The Ferns of Dumbarton Oaks in 3D

Sophia McCrocklin’s Ferns of Dumbarton Oaks / Sophia McCrocklin

“Why ferns? Because some are 350 million years old.” The world’s oldest living plants show the incredible resilience of nature’s best designs. Looking closely at ferns under a microscope, Washington, D.C.-based artist Sophia McCrocklin found that their “spores are in fact little springs,” perfectly engineered for propagation over the megaannums.

McCrocklin grew up in Kentucky. Appalled by coal companies strip-mining the landscape, she decided to fight them and became an environmental attorney. At the same time, McCrocklin explored her interest in fiber art and began showing in galleries and Ky Guild of Artists.

Her interest in ferns started about six years ago by chance. “I have always loved trees and had never thought about ferns. But I was on a hike one day in Rock Creek Park and had to go around a tree that had fallen. As I was scrambling around the log, I came face to face with a fern. It was winter and the fern was the only thing green out, so it caught my attention.”

She had been out in the forest looking for something to make in 3D, so when she got home she cut off a branch of a Boston fern in her house. She ended up replicating a stalk that was 3-4 inches long and showed people, but they were “not impressed.” She realized she needed to make a fern much larger so that people would notice it as much as they do a tree.

Ebony Spleenwort Fern / Sophia McCrockin

Someone told her that there were many types of ferns at Dumbarton Oaks Park (DOP) in Washington, D.C. Landscape architect Beatrix Farrand, who designed the space as the naturalistic companion to the formal gardens above at Dumbarton Oaks, had planted 8 types, but there were also 7 others native to the area.

After speaking with DOP Conservancy staff, including landscape designer Ann Aldrich, the park’s resident plant expert, McCrocklin started to catalogue and investigate the ferns. She then decided to undertake a series of large-scale art works, organizing them into categories: Farrand’s ferns, other native ferns, and inspired ferns, which include some of her early explorations. She later became the park’s first artist-in-residence.

McCrocklin essentially photocopies the ferns and blows them up to a very large scale. She also looks at ferns under a microscope at the Smithsonian’s US Herbarium to ensure the details of the plant scale up accurately.

In Annapolis, McCrocklin purchased junk Dacron boat sails, a durable polyster material, for around $1 a pound. She cuts ferns out of the Dacron, sews them, and inserts copper wire to support the stalks and leaflets. Color is added through acrylic paint or pencils. Spores are made of anything from mustard seeds to beads of glass. The fuzzy parts of the ferns’ stems crafted from shredded canvas fiber or sometimes cotton. “I try whatever works.”

Grape Frond fern spores / Sophia McCrocklin
Interrupted Fern spores / Sophia McCrocklin
Roots of a Cinnamon Fern / Sophia McCrocklin

Each is then mounted on a heavy canvas board, or otherwise it would collapse. The canvas is painted with a cherry blossom pattern, reflecting how they can be seen in spring in Dumbarton Oaks Park.

Each fern takes about 6 months and is either 4.5 feet square or approximately 2.5 feet wide by nearly 7 feet tall.

Some are more challenging than others to engineer at large sizes. Sword ferns like the Boston or Christmas fern, which have one stalk with attached leaves, are relatively straightforward.

Christmas Fern / Sophia McCrocklin

Tassel ferns, on the other hand, are like small trees, with many branches, each with leaves. “They are very time consuming. If I had tackled tassel ferns in the beginning, I’m not sure I would have done this project,” she said, only half-joking.

Tassel Fern / Sophia McCrocklin

After spending many years with them, McCrocklin has grown to love ferns. By enlarging them and making them such tactile works, she wants to convey how important they are.

“We easily look up at big trees because they are magnificent and awe-inspiring. We rarely look down at ferns, but the loss of these plants and the forest’s understory is the canary in the coal mine.”

Sensitive Fern / Sophia McCrocklin

She said some areas of Maryland fence out deer. The result is a “dense and lush” understory. But in D.C., where deer roam, “there is just bare ground, which is bizarre.”

“I want to make people aware that the understory is vital to the health of the forest. People need to pay more attention to the little things, as they signal the condition of our ecosystems. A forest may look healthy if it is filled with trees, but trees are really the last to go.”

McCrocklin’s exhibition, which was to be free and open to the public in early April, has been cancelled due to COVID-19 and will be rescheduled for next spring or fall. Explore her work at her website and on Instagram.

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