A new exhibit at the University of Arizona Museum of Art will get you thinking about the plants in your life.
Spoiler: They're everywhere.
Olivia Miller, the museum's curator of exhibitions, had long mulled over showcasing artwork that featured plants.
"But I didn't just want it to be a show about flowers," she says. "Not to say that's bad, but I knew being on this campus, it could be a lot more than that."
Enter Joela Jacobs, an assistant professor of German studies at the UA, who researches plants in literature and culture.
Jacobs, Miller and plant sciences professor Ursula Schuch developed the exhibition together, using their three perspectives to showcase the relevance of plants to daily life and the relationship between humans and the green things around them.
Sitting in her office, Jacobs gestures all around her: "Look at the table. It's plant matter. These tissues, those books, what we wear, it's just everywhere," she says. "That's why we named the exhibition 'Botanical Relations.'"
If you're wondering how a German studies professor becomes a plant scholar, don't worry, we were too.
As a graduate student at the University of Chicago, Jacobs studied German literature, specifically how exaggerations in grotesque texts from the 1900s commented on what it means to be human by featuring marginalized or nonhuman figures — think "The Metamorphosis" by Franz Kafka from high school English class, a German novella where the main character turns into a huge cockroach.
Some of those grotesque examples used plant reproduction to satirize cultural norms around human sexuality and relationships at that time.
Plants, Jacobs discovered, can do more than just look good in the background. They can also influence culture. And not many people were talking about this.
Since then, Jacobs has continued to research the relationship between humans and plants and how plants participate — in conflicts (think cotton and slavery or the Opium Wars); in language (we bloom and branch out); and in our future (we need plants for oxygen and food sources).
A scholarly interest in plants is growing — maybe you've heard of the wood-wide web, a method of communication among trees.
A few years ago, Jacobs founded the Literary and Cultural Plant Studies Network for other scholars interested in the influence plants have on culture and literature. Although Jacobs specializes in German studies, the network has interdisciplinary members from around the world. They'll have their first conference this year in Dresden, Germany.
"Plants are always the bridesmaid; they're always in the background," she says. "And that's partially why we did the exhibit: To really look at plants."
The exhibition comes from the museum's permanent collection and includes pieces by artists such as Georgia O'Keeffe, Andy Warhol and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, along with several Tucson artists.
Artwork centers around four themes: Individuality, dis/order, violence and eroticism — the topic that initially sparked Jacobs' interest in plants. Some of the paintings are quite suggestive, she says. Flowers, after all, are reproductive, intended to attract pollinators.
"Once you start looking at plants, you start to see things that maybe surprise you or maybe don't fit into our idea of plants as passive," Jacobs says.
Miller says the botanical pieces featured in the museum's collection span time, place and style.
"I want people to understand that plants are relevant to their everyday lives, that plants are not just scenery..." Miller says. "Plants can be a catalyst for larger ideas."
If you go
What: "Botanical Relations" exhibition
When: Through March 31. The museum is closed Mondays.
Where: University of Arizona Museum of Art, 1031 N. Olive Road
More info: Go here