In Washington, a larger-than-life collection of sculptures elevates the timeless fern

Adrian Higgins

THE WASHINGTON POST – Some plants in the garden shout for attention. At the moment, peonies and roses are invading our senses. Other plants bide their time.

Green and static, they wait for us to find them. And if we don’t, well, they’re not put out.

A great example of this is the fern, in all its subtle variety. Ferns don’t have flowers – like fungi, they reproduce with spores – and instead of blooms, they have something even more earthshaking for the gardener: a potent timelessness.

Ferns are a vestige of a world we can barely imagine, and some common species date back some 350 million years.

With such primeval lineage, they reward the patient and perceptive gardener. Each species is unique, but the differences between them can be hard to discern, especially for novice gardeners.

Fashioned from painted sail cloth and wire, the gigantic fern sculptures by artist Sophia McCrocklin each take months to complete
Sophia McCrocklin with her sculpture of a royal fern. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST

This journey of discovery is part of the fern’s allure. The royal fern has large, rounded leaflets with spores clustered like dried seed heads at the ends of their fronds.

The maidenhair fern has tiny, fanlike leaflets that dance in a spiral, like a mobile by Calder. The New York fern, around long before there was a New York or even an Old York, looks like it has jumped off a fossilised stone.

It is a study in the beauty of natural patterning. Each frond might stretch to two feet, with 30 or so opposing, compound leaves. Each leaf is made up of two dozen or more leaflets. Its design is one of replication and symmetry. It is not surprising that something so graphically elemental would attract the attention of an artist such as Sophia McCrocklin. She was hiking through Washington’s Rock Creek Park a few years ago and was forced to divert around a fallen tree in a way that put her nose close to the earth.

She came face to face with a fern frond, which appeared gigantic, and she saw this little upright frond as a tree.

She knew, too, that when she showed a fern frond to friends (try saying that after Novocain), their eyes glazed over.

What better way, she later thought, to open our eyes to ferns than to replicate them in a vastly enlarged scale?

The quest changed the course of her creative life, and after six years in her studio, she has produced 19 sculptures of fern species, most set within a shadowboxed canvas about seven feet tall, three feet wide and five inches deep.

Previously, McCrocklin had made fibre collages and fabric art that was smaller, flatter and more abstract than her ferns.

Everything about the project represented a new creative journey, although nature has always been important to her. In an earlier life, she was a lawyer at the Environmental Protection Agency.

She was also a former board member of the conservancy established to revive Dumbarton Oaks Park in Georgetown and became the group’s artist in residence in 2017. Fifteen of the fern sculptures depict hardy native species found in the park, which once formed the outlying and wilder parts of the Dumbarton Oaks estate’s historic landscape. Her project is titled ‘Ferns of Dumbarton’.

If a purpose of art is to make us see familiar objects afresh, “Ferns of Dumbarton” has to be considered a success.

Each is a portrait of an actual plant, and may show an area of leaf damage or other imperfections.

I was fascinated by the mechanics of making these.

Their fabrication became a reverse engineering of nature, though nature, being the master, unfurls everything perfectly, swiftly and on cue each spring. For McCrocklin, each sculpture represented at least four months of daily toil in her studio. They are made mainly from Dacron, the material used for sail cloth, and copper wires. She would take a subject frond, photograph it and have the image blown up to about five feet high.

From that, she would draw each component part of the plant, down to the wave lines of the edge of each little leaflet, and use the drawing as a guide to cut the fabric with various types of scissors.

The wire stems of each leaf were threaded through the fabric or, alternatively, each little leaflet was stitched onto the wire.

The thicker main stems of the frond were fashioned from layers of Dacron around another wire.

She used coloured pencils to render the veins, and the fabric, originally white, was painted in as many as seven layers of acrylic paint to give the foliage of each sculpture its own subtle depth and shade of green.

The techniques evolved as she became more obsessive about botanical accuracy. For example, she made a second Christmas fern where the leaflets were cut separately instead of together, along with other changes that were more precise.

Much of this detail came from trips to the Smithsonian’s scientific collection of dried plants, an herbarium, at the National Museum of Natural History.

Here she could discern the presence and arrangement of hairs along the stems and root pieces, and other morphological details, later fashioned from threads of cotton or canvas.

The discrete spore leaves of the interrupted fern looked like a bed of Brillo pads, she said, until she could find their more subtle contours by looking much closer.

“If the herbarium was not here, I couldn’t have done this, not at the quality I was able to do,” she said. “I think I just fell into something in a wonderful way.”

Thirteen of the sculptures were to have formed a show at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda beginning in early April, but the coronavirus put an end to that. McCrocklin is searching for a new venue, but given the size of the collection, her artistic personal investment and the desire to show it in more normal times, she is in no hurry.

She hopes when viewers see them, they will be more engaged in conservation. “To find ideas to help save our planet, we need to tap into as much wonder and curiosity as we can,” she said.

In the garden, hardy ferns add a counterpoise to everything else, and should be used far more and in greater numbers. They lodge in the imagination, because they are so unlike their neighbours.

Most garden plants are highly evolved, either through natural selection or the artifice of the plant breeder. When dinosaurs were trudging around, fern species found their range of niches and stuck with them without feeling the need to evolve. The book Flora of Virginia lists 89 species in the state.

These survivors have much to teach us. “If they could talk to us, they could tell us a few things,” McCrocklin said. “They are definitely doing something right, and we are definitely not.”