Morris Arboretum art exhibit reflects on time in the garden

Through a six-month exhibition, 17 artists showcase sculptures, paintings, photographs, and more that explore varied interpretations of the passage of time in the garden

"Steel Mantis," by Vanny Channal, is made from discarded metal.

For its latest exhibition, the Morris Arboretum posed a simple question to more than 100 artists who submitted concepts: What does the idea of “time in the garden” mean to you? 

“We’re talking about ‘time in the garden’ because time is so important to life, and the life of the garden—the seasons of the year, the amount of day and night length, and even certain hours of the day that affect how the garden may look or react,” says Michelle Conners, events coordinator at the Arboretum. “We were interested in pursuing and paying attention to time, and decided to have an on-site exhibit asking artists for their interpretation of time in a garden.”

The exhibit, on display through Oct. 28 and accessible with general admission, features 17 artists selected by a committee that met earlier this year to pick pieces solicited through an open call. Participating artists include painters, illustrators, and photographers who contributed to an indoor gallery exhibit at the Arboretum’s Visitor Center. Others are sculptors and ironworkers who crafted outdoor installations that dot the winding pathways throughout the garden—discoverable by map, for those looking with intention, and a delightful unexpected find for those exploring the garden more aimlessly. 

"Migration," by Elizabeth White. Life-cast concrete leaves surround a rotted mother tree.

A prime example for the latter group: a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it piece by Elizabeth White called “Migration,” made up of concrete leaves scattered about a discreet grove, circling a “mother tree” that has rotted and been taken down. The scattered leaves are meant to represent displaced peoples.

Another sculpture, by Ben Allanoff, takes a more literal approach to time in the garden: a steel and aluminum sun dial titled “Gassho.” 

“Since I was making a sun dial, I was thinking about how people have tracked time in much earlier technological eras,” says Allanoff, “different civilizations over the course of history. It’s something people have figured out in different parts of the world in different centuries and millennia, independently, and I was really relating to that spirit of why they did it and how they did it—who did it, what it meant to them. And for me, overall, it’s about remembering and reconnecting with where we are. Reconnecting with our relationship with the sun.”

"Gassho," by Ben Allanoff. The installation is a functioning sun dial.

Because our notion of time stems from how we move around the sun—seasons, the tilt of the earth, etc.—Allanoff notes that the spiritual connection to the sun, stars, and planets has long been part of society, and was a subject that weighed on his mind when making the piece—one notably tilted to a 45-degree angle, so as to be at an angle with the earth that’s customized to the Arboretum’s latitude. 

He emphasizes, though, that the meaning behind his sun dial is very much open to interpretation. 

Deirdre Murphy, a lecturer in drawing and painting in Undergraduate Fine Arts at PennDesign, was selected for two pieces in the indoor exhibit. Her works are oil on canvas, and deal with climate change and the migratory patterns of birds. 

“Spring Jewel,” with its bright pink tone, magnolias, and a goldfinch, features an Atlantic Flyway map, spanning Mexico to Canada. The goldfinch, she says, is one bird that makes that flight. 

"Spring Jewel," left, and "Winds of Change," right, are two oil on canvas paintings by Deirdre Murphy, a lecturer in Undergraduate Fine Arts at PennDesign.

“That one’s definitely about how, with the climate changing and temperature warming, birds are actually leaving earlier, staying longer, with all the insects and seeds gone, and they need to fatten up before they take this huge flight again,” Murphy explains. “They just don’t have as much to eat because they’re staying a long time, and then don’t build up enough reserves to make those flights.” 

Murphy’s second piece, “Winds of Change,” an eye-popping bright orange work inspired during an airport layover while sketching the path of certain jets, draws inspiration from the flocking pattern of cedar waxwings—which are erratic and, she says, “crazily cluster like Grand Central Station when they come together.” The triangles in the piece are like flight wings beating against the wind.

As far as the theme, she says, her pieces consider the variety of species discoverable while in the garden. 

“When I’m in the garden, I’m always paying attention to ‘What species are here today?’ Just last week, the goldfinch came back and I could see the migration had happened,” she says. “I hope that when visitors spend time at the garden at Morris Arboretum, or even in their own garden or city park, they pay attention to ‘What is that sound? Did I see something in the corner of my eye?’ and start to make parallel connections, or just notice there’s beauty all around.

“I’ve painted the South Philly pigeon for years,” Murphy says. “People think they’re rats with wings, but they’re really pretty amazing—it’s about altering your perception a bit, thinking about your world from a slightly different angle.”