Pierre Leichner sculpts with living grass. In his most recent installation, called The Grassroots Project, the sculptures are portraits of community workers and activists from Vancouver’s East Side. The faces, pictured above, are beautiful and haunting. “The Grassroots Project” was featured at Britannia Community Centre (Vancouver).
I recently caught up to Leichner to ask him about casting faces with the living roots of grass.
Leichner makes moulds and then tends the grass (see below) as the roots grow into place. Timing is everything for a sculpture made from living roots. The faces must be grown so that the roots will be dense enough when the exhibition opens. Once removed from the moulds and put on display, the grass slowly dies adding a remarkable animation to the living sculptures which are constantly changing.
“I required approximately 3 weeks to grow each portrait. I then, displayed new faces at the information center, the swimming pool and the senior center in a visible place in a Plexiglas case where they dried until replaced.”
The origins of The Grassroots Project also reflect community mobilizing and participation. The installation was funded through a micro fund called East Feast which invites the public ($20 entrance fee) to a delicious meal prepared by a local caterer, a night of local entertainment and finally where three artists present their projects. The attendees select one of the artists to receive $1,000 grant raised by the event. Leichner was selected in 2011.
The idea to sculpt with roots comes from Leichner’s childhood in southern France, where local tradition uses wheat grass to predict the prosperity of the coming year: straight grass means a prosperous time ahead. But what caught young Leichner’s fancy were the fascinating shapes taken by bound roots which became evident when the wheat grass was removed from its containers and thrown out. In 2007, completing his MFA, he returned to the memory from his childhood and began experimenting with living roots as a medium for sculpture.
His career as an artist comes after 35 years as a practicing psychiatrist, clinical researcher and university lecturer. When asked about the tension between art and politics, Leichner believes they are inseparable. “I went back into the arts to have a voice outside a system I found had became repressive and hierachical. I do not believe that health care systems should be run as a corporation. I believe arts and the humanities need to be reintegrated into the health care system and the education of professionals. I believe in local empowerment and community engagement.”
For more information about Pierre Leichner’s work, check out his website.