Building connections between plants and art

Tommie Huffman | The Daily Wildcat The “Botanical Relations” exhibit displays botanical works from many artists including Red Canna by Georgia O’Keeffe. Joela Jacobs, a professor here at the university, is co-curator of the exhibit which has its opening reception on Feb. 14.

The Botanical Relations exhibit, now offered at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, combines botany and art to explore plant life and how we interpret plants through unique lenses. 

The exhibit was co-curated by UA professors Joela Jacobs and Ursula Schuch, along with Olivia Miller, the curator of exhibitions at UAMA, and will run until March 31.

Jacobs, an assistant professor of German studies, will be giving the opening lecture, “Vegetal Eroticism: Imagining our Botanical Relations,” on Feb. 14 at 4 p.m.

“Part of what I’m researching [is] that around 1900, for instance, there was this real fear of vegetal eroticism,” Jacobs said. 


Jacobs explained that plants were assigned male and female reproductive organs, and scientists discovered 24 possible reproductive combinations, including plants with other plants of their species, plants with themselves and hermaphrodites. These reproductive methods were considered immoral and “unnatural.”

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“The people were afraid that students and kids would learn, well, how to have sex in the first place, but how to do it in ways that are not monogamous and not heteronormative,” Jacobs said, explaining the concept behind vegetal eroticism. She said these teachings were censored from schools and literature, as plants were seen as erotic and sensual.

Jacobs also founded the Literary and Cultural Plant Studies network, which handles these ideas, the cultural impact of plants and plant agency. When Jacobs shared information about her Network on campus, Miller contacted her about putting together an exhibit about plants, as they tend to be in the background of art.

“There’s this phenomenon called ‘plant blindness’ that says we just don’t realize that plants are everywhere, how important plants are, and we kind of ignore them because they are passive, in our view at least. They’re just there,” Jacobs said.

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In the same period, Jacobs had been in contact with Schuch, a professor in the School of Plant Sciences who was invited to join in this project due to her academic background.

“The three of us, then, essentially agreed that we were going to do this exhibit looking at how plants are represented in different paintings — it’s primarily paintings,” Schuch said. “There are different things like drawings, one is photography, one is actually using actual media, actual collections from the forest floor.”

Miller suggested the use of pieces from the UAMA collection and offered her experience in suggesting some pieces that haven’t been on exhibit or that have not been shown in recent memory.

The exhibit showcases several botanical pieces categorized into four themes: vegetal eroticism and violence, individuality and dis/order. Pieces displayed include art from Georgia O’Keeffe and Renoir, as well as pieces from local artists.

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The beauty of the exhibit extends beyond the pieces selected to best represent the chosen themes, according to Jacobs. With the collaboration of three co-curators, the perspectives of each piece reflect their academic backgrounds, which can be seen in written panels next the paintings.

“We wrote labels from each of our perspectives,” Jacobs said. “We wanted to keep that in there, that Ursula … sees the plant as a specimen and that Olivia sees the piece of art in a different way, of course, than I would.”

Schuch explained the labels as looking at the pieces from an art history perspective versus philosophical versus literary or botanical perspectives.

“The benefit for me, with this being really out of my regular professional realm, was that it really made me think about other subject areas and essentially branch out … into different areas. And the arts are very important, I think, for everybody,” Schuch said.

The goal of the exhibit is to help visitors re-evaluate how they see plants, our relationship with them and their relationship with each other. There is a hidden history with some plants, which can be seen in the “Violence” section of the exhibit.

“[Plants] have sustained us since humans were on this planet, potentially even from an evolutionary standpoint,” said Chelsea Farrar, curator of community engagement. “They sustain us on a daily basis … but most of us are so separate from that production now. We just go to the grocery store or restaurant and order it up, and it comes to us. So … we’re not in a day-to-day interaction with that sustainability of plants.”

Farrar’s comment on the exhibit links back to the concept of “plant blindness” explained by Jacobs. The importance of plants and their prominence in daily life is often overlooked.

“Through the exhibition, hopefully visitors will walk out and maybe see [the] palm trees, or the lantana, or the cacti that are on campus right as they walk out the front door and see them in a different way,” Farrar said.

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