Mary Abma: art from dirt

(Christian Courier, July 11, 2011) 

When the 19th century Peasant Poet John Clare was asked, “Where do your poems come from?” he aptly replied, “I kick them out of the clods.” Mary Abma’s latest art pieces also derive from the dirt, the dirt in her own backyard. As the Agricultural Revolution fenced the commons, drained marshes and exiled peasants to textile mills, Clare mourned the loss of the traditional English landscape. Mary mourns a similar loss – Ontario’s dwindling Carolinian forest, the extinction of native plants and the near-obliteration of a vibrant indigenous culture. Her most recent work, soon to be exhibited at both Redeemer University College (September 24-November 30, 2011) and Calvin College (January 6-February 18, 2012), ponders these losses. In My Own Backyard is a monumental effort in its conceptual framework, its comprehensive research and its profound respect for the natural world.

Mary’s art springs from a curious mind: “I visit themes that relate to universal experiences that are present in our own life narratives. I am especially interested in exploring the bridges that bring us into a connection with our past, those that identify our relationship with the natural world, and those that lead to an awareness of God.”

The spark of this exhibition was Norway’s Doomsday Seed Vault, underwritten by mega-corporations like Monsanto. Intrigued by this so-called bio-diversity preservation project, Mary wondered about its ethical ramifications. “Food” seeds were being stored, a hedge against some future apocalypse. Was that diversity? Seeds safe in a sanctuary … but for whose profit? With what moral safeguards?

Researching the word origins of “sanctuary,” Mary honed in on a Latin definition: “private cabinet of a prince.” Pursuing the history of cabinets led her to the “apothecary cabinet” and to her own ancestor, Louis Hebert, an apothecary who settled in New France in the 1600s. Hebert had brought medicinal plants from France to his new home, a commonplace practice. Mary was struck by the possibility that the non-native plants in her own backyard could actually have been the result of her ancestor’s unwitting eco-meddling.

Cultivation and conquest
Mary’s reading of primary sources about early Canadian settlement led her to a fresh awareness of the “cultivation and conquest” imagery of colonial language, a vernacular that included the subjugation of the indigenous populations as well as the land. In some texts, native people were referred to as crops to be harvested or weeds to be exterminated. The settlers viewed their “cultivation” of the New World as beneficial, even heroic. Mary inscribed their ingenuous remarks, culled from letters and diaries, onto antique farm implements that were specifically used to cut land and crops. The irony is exquisite. Then, the blades were useful, the intentions, admirable. Now, we recognize that both the blades and the intentions had unforeseen and injurious consequences. The artistic meld of text and artefact forces the viewer to ponder the future. How will our present practices appear to generations yet to come?

It’s easy to point fingers at corporations or to judge previous generations. Norman Wirzba’s book, The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age, confronted Mary with her own obliviousness to the biological habitat just outside her back door. Was her ignorance leading to carelessness? Her lawn was overgrown with weeds and other plants she couldn’t identify. She decided to create a herbarium of all the plants that grew unbidden in her yard. Enter scientific research, cataloguing, assistance from botany professors and the meticulous journaling of her process. With a sense of wonder, Mary discovered an incredible diversity in her lawn, over 75 plant species in all, the vast majority invasive and non-native.

Mary’s research alerted her to the curious fact that early botanists often recorded their observations on paper covered with erasures. Perhaps they were merely dismissive of previous “old” knowledge, or, self-interested, they were seeking to convey discoveries as their own original work. Certainly much of their “new” knowledge was acquired through contact with native peoples, but, given the colonial mindset of cultural superiority, such “borrowing” was not credited. This covering up of old knowledge with new information inspired Mary to explore the idea of a “palimpsest,” a recycled papyrus manuscript with the previous script still faintly discernible. Mary’ series, Herbarium of Lot 161, Plan 150, grew from this concept. She created 120 panels of pressed plants from her backyard. First, she spray-painted the plants a metallic silver, purposely “altering” the plants, creating an artificial homogeneity to signify human intervention. Then the panels were layered with embedded fragments of historical text about each plant, including songs, recipes and medicinal attributes, and, lastly, painted with acrylics.

Mary noted that previous generations had far greater familiarity with native plant species and their properties than we do today. In 1750 all children could identify sow thistle because they fed it to their rabbits. Today, information about plants is readily available on Google, but divorced from daily experience. Do we take responsibility for knowledge if we assume it is readily accessible? Do we treasure knowledge, or is it disposable, a casualty of our drive-through culture?

Such questions led Mary to wonder about the plants that might have been flourishing in her yard today had it not been for settlement. She decided to create lumens, ghostly images of native plants made with technology through a completely natural photographic process. These ethereal silhouettes become evocative reminders of a native plant life that has been decimated by human ecological intervention.






God’s intelligent design
And that, finally, brought Mary to a consideration of transcendence. Wirzba wrote, “We are, in short, bereft of a sense of the cosmos, the sense of an ordered whole that envelops and enables life.” God’s intelligent design for the interconnectedness of life, whether plant, animal or human, is often overlooked or ignored. Mary explored this idea artistically with an installation piece, a triptych. “I wanted this piece to embody the sacred, somehow, and this ultimately led me to reference the Christian sacrament of Eucharist because, first of all, it is very honest for me. The Eucharist is all about communion with God. It is a reminder of the sanctity of life and the importance of ritual. It puts us into a context in which we are thankful and humble. I also felt it was an appropriate reference because those of us who have inherited Christian beliefs and traditions need to take a close look at our history and move toward reconciliation where we have confused our own desires with Divine intention. This reconciliation includes how we treat the environment.”


Mary collected seeds from her yard, storing them in an antique printer drawer, another allusion to the transference of knowledge. Similarly, she also collected rainwater, a full year’s worth of precipitation. 365 communion glasses, carefully shrink-wrapped, contain a proportionate amount of water for each day’s rainfall. The presentation emphasizes the life-giving potency of water, both physical and spiritual, but the packaging alludes to the current commodification of this critical resource. The third panel of the triptych features a soil monolith with exposed strata from her yard, as well as wafers created from the dirt. The installation welcomes the viewer to the Lord’s Table — a Eucharist fashioned from the earth for a humanity created from dust.

Mary has been personally transformed by her work: “My whole notion of what constitutes a beautiful garden has changed. I also recognize my own responsibility when it comes to ecosystem degradation. I will not close the book on this project. Already we are in the process of redeeming our own little patch of creation: our yard. As I walk around it now, I can identify the vast majority of my weeds. I know what to nurture and what to pull out. We have designated two distinct areas of our yard as native plant gardens and hope to expand these over time.”

In My Own Backyard  is a mature show. The art is singularly elegant in its own right, but the exhibition as a whole is unified by an invisible coherence. It’s the coherence of repentance and renewal offered in the chancels of our own backyards, where, as Martin Luther said, “Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime.”


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