Bartram Gardens I

But all this Philly fun aside. I was here to work!

I had been invited to attend one of the open days in conjunction with a collaborative exhibition project between the Bartram Gardens (the US’s oldest botanical gardens) and the Center for Art in Wood. I knew very little about John Bartram and this legacy before I left Bayarea but I’m a always intrigued by a tale of internationalism and the dawning discipline of science during the Enlightenment.

I was excited to finally get there along with a gaggle of folk who I really respect (Albert LeCoff, Matt Hebert, Merryll Saylan, Mark Sfirri, Don Miller Jr., Jack Larimore, Leah Woods) and some others who I’ll get to know soon I hope. We met and talked and then went on a rambling, meandering stroll through Bartram’s garden down to the shores of the Schyulkill River.

The restored barn and house were very surprising to me having spent little time on the East Coast. So humble and hard hewn, but with touches of common luxury showing in some of the careful (if haphazard) details. I’m such a sucker for the vernacular!

Luscious lintels

Mysterious arcane symbols of fertility and idleness carved by the hand of John Bartram - we choose to believe.

The magnificent but humble house of the Bartram family.

I have to admire the heroic rough hewn columns of local stone, the window trims and  the carved motto – affirming Bartram’s revolutionary and enlightened stance against the orthodoxy of the Quaker faith.

"It is God Alone, Almyty Lord, the Holy One, by me Ador'd"

But we were here to do a bit of botanizing and hypothesizing. The gardens themselves are exquisite. Gone of course, are Bartram’s own crops, livestock and orchards – he was a working farmer after all. But still here are some of the trees that he or his son’s John Jr. and William Bartram planted

John Bartram purchased 102 acres here in 1728 and started to farm, build and explore. He wisely or fortuitously found a parcel of land at the junction of different geological groups that enjoyed diverse microclimates. Through his building of terraced stone walls and buildings he created sun-drenched hollows protected from the winter chills to enable him to grow an increasingly broad range of plants. These he found locally, or transplanted from further afield following a series of increasingly adventurous and ambitious expeditions and then finally through a fertile exchange with fellow botanists and horticulturalists in England. The whole wonderful tale of his commercial, scientific, camaraderie and friendship with  Peter Collinson in England is told in sumptuous detail by Andrea Wulf in her tale ‘The Brother Gardeners – Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession,” which also deals in detail with my old friend and life companion Sir Joseph Banks. Read it!

But let’s walk first!

The oldest living Gingko biloba in the US. Thought to be one of the original three bought to the US from China via England. One of which was given to William Bartram to nurture - which he clearly did!

Carnivorous plants first bought to the attention of Western botany by John Bartram

And the cage they're kept in - they ARE carnivorous after all!

Callicarpa americana - seducing English gardeners into a feeding frenzy almost as rabid as that of the Dutch with their tulips.

Later we went on a small tour of the house itself. Very relaxing and easy going – a comfortable life here is easy to imagine! A rambling and idiosyncratic interior, with a great Y-shaped staircase branching two two separate 2nd floor landings. I’ve only seen another like it in the Wharton Esherick house in Paoli, Pennsylvania. You can get a glimpse of that staircase here!

Bartram wuz 'ere!

The highlight of the inside tour was to catch a glimpse, in the gathering evening dark, of a small medicine chest used by James Howell Bartram (John Jr.’s son). most likely it was built for grandfather John Bartram, by John’s brother James (a local cabinetmaker). Nice piece! Got me thinking in earnest about what I might make for this exhibition. More on that later!

Bartram's Medicine Chest

ESP – The Eastern State Penitentiary

Oops, jumped too far forward. I haven’t finished talking about the trip to Philly.

Continuing the tour of strange museums of Philadelphia we come to the Eastern States Penitentiary.

I first heard of this space when Alan Wexler gave his first lecture at CCA. He was chosen to create a project for Prison Sentences: The Prison as Site/The Prison as Subject in 1995 at the Eastern State Penitentiary – where he created a huge range of the artifacts for use in the space (books, paintbrushes, pigments,etc.) by dismantling and re-assembling things that were provided for his maintenance (paper cups and plates, napkins, etc.). I remember it seeming like a strange mix of Gilligan’s Island, Angkor Wat and every POW movie I’ve ever seen.

Enlightenment gothic!

The textures that have been retained, fostered, restored are amazing! It’s almost like coral in places.

Stairway to heaven?

And close up its Rauschenberg meets Kiefer (maybe).




You can’t NOT think about what human suffering sweat and talk has percolated through these walls to leave such stains.

Say goodbye for two years of solitary...

Some of the long abandoned cells have a grandeur about them. This one still has remnants of the urban rainforest that blossomed on this site after it was abandoned in the 70's

Some of the cells have become locations for site specific artworks.

Karen Schmidt's - Cozy. A hand-knit cell-warmer.

Local entomologist Greg Cowper's tribute to a prisoner who displayed his collection of 18 species of butterflies and moths (some quite rare) gathered at the ESP to Dr Henry Skinner in 1889.

Cowper works in the same role at the same institution as Skinner did 200 years ago. He has now collected more than 500 specimens of more than 150 species of insects and invertebrates at ESP which are now displayed in one of the cells.

There's been a long history of art at ESP as you can see from this extraordinary documentation of two inmate's precocious performance art from the 50's.

The ‘official’ caption reads “The meaning of their project has long been forgotten”. I think I’ve found the perfect epitaph!

Whittling at SDSU

I had a great visit to San Diego State University last weekend. I got to spend time with Matt Hebert who did his MFA at CCA through the Furniture Program a ways back and is now an Assistant Professor at SDSU where he works with the incredible Prof. Wendy Maruyama – who used to teach at CCA!

I also got to spend time with some of the graduate and undergrad students there. We got some serious whittling done together and Matt and I worked on a series of digitally manifested versions of one of my aWay station whittlings. Manual and automated whittling and various translations thereof.

Matt sent me this sweet little video that he compiled capturing some of our activities.