Art brought to life

For those walking by, Mary Catherine Newcomb’s new exhibit Product of Eden might look like a simple vegetable garden. But upon closer inspection, it’s clear that it’s completely one-of-a-kind.

Instead of finding regular vegetables in Newcomb’s garden installation situated outside the Kitchener Waterloo Art Gallery (KWAG), there are squash shaped into eerily realistic baby-like figures.

Using human-shaped molds made of fiberglass and resin that she places over the growing vegetables, Newcomb is able to transform the orange and yellow plants into vivid recreations of infant forms.

“In the beginning people were incredibly skeptical,” explained Kirstie Peterson, communications coordinator for the KWAG. “But ever since they saw the babies when they emerged it’s been a complete about-face. There are families with little kids who come to check the growth every day.”

And for Newcomb this makes since because of the sense of awe humans feel when looking at nature.

“I never grew up being much of a gardener,” she explained. “I grew up in Montreal in a very urban area. Food wasn’t really grown, and when we moved to Southern Ontario, I was blown away by peaches on trees and the workings of nature.”

Newcomb’s fascination is what first compelled her to begin shaping fruit into art. Ever since, she’s created multiple installations using vegetables like squash and eggplant.

“I really wanted to see little saintly figures growing on bushes and so I grew those and it all came out of that. For me, there was a real sense of magic… I really wanted to do something that I hadn’t done before and experiment a little more,” she explained.

Because she sees her infant-like creations as “sacred”, she places small golden crowns on the grown vegetables.

According to Crystal Mowry, the exhibit’s curator, the whimsical style of Newcomb’s art can be attributed to her passion for mysticism. The artist’s decision to call the piece Product of Eden, for instance, reflects her love of stories that join religion, spirituality and life cycles.

“[Newcomb is] interested in myths and fables and stories like the Garden of Eden… The relationship to Eden and a garden that is idyllic and like paradise seemed like a natural fit for the product and also the process,” explained Mowry.

The cycles of life and death that pervade human history, are also echoed in Newcomb’s work. She explained that creating the pieces of art has brought her closer to those processes.

“The gardening of an art plant is much more intensive than the gardening of a regular plant and you do feel a bond with it,” said Newcomb. “You notice small things about the patterns of growth and freshness and greenness and the aliveness that you don’t otherwise see.”

She added that because the squash have taken on the feeble form of an infant, she has felt compassion and sadness at certain points in the process, such as when she had to decide what to do with a “baby girl” squash after parts of it were eaten away by bugs.

“It’s about the image. Babies are helpless. They’re kind of idealized babies but looking at a little baby sucking its thumb does inspire a feeling of loss,” she stated.

When asked whether she would miss her “babies” when fall comes and they have to be removed from the soil, Newcomb explained that after caring for them almost every day of the summer, she’s ready to let go.

“At this point I’m pretty exhausted so I’m kind of relieved but I’m just wondering what to do with them,” said Newcomb, adding that she might pickle a few to preserve.

The squash will be taken out of the ground on Oct. 5, and Mowry explained that a key element of the installation is that the plant matter and soil will be put to use even after the exhibit is taken down. “The plants will go into compose which is just another cycle and the soil will be given away and will find its way into other people’s gardens,” she added.