10/01/2008 - Artist Mark Dion didn’t bump into the ghost of John or William Bartram in his journeys to the southeast United States this past winter and spring. Still, he was hot on the trail of the 18th- and 19th-century botanists and horticulturalists.
John Bartram, named “Botanist Royal in America” by King George III, bought land along the Schuylkill River outside Philadelphia, where he started this country’s first garden devoted to North American plants. He and his son William, who literally followed in his footsteps, identified and cultivated more than 200 native plants—notably the Franklinia tree, which may have died out in the wild yet survives because the Bartrams grew specimens from seeds they collected in Georgia.
Among the garden’s more famous early customers were George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Benjamin Franklin was a close friend; he encouraged John Bartram to grow soy for tofu (the first known American mention of that food).
Today, the garden, now inside the long-since-expanded city, is a 45-acre public park, with a wildflower meadow and a water garden, both restored; a tidal wetland along the river; a historic area with native plants of the Bartrams’ time; and the home, a National Historic Landmark.
John Bartram’s forte was science; William’s was writing and drawing (his Travels are still in print). Both father and son knew the range and distinctiveness of the American environment of their day not only from books and their garden but also from their fact-finding, thoroughly documented expeditions up and down the East Coast.
Enter Mark Dion: Travels of William Bartram—Reconsidered. Dion is a sculptor based in Pennsylvania and New York who has previously explored the relationship between the natural environment and the ways museums categorize and present exhibits from nature; in other (heavier) words, how a subjective understanding of nature turns into knowledge that gradually becomes the accepted version of history. Last November, he began re-tracingWilliam Bartram’s southern trip, with the specific intent of exploring how a travel experience can be represented in sculpture. He used the Bartrams’ travel journals, drawings and maps as his guides and, like his predecessors, collected things, natural and manmade, examined them, drew and painted them, and mailed them back to the garden, where they are displayed in the Bartram house in an exhibition that opened in June.
For the diaries, drawings and schedule of trip-related events, go to www.bartramsgarden.org. The project received support from the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, a program of the Philadelphia Center for Arts and Heritage.