Here is a bit of background that informs my journey into plant knowledge and botanical literacy
Salerno, Southern Italy, 2005-2010
While enjoying seasonal residencies in Southern Italy, I frequently visited Europe’s first medicinal garden Giardino Della Minerva in Salerno. Divided into five terraced levels, this garden is situated in the city’s historical centre, perched against the Salerno's backdrop of rocky hills. Irrigated entirely by a natural flow of water from the uppermost mountain, it still stands as a model for integration of nature within an urban setting and reflects current ideas of sustainability.
There I learned that, between the 13th and 14th century, a distinguished medical doctor, Matteo Salvatico, of the Salerno School of Medicine, had written and published the lexicon “Opus Pandectarum Medicinae”, sharing his findings of the plants’ remedial medical use. According to the garden’s archival records, his Opus became a textbook for academic studies in medicine until the 16th century. Even today, the source of this book, the terraced garden itself, continues to expand in public outreach and plant-based knowledge sharing.
Having had access to the garden and its library, proved to become an essential source for inspiration. It spurred me on to re-evaluate subject matter and my approach to my art practice. It also refreshed and deepened a latent childhood curiosity for plants. With this, I began to take note on focused walking activities with local botanists, foraged wild herbaceous plants from meadows and hills around the village of Lanzara and put together my Lanzara Herbarium.
Many of the plants I could still recognise from my earlier years in Germany, where, under the guidance of my paternal grandparents, Ursula and Gottfried Gruber, my initial observations of plants, and nature in general, took roots. Their knowledge of botanical names, use of medicinal plants and beekeeping, deeply influenced a lasting respect and appreciation for the natural world around me.
This, I wish to make visible through my botany work today.
Under the guidance of botanists in Italy, my early childhood teachings surfaced strongly to prompt a starting point for serious inquiries: How can one aesthetically claim nature as a subject, not merely for the sake of addressing and conserving la bellezza (the beauty), but for the sake of cultivating meaningful and lasting landscape-experiences as part of ones memory and belonging to a collective ‘natural heritage’?
Using traditional water-based pigments on a ten meter long Rice-paper scroll, I began documenting my herbaceous plant collection, now named Lanzara Herbarium Scroll. This ‘portable scroll work’ became my passe porta when visiting botanical gardens and museums of ethno-botany. It also became my exclusive ticket to access important botanists in Italy: Luciano Mauro, director of Giardino Della Minerva; Manuela De Matteis, director of the Ethno-Botany Museum, Naples; and Paolo De Luca, director of the Orto Botanico Federico Secondo, Naples.
Each of these contacts generously offered me access to their respective botanical garden and herbarium collections, for which I here repeat my gratitude.
Lone Valley, Southern Germany, 2007-2012
Not having studied botany, many of the illustrated plants in the Lanzara Herbarium Scroll remained ‘unidentified and nameless’. This bothered me to the point of seeking help from botanists who would properly identify and name plants for me in future projects.
As early as 2007, I began seeking such contacts in and around my German birthplace Langenau/Ulm, with a focus on professionals who were researching flora in the Lone Valley’s eco-systems at risk. By 2009, after extensive back and forth correspondences with the Botanical Garden of the University Ulm, I had firmly established a relationship with curator Monika Gschneidner who consequently introduced me to Professor emerita of Botany, Dr Hermann Muhle. In 2010, this connection made way for laying the first stepping stones in building a cultural bridge that would translate into a lasting connection between the Beaty Biodiversity Museum, UBC, Vancouver, and the Botanical Garden at the University of Ulm.
While in Germany, in the spring of 2010, Hermann Muhle promptly invited me to collect first plant specimens for my Lone Valley Herbarium project. He followed through with further collections into 2011, collecting, pressing, botanizing plant specimens from various Lone Valley eco-systems at risk; provided Latin and common German names for each of the plants, along with dates and specific geographical sites from which the plants were taken. It became vital source material for my Lone Valley Herbarium scroll work.
My deep gratitude goes to Hermann Muhle’s most generous sharing of plant-based knowledge contributions! I was especially happy to be able to invite him to the first exhibition of the Lone Valley Herbarium Scrolls, at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum, in 2016, coinciding with UBC’s Herbarium Centennial Year.
A 75 km walk along the Lone River
In 2013, my great-cousin Heidi Mayer, whose home is still on the same street I lived and walked on as a child in Langenau, accompanied me on a 75 km walk through the eco-systems of the Lone Valley from where Hermann Muhle had collected the plants for the Lone Valley Herbarium project. This experience added layers of sensory memory, of meaning and authenticity, to my project.
In 2017, that same Lone Valley received World Heritage status.
Beaty Biodiversity Museum, Vancouver, 2014-2016
My first visit to the Beaty Biodiversity Museum, at UBC campus Vancouver, was in 2014. With one of my ‘portable scroll works’ in hand, I was there to meet with the Museum’s exhibition curator, Yukiko Stranger-Jones. This meeting quickly led to further meaningful connections with two important local botanists, Linda Jennings and Tanis Gieselman, who shared their expertise and were able to provide me with botanized plant specimens from BC’s ecosystems at risk. These are housed in the Beaty Biodiversity Museum’s very extensive herbarium collections.
The knowledge-sharing these contacts provided, inspired my commitment to share my images of plants in an exhibition that finally came together in From Meadows Woodlands Near And Far, held at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum, UBC, from May through August 2016; coinciding with UBC’s Herbarium Centennial Year.