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Orrington, MAINE USA

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Princeton, MAINE USA

Monday, June 18, 2007

Jardín Etnobotanico de Oaxaca - Welcoming

Horticulturist, author, and landscape designer Jill Nokes has seen (and created) garden marvels across the world. Today she beckons us to a personal favorite in Oaxaca, Mexico, where cultural history reaches right out of the ground. We eagerly await Jill’s Yard Art and Handmade Places, due out in October. Mil gracias, Jill!


Some of the varieties of nopal bred by Native Mexicans

for food and cochineal production

Photo: Jill Nokes

By Jill Nokes

My friends in Oaxaca City tell me that things are slowly but steadily recovering from last summer’s chaotic political demonstrations.  Although that sad, destructive ordeal was but a blip on the region’s long and complex history, I grieved for a city where so many livelihoods depend on tourism.

And I still worry about how those disastrous events may have affected the most amazing and profound garden I have ever seen: the Jardín Etnobotanico de Oaxaca (The Ethnobotanical Garden of Oaxaca).

Housed within the massive walled complex of the sixteenth century ex-convento Santo Domingo, this garden was designed by artists Luis Zarate and Francisco Toledo and ethnobiologist Alejandro de Avila. They sought to build not just a decorative garden but a plant collection that would tell the story of Oaxaca and its people. The founders’ hope was to celebrate the relationship between people and plants in their state and magnify the message of the cultural museum now housed in the enclosing cloister.

imageFrancisco Toledo’s sculpture in the entry courtyard

Photo: Jill Nokes

This is a particularly rich story to tell, as Oaxaca, home to sixteen ethnic groups, has the greatest political and ethnic diversity in Mexico. Its geologic complexity has resulted in an exceptionally high rate of endemism and biological diversity. Here you find more species of cycads, plumerias, and oaks than anywhere else in the world. Oaxaca also contains every kind of ecotone that exists in the world: from deserts to cloud forests, from beaches to temperate woodlands. Current research has revealed that Oaxaca was where corn was first domesticated, and the wealth of colonial Oaxaca came from the sophisticated selection and breeding of the cochineal (a scale insect) and nopal (prickly pear), both actions which show the interdependence of plant and people. Though the contrast of plants, gravel, and sky is stunningly beautiful, the message the jardin hopes to impart is that there is a direct connection between ethnic diversity and biodiversity.

At the entrance, you are greeted with water, and you follow the water as you make your way through the garden.  Opposite the gate resides a sculpture made from four huge pieces of mica-clad Monteczuma cypress or ahuehuete (Taxodium mucronatum).  Mica, a mineral laminate, was used as a decorative cover on the floors of elite residences in the ancient city of Teotihuacan, and may have served ritual purposes as well. The cypress was associated with sacred ancestor gods. Within the sculpture is carved the “step-fret” zig-zag design,  which some scholars believe refers to both Ehecatl, the wind god, and the nose of Cocijo, the god of rain.

Water dyed red with cochineal drips over the cypress block, symbolizing the source of the city’s wealth. It also signifies precious water commingled with the blood of the Indians, those who died after the Conquest and while laboring over 100 years to build the vast convent. Farther down the narrow courtyard looms the graceful beauty of the huaje tree (Leucaena esculenta), from which the city derives its name. The familiar name of the tree comes from the way its pods resemble the glossy dark red pods of the chile guajillo.

In the courtyard, there are fewer than five plants, but meanings and messages many times that number. In the main garden, there are a thousand plants and counting.


View of the garden’s “xeric” side from the ex-convento/regional museum

Photo: Jill Nokes

Last year’s fracaso, which kept many travelers from visiting Oaxaca, has subsided. My Mexican friends there say it’s safe and peaceful now—all is well. And visitors would be appreciated, even more than usual.  Thanks to Alejandro Avila, founding director, for providing important details to this story. He reports that members of the original team who created the Jardín Etnobotanico are back on hand to welcome travelers, scholars, and lovers of beauty, all who hope to learn more about this special place, its plants and its people.

Posted by Julie on 06/18 at 09:53 AM
Culture & SocietyGardening & LandscapeTravelPermalink

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Driven Amok on Lavender Tires

A European company wants drivers to spritz the skies.


A Kumho’s Ecsta tire smells like lavender for a year

Photo:  Ask Patty

The air may be poisonous but laying a patch in the parking lot never smelled better.

