Entering Stephanie Garon’s exhibit, “Pry,” on view at Washington College’s Kohl gallery through March 4, you are confronted with an eerie sight. Dangling from the ceiling nearly to the floor of the darkened gallery, giant reeds cast a looming presence that feels both aggressive and almost feral. Forming two curving “walls” of vegetation with an open aisle in between, they seem to compel you to venture inside for closer investigation of both the tall grasses and the video playing on the wall beyond.
Towering more than twice human height, there’s a raw physicality about these imposing grasses. They are ominous and they are beautiful. Lit from above, their long stems and slender leaves throw intricate radiating shadows across the floor and onto the walls. But the feeling of something alien falters when you realize these grasses are all too familiar. It’s a sculpture made with phragmites, complete with fluffy seed heads and hairy roots, that Garon dug from along the banks of our own Chester River. The accompanying video confirms this with closeups of dense walls of phragmites viewed from a kayak and clunking, gurgling and swooshing sounds suggesting an encounter with the jungle-thick growth.
You need to know some background (which a printed handout provides) in order to appreciate this project. A multi-disciplinary artist whose work includes sculpture, drawing, public art installations, performance, and writing, Garon works primarily with environmental issues. Not content to cloister herself in her studio, she is happiest when she’s outdoors exploring nature and working directly with it. For this project, she made frequent trips to Chestertown from her home in Baltimore over the past year, to learn about our local environment and the challenges it faces. Working with Michael Hardesty, the Director of the college’s River and Field campus, she researched the many invasive species that impact Eastern Shore ecology and decided to focus on one of the most problematic and ubiquitous: phragmites.
The River and Field campus was one of two places where Garon harvested phragmites for the installation in the Kohl Gallery. The other was outside the Center for Environment and Society’s Semans-Griswold Environmental Hall just downriver from the College’s boathouse. This is also the site of a sister sculpture to the one in the Kohl. In an inverse gesture to digging up the phragmites for the indoor piece, the artist “planted” a circle of hundreds of thin steel rods upright in the ground along a walking path near the building.
Mimicking phragmites right down to the way the rods bend and sway in the breeze, it brings industrial materials into the landscape, while the indoor version brings natural materials into the manmade environment of the gallery. Like the gallery version, an open aisle runs through the middle of the rods, providing a chance to actually enter the sculpture. While a steel sculpture in a natural setting might seem like an imposition, yet another example of humans imposing on the natural landscape, these slender rods have a playful, light presence and there’s a lovely counterpoint between their cool tones of silver and white and the warm natural browns of the surrounding winter landscape.
The exhibit’s title, “Pry,” came from the first thing Garon learned when she began to gather this problematic plant—it doesn’t dig up easily. The mat of rhizomes that forms as it spreads is dense and tenacious. You literally have to pry it up and it’s a slow, labor-intensive process. Garon spent months at the task and also hosted a workshop in which participants learned about phragmites, then were handed shovels so they could add to her harvest.
Phragmites australis is a non-native invasive plant which probably arrived in ballast carried by ships from Eurasia in the 19th century. It spreads aggressively, choking out native grasses and limiting the biodiversity of plants, insects, birds and animals. It’s now so widespread on the Eastern Shore (and worldwide) that we hardly even notice it. That is, unless you’re a farmer trying to keep it out of your fields or a riverfront homeowner who’s finding it encroaching on your lawn due to sea level rise. Our counties have weed management programs to battle its spread, as do organizations such as Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage. But it’s an endless struggle, as Garon’s project illustrates.
There are many layers to “Pry.” It’s a pair of sculptures which contrast natural and manmade materials and environments, stirring questions about their interconnecting influences. It’s also the documentation in miniature of the massive effort it would take to eradicate phragmites. Speaking to the difficulties in restoring and maintaining the environmental health of our landscapes, it stands as a metaphor for the challenges facing us as we recognize the growing number of ecological threats to the earth.
Adding to the depth and richness of Garon’s investigation is the backstory that the now idyllic River and Field campus was formerly a petroleum and agricultural chemical storage and distribution site which the college decontaminated and restored with clean soil and native plantings. Happily, although phragmites remains an issue, this bit of shoreline is regenerating and has become a haven for education and research in environmental science and wetlands ecology.
Inscribed on the wall of the Kohl Gallery, one of Garon’s poems conjures our beloved yet threatened shorelines. In part, it reads “a harmonized confessional at low tide lapping loss after loss after loss.” With loss so widespread throughout our environment, healthy restoration seems an impossible task, overwhelming in its scope and complexity. Yet with our world so out of balance, there is no other choice. As is becoming increasing clear, humanity’s survival and nature’s depends on it.
Mary McCoy is an artist and writer who has the good fortune to live beside an old steamboat wharf on the Chester River. She is a former art critic for the Washington Post and several art publications. She enjoys kayaking the river and walking her family farm where she collects ideas and materials for her writing and for the environmental art she creates, often in collaboration with her husband Howard. They have exhibited their work in the U.S., Ireland, Wales and New Zealand.