By Melissa J White
On Tuesday, August 16, 2022, 6-9 pm on the Santa Fe Plaza, Amp Concerts and The Drum is the Voice of the Trees present, VENERATION: a drumming circle and nature dance with celebrants wearing spirited costumes created by Santa Fe artist, Stryder Simms. I had a minute to ask Stryder some questions about his work on the development of these curious creatures.
Melissa: Tell us about the materials you use in your fantastical Shrubconscious costumes.
Stryder Simms: Nature is all we’ve ever used to make things. I suppose I could resort to any number of denatured products, but they would be left behind, choking landfills. When I’m gone and there is no one left to appreciate them, these creations will leave behind little more than they would have, had they been left standing in my yard. Perhaps this is the unspoken celebrated outcome alluded to in the vegetal content in these costumes.
How did you get the idea to make costumes out of plants?
Where would we be without the common plants that grow up around us? Unquestionably, the decision to work with plants in this art form comes from a commitment to using all natural materials, but alongside this ambition, I also had a longing to spend time with plants in nature, as our predecessors did since time immemorial.
How is the process of making the costumes going?
Now that I’m nearing the finish line in the studio, mental space is freeing up. I think about what impact this work can have going forward. I’m feeling optimistic about the outcome for reasons other than the novelty of the costumes.
Who will be wearing the costumes during the event?
They will be inhabited by an extraordinary group of celebrants. The word “celebrants” comes to mind because, unlike dancers, or a theater group putting on a performance, our goal is to simply make an offering for the well-being of the community by honoring the forests and trees.
A group first began forming ten years ago to practice Tai Chi under the tutelage of a gifted teacher, Jeff English, who has been training students in his method for over two decades. Jeff pioneered an approach to Tai Chi practice called The Way of the Serpent Power. The practice consists of meditation and Tai Chi in conjunction with cultivating an intimate connection with nature. Its aims align us with the cosmic energy underlying all creation. In a literal, bodily felt sense, the way of the serpent power trains the practitioner to listen for, recognize, and trust their own inner truth and to move through life with Spirit.
Only later did I learn that Jeff is a trained actor with lots of stage experience. He embraced the costume and character of “Valorio,” one of our first Shrubconscious creatures, for the short film “Scorched Ladders” (2016).
What do these costumes represent?
A forest or field is a model of creative collaboration. Like the soil in a forest or field, the creative process and creative collaboration is not only about the end product; it’s also about relating with aligned companions in the creative process. My partner and collaborator Phoenix and I were talking about this recently and I wrote down something she said that touched me. “It’s about the hearts, the intention, how we care for one another, how we honor and respect one another.” We all have our place in the collaboration and would not accomplish this without each one of us. We all have our own personal journey around this.
How do you foster the best in each other in this group?
Not by comparison. We come together with assorted skills. Each of us has gained mastery in a particular aspect of life that contributes immeasurably to the experience. We benefit not only from what we do, but from each other’s presence. So it is important to feel aligned and authentic. This is a constantly shifting balance that we learn in Tai Chi and it then permeates everything. Another quote from my partner Phoenix, “Our bond creates a current that runs through the presentation, a current that is only as real as that bond is between us.”
How long does it take to make a Shrubconscious “creature?”
For the past six months I’ve been making two larger-than-life fantasy figure costumes out of tuft grass, burlap and hemp twine. I would guess that I have put in between 600 and 800 of actual work so far and perhaps two or three times that if I count time spent figuring things out in my head. As a lifetime craftsman, I’ve found the studio work stimulating and relaxing for the most part but not without its challenges. I sing, talk to Holy Spirit, listen to music, recorded books, or podcasts when I’m doing the repetitive tasks. While I’ve used a lot of indigenous plants in my sculptures and costumes, never have jute and tuft grass been featured, so I have to invent as I go because there is a limited time until the performance and that means the experimentation must be focused on immediate solutions. I think about the past, when our predecessors had to make garments and costumes out of plants. There must be some remnant of their ingenuity that I can draw from in my DNA. And we also trust that everyone who sees them will find them familiar.
