Tropical Seeds of Change: Artist Sharon Bladholm promotes environmental action through art


Photo courtesy of Sharon Bladholm

Bladholm’s “Soil, Seeds, and Sprouts: Tropical and Temperate” featured ceramic renditions of more than 65 seed species. The exhibit was held at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum from August through December 2017.

Nixie Strazza, Reporter

Influenced by a life spent exploring the natural world, Chicago-based artist Sharon Bladholm said her work stands at the intersection of art, science and education. Her sculptures, paintings and prints seek to make the beauty of nature accessible in even the most urban environments and facilitate lessons of sustainability in an approachable way.

Her vibrant installations are featured in galleries, museums and public parks around the Chicago area. In Evanston, a rotating array of Bladholm’s creations can be found at Cultivate Urban Rainforest & Gallery, a combined plant shop and gallery. They offer an artistic perspective on environmental research and Bladholm’s own experiences on expeditions to the Amazon Rainforest, Central America and Mexico.

“I’ve always wanted to use my artwork as a tool to enthrall and educate people about important environmental issues,” Bladholm said.

At a young age, Bladholm spent her summers camping with family and traveling across America in the back of a Volkswagen van. Childhood memories of pitching tents on the UW-Madison Lakeshore Nature Preserve and sleeping in houses without electricity fostered an early sense of biophilia for her.

The ongoing creative philosophy was inspired by leading ethnobotanists Wade Davis, Richard Evans Schultes, Mark Plotkin and her own involvement with the Chicago Rainforest Action Group in the late ‘80s.

“Bladholm’s work nicely illustrates how nature itself is ever changing,” said Chicago’s Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art Curator Adrienne Kochman.

Delving deeper into the critical threats facing rainforest communities, Bladholm and fellow explorers journeyed into the Brazilian jungle to study the lives of the Yanomami people. There, Bladholm witnessed firsthand the negative effects of modern encroachment on traditional ways of life caused by gold mining in the area.

With climate change now at the forefront of global consciousness, Bladholm said her mission has only expanded over time.

“Thirty years ago I was trying to save the rainforest, and now it’s the whole Earth,” Bladholm said.

Her exhibition “Soil, Seeds, and Sprouts: Tropical and Temperate,” which was featured at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in 2017 and later the UIMA, included ​​enlarged ceramic depictions of more than 65 species of seeds, botanical watercolors and hand-colored monotypes inspired in part by the work of UC Santa Cruz Prof. Karen Holl.

Holl’s research focuses on the restoration of ecosystems through the examination of seed dispersal and predation trends in Costa Rica.

Before her collaboration with Bladholm, Holl served as the director of The Kenneth S. Norris Center for Natural History at UC Santa Cruz, where she oversaw partnerships between student artists and scientists.

Holl said her experience with a student who created drawings of forest plots in Costa Rica allowed for a new perspective on the subject matter and elevated her own understanding of research findings.

“It’s difficult to take pictures of forests and see what you want to see because they’re so complicated,” Holl said. “It changed how I view the world by seeing how the artist looks at it.”

Bladholm said she wanted to express the beauty and diversity of seeds, an often overlooked but integral aspect of nature, through a display of vivid sculptures. She said watching museum visitors engage in conversation about the variety of seed species and their appreciation of the garlands of pods is what her work is all about.

While she plans to head to a remote field location in Ecuador at the end of the month, Bladholm said it does not take international travel to appreciate the wonders of nature.

“You can go to the Amazon or you can go to Indiana, it’s all amazing,” Bladholm said. “Wherever you are, go out and be in nature and appreciate it and appreciate what it does for us.”

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