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Green-Thumbed Artists Make Museum-Worthy Grassterpieces

Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey's living portraits are basically high-art Chia Pets.
October 23, 2016, 12:00pm
Face to Face, 2012. All images courtesy the artists

It takes a little more than a green thumb to turn grass into art, but British artists Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey are masters of photosynthetic photography. The duo creates living portraits by projecting negative images on vertical panels of grown grass, directing light in varying concentrations to different areas. The amount of light determines which patches become dark shades of green and which fade to yellowish hues. The result is a 100% organic, biochemical grassterpiece.


Photo courtesy the artists

A misplaced ladder sowed the seeds for Ackroyd and Harvey’s green graphics. In 1990, while working on another installation, they noticed a patch of yellowing turf where the ladder had leaned against a grassy incline. It wasn’t until a year later that the duo decided to experiment with chlorophyll pigmentation and the artists soon began planting "paintings" that literally lived and breathed.

Testament, 1998

But creating art out of living things is intrinsically transient. Over time, grass dies, so the pair transitioned from regular grass to a specially-engineered “stay-green grass,” developed over several years with the help of scientists and researchers at the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (now IBERS) in Wales. The special strain keeps chlorophyll, the green pigment in plants that causes light absorption during photosynthesis, present after the grass itself dies or dries. According to Harvey, it makes the image “just a little less elusive.” If kept in low-light conditions, the living portraits can remain on display for several years.

Image from Festival des Artes Visuels Vevey, 2012

Sometimes the portraits aren’t perfectly preserved, which adds a strangely appealing element of decay. For The Big Chill, a three-day music festival in the UK, the artists built four mounted portraits, which were displayed in the main events field. Nearly 30,000 people ran their hands through the canvases, which naturally shortened the works’ lifespan. But according to Ackroyd and Harvey, that’s part of their beauty.


“We knew that the images would get corrupted, both by the light and by being touched,” Ackroyd tells The Creators Project. “But we had to cut the umbilical chord and let it be, really. It made it all quite moving and interesting, that we could watch the work be erased by people’s touch and interaction.”

Portraiture at The Big Chill, 2007

The artists select images that aren’t overly abstract to preserve an affecting clarity. Usually, this means cultivating a portrait or landscape. “The subject matter for each piece needs to be anchored in a kind of familiarity for the audience, so each piece has something to do with the location or subject material of where it’s being exhibited,” Ackroyd says. “We want photos of people looking right at the camera, at eye level. You get the sense that you’re communicating with an elusive presence, and it fosters this feeling of quiet communion.”

Sunbathers, 2000. Courtesy of the artists

While it's not possible to experience these living photographs in the US right now, there’s a possibility that Ackroyd and Harvey will grow one in 2018. “We almost don’t want to spoil ourselves with them by doing more than one per year,” Ackroyd says. “Sometimes we get the sense that they’re not even of our making. They have this extraordinary independence. They have resonance and a mystical element about them. It seizes us every time. They take charge of their own life force.”

Park Ave + Resident, 2011

To check out more of Ackroyd and Harvey's bio-chemical grassterpieces, check out their website.


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