Three centuries before the English botanist Nathaniel Ward created the first terrarium in 1829, the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch depicted the world as one in his infamous triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights. Ward came upon the concept by happenstance: He’d been observing insect specimens under a bell jar and found that the small fern spores that sprouted from clumps of dirt within the jar thrived, whereas his outdoor specimens withered due to pollution. Bosch’s two-dimensional orb, painted on the exterior panels of his triptych, depicts what is supposed to be the third day of creation; when opened, the interior panels—and, in following, the interior of the orb—depict a world teeming with surreal landscapes, all manner of life and death, and the grimmest of afterlives. The portrait of mankind, according to the artist, is perfectly contained and encapsulated in an ethereal glass bubble.
Paula Hayes strikes me as equal parts Bosch and Ward as she leads me down to her basement studio, or "grotto," as she likes to call it. The dark, windowless space in New York’s Greenwich Village is illuminated by grow lights and warmed by plant specimens encased in biomorphic glass containers. "I love this one," she says, pointing to a ball of organic matter slightly smaller than a volleyball from which a diminutive sapling has sprouted. "This little locust tree was just in the soil. You know, they’re huge shade trees…" She pauses as if to consider its fate and shrugs. "We’ll see what happens, I guess." These new creations, called orchid bee blobs, are made from a host of ingredients such as melted beeswax, coconut fabric, spirulina, turmeric, gold leafing, and burnt umber powder and are cooked in what appears to me to be a much-loved Crock-Pot.
As I wander around the studio, peering into the amorphous terrariums, each appears to be its own world, inhabited by all manner of plants, from selaginella to succulents, that have been shaped, prodded, and pruned into existence with dirt, surgical tools, and dowels rigged with coat hangers, which litter her worktable. Hayes explains that most of the terrariums in the studio are spoken for, but that she grows and tends to them for a year before sending them out into the world. I marvel at her ability to let them go, to trust that collectors will be willing and able to care for them. I ask, guessing at the difficulty of maintaining the terrariums with miniature water gardens inside, how a collector might maintain a piece like that. She laughs and says, "Oh those…those are more for me," conveying the degree of expertise required to keep these pieces. "Actually, I had to manhandle one of them yesterday. But they like to have a little bit of cataclysm. They almost have to go through something to have this sort of beauty. That was a little bit of a surprise, but it shouldn’t be because that’s what the earth is like."
While she may be reluctant to send the more com-plicated designs to collectors, she has more than 60 terrariums out in the world, and has tracked the progress and life of each one since she began making them in 2003. "I hope to never have to cut the cord with the terrarium," she explains. "We have a whole database that tracks where they all are and how they’re doing. We have all their contact information and photos [documenting their development]." On one side of her studio, a large chalkboard is marked up with what looks to be some sort of elaborate equation, but is, in fact, a list of terrariums by code. "It takes a whole team of us," Hayes explains. "For the first three months that [a terrarium] is with a collector, I’m working with them to try to train them how to take care of it." Hayes’s team has grown by necessity—her office now consists of two in-house assistants and a horticulturalist who helps with onsite visits.
Hayes credits her upbringing on a farm in rural upstate New York and her schooling and entrance into New York’s intellectual art world as shaping her work today. She started her gardening business in 1985 to help pay for graduate school (Parsons, for sculpture). "I would walk around [the city] with a tool bag and take care of gardens. I did it because it was something I knew how to do. I had to have a job during grad school, and it related to the type of art and sculpture that I was doing at the time. It’s been a very organic process. You’re funneling everything into one thing, working and thinking all
of the time."
Indeed, the business has grown to include larger-scale projects. Architects have enlisted her to conceptualize gardens for both large- and small-scale works, such as a green roof for Rafael Viñoly’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute facility in Virginia (for which she also did the landscape concept) and a private residence in Miami. Much of Hayes’s work is divided between creating terrariums and silicone plant vessels, and envisioning larger landscapes and gardens. Her connection to the art world has made her a favorite garden designer for collectors and dealers, and it’s to this world she feels she most belongs. Her silicone vessels, cast from her original sculpted-plaster molds, are produced as artist’s editions by two galleries, Salon 94 and R 20th Century. "My goal is to have gardens seem more like living artworks. In many ways, I’m having to rewrite the way that art is perceived or how it’s handled. That it’s not in any static object that one simply preserves, [but] it is evolving with how it’s maintained. In relationship
to other artworks, it can seem antithetical. [My work] needs humidity, it needs UV light, whereas most art [is protected from environmental concerns] and the houses that [art collections] go into have been heavily invested in to control humidity and to shade out UV light. The same collector who wants to collect a terrarium may have a hard time placing one of my pieces."
Hayes reveres those clients who are willing to accept a degree of uncertainty. "The only thing that could go terribly wrong is if someone starts to think of [a] terrarium as an object. Because they’ll be highly disappointed that it changes," she explains, laughing. "You know, I really try to talk with them about it." And here, I see the temperament of the artist trump that of the botanist.
Hayes walks over to a shelf and pulls out a sheet of paper and hands it to me, explaining that it was part of an exhibition she did in the early ’90s. It’s a contract that reads "An agreement for a potted plant as artwork." The document spells out, in legalese, the obligation of an owner or collector of the art: "[T]he owner is responsible for the artwork in as much as the artwork does not exist without the responsibility and commitment to its undertaking and without the attempt to remedy failure with renewable idealism." Hayes is clearly parroting the rhetoric as a way of restating our understanding of art and life. "Basically it states that it’s idealism that we’re maintaining, and if something goes wrong, we renew our idealism by putting in another plant," she laughs. "[With this document] it was conceptual, it was more of an idea. But through a lot of soul-searching, seeing, and doing, I realized that even if [this idea] has a beautiful material form, it is still entirely ephemeral." Indeed, it is art as life.