The flora story: Unique mural at Smith’s Botanic Garden depicts 4 billion years of plant history



Last modified: Friday, February 05, 2016

A new mural at Smith College that depicts billions of years of plant history, might well be the first of its kind, anywhere on Earth.

Museums of natural history have long answered the perennial challenge of explaining what Earth looked like millions — even billions — of years ago, with the use of vivid visual aids such as dioramas of dinosaurs, or charts of human evolution, to bring prehistory, so to speak, to life. But, while there have been many graphic representations of the development of living creatures in these institutions, Earth’s flora has been largely overlooked — until this past December, that is, when the Smith College Botanic Garden unveiled a mural showing the history of the plant kingdom. Organizers think there is nothing else like it.

The mural is situated in a long, light-filled corridor that runs between the Church Exhibition Gallery and the Palm House at the Lyman Greenhouse. Until now, says the botanic garden’s director, Michael Marcotrigiano, “This had been an absolutely unvisited hallway. The only time people came in here was when they came to the spring bulb show and were waiting in line for the bathroom. I thought it would be the perfect place for a plant history mural.”

Marcotrigiano, who came on board at the botanic garden in 2000, said he first broached the mural concept in the early 2000s with Madelaine Zadik, the garden’s manager of education and outreach. But nothing came of the idea until 2006, when Zadik noticed a photograph in the Gazette of a Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation van, the side of which was adorned with a realistic forest scene. Zadik showed Marcotrigiano the picture and asked, “You’re looking for a muralist?”

He lost no time in tracking down the artist, Rob Evans, who lives outside of Boston and has painted murals for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the New England Aquarium in Boston, and many other museums and historic sites. Marcotrigiano says Evans accepted the commission with enthusiasm.

4 billions years, abbreviated

The director’s next challenge was to decide what images the mural should contain.

“It was hard to figure out what to do with 4 billion years in only 60 feet,” he said. He contacted James Walker, a paleobotanist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, for advice.

“We had eight spaces along the hallway where panels of the mural could be installed,” Marcotrigiano said. “So we asked Jim to choose eight significant moments in the history of the Earth’s plant life.” Marcotrigiano credits Walker for his invaluable knowledge and involvement in the project. “Without him, we’d have nothing,” he said.

Evans says designing the mural posed interesting artistic challenges.

“I needed to observe physical constraints of the space. The corridor is so narrow you can’t see the entire mural at once. But that works for me, too, because you see each panel sequentially, so each becomes almost an individual panorama.”

Creating images of the Earth as it might have existed billions of years ago required “a certain amount of fiction and artifice,” Evans added. “I wanted to make it look natural and believable. I had to figure out how to choreograph each panel without making it look too didactic or staged.”

Evans said the project made him realize how contingent human knowledge is on slender bits of information.

“The fossil record is changing all the time,” he said, noting that he had to make changes in one panel because a new plant was discovered while he was working on it. “You have to be ready for changes like that. ... The mural will be subject to revision as we learn more.”

Walker identified eight periods, beginning with the Age of Stromatolites, from about 3,500 to 1,250 million years ago, when Earth was a desolate and lonely place inhabited only by bacteria, and ending with the present Holocene era — a mere 11,500 years — marked by the rise of human civilization.

As the mural artfully demonstrates, the intervening span of time saw massive developments in the plant kingdom. Simple plants evolved from photosynthetic bacteria, their structure became more complex, and they began to propagate through spores and, still later, seeds. Marcotrigiano explained that flowering plants are a relatively recent development, coming about 125 million years ago, during the Cretaceous Period.

It was during this era that birds and bees began to aid plant propagation through pollination and seed distribution. “The flowers said, ‘Look at me,’ and the fruits said, ‘Take me,’ ” he said. “Flowering plants eventually came to dominate the plant world.”

Endangered biodiversity

Marcotrigiano said he sees plant evolution as the process by which “plants keep adapting to changing circumstances and solving new problems. I love to think about how excited Darwin must have been when he figured it all out. He got most of it right. When someone asks me about ‘intelligent design,’ I say, ‘if there was intelligent design, I’d have two hearts and one kidney!’ ”

The final panel, titled “Plants and Human Affairs,” shows a distant cityscape, cultivated fields and a giant earth mover destroying a tropical forest. Reflecting on this scene, Marcotrigiano expressed deep concern over the present and future state of the planet. “This shows that we’re ‘extincting’ rather than evolving,” he said. “Biodiversity is shutting down.”

Unfavorable environmental conditions in the greenhouse posed logistic challenges for displaying the mural. Marcotrigiano explained that moisture, light and temperature fluctuations made it infeasible to display Evans’ actual paintings there. Instead, the paintings were digitized on a huge flatbed scanner in Boston, and the resulting images were embedded in laminate panels designed to withstand the climatic conditions in the hallway.

It took Evans nearly 10 years to complete the murals, far longer than the three years he had originally estimated. Marcotrigiano joked, “Maybe I didn’t make it clear that we did not want an evolution mural spanning billions of years painted in real time.”

Marcotrigiano said he couldn’t be happier with Evans’ dedication and professionalism. “He learns by immersing himself in what he does. Pretty soon he started dropping plant names like ‘Lepidodendron,’ ” he said.

He says he’s equally pleased with Evans’ meticulous artistry.

“If the Hudson River School painters were alive in the Devonian Period (416-360 million years ago) this is what they would have painted,” he said. “The level of detail in the murals is incredible. His ability to create depth is amazing. You feel like you could step right into the scene. The eight paintings are works of art.”

Marcotrigiano said that when he was growing up in the 1960s, he wanted to time-travel into the future, as portrayed in popular television shows like “The Jetsons.” Now, he said, he wants “to go back in time, to see how much in the mural we got right.”

Mickey Rathbun can be reached at mickey.rathbun@gmail.com.


 


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