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'Art of Heirloom' puts designs for seed packs on display.

Byline: Michael Tortorello

A seed should be fecund, no apologies. Yet certain vegetables may advertise their potency a little too insistently. That is, anatomically. OK, pornographically.

Ten years ago, Ken Greene founded the Hudson Valley Seed Library in Accord, New York, to disseminate the kind of heirlooms that once abounded on nearby farms. Not modern hybrids and genetic dead-enders.

This brings us to the case of the exhibitionist cucurbit (a mystery that sounds more suited to Clouseau than Poirot). When the Hudson Valley Seed Library commissions original art for a seed packet, Greene makes a point of matching the vegetable to the artist. In this instance, he enlisted Joan Lesikin, a Hudson Valley oil painter who specializes in depicting textiles.

"I thought, how cool would it be if we had a fabric draped over a vegetable?'' Greene said last week. "I made the mistake of assigning her squash.''

The mock-up for the seed packet presented a shape that appeared, um, a little overenthusiastic in its masculinity. "We very quickly decided to go with pumpkin instead of squash,'' Greene said.

The 59 seed-pack designs collected in a new exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden are as wholesome as the Holiday Train Show. But Greene, 42, holds a passion for the way seeds relate to the birds and the bees. The "Art of the Heirloom,'' as the title goes, is ecological, historical, commercial and, he hopes, participatory.

After you've seen the full-size art in the Ross Gallery, there's a rack of seeds for sale in the gift shop. Gardeners can also find them online and in some 200 retail sites across the country. ("Art of the Heirloom'' remains on display through Jan. 17, before going on a yearlong tour, with stops at the Philadelphia Flower Show; the Tower Hill Botanic Garden, outside Worcester; and the National Heirloom Exposition in Santa Rosa, California.)

With the little art packs -- 31/2 inches square -- Greene hopes to provoke the same big conversations that have become commonplace around the dinner table: "Where do my seeds come from? Who grows my seeds, and how do they grow my seeds?''

Originally, Greene and his partner, Doug Muller, raised most of the company's stock on their ramshackle farmstead near New Paltz, New York. The wooded, 27-acre site was once a Ukrainian summer camp and, before that, a Catskills resort. ("Picture 'Dirty Dancing,' '' he said, but with beet greens instead of borscht.) Soon, a few dozen cultivars turned into 400 different seed lines.

Sourcing seed at this scale proved difficult. It is no secret that multinational corporations like Monsanto, Cargill and Syngenta dominate the seed market for commodity crops. But vegetable seed originates mostly from the same players, on large operations in California and the Pacific Northwest. How an Idaho-adapted pole bean might perform in the Catskills is a guessing game, Greene said.

Many of the other seeds, he added, "came from Asia and China, for the same reasons so many things are coming from those places: cheaper labor, less regulation. And we didn't want to participate in that system ourselves.''

The art packs of the Hudson Valley Seed Library do not look like the agitprop from a Chipotle ad: a scarecrow wearing, say, a gas mask. The pieces are generally whimsical and personal.

The seed pack for the Gilfeather rutabaga, for instance, includes a rendering of Greene's farm dog, Rutabaga, which he describes as a hybrid of an Australian shepherd and a Jack Russell.

The painting, by Eric Losh, a Brooklyn artist, shows Rutabaga snoozing in the garden, having dug up a huge root vegetable. The Gilfeather was first bred in Vermont, and Losh has included images of the state animals: the Morgan horse, brook trout and hermit thrush. It's a happy menagerie, fit for a children's book. (Fine print: Children may be less happy to encounter an actual rutabaga on their plate.)

Other pictures are elliptical and poetic. Will Sweeney, a storyboard artist and illustrator, portrays the Cocozelle zucchini as a frigate crashing over ocean waves. The squash blossom takes the place of a bowsprit; the leaves act as a mainsail. Sweeney's image suggests the journey of the squash plant from the Americas, where it originated, to colonial Spain and Italy, where it assumed a new shape and taste.

Greene calls this rendering a seed story. "You can grow a seed story that is about creating hybrids and corporate-owned-and-licensed seed,'' he said. "Or you can grow more personal stories that have history or spirituality or personal anecdotes or humor.''

Amy Valuck, for instance, created a stained-glass profile of the tricolor bean blend. "It gives the beans a spiritual, religious perspective,'' Greene said. That's an almost comical amount of reverence for the musical fruit.

Seed-pack art, by its nature, is disposable: You buy new stuff every year. And it is democratic, too. More than 400 artists applied to create just 16 new art packs for the company's 2015 offerings. A few of them will receive their first creative paycheck ($200) from the Hudson Valley Seed Library. By contrast, the eminent conceptual artist Robert Morris (who painted arugula) chose to collect his payment in garden seed.

The New York Botantical Garden selections include watercolor, raku tile, copper etching and embroidery. The medium, itself, can seem like a comment on the plant. Jenny Lee Fowler, a 39-year-old paper artist, has created art packs for variegated nasturtium, Ragged Jack kale and, this season, chervil.

"Chervil is so lacy, it's a natural,'' Fowler said. Her silhouette piece, in origami paper, captures a woman wielding a pair of scissors to harvest a giant herb. It's sort of a visual pun. "The paper cutter is like the plant cutter,'' she said.
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Title Annotation:Living
Author:Tortorello, Michael
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Nov 23, 2014
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