Spring is here, even though there is still snow on the ground and the trees are bare in many locations. To help get you in the spirit, here is a glimpse of Floating Flower Garden, a gallery installation by TeamLab, a Japanese art collective. (Check out their other work, it’s all amazing.)
Over 2,300 flowers are suspended from the ceiling, and as the visitor walks through the garden, the flowers rise upwards, creating a dome of space. The scent of the flowers is constantly changing as well, as each scent increases when the flower’s partner-insect is most active in the wild. It is currently on display at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Tokyo.
The new animated film Song of the Sea is an artistic triumph, and its strong connection to nature only enhances its power. The story is based on the legendary Selkie, a creature who can change from a seal to a human and back again. Inevitably this pulls in themes of the nature, humans’ relation to the sea, and what it means to be human ourselves.
The film was produced by Cartoon Saloon, whose first feature The Secret of Kells was reviewed on this blog a few years back. I don’t want to give away any of the wonderful surprises in the new film, but I will talk about three things that make it especially powerful in relation to themes of nature.
The folklore in the film draws from ancient tradition, and a time when stories were used to explain the mysteries of the world. By entwining the lives of humans and animals, folk tales convey an interconnectedness that is largely lost in today’s world. Science tells us more about nature than we ever knew before, but folklore lets us experience it on a more visceral level. In a recent interview, director Tomm Moore says, “I felt it important to reinforce that losing folklore from our everyday life means losing connection to our environment and culture.” The film manages to bridge all of these worlds very effectively.
Another way the film celebrates nature is through the animals. The big sheepdog, even though he doesn’t speak (which is refreshing in an animated film) is more perceptive than most of the humans, and serves as a link between the world of humans and the magical world of animals and fairies. The seals are another constant presence, beckoning the humans to sea, and helping them in their time of need. The film is populated with creatures of all shape and size, and the constant tug between land and sea is a central conflict and highlight of the film.
Finally, the visual style of the film is not only gorgeous to look at, but has an organic quality that helps convey the natural setting. The watercolor backgrounds evoke the watery world of the sea, as well as the damp hills and landscapes of Ireland. The geometric abstraction of Secret of Kells gives way to a softer, more organic design sense, though the strong shapes and patterns make each scene a marvel of beauty and design. Nature is built on pattern and form, and the style of the film conveys this beautifully.
Everything works together for the greater good of the story, which is not just about Selkies, it is about humans and families and never giving up on each other. We are all part of a bigger world, we are all connected, and that is a message worthy of any work of art.
Antonio Vivaldi published his famous group of violin concertos, The Four Seasons, in 1768 at the age of forty-seven. They were what was known as “programme music”, or music written to depict specific scenes, which was looked down upon by some at the time. But Vivaldi’s compositions rose above the typical programme music of the day, creating a quartet of classics that are still heard today.
What makes them so popular? They are certainly catchy, though there is also a note of melancholy that runs through each of them, especially in the slow movements. And of course, nature is a theme that resonates with nearly everyone. Many composers have written pieces inspired by nature, but somehow The Four Seasons has captured the public’s imagination like none other.
Each composition is accompanied by a sonnet, written by Vivaldi himself, which describes the scenes depicted in the music. Below is a translation of the Winter sonnet, along with a video of the great violinist Itzhak Perlman playing the concerto. See if you can recognize the scenes as they are brought to life in the music.
Winter – Concerto in f-minor
1. Allegro non molto
Shivering, frozen mid the frosty snow in biting, stinging winds;
running to and fro to stamp one’s icy feet, teeth chattering in the bitter chill.
To rest contentedly beside the hearth, while those outside are drenched by pouring rain.
We tread the icy path slowly and cautiously, for fear of tripping and falling.
Then turn abruptly, slip, crash on the ground and, rising, hasten on across the ice lest it cracks up.
We feel the chill north winds coarse through the home despite the locked and bolted doors…
this is winter, which nonetheless brings its own delights.
You can read the text of all four seasons, along with the original Italian, here.
Haystacks (Effect of Snow and Sun), 1891, by Claude Monet
In 1891, an exhibit by Claude Monet in the Durand-Ruel gallery in Paris included a series of 15 haystacks. It was unusual at the time for an artist to exhibit so many paintings of the same subject at once, and it was a conscious effort by Monet to make viewers focus on what he was most interested in, the variations of light and color in nature.
In honor of the first day of winter, here are some of the winter haystack paintings. Many painters of the time would sketch outdoors and create the final painting in the comfort of their studio, but not Monet. He would set up his big canvas and paints outside in all seasons, even the freezing cold. Talk about becoming one with nature!
Over his career he made at least 140 winter paintings outside, which is a level of dedication that I think few artists today could match. These tiny reproductions cannot replicate the beauty of the originals, but you can click on each image to see a larger version of the painting. You can learn more about Monet’s haystack series here.
Grainstacks, Snow Effect, 1891, by Claude Monet
Haystack, Morning Snow Effect, 1891, by Claude Monet
Stack of Wheat (Snow Effect, Overcast Day), 1891, by Claude Monet
Wheatstacks, Snow Effect, Morning, 1891, by Claude Monet
Sometimes the beauty of nature is so small, you need a microscope to see it.
Diatoms are single-cell algae, encased in glass shells, invisible to the human eye without a microscope. During the 19th Century, diatomists would make intricate arrangements of these tiny objects, creating beautiful designs.
Today there is one living practitioner of this microscopic art form, Klaus Kemp, the subject of a new documentary short by Matthew Killip. Klaus developed his own techniques for arranging these tiny works of art, because the original practitioners never passed down their secret techniques.
