I first met Dallas-based artist Jennifer Wester at a Sweet Pass Sculpture Park showing, where she regaled me on her recent foray into native plants and plant cultivation. As a former figure skater and an active artist, her interest in plant cultivation is unique among artists in the region. Her dedication to learning what native plants could yield was deep, and I knew that she had more to share than a few run-ins could offer. Recently, I visited her home in Dallas where she gave me an exhaustive overview of all the fruits, flowers, berries and vines that were thriving, even in the punishing Texas summer heat. The visit culminated in a discussion about the philosophy of food and plants as materials.
William Sarradet (WS): You’re a Texan, born and raised, is that right?
Jennifer Wester (JW): Yes. I was born here in Dallas, and am a fourth generation Oak Cliff resident, and a sixth generation North Texan.
WS: Can you paint a picture of your relationship to Dallas?
JW: I was born into a Dallasite household — a mother from South Oak Cliff, father from Pleasant Grove.
We lived in North Oak Cliff, however it was going through some especially rough times. As a result, I attended kindergarten through 3rd grade in Highland Park. My parents and I then moved out of Dallas County to Combine, Texas in Kaufman County when I was about 10. There, after one year of public schooling, I began homeschooling. Coinciding with that shift to homeschooling I found ice skating — beginning the journey (that would become my first career) at the Plaza of the Americas downtown, Monday through Friday. As a result, although I was living outside of Dallas, downtown was what I knew from nearly all my activities: Dallas Children’s Theater plays at El Centro College, the Spaghetti Warehouse in the West End, the Neiman Marcus Flagship windows on Main Street, the Steven’s Park Golf Course vista, the Adolphus children’s parade, the Farmers Market, the Fair Park Science museum, the Dallas Central Public Library, and, of course, Old City Park. When I was a kid, my parents were always more likely to drive through the city rather than take the expressways around Dallas proper. And on top of that, my family’s (now third generation) business was headquartered in West Dallas from 1950 until recently, meaning that crossing the Trinity River for a quick check in at “the shop” was never off the table.
Even though from about 14 to 31 years of age, skating, schooling, and professional opportunities took me around the world, my go to answer when asked “Where are you from?” is an easy “Dallas!” — a name I knew people would recognize from the first time I received a “JR” reference to this answer in Rome. And if “Dallas” didn’t work, I’d say, “Texas!”
Culturally, I see Dallas as the trade city it has always been — no monocultural theme is suited to describe the constantly changing and transitory nature of a city built in commerce, convenience, and luxury goods. We’re not a rhinestone cowboy like Vegas, and we aren’t riding horses through the stables like they do in Fort Worth. Dallas is a big city and also a small town. And maybe that’s what resonates with me more than anything, personally. Dallas means being a global player with small town, big city roots.
WS: Can you walk me through how you came to cultivate native plants?
JW: I came to cultivate native plants after the stress of being locked down during the pandemic forced a perspective shift for me.
Over the course of about a week, I went from going outside to pull “weeds” to looking at my yard as a place I’d never experienced before. It was a conscious change, sparked by my longing for travel — which I was used to after nearly two decades in the fairly nomadic sport of ice skating — and a simultaneous awareness that those early generations of my family in Texas during the 1870s, 80s, and 90s probably weren’t out pulling dandelions for a trash pile. And they certainly weren’t expecting a grocery store delivery or stressing that such a delivery wouldn’t arrive (Amazon “breaking” and the mid-shelter-in-place grocery store services being so over scheduled that you had to place your order days in advance).
I decided that by treating my outings to my outdoor space as a travel experience, I’d turn on all the awe and wonder of sitting in a train through the countryside of a foreign state. I’d ask myself, “What kinds of trees are present? What kind of animals are about? What does this landscape really look like and how is it different from what I expect, expected, or am used to seeing?”
As it turns out, I really hadn’t ever experienced my yard like that! Within a short amount of time, I’d sighted and cataloged over 65 edible plants in my yard. At this point, I realized the next step was going to be figuring out what to do with this insight!
Recipes, taste tests, lessons in medicinal properties and purposes, tinctures, tonics, teas, and of course, craft applications all came to the forefront through a varied technique of researching that involved leveraging books, image recognition softwares, and internet search engines.
Once I knew I’d fallen in love with this kind of “volunteer gardening,” my attention expanded to include propagation techniques.
WS: Your practice includes sculpture, drawing, and you also develop activity books which aid cognitive development and motor skills. Has your investment in native plants aided or affected your practice more broadly?
JW: My practice has most definitely been affected by my plant studies. I’ve become much more seasonally directed and I organize my time according to the sun and length of day. For instance, I like to sit with coffee and sketch my plant interest of the day each morning before watering the garden. I can sketch after, but I risk getting things wet! This means ensuring that I have time to walk my yard making observations, make my coffee, and enthrall myself with a pencil prior to things getting too hot. Because, as I’ve found over the last few years, plants can get burnt and be absolutely ravished if watered in the heat of the day; i.e. the water beading on plants’ delicate petals and leaves should have time to evaporate before being blasted with the sun’s rays. In order to accomplish this, I have to be aware of the time of the sunrise and the time of the sunset, so that should I mismanage a morning watering, I can water in the evening without too much increased chance of mildew from those same leaf-top water beads not evaporating across an entire night. It seems that with plants as with materials, timing is everything. And this reinforces how I think about materials in my sculptural works, how I schedule my production of various pieces, and also how I attend to my daily practices.