Do you collaborate on these costumes?
The first two costumes which were used in “Scorched Ladders” were created by a professional costumer, Tatyana de Pavlov. Before moving to New Mexico, Tatyana was brought up in the arts working on costumes for the opera. The costumes came out beautifully, on time, and in budget. We couldn’t have been more pleased, and the creatures she came up with: “Pith” and “Valorio” have delighted audiences ever since, even winning the Meow Wolf Monster Battle Grand Prize in 2019.
The next costume enlisted the skills of another pro, Joanna Becker. She, too, provided a costume above and beyond our expectations. It was completed last year and marks the beginning of my experiments with tuft grass. It’s quite intricate, with a mechanical component achieved with willow branches. I won’t give away what it does, but it is sure to delight the crowd.
How did your concept of these creatures develop?
After watching the artists who wore these first costumes perform scenes in front of the camera, it became my desire to create something lighter and easier that could be worn in more populated settings and events. I had been using Chamisa and Apache Plume, but grass is so lightweight and abundant. Because it requires minimal care and water, tuft grass takes up a lot of space in our yard, so I started saving it at the end of the season. When bunched together, it can be incredibly strong. I was immediately impressed with grass as a material but it was not a straight forward path from then to where we are now. At first, I designed the entire costumes to be supported by the head, almost a hat, that reached down to knee level. As each costume grew larger than life-sized, as was my aim, this became an issue. They turned out to be substantially lighter than the prior costumes, but were, unfortunately, more cumbersome to move around in, and hard to see out of. So I had to cut them into pieces and refashion the parts into components.
Did you have any down time in the creation process?
There was a two-week period where I didn’t touch the costumes, but I thought about them every day. In several imaginary processes, I cut and reassembled them for more ease of wear and mobility. It was difficult to make myself cut up the work that I had probably spent 200-300 hours making already, but when I finally did, it felt right.
Several hundred stitches later, the parts were realigned and functioning properly. The artist wearing them can move their limbs and joints more normally, plus enjoy improved visibility. In comparison to the former three costumes, these latest two feel nearly weightless. So three key objectives have been achieved, lightness, delightfulness, and mobility.
What do you think about the creative process as a whole?
I can’t think of it as a single process. The creative process moves to and fro along a continuum between vacuums of isolated searching and surging hydrants of enthusiasm. There’s time spent dreaming up ideas, then working them out in my notebook. Talking about them, doing research, gathering materials, accumulating collaborators along the way. That is a representative cross section. After decades of practice, I’m still learning to get out of my own way and let the unexpected encounters and unforeseen accidents inform the work.
Promoting the work when its finished is an aspect of the process that I have much to learn about still, so thank you Mel, for this interview for which you have so generously devoted your time. I always try to leverage everything I do by creating outputs from all my projects in 2D, 3D and HD. That’s a lot of moving parts and it gets overwhelming sometimes. You’re an integral part of this. Whenever I have worked on a shrub sculpture or costume for any length of time, I become conscious of the absurdity of what I’m trying to achieve. Then all these wonderful people get involved and we’re just doing our spiritual practice together, being creative and communing with each other. So, for instance, now here we are gathered to make an offering, for the well-being of all by honoring the Earth.
Last summer I made a commitment to the Botanical Garden to teach indigenous plant sculpture in late October in Santa Fe. Thinking it would be exciting to bring these materials and processes to other creative individuals and see what they come up with, I went about inviting the public to take part.
I designed the shrubconscious website and the flier announcing “Journey to the Shrubconscious,” and posted it at universities, art schools and garden centers, as well as coffee shops and random bulletin boards up and down the Rocky Mountains from Ft. Collins to Albuquerque. Because I was already going there, I canvased Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco and Marin County, California as well.
