Living Sculptures - Playing with Plants

Aug 08, 2021

Viewing some of the amazing and beautiful gardens in Japan during the Tokyo Olympics brought to mind the role art and design can play in the way we manipulate and interact with plants. I thought of Bonsai and discovered Niwaki. I wondered about how clipping and shaping plants into artistic structures becomes living sculptures.

I contemplated in what ways children might be artistic with plants. As we can find ourselves restricted to our own yards, creative garden activities could be fun. Being outside, playing in the yard or working in the garden, can help us feel good. Nature, plants and the earth are central to our health and well-being. If we can come up with projects that perhaps get our hands dirty and step us outside the norm, kids can be engaged not just in the moment but over time as plants grow and change.

They could be growing grass heads, or planting seeds in little pots, creating terrariums or miniature fairy gardens. Bigger kids could help with creating living sculptures by clipping bushes or hedges, or mowing expanses of lawn. There are diverse possibilities depending on whether they are activities for home in the city, on a farm, or in a classroom or school yard.

These living sculptures or artworks use plants and are often created by pruning and moulding them into all shapes and sizes to build artistic structures that replicate objects, animals, people... Or it may involve manipulation and positioning of plants to create living pictures. 

Activities for kids with grass 

Making grass heads

Using an old pair of natural coloured stockings, cut off about 15-20cm from the toe. Add a few tablespoons of grass seed into the toe (this will grow as hair). Add potting mix or loose garden soil to fill out the head. Ensure it is big enough not to fall into the paper cup you’re going to sit it on. Wrap a rubber band around the neck to seal in the soil. Glue on some eyes, a nose and a mouth using cardboard, felt or purchased googly eyes. Add other facial features if desired but nothing on the top of the head! Decorate the cup to look like the body under the head. Place some water in the cup and lightly spray the top of the head to moisten the seeds. Sit the head on the cup so the bottom of the stocking is in the water and drawing moisture up into the head. Place in a window and watch the grass grow. The ‘hair’ can later be trimmed and shaped.

Looking a bit like the grass heads, popular at the moment are pots for plants which are shaped like animals and people. Spiky plants grow to appear like hair. If you want to go up-market, these stylised pots could be used as the base of a grass head project.

Using similar processes with seeds in stockings, other animals or creatures can be made. What about a hedgehog or echidna, or a caterpillar?

Creating patterns and shapes with grasses

Using a series of small and shallow containers, patterns can be made by positioning the containers - with their grassy crops. These could be circular, square or rectangular containers depending on the intended design. For example, sit them together to create letters or numbers. Patterns can also be made by using a variety of different grass or lawn seeds and then creating stripes or checkered designs. To grow the grasses, the containers will need to have holes in the bottom for drainage, and be placed in a sunny spot where they can be watered. Window boxes may work. Using plenty of seeds in each container will help ensure a thicker growth. Using different types of seeds can provide a diversity of colours.

If you have large areas of grass or lawn to be mown, patterns can be created here too - just like the professionals do with sports fields. Ride-on mowers used on farms can achieve this effect and if a roller can be used, this can accentuate the direction of the stripes. Tapis vert is a French term that refers to grasses being mowed at different heights to create patterns. You might be able to find picture examples.

Schools can look at designs on ovals or large grassed areas - landscaped art that can be viewed from a distance and appreciated from the air or with drones. This could be a combination of mowing or rolling grass, adding straw bales, growing and shaping plants in strategic positions… Maybe it’s the Olympic rings on a grand scale or a huge floral design that creates a school logo…

Community projects have seen soil and grass used to create living sculptures. Turf is grass and a layer of soil underneath with the roots holding it all together. This turf (or sod) creates a sheet of living material which can be moulded over chicken wire or mounds of dirt to create shapes. If you do an internet search for 'turf sculptures', you might be amazed at what people come up with!

 Trickier trimming tasks

Topiary is an art that comes to mind where plants are shaped for a function, like a hedge, or for fun, like a geometric shape or even a recognisable object or animal. Dense, small-leafed bushes are used and sometimes trained over chicken wire to create a desired shape. Early records go back to the Ancient Romans who liked to shape their cypress trees. WikiLawns website has some beautiful examples of topiary. Perhaps you have a bush that your kids could help clip into an interesting shape!

Bonsai is a Japanese art form where a small tree is created to mimic what the real life tree looks like. These miniature trees are grown in shallow containers. They are not dwarf trees but normal trees clipped and pruned and manipulated so they grow as a mini version. If you have little or no yard, or even for the classroom, raising a bonsai tree could become a family or class project. Bonsai Empire has a gallery of pictures.

Niwaki is another gardening technique used by the Japanese. It can also be referred to as cloud pruning. A tree is shaped to suit its surroundings with branches trained to stretch out wide and leaves clipped in rounded formations like canopies of clouds. Try an internet search for images.

So it goes without saying that creating artworks with and in nature has the potential to provide pleasure for the artist / developer and the viewer. Once the children have tried creating their own living sculptures, they might like to try some Artventure lessons that focus on plants: try searching for ‘garden’, ‘plant’, ‘flower’ or even ‘tree’. Or they might like to create sketches of the stages of a project - a scientific report to show how they worked through the process to finally achieve their artistic outcome. Best of all, enjoy time playing with plants!

Teacher and Artventure Blogger