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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Grass Art

Air Date: Week of

You've heard of black and white pictures, but how about green and yellow? Artists Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey use live grass as a photographic medium. Living on Earth's Maggie Villiger reports on how they create their unique photos, and how collaboration with grass scientists is lending durability to their work.


CURWOOD: Color or black and white. Glossy or matte. These are the options most of us are familiar with when we drop off a roll of film to be developed. But British artists Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey have other things to keep in mind when developing their photos, like how much water and fertilizer they'll need. Living on Earth's Maggie Villiger explains.

VILLIGER: Up close, it looks like a dried out lawn. But take a few steps back and an image starts to come into focus. It's a photograph of a mother and child, six feet tall, four feet wide. And believe it or not, the picture is made from growing grass. In a darkened studio, a new grass photograph is under production.

HARVEY: Just in here, behind the plastic…it’s not a very wide space…

Dan Harvey leads the way inside a makeshift tent of heavy black plastic. A canvas of live grass seedling sits on an easel. Humming a few feet away is a slide projector that provides the only illumination. It shines a beam of light through a photograph negative onto the baby grass.

HARVEY: And if I stand in front of the projector and put a flashlight on, you can just see the imprinted image now is becoming apparent. But it's still quite early days. I think, by tomorrow, we'll be probably with the image stamped in.

ACKROYD: Yeah. Ooh. It's doing pretty good, isn't it?

HARVEY: Yeah, I see the imprint.


VILLIGER: Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey are grass artists. They started out covering ancient trees, whole rooms, and entire building facades with lush, green carpets of newly seeded grass. Then, about ten years ago, at one of their installations, inspiration struck.

Click on any image to see a slideshow.

HARVEY: We had a ladder against one end of the room, and very much directional light just from the nature of the windows and the illumination we were giving the piece. And we came to move the ladder towards the end of the exhibition and saw, faintly imprinted at the top end, the shadow of the rungs of the ladder in the living grass wall.

VILLIGER: The grass growing behind the ladder had turned yellow from lack of light. The two-tone grass planted a seed in the artists' minds. They realized grass could be used as a photographic medium. But rather than printing a black and white picture on paper, they print green and yellow pictures in grass.

ACKROYD: I mean it's following through the very well-established steps of photography, really, of exposing and then developing our image. And working with the light sensitivity of chlorophyl as opposed to light sensitive paper.

VILLIGER: Ackroyd and Harvey start out with a normal camera and take a normal picture. It's once they have the negative in hand that things get interesting. [SOUND OF PROJECTOR] They project the negative onto delicate baby grass wall hangings. It takes a few days for the light streaming through the negative to make its mark on the grass. Blades that receive more light make more chlorophyl, so they're darker green. It's the same principle as tan lines on a sunbather's skin. Sun kissed areas are darker than those hidden from the light.


VILLIGER: Ackroyd and Harvey nurture their vertical grass carpets like anxious parents. Today, they hover around a grass photo of a 500-year old statue of John The Baptist.

HARVEY: Just literally misting it with a fine spray.

VILLIGER: Six or seven waterings a day will help the seedlings take root. Most people take a snapshot in an effort to hold on to a moment forever. But Ackroyd and Harvey's early grass photographs were far from permanent. They watched as their chlorophyl-rich pictures faded over time to brittle fields of brown. The artists had found a way to develop images in grass, but no way to fix those images, make them permanent and lasting. Then, they joined forces with a pair of Welsh scientists.

HARVEY: We were reading a copy of New Scientist. And, there was an article about why the grass grows greener in Wales. And we read about the stay-green grass.

VILLIGER: Stay-green is the brainchild of Helen Ougham and Sid Thomas, two scientists at the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research in Aberystwyth, Wales.

THOMAS: We had attracted quite a lot of interest following the New Scientist article, of all sorts, including some cranks, of course.

VILLIGER: Through breeding experiments, Thomas and Ougham had isolated a mutant plant characteristic that keeps even dead plants looking fresh and green. Grass and leaves that don't turn brown are an advantage for lawns or sports fields, as well as in the supermarket. The plants need less water, less fertilizer, and fewer pesticides to maintain a healthy emerald color. And stay-green plants are more nutritious for people and animals, since they hold on to proteins that normally break down when the chlorophyl degrades. Scientist Helen Ougham.

OUGHAM: Our stay-green grass has got a particular blockage which means that the chlorophyl can only get broken down a little part of the way. And it stays in a green form. So it never goes any further than that. So the leaves, even though extremely old, they stay green.

VILLIGER: After some experimentation, artists Ackroyd and Harvey realized stay-green was a solution to their fading problem. And the collaboration benefited the scientists, as well. Once they digitized images of the artists' work, the scientists noticed how much information was contained in a photo. That led to a new optical scanning technique they can use to figure out what's going on chemically inside a plant based on its color. Artist Heather Ackroyd.

ACKROYD: It's not a one-way dialogue. You know, we haven't just, kind of, approached them and said, excuse me, we'd like to use your seed. You know, it's kind of turned the tables with the way that--with their perception and material and how they can actually analyze it in a very different and intriguing way.

VILLIGER: At a recent show at Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey worked on fine-tuning how best to use stay-green grass to make durable grass photographs.

HARVEY: Since the collaboration with the scientists, it's enabled us to actually grow pieces in our studio, dry them. And by actually killing them and drying them rapidly, it gives them a longer life. We can exhibit pieces now for--well, we think--many years.

VILLIGER: For this exhibit, they created several new grass photos of objects from the Museum's collection: stone statues, wrought iron gates, an elaborate bookcase, as well as portraits of museum-goers. And for the first time, the artists projected text onto grass. The elegant calligraphy of an early-Italian manuscript of Dante's Inferno scrolls across eight-feet of grass. Deep, dark, jungle-green words float in a background of almost citrusey lime.

HARVEY: And there's a line in the grass that says--[SPEAKING ITALIAN]--meaning that the grass meadow stays always green. And, somehow within the inferno, to come across the evergreen meadows seemed poetic.

VILLIGER: Two new grass photos by Ackroyd and Harvey are now on display at The Exploratorium in San Francisco. For Living on Earth, I'm Maggie Villiger in Boston.

HARVEY: The writing on the wall.

ACKROYD: Yeah, the writing on the wall, yeah. And the living word.



Heather Ackroyd & Dan Harvey's website

The Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research on the collaboration between the scientists and the artists

Exploratorium in San Francisco


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