Human beings are more than just heads with eyes for looking at screens. I myself had been writing five or more hours a day in front of one for decades. When I first entered the shrubconscious, I found ample fertile ground in nature for inspiration and imagined other creative types also desiring to step away from machines for some fresh air.
But, surprisingly, no one stepped up for the workshop. Not one single soul expressed curiosity. So, the Botanical Garden and I agreed to reschedule and those late October calendar days were unexpectedly sprung wide open.
Almost instantly an opportune event appeared on my news feed. An intriguingly titled , “High Desert Hempfest” would take place in Taos the very same day.
I had been thinking of sculpting hemp and had been making contacts with folks in the industry for months. High Desert Hempfest would be a perfect time and place to make my first attempt.
Hemp must be the most versatile crop humankind has ever known. No other plant can provide as many cures for the 21st Century’s ills, including medicines, clothing, foods, construction and fabrication materials, fuel and don’t forget art. Plus, it restores the very soil in which it is grown.
The Colorado Hemp Industries Association returned my call and put me in touch with a farmer that had what I needed. So I left a message with the High Desert Hempfest and pitched my idea on their machine. Then I packed my cooler, truck and tools.
Everything fell together. I drove north a few hours, met the grower in his field, which had recently been harvested for the flowers, leaving windrows of crimped hurd, (hemp fiber) lying on the ground. We had a brief chat. Like most farmers, he was busy. He cultivated over 3,000 acres last year. This was his sixth season and they were all in for next one as well. I told him my plan. He gave me his blessing and left.
With a garden rake, a short amount of time and a bit of sweat, my pick-up bed was loaded. I turned back south headed for Taos.
As if it were all meant to be, the festival organizer had retrieved my proposition from their machine, by the time I arrived and provided a prominent location where, next day, I would commence with my scheme.
A design for the first hemp sculpture had already come to me. There were sketches in my journal with assorted notes and dimensions.
For this one, I chose a honeybee because hemp helps bees. It grows fine without pesticides and its healthy pollen feeds the bees.
Hemp and bees, bees and hemp, heaven and earth come together symbiotically in these two elegant agents of sane and sustainable ecology.
There is probably no better teacher in all of nature than bees. Observing them in a hive is surely more instructive than watching things on screens. Beekeeping should be taught to all first world teens.
Like teens, bees dance in groups. Their in hive boogie resemble figure eights. Each one reveals precisely how far, and in what direction to venture forth for food.
Coincidentally, I have always been attracted to figure eights and employ them often in design. So a figure eight became the foundational form for this latest creation of mine.
It turned out to be a gorgeous day in Taos. The sky was turquoise. The sun was warm and the wind, mild.
In the eight hours I labored, a rudimentary form emerged and stood up on its own just before dusk. The festival attendants that I engaged with seemed suitably impressed.
I knew there was a lot more I could do to invest that queen bee with majesty, but it would take time.
High Desert Hempfest was a laid back event, but I think anyone would judge it a success. That said, I was preoccupied with my task and had no leisure to take in much else. There were craft and food booths, other demonstrations. I labored right next to the music tent with a program of players and keynote speakers that were exceptionally fine to hear, while I worked on my design. After a bite to eat, a bit of rest, and watching a talented duet perform a set, I said goodbye to the festival folk and brought my creation home to where I could make it look its best.
This past winter there were many mild days. In between cold spells, I got myself out to the yard and worked hard. Some days were work, others were play.
I found sculpting with hemp so agreeable in fact, it wasn’t a much of a stretch to make two more bees.
The original had been a queen, as I have said, but how would anyone know unless there were a drone and a worker all in line?
And how much more impressive would it be when you came upon, not one, but three gigantic bees for the first time? Here they are in our garden keeping out the deer.
