Before Gardener at Sulfur Studios
“When I was in college, a professor told me that artists can’t be environmentalists, and it stuck with me because it’s not true. I think we can be both,” said Lisa Watson, whose traveling exhibit “Avant Gardener” debuts this Friday at Sulfur Studios in Savannah’s Starland District.
The show focuses on rare and endangered native plant species and highlights how habitat loss, chemical spraying, invasive plants, rising sea levels and poaching have all taken their toll on transforming native landscapes into vast tracts of unsustainable land.
Watson’s interest in the intersection of art and environmentalism began at Columbus College of Art & Design. Like many students, she struggled to get the necessary art supplies. She took matters into her own hands when she started digging through trash cans to find discarded wood, paper and other items to reuse in her work.
Watson found that using these discarded materials was more than an exercise in creative economics, but also a valuable way to reuse waste and keep it from ending up in landfills.
After college, she moved to Los Angeles and worked as a commercial set designer and stylist for a range of live and recorded productions. In each work, she found ways to weave repurposed materials into her sets. Also in Southern California, Watson began to learn about native plants, especially those that were drought-tolerant and used by some landscapers for xeriscaping the region’s dry climate.
When she finally landed in Savannah, Watson combined her burgeoning artistic skills and plant knowledge to launch “Plan It Green,” her own sustainable art and design business that has been growing since 2008.
In many ways, “Before Gardener” is the culmination of Watson’s oeuvre to date. And she sees the influence of her concern for the environment manifest in the lives of people and landscapes near and far.
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“This is the most heartfelt show I’ve ever done, thanks in large part to all the collaboration with different artists and biologists. My 2020 show with The Studios of Key West closed early due to COVID, but I got a residency with them in February this year,” she said.
“On my way to Key West this year, Ranger Kristie Killam of the National Key Deer Refuge invited me to see the work they had done planting native plants and eradicating invasive plant species. She had been a speaker at opening my show in Key West. and I took a lot of the information I presented in my art talk and applied it directly to the shelter. It was amazing to see and a bigger feeling than gratitude for the experience.
One of the works in the exhibition is “Semaphore Still Standing”, a series of four-part hand-painted linoleum prints of an endangered semaphore cactus. The species, found only in the Florida Keys, faces a serious threat of extinction due to climate change. Because the oceans are warming, rising sea levels are rapidly taking away the habitat of the cactus.
Each of the four panels is made from recycled cardboard with green cacti in the foreground on a range of different pastel colored backgrounds. Thorns are conveyed with die-cut security envelopes. The upper left panel is free of water, but in each consecutive panel water seeps around the base of the cactus, alluding to the rising sea that may soon swallow it up.
In another “Venus Flytrap” painting, again on reused cardboard, Watson features a collection of Venus Flytrap plants, a species considered vulnerable but currently on the way to being placed on the federal endangered species list. In the wild, Venus flytraps are found in only a handful of locations in North and South Carolina. Poaching and habitat loss due to human encroachment are the biggest threats facing this plant. In Watson’s painting, the curve of a bridge encroaches into the upper right corner.
Watson believes that by making art from 90% repurposed materials and by making rare and endangered plants the subject of that art, she has the power and the tools to preserve those species, which in turn will help us. help keep us safe.
The Coontie cycad is a plant that she particularly likes and that appears frequently in her work. Beginning in 1825, the Coontie, native to South Florida, was harvested from the wild for its root starch. By the second decade of the 20th century, the cycad had disappeared.
“In the 1960s, a small population of Coontie cycads was found with the Atala Hairstreak butterfly. The larva of this butterfly is only found on this plant,” Watson pointed out. “Since then people have worked to re-establish the Coontie which supports the butterfly and now there are more Atala Hairstreaks. Although the plant is still listed as commercially exploited, it is not extinct. It is definitely the story of the return of children that I like to share in my conferences on art.
After airing in Savannah, the show travels to the Coastal Discovery Museum on Hilton Head Island for two and a half months, then to Statesboro where Watson’s vivid multimedia endangered plant paintings will be on display for two months in the spring. at the Averitt Center for the Arts.
IF YOU ARE GOING TO
What: Before Gardener, opening reception
Where: Sulfur Studios, 2301 Bull St.
When: Friday from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.