For a full decade now, Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest’s annual event Connect has invited guests to find the intersection of art, science and nature. This year, the connection between art and nature will offer visitors the strange sight of the “Grass Men,” a living, breathing art and performance piece by English artist Ashley Peevor.
Connect will be held Saturday, Aug. 18.
Imagine a meadow that decided to get up and go for a stroll, and you have an idea of how “Grass Men” appears to its viewers. Peevor creates costumes made out of living plants that are then worn by performers or artists, and the resulting figures interact with the people they encounter.
According to Peevor, these encounters usually start out the same way.
“The first thing I always hear is, no matter where I do it, someone always shouts, ‘It’s real grass!’ In this day and age, where everything is fake … there is something kind of real and special about it,” he tells Insider.
Those “real” interactions run the gamut. Some people want to interact, some want to stand back and watch, and others want be mischievous. Some children love them, some are terrified.
“The people around it become very interesting,” says Peevor. “Their reactions, what they do … Watching a 90-year-old woman give a big, huge ‘Grass Man’ a hug and come back with a big, huge grin on her face … is kind of interesting.”
Before fine art and installations were Peevor’s focus, he worked on different sorts of suits.
“I originally qualified as a fashion designer,” he says, referencing the tests high school students in England take. “And I did that for a few years, (but) I didn’t feel fulfilled. I wanted to push things and make things different instead of just following trends in fashion. And that’s what led me to making sculptures and installations.”
A glance through Peevor’s past works shows many sculptures that suggest a history in fashion, but they also reveal an exploration of mythic iconology. His “Icon” series could be a collection of gods from a pantheon you almost remember. This exploration led to “Grass Men.”
“I’ve always found it fascinating that every mythology across the entire world has always had a personification of nature,” he says. “I thought, Why is that important, to have this metaphor for nature?”
“Grass Men” also is an exploration of form and a challenge of construction. It would likely have been a lot easier to slap some AstroTurf on a jumpsuit than to work with live specimens, but the challenge is part of the fun.
“I wanted to see if I could make something that could live and be worn,” explains Peevor. “I’ve done it for seven years now, and it’s slowly changed.”
Part of that change comes from Peevor’s need to learn how plants behave.
“I’ve got no background in flowers, or growing or anything. It’s been learning and learning, each year. I get commissioned and I make a new one and I adapt and change,” he says.
To stay alive, the suits need to have layers below what the audience sees, just like real grass in nature. So each suit has a substrate layer and a small amount of soil.
As Peevor learned more about the plants he used, he created new techniques for growing and connecting his materials.
“Slowly I adapted this system where I found I could use the grass to grow back on itself, which could almost sew pieces of fabric together — using nature’s process to lock it in,” he says. “And then it would have all the nutrients it needed to continuously live and be shaped and made into a malleable costume.”
Peevor’s current exploration involves adding a bit of color to “Grass Men.”
“I’m just starting to get my head around the use of flowers,” he adds.
Peevor’s work at Bernheim is a special project funded through a partnership between the Jennifer Lawrence Art Fund and Fund for the Arts, but Bernheim hosts artists every year through their Artists-in-Residence program.
They are used to using their nature know-how to interact with artists who use the natural world in their process, and they have given the same support to Peevor.
“I’ve predominantly only been in the UK,” the artist says, referencing the need to grow his materials from scratch. “This the first opportunity I’ve ever had like this, where I can come, and (Bernheim) has given me loads of support and expertise. And really sort of helped me refine it.”
In addition to further refining his work on the “Grass Men,” Peevor teased that his time at Berheim has allowed him to create something new.
“I’ve been working on a whole new piece, which will be at Connect. And it’s huge … it’s about 4-foot-wide and 8-foot-tall. I’ve got to find someone to wear it. It’s one of the biggest pieces I’ve ever made costume-wise,” he says.
Peevor discovered that grass in the bluegrass doesn’t act quite like it does back home, and because of that, the “Grass Men” won’t be around after he leaves.
“I wasn’t used to the climate here, so it’s been tricky — a lot trickier than I thought,” he admits. “We ended up using a fast-growing seed, but it’s seasonal. So they won’t last.”
But we may have a more permanent Peevor piece of work on hand.
“The costume I’ve made, the huge one, that will be able to be displayed, I’m just not sure how … because it’s so big. But I definitely can’t take it back to England.”
Back in England, Peevor will continue to work with living materials, but he doesn’t want to be limited to costumes.
“This is just the first dimension,” he says. “In theory, I could make a whole three-dimensional garden inside a room, coat the stairs and every single edge. And you have to feed it even though it’s sort of upside-down or on the walls.”
Visit Bernheim in Clermont, Ky., for the 10th annual Connect on Saturday, Aug. 18, from 6:30-10:30 p.m. In addition to the “Grass Men,” expect live musical performances and lots of hands-on experiences for adults and families, including making art, drum circle participation, hacker creations, participatory science and the mud play zone.