Invasive Ecology: Ellie Irons’ Urban Pigment Garden

With projects that range from Watershed Topography Drawings to Speculative Arboriculture to the EPA-funded work Neversink Transmissions, and with a background in environmental science, Brooklyn-based artist Ellie Irons‘ works contain within them a veritable ecological encyclopedia. And yet they read like good fiction, constantly raising difficult and important questions about different communities’ respective relationships with their environment. Recently, she’s been working on a project called Invasive Pigments (presented in collaboration with Center for Strategic Art and Agriculture), and last Sunday, I joined her and Brooklyn science/art organization GenSpace for a talk, workshop, and tour of her “Invasive Pigments” garden at Silent Barn and of invasive plants in the surrounding area.

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She started off her presentation with her personal story leading up to the Invasive Pigments project: after experimenting with growing algae from Superfund sites, she noticed how similar the algal goop looked to paint and ended up making watercolor from it. From there, she began making watercolors from other plants using the same process, harvesting from her immediate vicinity of Brooklyn. Her focal shift began to include a defense of urban botany – her bible being Peter Del Tredici’s Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast – and a rethinking of our surroundings in a way that is incredibly pragmatic, especially when considering new definitions of nature and ecology in the anthropocene.

The talk went on to touch on topics ranging from definitions of urban habitats (they can be sorted into remnant habitats, like Forest Park; managed habitats, like Central Park; and abandoned, ruderal landscapes, like vacant lots) to characteristics of spontaneous urban plants (scientific jargon of the day: “phenotypic plasticity“). To end, she addressed the question perhaps all environmentalists – especially the artist types – hear regularly: why? Why care about invasive species? Why not call them weeds? Her answer encompassed this blog’s focus quite wonderfully: to start a conversation about our immediate environment and to shift our mode of thought to include that which was previously overlooked.

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From there, we went on to take a closer look at her garden at Silent Barn, which currently houses a cornucopia of the invasive species in the surrounding area, and took a little field trip around the public garden that is Bushwick. In between, she showed us the process behind her invasive watercolors, using pokeweed to make a wonderful deep purple. After a solid three hours worth of education, art, and science, it seemed that the band of artists and environmentalists that had shown at the gathering began to see the urban world a little differently. By exploring the science and ecology behind our urban forest and engaging with it artistically, Ellie Irons indeed instigated – and is instigating – a subtle paradigm shift, at least in terms of the way urbanites view their surroundings. This blogger is thoroughly excited to see her continued work.

See photos of the trip, along with some of her works, below. Ellie Irons works will be shown at the Center for Strategic Art and Agriculture in the Fall of 2014.

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A map showing the locations and names of several spontaneous urban plants in the area.

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– Patrick Jaojoco

Photos by Patrick Jaojoco or courtesy of Ellie Irons (www.ellieirons.com). 

An earlier version of this post stated that the plant Ellie Irons used in her tutorial was black nightshade. This is incorrect; the plant used was pokeweed.

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