A marriage between plants and sculpture
-Second in a series-
By Donald H. Harrison
ENCINITAS, California — Gardeners sometimes will debate whether certain “companion plants” will help each other. For example, will planting onions really ward off insect pests that feast on bean plants? However, at the San Diego Botanic Garden here, there is general agreement that a genuinely symbiotic relationship exists between sculpture and plants.For the last three years, Naomi Nussbaum has been the sculpture-plant matchmaker. To do this, she finds artists who would like to exhibit, and possibly sell, their outdoor sculptures at the botanic garden, thereby enhancing the experiences of garden visitors. The more visitors–and sales–the greater the garden’s revenues, and therefore the more money SDBG has for introduction and care of the plants.
This year’s sculpture-in-the garden program, which lasts through next April, features the work of 23 sculptors whose works range from abstract to whimsical to representational. With a variety of sub-gardens spread over the San Diego Botanic Garden’s 37-acre facility, part of the challenge for Nussbaum and the SDBG staff is finding just the right setting for different pieces of sculpture.
“Sometimes when I show a potential piece, I think ‘this would be absolutely fantastic in such-and-such garden and they say, ‘you are right; that is where it needs to go.” For example, ”Garden Friend,” a piece from Zjhunk Metal Art depicting a large metal red and black lady bug sitting on a larger green leaf, seemed just perfect in the Hamilton Children’s Garden.
Sometimes, said Nussbaum, “if we are not sure, we can spend hours making that decision. In the current exhibition there is a large abstract of red-painted steel by Matt Devine and that piece stumped us. We wandered the garden for hours to figure it out, and we called up the artist, and showed him a few places, and he said ‘this is the best one.” The piece can be seen in the Australian Garden, close to the main entrance.
Thematic placement is only one of the issues facing the curator of the sculpture exhibition. Nussbaum said the outdoor sculptures need to be small enough to be maneuvered through the botanic gardens without a crane, and generally large enough to stand in juxtaposition to the surrounding profusion of plants.
Nussbaum had served as public arts administrator for the nearby City of Carlsbad before working for Aesthetics, Inc., a private company, and then starting her own business, Naomi Nussbaum Art & Design, in 2003 in Solana Beach.
When she was given the challenge of curating her first exhibition at the botanical gardens three years ago, “I had to think hard about who to approach for works that would not require a crane.” Another challenge was that while SDBG could provide the space to show the work, the non-profit organization did not have the budget to pay a stipend.
“It was amazing how many artists jumped at the opportunity despite the lack of financial gain,” Nussbaum reflected.
Initially, Nussbaum focused on “functional art” for outdoors — bird baths, water features — items that pertained to the garden. But it did not take her long to realize ”it did not matter whether the art was functional or not, it mattered whether the art enhanced the gardens.”
Almost all the art is obtained locally. At least two of the artists currently on exhibit are members of the Jewish community One is Mexican-born Becky Guttin, whose three pieces shown together comprise an imaginative assemblage of small structures. Nussbaum said the works “symbolize love, community and home.” Another is Israeli artist Ana Lazovsky, who arranged with a local relative for her piece “The Blue Flame” to be shipped here from where it was previously on exhibit in Florida. Its “fluid and clean lines” mirror those of nature itself.
It’s not just the matter of finding a space where the art fits, because the plants are growing all the time–as are their underground root systems — and the sculpture needs to be placed in such a way that it won’t interfere with that process, Nussbaum said.
Besides the logistical challenges, Nussbaum also says she feels a sense of mission to help as many good sculptors as she can. Times are tough for artists — especially for those who make large, expensive, outdoor pieces–and exposure of their work in this type of venue can be quite helpful.
“If you are not in the echelon of being a well-known public artist who can apply for public art commissions, it’s likely you are pretty broke,” Nussbaum said. “So the possibility of helping these sculptors promote their art is paramount.”
This goal is in keeping with those of a non-profit organization–Synergy Art Foundation — in which Nussbaum is the founding director. The organization “helps local artists within San Diego County in crisis — so those who lost their home in the fire, we helped.” The organization also initiated and helped establish Spaces 4 Art in East Village, downtown San Diego, providing local artists with affordable studio and living spaces. With rising prices throughout San Diego, cannot afford the rent at their previous locations, Nussbaum said.
Nussbaum often can be seen walking in Solana Beach with her dog “Zimba,” who was rescued seven years ago from possible euthanasia in Tijuana. He is named for Nussbaum’s native country of Zimbabwe, from which she immigrated to California via South Africa in 1980.
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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