For those of you that have encountered either of these two notices around Santa Fe, thanks for your interest. I am happy to be collaborating with my good friend and Taiji instructor Jeff English on an ongoing exploration of the combination of traditional Chinese martial arts, motion pictures, theater and the theme of “return to nature.” Some of our fellow Tiaji practitioners will be joining us at 3 p.m. on the plaza in downtown Santa Fe this Saturday, 12-21-19 in observance of winter solstice. The costumed characters of Pith and Valorio from the “Scorched Ladders” movie trailer will be in attendance (view clip “Costumes Demo” for more info). We invite you to come watch, join in, or lend your good vibes as we conclude a season of significant growth and intend for a profound, beneficial expansion on all levels for the New Year.
Web of Life
The uncanny character traits are imparted to these sculptures by none other than Mother Nature. By the time I get to work, it’s half done.
I use the words, “larger than life fantasy figures,” when introducing these sculptures, but I hope they evoke a memory of something tangible and invaluable having to do with our body’s native resonance.. The plant world is tuned to geologic time. When we interact with them, plants sooth us, root us, reintroduce us to that earth pace. Plants communicate with the deepest roots of the evolutionary onion that is our brain.
Setting aside philosophy for a moment, we wish to acknowledge all public art is political. We wish to make clear these sculptures are an invitation to fellow makers to clean up their act. Much of what we’re seen in 3D printed things, perpetuates the plastic waste stream. That’s just one of a zillion examples. I’m not setting myself up to judge, but my personal return to nature has led me to working with environmentally benign ingredients. We’ve surrendered a lot of what was required of our ancestors for them to survive. We need to reclaim as much as we can, while we can and cultivate awareness of that part of us which is inextricably pledged to this earth from beginning to end.
Though the sculptures are fantastical, they’re conceived to appeal to an innate capacity, embedded in to our nervous systems, to align with nature and move in accord. Most of our evolutionary development took place on that foundation. For the past several generations we have been adapting at a rapid rate in an increasingly technological direction. For the first time ever, our attention has been taken off our essential connection.
In repurposing indigenous shrubs as fine art, the show intends to evoke an impression of the nature spirit embodying something resembling ourselves and reaching out to us. Step through the magic mirror and Invent a bit of story and character to match your impression of each sculpture. They have come to make contact. Meet them halfway. .
Shrubconscious made a appearance at Meow Wolf’s 12thAnnual Monster Battle on the plaza last Friday night in Santa Fe and were awarded the grand prize!
I have a filmmaking background and these two shrub wizard costumes were originally commissioned by Open Channel Content for use in “Scorched Ladders,” our 2015 entry into the Shoot Santa Fe Competition sponsored by the Film Office. That time we didn’t win. The costumes slept quietly in storage ever since. It’s turned out more rewarding to bring them out a second time than it was the first.
Our amazing collaborator on those costumes was Tatyana de Pavloff of Taos, NM. Before moving here Tatyana was brought up in the arts working for the Moscow Opera. We brought her on as art director and costume mistress on my film “Agnes Day.” I’ve been fortunate to be able to work with Tatyana on other movies as well. The shrub costumes were brilliantly designed and constructed with theatrical esthetics, comfort, and durability in mind. We owe a great deal to Tatyana for this recent win.
The dancers inside the shrub wizard costumes are my Tai chi teacher Jeff English. In the film, his character was Valorio so we still call him that (left) and his son Raptor English took on the persona of Pith. (right). Both of them were actors in the movie trailer for “Scorched Ladders”. Last Friday night they made the characters come alive. We were delighted to find a very receptive audience,
We are grateful to Meow Wolf for taking notice, but also for the many ways they help Santa Fe renew itself as a mecca for talented artists especially the younger generation. I’m not suddenly shouting their praises because they wrote me a check. Folks around here will tell you, I’ve spoken highly of them as often as their name has come up.
We’re delighted with their well earned success and with what that has done to draw a new generation of artist and art appreciators to our legendary town. We applaud Meow Wolf and Santa Fe for their enchanting way of bringing the public out to the plaza last weekend.