Houston Botanic Garden's Intertwined Balances Art, Nature

Unearthed roots are a cause célèbre.
Unearthed roots are a cause célèbre. Photo by Justin Lacey
There’s something creeping around Houston Botanic Garden, and it’s not the plants. Twenty monumental sculptures by artist Steve Tobin – world-renowned for his works in glass, bronze, ceramic and steel – have taken residence in the gardens’ grounds, and they spiral, dance and provoke thought throughout the property.

Intertwined: Exploring Nature's Networks, which runs through August 13, dramatically captures the unseen power of the natural world while celebrating the important systems that give life to the Garden’s tropical, sub-tropical, and arid collections.

“People are predisposed to the messages in my work, which is really about the amazing power and beauty of nature. It's nice to show my work in a space where people aren't necessarily looking for art. They're looking for an overall experience, so I'm reaching a different audience than the ones who would attend a formal art museum,” Tobin said.

Houston Botanic Garden, the Bayou City’s living museum for plants, provides a symbiotic relationship for Tobin’s work to fortify visitors’ time in the luscious environment.

“I consider what I do a kind of visual science. You don't have to read the books or do any math to appreciate my work, but there is content in what I do that is relevant to science as well as art,” he continued. “There are a range of pieces here that I would like to think don't decorate the gardens but enhance the garden. The root pieces you can see through and see the surroundings. They don't obscure the surroundings. I would like people to experience my work in harmony with the garden in the different seasons.”
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May I have this dance?
Photo by Daisuke Shintani
“Daunting” is barely the word to describe the human effort that goes into creating each piece.

“The behind-the-scenes efforts are sometimes quite Herculean. We're using recycled oil pipes that come from Texas and Oklahoma. They come to my studio and are repurposed as artwork. We bend them, which is no easy task, and weld them together and create these root systems,” he said.

Moving the finished pieces is no cakewalk either.

“We move them onto trucks using cranes, which is quite an operation, and it can lead people to question how these sculptures can possibly move from location to location. They're so big, and they're so complex,” he said.

This exhibition requires eight tractor trailers to haul the sculptures, which in total represents approximately 10 human-powered years to produce. One piece, a six-foot ball in the form of syntax uses 50,000-plus letters and took 2,000 hours to weld.

“I implore people to come see these things which in many ways look impossible to create. We have really gone all out to make this a world class exhibition,” Tobin said.

While inspired by nature, Tobin also incorporates cultural influences – both current and historical – in his work. For instance, the marquee “Steelroots” series, made using recycled oil pipes, includes “Dancing Steelroots” inspired by ancient Japanese calligraphy. “Twistys,” another collection of steel pieces, pays homage to Houston gymnast Simone Biles and the acrobatic way she flows through the air, bringing to mind the way wind flows through the natural world. “Romeo & Juliet,” a pair of cast bronze roots named after the star-crossed lovers in William Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, are installed together so that they are almost touching limbs.
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Clouds fill the sky...and the grounds at Houston Botanic Garden.
Photo by Daisuke Shintani
“I want to create a sense of magic. In Texas, it's a rare thing to see a seven-foot icicle or clouds at your feet that reflect the sky. When you look down at my steel clouds, you'll see the blue sky and puffy clouds reflected. The root system pieces are no longer hidden underground and instead walking on the surface of the earth. I'm trying to create a sense of marvel with this exhibition,” he said.

It's the curiosity that Tobin most hopes to spur with his art.

“I want people to look at my work in the garden and then take away from that a different perspective on the world that things are not as fixed as we would think they are. I want people to look at clouds, icicles and roots in a different way, and I hope to change people's relationship with the natural world and reignite a childlike wonder that we often lose as we get older.”

Steve Tobin’s Intertwined: Exploring Nature’s Networks is included in regular admission 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Houston Botanic Garden, One Botanic Lane. For tickets or information, call 713-715-9675, ext. 100 or visit Tickets are $12.50 for adults and $8 for children and students Monday – Thursday; Friday – Sunday is $15 for adults and $10 for children and students.
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Sam Byrd is a freelance contributor to the Houston Press who loves to take in all of Houston’s sights, sounds, food and fun. He also loves helping others to discover Houston’s rich culture.
Contact: Sam Byrd