We're pleased to present this stunning plant-related reading list by Jai Mckenzie & Julka Almquist, founders of The Perennial Institute. The Perennial Institute is an experimental education program created to explore the boundaries of art and design practice through the lens of plants, including how creative thinkers can deepen connections with this important resource, expanding creative practice. This summer, The Perennial Institute will host a program in Berlin, Germany, sharing their knowledge and findings through books, zines, and maps.
Jai McKenzie is an artist and researcher with a PhD in visual art from the University of Sydney, Australia. She has taught art and design students at Sydney College of the Arts and the University of Technology Sydney. Jai has spent the last six years engaged in Berlin's contemporary art scene, and has worked for local artists Haegue Yang and Olafur Eliasson.
Julka Almquist is a designer and researcher with an interdisciplinary PhD in design and anthropology from the University of California, Irvine. She has taught design students at Art Center College of Design and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Formerly a designer at IDEO, Julka now has a freelance design and research practice based in Minneapolis.
A Flower with Love by Bruno Munari
Bruno Munari understood the value of plants for creative expression. In his three books about plants, A Flower with Love, Drawing a Tree, and Roses in the Salad he offers workshop style ideas on creating small and humble works of art using plants. A Flower with Love is aesthetically and philosophically inspired by Ikebana focusing primarily on the concept of arrangement. Both arrangement and care are central themes we’ve been exploring in relation to plants. He recommends finding the most humble materials like a sprig of rosemary from your garden and a bowl from your kitchen to use as a vase, and pictured below he used a tile, a potato, radishes, and a twig. With plants everywhere this summer, and with Munari’s direction, we all have the potential to find our artistic arranging sensibilities.
Adventures with a Hand Lens by Richard Headstrom
We are constantly looking for books that encourage creativity and exploration for adults. We believe in lifelong learning and maintaining a deep sense of curiosity. This book helps tap into that. Each chapter is an adventure with your hand lens and in some cases an exploration that has potential to shift the way you see the world. For example, Adventure 12 called “We Go Botanizing” starts with an examination of a simple dandelion, which under the magnifying glass becomes extraordinary. Written by former curator from the New England Museum of Natural History, this book contains 50 simple adventures for exploring nature in your surroundings. We are especially excited to try more of them in our summer gardens.
Earths Grow Thick by Roni Horn
Emily Dickinson loved plants. The mystical nature of her work is in part attributed to her relationship to nature. In it, she found solitude that was essential to her creativity. This book, from an exhibition by artist Roni Horn, is a study of Dickinson’s yard in Amherst, Massachusetts. Two of the works are primarily images of trees taken from Dickinson’s bedroom window, and a few modern details that remind us that time has changed - a highway or a car. However, it’s the essay by bell hooks, Between us Traces of Love: Dickinson, Horn, Hooks that really captured our attention. hooks weaves together three unique points of view and creative approaches to find a common union around nature and defying patriarchy. All of it captures the verdant landscape of Dickinson’s imagination.
Book of Feral Flora by Amanda Ackerman
The Book of Feral Flora feels wild. It’s like a beautiful wild garden that hasn’t been weeded, and the vegetables have started to talk. With an experimental structure, it shifts voices from Ackerman to various plants whose thoughts and words she recorded using sensory-electronic technology. She calls it cross-species collaboration, and like plants that play music, she opens up more creative possibilities with this new method. Her book conveys a surreal conceptual landscape that can be read on hot summer evenings where dream space and wake space feel indiscernible, and you are delighted that rhubarb and irises have written poems.
Sex in the Garden edited by Tom Riker
A couple of years ago, artist Andrea Buttner gave a talk at the Walker Art Center about her exhibition featuring a large rock covered in moss. She discussed learning that moss are cryptogams with hidden sexuality. They don’t have seeds that reproduce. Instead, they create their own spores for reproduction. We began to wonder if processes of plant reproduction might lead to new ideas for our creative process. Plant sexuality is fascinating, and this book is so full of information about all types of plant reproduction, conveyed in an artful and romantic way. It also has great practical advice for propagating plants and growing a garden.
The Secret Life of Plants By Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird
Vegetal wisdom is controversial. When The Secret Life of Plants was released in 1973 it was commercially popular, but many were outraged by the methodologies used in the book considering them pseudoscience or a joke. This critique feels even more complex in our current context where claims that lack of scientific rigor suggest you are taking a political side. We want to read this book not to discern if it’s science or mysticism, we’re more interested in how it could open up possibilities for creativity. Not to mention it inspired a documentary for which Stevie Wonder made the soundtrack, Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants.
Botanical Drift edited by Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll (Ed.)
On a recent tour of the Berlin Botanical Garden, a botanist explained to us the colonial history of the garden. He discussed the political motivation of privileged Europeans to have “the world in their garden.” This summer we are looking forward to reading Botanical Drift a series of essays that explore colonialism and commoditization in relation to plants, starting with the Kew Gardens collection in London. We have a tendency toward action and utopian thinking, and we want to read books that engage us in critical thinking so we explore plant and human relationships in all their beauty and complexity.
Thank you, Jai & Julka!