Upon entering the Airie Nest Gallery in the Everglades National Park, one is greeted by strangely seductive, other-worldly looking objects. Custom built tables with leaves and flowers, topographical diagrams and a video of a sugar cane train all represent aspects of the Saw Palmetto, a plant which is one of the oldest living clonal species. This innovative collection of artworks are the result of sculptor Robert Chambers, who participated in the Artists in Residence in Everglades (AIRIE) program last year. Chambers, a Miami-based sculptor, is best known for his large-scale sculptures and installations, which bring together whimsy and humor with scientific, mechanical and industrial acumen. Focused on lands north of Lake Okeechobee in the headwaters of the Everglades, he created a new body of work combining elements such as biomimicry, 3D printing and principles of evolutionary biology to express the urgency of conserving the delicate relationships of natural phenomena and indigenous species that make up the Florida Everglades. Chambers’ work is inspired by the Serenoa repens, the tenacious plant commonly known as the saw palmetto, a symbol of the Everglades’ complex interplay of water flow, plant life, fire and weather.

During his month long residency, AIRIE organized a trip for Chambers to visit Archbold Biological Station where its director and senior biologist, Hilary Swain, captivated him with descriptions of the remarkable tenacity of the Serenoa repens, which can live upwards of 5,000-10,000 years, thanks to its expansive root system that Chambers sees as both a power source and liminal subterranean presence that verges on the alien. Chambers’ sculpture, a stylized model of this root system called Clonal Phoenix, created with cellulose fibers and 3D printing, is the exhibition centerpiece, surrounded by smaller sculptures, and scientific graphs, which refer to other parts of the plant and its ecology. Reference sources for gallery visitors are available as scientific essays linked to scannable QR codes, and in a binder on the Base Camp Installation desk. Information is largely sourced from Dr. Warren Abrahamson’s thorough and eloquent writings about his decades-long research of the Saw Palmettos.

Chambers used the scientific, artistic and myth-building aspects of his SEREPENS project to draw attention to the plant and advocate for understanding its crucial role in the history of ethnobotany and Florida’s ecology. The project does more than advocate; it constitutes the launch of a multi-pronged campaign to reverse the Serenoa repens’ population decline. The ancient plant has been used since Mayan times for medicinal and ritual purposes, and currently has a significant unregulated market as a supplement. As part of the myth-making campaign, Chambers suggested that the crop can compete with sugar and vegetables currently being farmed in what was Florida native saw palmetto habitat.

Farming non-native plants requires farmers to use fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, which run off into Lake Okeechobee and contribute to a deadly phenomenon known as algae bloom. Switching from these non-native crops to saw palmetto would eliminate the introduction of these chemicals to Florida’s hydrology and may increase the economic productivity of that land. The plant’s root systems may decrease effects of drought on the water table as they form a protective mesh just beneath the ground, helping the arid soil retain nutrients and moisture. The structure and systems built into this resilient plant support diverse species and prevent or may even reverse erosion. A catalog featuring texts by Deborah Mitchell, Dr. Hilary Swain, and Tyler Emerson-Dorsch accompanies the exhibition.

Visiting artists unilaterally wish to protect this challenged landscape through their respective mediums. During their stay, AIRIE introduces them to advisors like Skip Snow, a retired biologist for Everglades National Park, who can offer unique perspectives on a range of topics. Snow, who worked on the front lines of wildlife conservation for over 38 years, has said “The cultural arts have proven to be a valuable tool in the preservation of wilderness, whether bearing witness to current conditions or spinning tales of alternate futures. Through Visual arts, music and the written word, AIRIE strives to create encounters that have an impact on people. Building engagement by bringing attention, triggering emotion, and etching memory, AIRIE seeks to create experiences that are transformative.

SEREPENS was funded by an Art Works grant from the National Foundation of the Arts. Selections from this exhibition, curated by Deborah Mitchell, will be on view in 2021 in the Miami International Airport, in collaboration with Mia Galleries.

SEREPENS is on view daily from 9 - 5 pm through May 29th at The Airie Nest Gallery, Everglades National Park, 40001 SR 9336, Homestead, FL.

Join AIRIE Tuesday, April 23rd, from 6-8pm for a talk with Itamar Freed and Courtney Shue at Gramps, 176, NW 24th St, Miami, FL, 33127. The 2020 application process will also be discussed. See AIRIE.org for details.

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