Interview with Chris Drury
One of our Curator's Choice Artists, Chris Drury, has been hard at work on an impressive project in South Carolina. It was sunny at our greenmuseum.org office but pouring rain at the Botanical Gardens where Chris was working. "We planted the Serviceberry and called it a day so I have had time on my hands to answer this." This interview was conducted by Sam Bower through email.
Q: I understand that you are currently working on a large project called "Time Capsule" at The South Carolina Botanical Gardens What will people find in 50 years when they visit the site?
I hope they will find a figure of 8 rings of interwoven and grafted Serviceberry trees, enclosing two central cores. One will be made up of 4 Beech trees growing together around a red rammed earth monolith and the other the same but the trees will be maturing River Birch, with its contrasting rough peeling bark. These central groups of trees will be growing up tall above the enclosing rings of Serviceberry.Some of these Serviceberry will be nearing the end of their life and will be dying back, but new shoots will be sprouting from the roots to renew the circles. All these trees will be between 8" and 12" diam around the trunk so there will be a dark mysterious space within the circles.
Q: How did you choose the planted elements?
I talked to the people at the Botanic Garden about which would be the best indigenous trees for the situation, and for the gardens. Seviceberry came up early on because it is a hardy species, it will graft to itself, it is small in relation to Beech and Riverbirch, it produces abundant berries which is good food for wildlife, it has a very beautiful crimson leaf in the Fall, and it is readily available from nurseries. The other two spieceis were growing as understory saplings in the wilder woodland areas of the garden and on University land so we could transplant these, root ball and all into the site and they were free. It being February, this is an ideal time to transplant trees.
The bark of River Birch and American Beech are in stark contrast to one another and the Beech is the King of the forest, growing up to 200' high and having a life span of 250 - 300 years. So this element, in time will crowd out the others and starve them of water so that the Beech will be the only remaining feature of the original work; four trees fusing into one at around 8' above the ground with traces of red clay in the middle.
Q: How has the site itself affected the shape and contents of your "Time Capsule"?
When I first looked round the gardens I was drawn like other artists before me to the wooded creek valleys. I even proposed a series of descending chambers on a wooded hill side, but it was pointed out to me that these chambers would attract Copperhead snakes in the heat of summer and someone would sooner or later get bitten.
Then I began to think about how rapidly works here using plant material decay and deteriorate. So I moved towards thinking about using the idea of growth and decay as an integral part of the piece. If I was to use planted trees then they would need to have light so I started to look for a more open site. In a way the piece was going to create its own atmosphere, so I was forcing myself to ignore the magical spaces already created by water and trees. In the end I found a site which had its own magical aura, plus light; an open site between a dense area of indigenous woodland and a clump of majestic Long Leafed Pine. This site and the idea met with unanimous approval from the garden staff.
Q: How long have you been working on this? Is this typical for you?
I've been moving towards making growth and decay pieces since 1994 when I attempted to make a growing willow dome at Tickon in Denmark. This piece however was eaten by deer and I have been looking for the right situation to try again ever since. Clemson is ideal because they will give it every chance to grow without it being a highly managed piece of gardening. I seem also to be moving towards making pieces that have a growing element and that will benefit other species besides ourselves.
Q: What has been the biggest challenge so far?
The biggest challenge was finding the right idea for this unique place, everything else is mechanics. That is not to say there have not been problems, but there are enough good minds with a fund of knowledge here to solve anything. That and I have a large labour force of enthusiastic students to make large rammed earth monoliths a viable option.
Q: What's next?
I'm going to Germany to make a similar work in willow around two standing stones for a private client who has been slowly over 30 years getting a piece of land into a natural healthy state where the streams are clean and fish and wildlife are reappearing.
Q: "Time Capsule" involves weaving sticks, horticulture and building a rammed earth structure. Where did you learn these skills?
Weaving sticks has been an integral part of my work for 20 years, I picked the skills up as I went along. I know nothing about horticulture but I use the knowledge of people who do, and rammed earth is very new. I saw it recently at the Eden Project, where it was used as a building material in the Visitor Centre. In South Carolina there is a history of using it, it is their version of adobe. And in the botanical Gardens two other artists have pioneered it before me, so they have the expertise here to do it, which makes life very easy for me and I learn a new skill. What has astounded people here is how strong a woven structure is and how easy and efficient a method it is of making a mould for rammed earth.
Q: Any tips for artists looking at a career in environmental art? ; )
Go for it!
See Chris Drury's section in greenmuseum.org.
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