Paula Hayes is the first comprehensive monograph of this American artist’s work. Famous for her exquisitely detailed terrariums, Hayes also does full-scale landscape designs. Both are represented equally here. Her terrariums in particular are visually striking, provocative pieces that make a strong statement about our relationship with the natural world.
The word “terrarium” seems inadequate for describing what Hayes creates. Encased in hand-blown glass and meticulously arranged, her terrariums are living sculptures and their glass containers are as important as their contents. Every aspect of each terrarium is deliberate and highly detailed, from the living plants to the layers of substrate. The overall effect is that of a miniaturized, self-contained ecosystem enclosed in a bubble. These terrariums have a level of artistry that elevates them above something like a ship in a bottle or a bonsai tree, though they do achieve a similar miniaturized quality.
Precisely crafted and sculptural, Hayes’s terrariums are undeniably works of art. Unlike most art, however, her work uses living things and therefore requires constant maintenance. This required maintenance is deliberate: In his introductory essay, Richard D. Marshall writes that Hayes “considers the watering and feeding of the plants, that is, the daily human-plant interaction, as the actual art form.” He elaborates on this point, writing “this forced interaction of caring for and protecting nature on a small scale will ideally expand into a fuller appreciation of the entire environment and an understanding of the fragile relationship that exists between humans and nature.”
In other words, Hayes’s work uses living components not only for aesthetic effect but to achieve a very specific “forced interaction” between people and nature. An individual’s responsibility toward his piece of living art illustrates our larger responsibility toward our land.
Entirely self-contained, Hayes’s terrariums have an insular quality. This is true of her landscape designs as well. Full of detailed plantings and small elements such as sculptural planters and rock arrangements, these landscapes feel personal and enclosed.
Like her terrariums, Hayes’s landscapes are also designed to be nurtured. Hayes describes, “You could say when the landscapes or pieces are installed, that’s the end of the process, but that’s not true. They will continue to grow and the interaction with them will develop over time.” Her garden designs are highly controlled; each plant is carefully chosen.
Apparently, Hayes practiced landscape design before moving into terrarium design. This makes sense, as her terrariums clarify the relationships hinted at in her landscapes. By addressing her terrarium designs first and landscape designs second, the book frames her landscapes in terms of the issues addressed by her terrariums. And while I found her terrariums to be the more compelling part of the book, this ordering does lend additional layer of interest to her gardens, which are beautiful in their own right. I found it difficult to view her gardens as anything but human-scaled terrariums.
Still, the terrariums are the real attraction of the book. With them, Hayes explores a variety of interesting possibilities. She also experiments with double-layered glass, turning the terrariums into lenses to alter the perception of their contents. With her exhibitions, the arrangement and context of the terrariums becomes important (one exhibition featured one hundred tiny hand-blown terrariums, appearing almost as scattered beads of glass).
This guest post is by Benjamin Wellington, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, Louisiana State University, and ASLA 2012 summer intern.
Image credits: Monacelli Press