An Intimate Engagement

Posted on October 22, 2013

Mary Anne Friel and Shirley Watts discuss artists, architects, scientists, poets, and a garden.

Paul Licht, Director, and Chris Carmichael, Associate Director of Collections & Horticulture at University of California Botanical Gardens (UCBG) invited you to curate the exhibition Natural Discourse with the goal of creating discourse and public engagement. How did you endeavour to set Natural Discourse apart from other exhibitions with similar objectives? How did you create and utilise the possibility for ongoing dialogue?

Shirley: Paul and Chris were aware of my practice, which lies somewhere between art and landscape, and invited me to ‘do something’ in the botanical garden. After some discussions, I realised that this was an amazing opportunity to work in a garden of 34 acres with a world-class plant collection, and it could be something much more exciting than one installation. Because of her experience in the art world and the place we both were in our professional lives, I invited Mary Anne to work with me on the project that became Natural Discourse. Together, we developed the program and invited the artists, architects, poets and scientists to work with us. Being able to work, literally, in a very important plant collection with highly skilled horticulturalists is what immediately set this project apart.

Mary Anne: While UCBG regularly facilitates scientific research, Natural Discourse was the institution’s first initiative to offer researchers from the creative disciplines access to the collection and garden staff for sustained inquiry. As artists’ projects developed they became the catalysts for discourse, first with UCBG horticulturalists and varied outside specialists — from anthropologists to culinary historians — and finally, with the public during the six-month exhibition. Our efforts to cultivate new funding sources and build audience also proved to be a vibrant conduit for engaging the community. Two symposia, held in conjunction with the exhibition, extended this discourse across an even broader range of disciplines and the public.

Mary Anne Friel is an artist and Assistant Professor at the Rhode Island School of Design. Shirley Watts is an artist and principal of sawattsdesign, a design build firm in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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