I like to cover a wide variety of art forms on this blog, including electronic arts. Computer games have come a long way in the last twenty years, and now cover a wide variety of themes and subject matter, including nature.
Swedish game developer Toca Boca is known for creative and immersive games that foster open play. Their latest app is called Toca Nature, and it lets the user create their own virtual world of mountains, trees, plants, and animals. I tried it out for the first time today, and found it an engaging experience.
The graphics are simple and stylized, but the 3D environment allows for real-time exploration of your world. Much of the fun comes from flying over the hills and valleys you created, watching rabbits, bears and other creatures eat, sleep, and explore. You can also collect food to feed the animals and watch them grow. There is a camera to take snapshots as you explore.
The animation can be a bit awkward at times, with animals not always walking solidly on the ground, often passing right through trees and plants. And I found myself wishing for a little more to do in my newly-constructed world.
Still, as an immersive environment that lets children play with nature in a different way, it’s a fun and appealing experience. And if it makes kids want to go out and look for a real fox in the wild, so much the better.
Dolls Come To Life are singer/songwriter Michelle Cross and experimental musician Joe Frawley. Their first album Dolls Come To Life was inspired by interior spaces — a child’s bedroom, attic, etc. Their new album is inspired by the outdoors, particularly the old fashioned gardens of Victorian literature. But these are not cheerful songs of sunshine and flowers, they evoke misty moors, haunted walls, and creeping vines. There’s an eerie thread of melancholy that runs through these tracks, as though the ghost of Mary Lennox has come back to roam the forgotten paths of her secret garden.
The track “Across the Moor”, as Joe Frawley explains, “was the result of a multi-tracked improvisation Michelle did over a drone I provided.” Much of their music evolves this way, improvising over each other’s tracks to see what comes out. The duo works long-distance, exchanging files over the internet, but their sounds blend seamlessly.
The song “Wake Up, Wake Up” features a chorus of flowers singing of their life through the seasons, while a girl sits on the ivy wall listening:
Come if you want, follow us down into the ground,
into the brown earth where we all are listening.
And when the wind comes whispering that it is spring then we begin,
making our way up shivering.
One can imagine the title character, the groundskeeper’s daughter, exploring this strange world and discovering its hidden corners. More than a collection of songs, this album creates a sonic world in the imagination, and listeners can create their own stories inspired by it.
Natasha Newton is an artist and illustrator from Suffolk, England, whose work is inspired by the natural world. Birds, trees, stars and mountains all feature prominently in her work, which highlights the elegant patterns and shapes found in nature. There is a strength and beauty to these primal shapes, as they peel back the surface to reveal the essence of the world around us.
Besides her watercolors and acrylic paintings on canvas, she also does beautiful paintings on stones, which seem the perfect fusion of art and nature. She has also created many abstract works inspired by nature.
Her blog is a window into her process and her struggles, and she writes with openness and honesty about her life and work. I was particularly inspired by her post about being brave enough to do your own thing. She writes how it’s tempting to do art that is safe, rather than what you really want to do:
“If you set out with the goal of painting something just because you think it will be popular, you’ll probably find the opposite will happen. But if you make unique work that comes from the heart, there will be someone else out there who loves it as much as you do. At the very least, your authenticity will shine through. And as an artist, that’s probably more important than anything.”
Her abstract art, sold in her Minimal Nature shop, is one example of how she experiments to keep her creativity flowing. She also draws inspiration from her own life. Her recent series of paintings “Birds of Hope” and “Birds of Strength” came out of an ongoing personal crisis that she has written about on her blog, and she created them as a visual reminder to stay hopeful and strong.
You can learn more about Natasha Newton and find links to all her artwork at her website.
Anu-Laura Tuttelberg is an animator from Estonia who works in stop-motion, a medium that is all the more compelling in this digital world of computer animation. Her latest film, being released this year, is called On The Other Side Of The Woods, and it uses imagery from nature that is stark and compelling.
As she describes the story, “a clay doll awakens her surroundings that become a surreal world in constant flow of change.” What I find so unique about this film, as seen in the trailer below, is the use of real elements from nature — plants, dirt, water — animated in ways that are both eerie and strangely comforting. Also wonderful is the use of natural light, which flows over the scene in unpredictable ways that make the whole environment seem alive. The viewer discovers this strange yet familiar world even as the character does.
The film is being released in festivals this year. Her first animated film was called Fly Mill (“Kärbeste veski”) which was her graduation film at Estonian Academy of Arts in 2013. You can see more of her work at her website.
Here at The Untended Garden, we feature works both old and new, but this summer I’ll be highlighting contemporary artists who explore nature in their work.
Bianca Ana Chavez is a painter from California who has been inspired by nature all her life. She is currently living in Chiapas, a tropical region in the southernmost part of Mexico that is rich in biodiversity. The area boasts over 700 species of orchids, many of which are in danger from deforestation and poaching.
Working in a local plant shop, Bianca would draw the orchids and plants in her free time, and ended up painting an orchid mural around the outside of the store. She became inspired to study botanical art, and moved to Seattle to pursue a certificate in Natural Science Illustration. Studying at the University of Washington, she traipsed through the woods drawing moss and cicadas, and learning more about the small wonders of nature.
Returning to Mexico, she helped convert the plant shop into an art space inspired by nature, where visitors could draw, take workshops, and hear concerts surrounded by the beautiful flora. The name of the shop is Orchideafilia, which translates to “a love for orchids.”
Below (and above), you can see the mural in progress outside Orchideafilia.
A student taking one of her workshops at the art space:
The Untended Garden explores the connections between art and nature. Each post looks at a different artist or work of art, drawing from books, paintings, music, film, and any other form of expression. Read more about this blog.