One story is a testament of beauty, the other a documentation of destruction. Megan Singleton paddled her canoe along the fine line between the two.
A walk through Singleton’s installation is an adventure through flowering vines created in part from invasive vegetation clogging Manchac Swamp, the swampy marshlands surrounding Lake Marurepas between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
The adventure will be familiar to south Louisianians who witnessed the annual influx of water hyacinth and alligator weed along the state’s waterways, but this ecological view was new to Singleton.
She grew up in St. Louis, so she was well versed with the Mississippi River. But upon coming to LSU to earn her master of fine arts degree in sculpture, Singleton quickly discovered that the mighty river was merely one among many in Louisiana’s watery features.
Now she can be counted an expert on the subject.
She isn’t a scientist, but she works with scientists while creating her flowery pieces by incorporating collected plants into the fiber of handmade paper. So, visitors not only are walking through representations of Singleton’s findings, but the real thing.
“I’ve always a lover of plants,” she says, speaking from her home in St. Louis. “My husband got me into gardening years ago, but my interested peaked more as I’ve worked on these projects.”
“Manchac: In the Wake of North Pass” is one of several environmental installations Singleton has put together. Others focus on different locations, but Louisiana’s proved to be special.
“I would collect these plants while canoeing and put them in water in my studio,” Singleton says. “I found entire ecologies within the plants’ root systems. There were water spiders and dragonfly larvae and crawfish. I studied this habitat in my studio and realized that these plants had a dual purpose.”
The museum cites Louisiana conservationist Kelby Ouchley, who says Louisiana is home to 3,249 species of vascular plants of which 25 percent are non-native.
“When left uncontrolled in rivers and bayous, these invasive plants rapidly cover the surface with a dense mat of vegetation that impedes commercial, agricultural and recreational activities dependent on such waters,” the museum’s exhibit label states. “The plant infestation breeds mosquitoes; impacts the water’s natural flow; blocks sunlight from reaching native submersed plants; crushes immersed native plant communities; and drastically reduces oxygen levels needed to sustain native fish and other underwater animals.”
Yet, as discovered by Singleton, parts of Louisiana’s ecological system has adapted to these plants.
And in the midst of this destruction, there is beauty, especially in the blooms of water hyacinth, a plant introduced into the United States during the 1884 World’s Fair — also known as the Cotton Exposition — in New Orleans.
Japanese delegates imported these ornamental plants and presented them as gifts intended for man-made water ponds. It wasn’t long before water hyacinths were jamming Louisiana’s waterways.
As for the second focus in Singleton’s show, alligator weed also produces a pleasing flower. It roots on wet soil and in shallow water along shorelines, extending into waterways to form seemingly impenetrable floating mats. This weed originates from South America and is thought to have been brought to the United States in the ballast water of cargo ships. It was first reported in Alabama in 1897.
Singleton worked on her project for nine months, stopping when she received her master’s degree in 2012. Her mission then was to generate awareness to this problem through her artwork.
The installation includes the handmade paper flowering vines and a video of more than 500 of Singleton’s still photographs taken during her canoe trips. Some of those photographs are featured in Singleton’s handmade book, whose pages also include invasive plant fiber.
“I wanted people to learn more about my process through the book, but I didn’t want to be too overbearing at the didactic.”
The book is large, occupying a table where visitors can stand, place museum-provided white gloves on their hands and turn the pages.
Singleton also has illustrated the oil industry’s line dredges in the Manchac Swamp through a line illustration on the gallery wall. Even these lines create a pleasing design, though what they represent is believed to be destructive.
Singleton recently finished a stint as artist-in-residence at Great Sand Dunes National Park in south-central Colorado, where she discovered some of the same invasive species she found in Louisiana. “I’m learning that similar species are invasive all over the country,” she says.