My work with plants has also pushed me to improve my drafting skills — an area of craftsmanship I’d spent much less time considering when most, if not all, of my work revolved around movement. I’ve found that the time spent drawing improves the depth of my observations, which in turn increases my breadth of questions and subsequent knowledge through research.
I’ve also found myself moved to lean once again into my already established but less explicitly focused upon construction methods when making physical works. I have long used remnants and residues in creating work, but I didn’t have a particularly ecological motivation for this. Instead, I was using remnants and residues because of their connotations of impact, performance, and change. I appreciated that they spoke to actions taken in the world; they hold their own legacies. Now, that appreciation for the remnant backs up to the start of any project, not only when making a work. I try to consciously plan for how my own remnants and residues will either be used or minimized, whether we’re talking garden and table scraps, or dried paint in a pale.
WS: You’ve learned so much about native plants. Can you speak to a couple examples of materials you’ve been able to harvest?
JW: Materials galore!
Some of the most versatile materials have come in the form of a plant that we see everyday: the native Mustang Grape vine. Whether walking, biking, driving… It is everywhere. Its fuzzy, silver toned under-leaves flip up, creating a gray-green tint to treetops, fences, and roadside shrubbery in North Texas. Its tentacles messily sprawl like fly-aways in a hairdo. And it’s ripe grapes drop to the ground, staining walkways and patios.
I like to say that it’s what makes our trees look swampy even in a drought!
As it turns out, I’d long heard legends about the mustang grape from my mother and grandfather who made Green Grape Pie in the years before I was born. The green in the name is not a variety, as I’d imagined, but rather a stage of development! Famous for its acidity when ripe, the mustang grape as a fruit can be harvested when green to be used for cooking that requires a more citrus/peachy twist rather than the classic grape jelly result that otherwise comes from the fruit. And as a bonus to gathering the fruit at this stage, you don’t have to wear gloves!
However, wearing some gloves is a small price to pay for the awesome experience of Mustang Grape jelly & Mustang Grape Wine that come from the ripe fruits.
And not to mention the dye that can be made from the deep purple skins.
On the less foodie side, portions of the vine that need to be trimmed back are great for wreaths, random weavings, and making vine charcoal.
Another highly useful plant I’ve become familiar with is the Passiflora Lutea, otherwise known as the Passion flower vine — specifically the native passionflower vine that sports tiny, crazy, tiered yellow flowers rather than the psychedelic purple ones that are in public consciousness as of late.
This pretty prevalent vine, aside from being a sedative tea (fresh or dried), produces small indigo colored fruits that are not very tasty, but boy, can they dye a fiber! Blue jean blue and lilacs are easy to squeeze out of even a tiny amount of these berries, and it seems to naturally avoid the oxidation and UV sensitivity of other bright (when fresh) dyes, such as the pokeberry or mulberry. I’ve become very proficient at spotting these little vines and letting them grow.
A third plant I’ll call out as crazy cool and versatile is the American Beautyberry, Callicarpa Americana. Its leaves have a compound traditionally used for a natural mosquito repellent, which has been recently shown to be more powerful than Deet, while its berries, when made into a jelly, make what I can only guess is the secret ingredient flavor to pink Starbursts! It’s also a very enjoyable color progression, going from bright, almost neon greens, to a more classically hued green with tufts of cream-colored flowers that transform into light pink berries, which make their way to being absolutely purple when ripe for picking.
WS: Both the way you speak about the care you give your garden, and the excitement you show from it makes me think that your interest in cultivating plants is positive, or hopeful. What are some positives that you’ve taken away from the past few seasons with these plants?
JW: I am very hopeful thanks to the lessons that the plants have been bringing me. It’s easy to forget that plants hold so much of what we see as products, ingredients, or components of today’s manufactured goods. Our medicines and vitamins, as well as materials such as resin, latex and rubber, are from plants!
To realize and remind myself about the inherent value of plants in our world, I promote the thinking, “If it’s a plant, it is an active power in the world. And it is up to something — is it something I like, or don’t like?”
Finding out what strategies, transformations, and toxins each plant employs to achieve its purpose takes the benign-ness out of working with plants — they are fierce creatures. Not to mention advanced — can we say, the Wood Wide Web? And they give incredible gifts to the human experience when recognized and used appropriately. Even my front driveway tree now has a special place in my heart, thanks to the edible flowers it puts out every spring, which also happen to make a refreshing wine (I’m told).
It’s amazing how a little knowledge has the power to shift your entire position by imparting perspective. That seems to be the case recently for Milkweed. We all knew that we love seeing the beautiful Monarch butterflies every year, but we didn’t seem to have that kind of compassion for milkweed at all! Now the word has gotten out that milkweed is the only plant species onto which Monarch butterflies lay their eggs. BOOM! Milkweed is now revered for its contribution to something we prize, and, in turn, revered itself.
That is what I hope can happen with many native plant species. We do not live in a desert. Let us not create one through botanical ignorance. Humans have the capacity to propagate knowledge so quickly. I hope to see us turn that capacity from made-up information and brand names to the knowledge of our natural world.
Jennifer Wester is an artist living and working in Dallas.
William Sarradet is the Assistant Editor for Glasstire.
All photographs by William Sarradet unless otherwise noted.