by Anna Kell
Last June, we collaborated as artists-in-residence at the Lloyd Library, where we worked for the month on a design project titled Posters for the Plant Blind. Digitally collaged with visual elements culled from the library’s extensive collection, the posters are meant to highlight the presence of plants in our world as well as ripe resources like the Lloyd Library.
“Plant Blindness” is a term, coined by educator-botanists James Wandersee and Elisabeth Schussler in 1998, that describes what they observed to be an increasing inability among 21stst century people “to see or notice the plants in their environments”. While early scholarship centered on explanations such as zoochauvinism, or the cultural preference for animals based on shared characteristics, Wandersee & Schussler steered the term’s relationship to vision, shifting the focus onto the limitations of human perception and visual cognition, an area that artists have long investigated.
Since initiating the project, we have finished a number of posters and allowed the work to branch into new directions. The Pantry, one of the more elaborate of our designs, is a sprawling, illustrative map of thirty common kitchen items engulfed with a lush border of plants that reveals the source of each item’s main ingredients. The poster lures viewers into its content through the use of familiar staples, like Grippo’s chips and Kroger-brand black pepper, simultaneously making us aware of the plants and their indispensability. Our Eye Test poster is inspired by the original prevention campaign initiated by Wandersee & Schussler, whose poster featured a rather surreal and now-dated design of a blurry landscape overprinted with these three words: PREVENT PLANT BLINDNESS (and was distributed to over 22,000 school teachers). Our rendition serves to test and augment viewers’ knowledge of regional, native trees, while synthesizing our mutual interest in the dizzying spatial effects of 60s “Op” art, vintage optometry charts, and the many representations of leaves we found in the Lloyd’s archive.
We hope our posters foster not just an aesthetic experience, but the start of an educational one, capable of improving plant literacy and cultivating a greater sense of connection with plants. Luckily, no matter what your work is in the world, Wandersee & Schussler articulate a simple and elegant piece of advice to help prevent future plant-blindness: pass on and share your knowledge of plants.
There are many ways to become what the pair dubbed a “plant mentor”. If you know how to grow and tend plants, do it with the children in your life. If you can identify plants in your local landscape or distinguish their parts, teach those around you how to do the same. If you don’t have children in your personal life, volunteer to do a workshop at a school or community garden (or guerilla artist-activist style, wherever and however you dare).
Culture is built through the passing down of information and experiences. Our muses remind us that without “conscious intention, attention, and effort to preserve it”, the information our brains receive about plants is likely to be discarded; all that green, leafy stuff simply can’t compete with the plethora of extraneous cultural imagery for our attention. In 2019, and beyond if it goes well, let’s do something—however we can—to make space for the awareness and appreciation of plants.
- Wandersee, James H., and Elisabeth E. Schussler, “Toward a Theory of Plant Blindness,” Plant Science Bulletin 47, no. 1 ( March 2001): 2-9.
- Wandersee, James H., and Elisabeth E. Schussler, “Preventing Plant Blindness,” The American Biology Teacher 61, no. 2 (February 1999): 82-86.
- Wandersee & Schussler, “Toward a Theory of Plant Blindness,” 6-7
Anna Kell is Assistant Professor of Art at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.