WASHINGTON – Nine years ago, Ken Greene was the children’s librarian in an archetypal small town in the Hudson Valley.
He still lives in the vicinity of Accord, N.Y., but in recent years Greene’s life has taken twists and turns that even this onetime acrobat could not have imagined. His day job these days is as a farmer of heirloom vegetable and flower seed but along the way, and almost by accident, he has become a patron of modern American botanical art. So far, he has commissioned more than 80 artists to create paintings to illustrate his seed packets.
More than 20 are on view in a show called Art of the Heirloom, through June 30 at the Corcoran Community Gallery at the Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus in Washington.
The tradition of picturing plump tomatoes, glowing sunflowers or mouth-watering sweet corn has a long history in American farming and home gardening, but Greene has brought a unique contemporary twist to the genre.
Botanical illustration was the last thing I was looking for, said Greene, whose enterprise is called Hudson Valley Seed Library.
The resulting seed envelopes – art packs – are whimsical, surreal, unexpected, poignant and, taken together, a delightful survey of the rich diversity of contemporary art.
For a packet of beet seeds, the artist Bill Rybak presents the lowly root vegetable as a series of Faberge eggs, floating against a moody purple background.
For the Upstate Oxheart Tomato, David Gordon has painted a plucky bull in heroic pose, with a stout tomato heart.
Jane Bloodgood-Abrams’ painting of Early Summer Crookneck Squash shows the summer squash before a landscape redolent of the Hudson River School. The squash looks like a swan rising from its nest to survey the distant idyll of river and mountain range.
Each painting attaches to some sort of narrative, one of the most touching is Will Sweeney’s picture of a Soviet cosmonaut, Vladislav Volkov, one of three astronauts killed in the 1971 Soyuz 11 accident. Space engineer Mikhailovich Maslov, also an avid gardener, named the tomato variety in his Russian garden in Volkov’s honor.
Greene’s commissions are amazing, artist Nicole Bourgea said. You’re purchasing a little piece of artwork and in a way that interacts between a crop and the community, she said.
Heirloom seeds are distinguished from modern hybrids by replicating themselves faithfully. Thus, if you save the seeds of an heirloom tomato or melon (or a radish or lettuce left to seed) one year, you can grow it the next. No one owns the seed, so it can be passed freely among gardeners.
When Greene, 40, was still working at the library, he started a seed-saving exchange that attracted about 60 gardeners and growers who would trade seeds.
At the time, he started collecting early 20th-century seed catalogs from New York state. I was thinking about that in terms of research. What I didn’t expect was how beautiful the catalogs were, he said. It’s a completely different feeling going through catalogs of images created by artists. The catalogs with photographs felt very sterile to me.
And so when he left the library to become a seed farmer, he saw art as a way to convey the story of the seeds, but make it contemporary.
Greene commissions around 20 new art pack covers a year, from almost 300 submissions vetted by him and creative partner Michael Asbill, an artist and neighbor who furnished one of the art pack images (Speckled Trout Lettuce).
The idea of a guy being a seed farmer, seed merchant and art patron may seem unlikely, but Greene feels that the enterprise neatly ties together the strands of his life.
I love plants, I love art, I love education and I love thinking I’m making a difference, he said. So it’s kind of everything I’m passionate about wrapped up into one entity.