The Glory of Weeds

Ryan Pierce “Bear Poppies”

Weeds can be architecturally stunning… radial, spiraling, delicate and stout, possessing hidden powers for healing and sustenance for larger, more mobile, legged species (us). Our family has been nourished by nettle pesto for the last two years– a surprisingly nutritious and earthily delicious staple. Once the nettles are blanched, they lose all stinging capacity, and become deep green and aromatic, with more protein than almost any other plant source. The ubiquitous plantain weed has immediate application. Any sting or bite is eased by chewing a leaf and applying a poultice. I’ve watched this happen with my three sons! I also love to see the boys nibble dandelions and clover, and walk through our yard chewing the mint and rosemary and fennel that grow so easily (like weeds!) in our rental yard.

The paintings posted here are by Ryan Pierce, a Portland artist and organizer, co-founder of the fascinating Signal Fire residency. He recently completed a series of paintings, many of which are based on weeds whose names contain a reference to the devil, uncovering some of the predisposed disdain we tend to hold for organisms that seem to fall outside of our careful control. From Elizabeth Leach Gallery:

New World Atlas of Weeds and RagsRyan Pierce’s second solo exhibition with Elizabeth Leach Gallery, features paintings depicting the resilience of the natural world. The works are inspired by the role of weeds and the impact of humans on an Earth reeling from climate change, mass extinction, and environmental collapse. The images are a meditation on our perception of weeds as unwanted, harmful invaders that bring imbalance to an ecosystem, rather than a symptom of existing trauma.  Pierce’s celebration of weeds questions conventional nativist conceptions of landscape, wondering instead at the possible role of weeds as a restorative function of a wounded planet.

For this series, the artist has borrowed the visual tropes of botanical illustration, recalling a time when painting and drawing were trusted modes of seeking, recording, and conveying new knowledge. The works are populated with moths, snakes, and locusts — symbols of the deplored but ecologically crucial components of nature. Alongside the paintings are slender pedestals holding bowls of “Roundup Ready” weed seed. Viewers are invited to take the seeds, which are from common and robust Pacific Northwest native plants that have been genetically selected to resist chemical pesticides: a provocation to destabilize and hasten the demise of industrial agriculture.

Ryan Pierce “Proverb”
Ryan Pierce “Chance Ark”

Another painter uncovering some of these hidden powerhouses is Leslie Bostrom, in Providence RI, whose latest series “Monster Flowers” makes roadside sprigs monumental.

Leslie Bostrom “Red Owl” via

A year ago or so, celebrated nature writer Richard Mabey gave a written tour of some of the weeds pictured inside the collection of the Tate in London. After giving a historical description of painted weeds as ” small, creeping, insignificant, wild nature as cosmetic afterthought,” he has this to say:  

When we break through into the twentieth century, the era of ecocide as well as genocide, weeds move centre stage as emblems of wild, regenerative energy, healers of vandalised earth. […]

Now east London contemporary artists are putting up blue plaques by particularly resplendent patches of street weeds (Tagworts), and Michael Landy, best known for making an artwork out of the destruction of all his material possessions, none the less sees the “marvellous optimism” of urban weeds worthy of a series of meticulous and durable etchings.

Ralph Waldo Emerson generously suggested that a weed is not so much a plant in the wrong place as “a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered”. Perhaps, in the desolation we are making of the planet, the weed’s moment has arrived.



Imagists that haunt me

Arytystic Pairanoiya, Gladys Nilsson, 1978

When I was going to Ball State in the middle right of the great state of Indiana (and earlier, when I was in high school in South Bend) Chicago was a place I went to get cultcha. Marilynn Derwenskus, my watercolor professor and a dynamo mentor, took us often on field trips and showed us how you could get in touch with well-known artists you admired by… getting in touch with well-known artists you admired. She helped us bring people like Karen Finley, Judy Pfaff, David Reed and Faith Ringgold to our mid-America campus, and when we would travel to Chicago, she’d make arrangements there as well. One trip, she arranged a studio visit with Gladys Nilsson, and I’ve been thinking about how much impact that seems to have had on my own pursuits. The whole “Hairy Who?” a group of artists including Nilsson, Jim Nutt and Karl Wirsum, and other Chicago Imagists like H.C. Westermann, fed into my interest in the possibilities of the figure as a profound and profoundly goofy reality of life on earth. There’s something about the scatalogical humor conjoined with an almost dancerly grace that describes the feeling of living in unpredictably embarrassing, unexpectedly resilient bodies.

Jim Nutt (detail of drawing)

On Jim Nutt:

While it was undoubtedly inspired by mid-twentieth century pop culture, especially comic books, advertisements, jukebox and pinball machine art, and street signs, Nutt’s art also explores the formal devices and techniques of historical painting. Northern European portraiture of the 15th and 16th century; Colonial American painting; the color and line explorations of Henri Matisse and Joan Miró; the quirky individualism of such artists as John Graham, Max Ernst, Arshile Gorky, and H. C. Westermann all offered lessons as Nutt has matured over four decades of artistic development. (via)

Gladys Nilsson, Steady Bears, 1970, watercolor, 15 3/16×11 7/8 inches. Via

I also found out, by reading this interview in Bomb, that Nilsson started using watercolor when she had her baby. I did the same thing with drawings and gouache when I had my second son, and I’m so glad that I happened into what has become a very fruitful way of working. It has been for Gladys Nilsson, too. I like what she has to say about one of the reasons she and Jim Nutt, who is her partner, stayed in Chicago:

There were couples who had met and married in art school, and then he kept up or didn’t keep up, and she became not an artist. There were one or two women on the West Coast we knew were involved with art, but, basically, it reminded me of my childhood. You’d have a gathering and the men would be doing men’s stuff and the women would be in the kitchen with their aprons. It was like stepping back in time.

When we were showing in groups here in Chicago, there wasn’t any difference gender-wise. It was all about your art.

 Then Jim adds:
There were fewer well-known women working in Chicago than men, but there were some exceptional ones: Miyoko Ito and Evelyn Statsinger come immediately to mind. On the West Coast you had Joan Brown, who’s our age, and then Jay DeFeo, from an older generation. You had examples of well-respected women who were in shows, yet at these parties, it seemed like two different worlds. When Jim Falconer and I were dreaming up small groups to propose for shows at HPAC, it never occurred to us that by including women we might be doing something unusual. For the lists that we took to Don Baum—the lists from which the Hairy Who, in a sense, came out of—we were looking for work that we liked and fit together well and nothing else.
Gladys Nilsson, Big Birthday Gladys, 2010, watercolor, 40×60 inches