'It's here for me': Alicia Philley's 'The Seeds We Plant' mixes art and nature
“Public art, I think, fills a really important role of giving people a space to have a personal yet communal experience,” says artist Alicia Philley, whose work The Seeds We Plant is currently on display at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. “The art being outdoors changes the space, [and] makes us have a different kind of awareness of what we’re feeling when we’re outside. And, you know, [in] the past couple of years it felt like everyone rediscovered how good it is to be outside – how good it is for us. And I felt like it was the perfect time to try to push this idea out into the world.”
The Seeds We Plant is on display now and will be a part of the Wildflower Center’s Woodland Trail through April 2023. It comprises some 70 individual pieces of varying sizes and colors, some nestled in trees and some standing on the ground. All are meant to be noticeable but also to possibly blend into the nature around them, depending on your level of engagement with your surroundings. “The whole idea is, it’s a little hidden but it’s also like right in front of you – you just have to look,” Philley says. “I think that so many people – we get outside and it’s about, let’s powerwalk, let’s jog, let’s walk the dog… and we’re not pausing and really getting the full benefit of what just noticing things in nature can do for us. It calms our nervous system and helps us kind of get out of our head. Life is still complicated and there’s a lot we’re dealing with, so we need that. We need that to stay sane and strong and capable of dealing with everything.”
The inspiration for The Seeds We Plant came to Philley some 20 years ago, when, while living in New York, she was suddenly laid off from her job while simultaneously coping with the recent trauma of 9/11. At that time, she found herself spending “months just wandering [Central] Park every day during the winter and [having] this experience with this outdoor art piece. It got to this point where it felt like this is mine, it’s here for me,” she says. “And it was helping me in ways that I didn’t fully understand, but I knew I felt better when I went there. And it was the reason that I finally decided I was going to go back to art school – because I could see that art could serve a bigger purpose, something that’s more than just me playing around and having fun. It’s a way to give something to the world that can hopefully be uplifting.”
The installation that inspired Philley all those years ago was Bluff by the artist Roxy Paine. Since that experience, Philley has been wanting to create her own version of an outdoor art installation; there was one small thing standing in her way, though. “But I had no idea how to make it happen, because I’m a painter!” she says with a laugh. “And I took the sculpture classes in school… I learned a lot of skills but I never really latched onto it as the thing that brought out my creativity. But when I started working on wood panels about six years ago, and then during the lockdown had time to really explore more, and was working on these custom cut shapes – that was the a-ha! moment of, ‘oh, these shapes – I could make them a little thicker and then they could hold up and then I can figure out how to make them weather-hardy, but they can still do all the things I can do with paint.’”
Part of Philley’s challenge in designing The Seeds We Plant was to think in 3-D, which was a new way of looking at her art. This installation was also planned in more detail than her usual painting work, which she says often changes in the moment as she’s creating it. “It looks exactly like what was in my computer and in my head,” she says of The Seeds We Plant. “And that’s really…I don’t know, it feels magical. Unreal.
“And so part of this exhibit is also that sense of wonder and the feeling we get when we discover something, and it’s like oh, I found that. I wonder if anyone else saw it,” Philley says. “So you’ve already walked past three pieces that I know you didn’t see!”
Philley’s right – as we were walking down the trail, I was so busy chatting with her about the work that I completely missed three pieces to my right. In my defense, though, I was looking to my left. “You were. You have [recording] equipment, too, so I’m gonna give you that!” Philley says with a laugh.
'The Seeds We Plant' will be on display on the Woodland Trail at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center through April 2023. There's also a guided meditation you can download and listen to while you walk the trail, and Philley says she's planning more events (including live music) around the project in coming months.