Delticom, “Europe’s leading online tyre dealer” is selling tires scented with lavender. “The Ultra High Performance (UHP) tires from Kumho’s Ecsta line disperses its fragrance at warm atmospheric conditions to a radius of around 10 metres,” we learn.  “The secret of the fragrant tires is heat resistant oils, which give off a pleasant aroma.”

So much for the free-market pep clubbers who keep claiming that invisible hands on a hard body will solve our environmental disaster. Fellas, the free market doesn’t curb air pollution. It develops lavender tires and sells them for $119, $125, or $138 apiece! (By the way, who’s purchasing tires online? And what must shipping and handling fees amount to on a rubber potpourri?)

imageClose-up of Kumho Ecsta tread

scented with lavender oil

Photo: via Tire Rack (dye job by HFP)

Kumho says its target buyers are “female consumers who drive such sedans as the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Subaru Outback, Chrysler Sebring and Ford Taurus.”  What’s the reasoning? Perhaps that all those Glade and Miss Clairol loyalists have found it’s easier to cover up than change or just cope with reality. (Obliviousness, the tire dealers will be happy to discover, is also very manly.)

In case you didn’t already know, half of all air pollution comes from cars and trucks. Yes, it’s even barfed out by those nice Tauruses and Camrys (like ours). And folks’ dropping a thousand dollars on four tires “that will set their luxury coupes and sedans apart from everyone else’s…in addition to delivering an alluring aroma that replaces a tire’s normal ‘rubber’ smell”  won’t help matters. Here are some measures that will.

Kumho’s lavender scented tires came on the U.S. market this year, and the company says it plans to roll out orange and jasmine models in the future.

imageSunset over Fort Worth

on an ozone alert day

Photo: Milton Adams, for Ft. Worth Star-Telegram

We don’t know how the scented tires are selling. We do know, however, that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may raise its standards on air quality as early as Monday of next week. The American Lung Association and other organizations have threatened to sue EPA, saying that the agency’s existing regulations don’t protect the public health. Here in Texas, urban air pollution is notoriously bad. In 2006, Tarrant and Dallas counties had, respectively, the 9th and 16th worst air quality in the nation. Last year the Dallas-Ft. Worth area exceeded EPA’s existing clean air standards for 31 days (that a month of hazardous breathing).

For the doubters, here are some Miss Clairol visuals. Check out those lavender skies!

Posted by Julie on 06/16 at 04:31 PM

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Steinberg: Flowering Question Mark

Saul Steinberg was born June 15, 1914 in Bucharest, Romania.


Double Still Life, 1979

Saul Steinberg

Photo: Adam Baumgold Gallery

Some lines stay with you. Hollyhock towers by the stucco house where we lived in Smithville, Texas. The slope—fine for sledding—of Perry’s Hill.  A newspaper obituary from 1999.

How grateful we are to find in full Sarah Boxer’s remembrance of the artist Saul Steinberg (June 15, 1915—May 12, 1999). Boxer’s article appeared in the New York Times May 13, eight years ago.

Crisp and amusing, the article does her subject justice. Boxer supplies the oddly zig-zag story of Steinberg’s life, coiling back throughout her article to the unmistakable drawings. “His visual language was a thin, sharp line that was always remarking on its own existence. ‘My line wants to remind constantly that it’s made of ink,’ Steinberg said. ‘I appeal to the complicity of my reader who will transform this line into meaning by using our common background of culture, history, poetry.’”

Complicity is all! “‘The doodle is the brooding of the hand.’”


Natural History, 1961

Saul Steinberg

Alice Lacht Zich Een Weblog

Too cerebral and “haughty” for the cartoonists,  too humorous and trenchant for the art world, he could never be folded over and stuffed in any envelope. Boxer observed that Steinberg “was particularly attached to the question mark, which he drew hovering overhead, embraced in bunches or carried like a briefcase. He traced his obsession with punctuation and letters to his father’s printing business in Romania, in which condolences like ‘Crushed by Sorrow’ were printed in big wooden type.”

imageDrawing by Saul Steinberg

Image: Digestivo Cultural

Speaking of punctuation, her obituary quotes generously from the artist himself and a number of admirers. Art critic Hilton Kramer wrote of Steinberg,  “His drawings are, in a sense, anthologies of art history. There are Cubist and rococo characters. Expressionist conversations, Renaissance objects. Gothic words and Pointillist emotions.” Still life, too. “There is a kind of primitivism in all this, an animism, for everything in Steinberg—even the most inanimate object or abstract thought—is teeming with feeling, aspiration, ambition and portents. Numbers are erotic, words are predatory or faltering, a coiffure may be cerebral, or a boot didactic. Steinberg sees experience itself as a parody of experience, with ‘style’ the only reliable clue to its mysterious gyrations.”


