as very soft and delicate, but they’re also incredibly strong. Plants have adapted and survived, but we don’t think of it that way.”