A Tour of Botany Brilliance

By Colin Buck Columna

For: AZ Central Voices



The Desert Botanical Garden’s latest art installation The Four Seasons is a 3D feast for the senses. American artist, filmmaker and modern day renaissance man Phillip Haas’s monumental sculptures are a fantastic and phantasmagoric ode to the natural world. The four part series – Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter – was inspired by the paintings of 16th century Italian Renaissance artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo; imaginative mash-up portraits composed of fruits, vegetables, flowers and other organic materials. Haas’ works re-imagines Arcimboldo’s paintings into 15 foot physical specimens of botany brilliance.

Setting the fantastic four outdoors amidst the flora and fauna of the Sonoran desert landscape supports the Desert Botanical Garden’s mission to be a place that brings to life the many wonders of the desert. For 75 years the Garden has been a point of introduction for locals and visitors to acquaint themselves with our diverse and at times prickly desert environment. And each day it serves as an outdoor classroom for Arizona’s schoolchildren to explore the natural world in their own backyard and the intricate and fundamental relationships among plants, people, nature and the arts.

On Thursday, November 15, 90 students from Yavapai Elementary School visited the Garden for a morning of hands-on exploration with special guest Phillip Haas as tour guide. The Four Seasons exhibit created an ideal arts learning opportunity to examine the connectivity between science and the arts. Educational materials were prepared and provided by the Desert Botanical Garden’s staff to encourage students to examine the similarities and differences between themselves, scientists and artists. The goal of all student activities and tours is to connect young people with their environment, community and the wider world.

Prior to the visit, students engaged in in-classroom activities focused on concepts of visual thinking, critical observation, self-identification and biomimicry. Biomimicry is the examination of nature to gain inspiration in order to solve human problems. The easily understood example provided to students was the invention of Velcro, inspired by a plant called a cocklebur the seeds of which have little hooks to catch a ride on a passing mammal.

The lesson plans were available to teachers online-via the Garden’s website and students watched a digital video of the exhibit installation and interviews with the artist, a scientist and an engineer. After watching the videos, students wrote short essays on whether they identified with a particular profession or speaker and their own areas of interest. A teacher’s guide accompanied the video series to help facilitate discussions and incorporate the upcoming learning experience into the classroom curriculum.

The field trip was sponsored by Act One Foundation. The Foundation supports educational field trips to the visual and performing arts for Arizona’s under-served schools. It provides resources to public school children to engage and benefit from the learning opportunities inherent in arts participation. Research has shown that active engagement with the arts contributes to increased student creativity, self-motivation, social connectivity and civic engagement. Yet less than 50 percent of Arizona public schools provide integrated arts education in the curriculum, resulting in a deficit in arts learning experiences for half of Arizona’s school children.

Phoenix’s business owners and community leaders J. Russ and Linda “Mac” Perlich launched the Act One Foundation in 2011 to make a difference in the lives of those students missing out on the benefits of arts participation. In its first year, more than 6,000 students in Maricopa County benefited from Act One sponsored programs. The second year, which kicked off in October, is on its way to serving more than 16,000 students from the Valley and Tucson.

In addition to the pre-visit activities, on-site tour and associated student travel costs, the sponsorship underwrote in-classroom post workshops with a Garden staff member. The in-class lesson plans ensure that the time spent outside of the classroom integrates into the curriculum and supports and meets state educational standards.

Before launching into fine art, Phillip Haas gained an international reputation as a documentary and feature film maker, including Angels & Insects, nominated for both an Academy Award and the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or. Butchers, Dragons, Gods & Skeletons, his show of film installations at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, was listed by Time magazine as one of the 10 best museum exhibitions of 2009. The Four Seasons exhibited at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Piazza del Duomo in Milan, the Gardens of Versailles in France, and the Dulwich Picture Gallery in the United Kingdom before its Garden debut.

During his fascinating and educationally engaging tour Haas answered student’s questions and explained the process behind his art making, “I begin the act of making sculpture by thinking about making sculpture.” The renowned artist astutely incorporated complex concepts of creative and critical thinking, communication skills and problem solving into the walk through the garden, discussing perception of vision, up close versus full view and encouraged students to experiment using their eyes as microscopes and telescopes.

The suggestion resonated with 6th grader Darrin, “I like Spring the most, it makes me feel refreshed. I wish I could eat some of it. When the artist talks about the sculptures it sounds like a lot of work, but when I look around at people’s faces they are smiling and laughing and it seems worth it.”

The Four Seasons is on view through April 28, 2013

Desert Botanical Garden, 1201 North Galvin Parkway, Phoenix, 85018

For more details visit www.dbg.org

For more information on Act One Foundation please visit www.act1az.org