New York artist pays tribute to the work of horticulturist
By Nancy Weiss
Dr. Sidney Waxman (1923–2005) lived life to the fullest. At his memorial service, held on a steamy June afternoon in 2005 at the Waxman Nursery in Storrs, his life and work were remembered with tributes from family, friends and colleagues from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources where as a full professor, Waxman taught, conducted research and planted thousands of seedlings, many of which ended up in private and public gardens and nurseries across the country.
One might imagine that the memory of his life and his impact on horticulture would have remained imbedded in the hearts of those close to him and in the unique conifers, propagated from the pine cones in “witches’ brooms” that he developed. Waxman’s life story and work, however, struck an unexpected chord when New York City-based artist Barbara Siegel read his obituary in the New York Times and took Waxman’s legacy in a new direction.
“Since 9/11, I’ve been doing biographical work. I saw Sid’s obituary and there were so many things that fascinated me. First, the photo of him standing in the nursery. There was something sweet about him and his image and so poetic about the witches’ brooms and Sid shooting them down for his collection and later for the New York Botanical Garden,” said Siegel from her home in the Tribeca section of New York City.
Siegel presented her work, Arboretum, at the A.I.R. Gallery in Brooklyn, NY, in November 2011. The installation includes a variety of materials and media. Siegel used drawings, prints, sculptures, photographs, paintings and miniatures to tell the story of Waxman’s life and work. Images of the distinguished horticulturalist were interspersed with drawings of the dwarf conifers he developed along with a collection of rulers and yard sticks to underscore the scale of many of the plants and, perhaps, the impact of Waxman’s life.
Scale, an important concept in Waxman’s life as a scientist, resonated in Siegel’s art as she created a 19-foot-long wall made of many small parts to express her vision. She made large things small and vice versa. On the floor next to the wall display, Siegel placed the cultivar 'Shaggy Dog,' one of the most popular of Waxman’s dwarf conifers.
Life and art merged for Siegel when she worked with her neighbors to restore a 19th century park, called Canal Park, which had been abandoned and turned into a parking lot. Using historic images of the park and legal counsel, residents pressed their case and won. The park is now run with a conservancy.
“I ordered several of Sid’s trees, especially 'Sea Urchin,' and tried to grow them in the park, but they died. At the recommendation of Todd Forrest from the New York Botanical Garden, I ordered trees from Oliver Nursery in Fairfield, and they survived. I used 'Sea Urchin' and 'Shaggy Dog' from Oliver’s in the installation,” Siegel added.
The sociological nature of Waxman’s work impressed the artist. Waxman began his projects just after World War II, when Americans were moving to the suburbs and wanted new conifers to landscape their homes. Waxman focused on developing trees that could meet the needs of homeowners as well as collectors of specimen plants.
Siegel visited Storrs and met Waxman’s former co-workers, the Plant Science Research Farm team of Steve Olsen, Greg Tormey and Bryan Krystoff, and toured the Waxman Nursery.
“When I met Steve, Bryan and Greg, I realized how much they worshipped Sid.“ said Siegel, who also met with Waxman’s wife, Florence, a long-time collector of fine art and prints.
Florence Waxman often accompanied her husband on outings to locate witches’ brooms in the wild. Florence would fill out a form documenting the location of the find, which Siegel has celebrated in a drawing on the long wall of the installation.
Although the show, Arboretum, has closed, having run from November 2–26, 2011, Siegel hopes it can be brought to a venue closer to Storrs. She would like the show to travel to a more site-specific place such as the New York Botanical Garden or the University of Connecticut.
“I haven’t necessarily finished my project with Sid," says Siegel, who has honored his memory in a rich, unforeseen manner. To see photos of Barbara Siegel’s exhibit, click on http://www.jeanettemay.com/AIR/Siegel/index.html