Posted by Julie on 06/14 at 11:03 PM
Art & MediaPermalink

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Arthur Williams’ Vegetable Vixens

Aided and abetted by a friendly photographer and hair stylist, a Denver florist unleashes his inner couturier.


Sara Thorpe braves the Denver streets in anthuriums

styling by Arthur Williams and Tina McKeever

Photo: Beth Sanders

After our recent plea for people-centric flower photographs, the cyber clouds parted and nymphs tumbled out of Colorado. They were dazy-eyed, as nymphs have every reason to be, and flocked with gerberas and anthuriums. “I just so happen to have some ‘human garden’ photos,” wrote Arthur Williams. Indeed!

Arthur operates Babylon Floral, a company that earns its name with exotic plants and hanging gardens slung from the shoulders of Denver beauties. The 7th Wonder of the World? Maybe not, but definitely a sign of splendor in the Colorado capital.

“I started doing the floral fashion stuff about 4 years ago,” writes Arthur, “as an outlet for my crazy artsy side.” With a background in   photography and sculpture as well as training in floral design, Williams is clearly not trying to crank out the same ten formulas to make a living. Westword, Denver’s alternative paper, covered a Babylon Floral event back in January 2005, featuring wall sconces full of “chocolate-scented orchids.” Kity Ironton described the proprietor: “Ear plugs, steel piercings and the brightly colored tattooed koi swimming through Hindu symbols that completely encircle his right arm make Arthur Williams a very unlikely looking florist.” A swirling koi himself, Arthur seems intent on making flowers move, jostling floral design from decoration to something more like theater.

imageManivone Nonthaveth in floral “hat,” created by Arthur Williams and Tina McKeever

Photo (detail): Beth Sanders

Of course, if you want drama, other people need to be involved….“One of my first images caught the attention of Tina McKeever at Vain Salon,” Arthur writes,  “and we’ve been working together ever since.” They’ve staged a number of floral fashion happenings and seem to be building a strong following of downtown style-mongers. “Every other month Tina has an art show at her salon and we have 2 models serving appetizers and drinks,” wearing Arthur’s designs. These gatherings attract “visual artists, D.J.s and tons of creative types, usually a few hundred people.” Recently they put together a “runway show” at 5 Degrees, a local nightclub that, in lieu of happy hour or line dancing, was hosting exhibitions on “global warming.” Williams says more spectacles are in the works.

Recently, Arthur and Tina met photographer Beth Sanders at a conference of “wedding professionals” and—just add media! —the circuit really started to flow. Thanks to Beth, Tina and Arthur for sending these marvels along. 

Our sense is that many florsists—how about most ?—struggle to balance the service side of their work with self-expression. Arthur Williams chooses to put his flamboyant foot forward, trusting that the business foot will come along.  “Most of my customers order by price range and the general feeling they want to express, leaving me with complete artistic freedom,” he writes. “That always works out best. I truly believe that if you do what you love, it will take care of you.”

We’re fascinated to see how both Babylon Floral and Vain Salon make a point of linking—both on the web and in real life—with kindred enterprises in Denver. It’s like the old Rotary Club, but with piercings. Also tres 21st Century, Arthur’s business plan pipes-in philosophy. “I’m totally inspired by tribal cultures and Asian aesthetics,” he writes.

imageManivone Nonthaveth before the runway show at 5 Degrees

with hair, hat and garb by Arthur Williams and Tina McKeever

Photo (detail): Beth Sanders

“I choose my florals by bold forms and ability to last without a water source for many hours,” Williams writes. “Of course that happens to coincide with my favorite flowers, cymbidiums, jamestorri dendrobium, flax to name a few. I really don’t change my design style or materials for the fashion stuff, but the ‘vessels’ ultimately dictate the finished work. As for the models, our wonderful friends really play along with our crazy ideas. Some of our headdresses aren’t built for comfort.”

Westword’s article quotes a price for one of Arthur’s floral gowns: $600 (mind you, those were 2005 dollars). But as with most contemporary installation and performance art, these pieces are made primarily to keep Arthur happy, for the sake of “fabulous….”

“I think it would be fabulous if people dressed in flowers all the time!” he says. You’ll notice that nymphs never sit down.


Posted by Julie on 06/12 at 12:35 PM
Art & MediaFloristsPermalink
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