“I find enjoyment in art by changing the typical life of an organism. An aesthetically pleasing form that allows for functioning living organisms to reside, develop, laugh, escape, or express. The true joy of my work resides in the life that is generated from my creation. The excitement develops once it is subjected to the environment; when the art work is no longer under my control, but under the control of insects, vegetation, mammals, seasons, and time.” — Travis Gramberg
TreeHouse: Let’s talk a bit about the plants from your designs first. It seems that you tend towards using cacti and succulents. Is there a reason for that? And where do you buy or grow them? Do you keep them around to mature for a while or stick them right into the design once you have them?
Travis Gramberg: I enjoy using cacti, succulents, and epiphytes (air ferns) in my work mainly because of their unique sculptural qualities. Most of the plants I have are gifts from people; succulents and air ferns have that ability to be snapped from the mother plant and passed on to someone else. Because of this I usually have a handful of plants lying around that I am taking care of. I live in an apartment so I really only try to keep around what I will be using. That being said, my patio is completely overcrowded with plant material. In some cases I have to shop specifically for the exact plant I need based on color, height, and water level. For example, in the mask “Rusty Mug” I had to drive to a number of different nurseries to find the right look for her eyes.
TH: How did you start creating your plant designs? What inspired you to begin your first project?
TG: My first “botanical sculpture” was created in my ceramics class at Cal Poly Pomona. I created a series of pots that were inspired by the shapes and patterns of succulents, and then I planted those succulents in these sculptures. I wanted to simplify the potted plant to one piece of work, a perfect unity between the pot and the plant. From there this concept of “living art” developed into an obsession for success covering various projects. My favorite part about using plants for art work is that the piece is never truly finished. The art is capable of growing, blooming, and dying.
TH: The planters you use are almost like works of art in themselves. Do you make them as well or are they found/purchased?
TG: I try to stay consistent with concept, materials, and process when creating a series of artwork, so it depends on the situation. Sometimes I am driven by vision and utilize a material to create it. A good example would be the “Botanical Pottery” pieces; I cut and shaped the artwork out of leftover scraps of polycarbonate plastic. These were leftover scraps from “The Water Diamond” installation I created at Cal Poly Pomona in 2011. I then coated the polycarbonate plastic in dyed resin. The two masks were found objects. While doing some yard work I broke a strawberry pot and it spun around and a face looked at me. I picked up the face and stored it in my room for about 6 months. Until one day, walking around on a job site, I stumbled upon an old emergency plane landing strip that had been mauled by a rototiller. I saw a face in it and was inspired to start a mask series. The broken strawberry pot and emergency landing strip eventually became the focal point for “Ugly Stick” and “Rusty Mug.” I think this was a long way of saying there is no real plan, I just roll with what material or goal I have.
TH: Tell us about your creation process: do ideas pop into your head and you set out to make them, or do the ideas come from viewing the plant and/or object first?
TG: Ideas pop into my head and I set out to make them. Sometimes I literally see the pieces in a dream, and in my dream I will be enviously looking at the art work wishing I had come up with it, and then I awaken and realize I did come up with that art piece. When creating “Living Art” I usually have the sculpture completed before I go looking for the right plant. Very rarely do I create a sculpture because of a plant.
TH: Besides your living sculptures, you also sketch. You mentioned you started that back up while on a recent trip to Europe after a bit of a hiatus from drawing. What inspired you to do that – the travel? The places you visited?
TG: Travel definitely played a large role for me to start sketching again. While traveling I have a desire to jot down everything new I see; plus I am on vacation, which gives me ample time to draw. But overall I would say I wanted to get back into drawing as more of a discipline for myself. Many great teachers and mentors have reinforced the mindset that success to any artist starts with a strong concept of sketching and proportions. I practice composition, proportions, color theory, and personal style while I sketch. Sketching is a moment where I feel no pressure about the finished product, it is just fun. It is amazing the amount of inspiration I do get from traveling though, it is a necessity in my life.
TH: Is there anything about your position in landscape architecture that lends itself to the creation of your living sculptures? Do you find inspiration for your personal art within the designs you help create for clients?
TG: Yes, I truly do. What is great about my current position in landscape architecture is the amount of knowledge I can access within the company. My newest sculptures would not even be possible without the help from my coworkers. If I have any questions about plant material I can go to an expert across the office. I am very appreciative of how my profession is influencing my personal artwork and how my artwork influences my profession.
TH: Do you sell your work or have any plans to do so in the future?
TG: I do sell my artwork. Usually when someone approaches me about buying my artwork they truly love and desire to have it. I think that is the goal of creating, to pass something on to someone that will give them joy. I would not enjoy creating things if all of them ended up collecting dust in dark corners of my room. My biggest joy as an artist is visiting someone’s house that has purchased my art and seeing it almost for the first time again. It’s fun to go back into the time I was creating that piece of work and reflect on what was going on in my life.