The Vine Art Of Kudzu: Will Its Appeal Grow on Us?

Growing influence: The Japanese vine kudzu blankets wide swaths of the Southeast.
Growing influence: The Japanese vine kudzu blankets wide swaths of the Southeast. (By Sandra Leavitt Lerner For The Washington Post)
By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 18, 2007

Kudzu is a joke, a menace and, like other icons of American culture, an immigrant that made good.

Too good, obviously. The vining Godzilla hogs at least 1 million acres of land from the Gulf States to New England. Growing as much as 10 feet a month, it smothers abandoned tractors, envelops old shacks and clambers up pylons and towers. Now, Pueraria montana has another role -- as art.

Trudge along the 1700 block of Connecticut Avenue NW and look into the second-floor window of a gallery named Gogo Art Projects. Here you may just see two baby vines, erupting from Plexiglas planters like the gut-busting monster in "Alien." Soon, when the morning sun bakes these stems, they will feel a great life force stirring in their vegetative sinews, and they will grow perceptibly, hour by hour. Who knows -- when the exhibit ends Aug. 1, Gogo may be Gonegone under a tangle of grasping biomass.

The exhibit is the work of a 27-year-old conceptual artist and Corcoran grad named Matthew Sutton. He grew up in New Orleans, and thus kudzu, "the vine that ate the South," was part of the landscape of his childhood. The gallery owner, Atlanta native Leigh Conner, is similarly marked by the plant and agreed with Sutton that it was time to put this monster on a pedestal.

"For me, it's allowing people to see the plant in a different context," says Sutton, who lives in Northwest Washington. His other recent exhibits have included one on using Bic lighters as a unit of measure, and a notebook of drugstore items recalled from memory.

Last week, in the second week of the show, one sprig was a good 20 inches out of the soil. The other was just poking through. These were the finalists of six cuttings he had gathered last month along the kudzu-rich C&O Canal near Glen Echo.

In a way, Sutton is closing a circle. The vine was first brought here from Japan as an exhibit, for people to observe and admire at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. In the 19th century, Americans were embracing plants from across the globe for ornament and agriculture, and kudzu was promoted as a forage crop. Later, a federal agency called the Soil Erosion Service propagated millions of vines and paid farmers in the Southeast $8 an acre to plant it to prevent soil erosion. Its spread was directly linked to the enthusiasm of county extension agents working in the 1930s and 1940s, says James Miller, a forest ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service who has devoted much of his 35-year career to battling the weed.

It wasn't until the 1950s that the government awoke to the ecological consequences of the weed -- it suffocates other plant life and related animal diversity by its dense shadow and sheer mass. It is the defining plant in large areas of Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, but it now ranges to Connecticut and has a foothold in Illinois, Washington and Oregon, Miller says.

By taking it out of its context, Sutton, of course, is tracking not so much kudzu as our feelings about it, and about our need to love and to hate.

He noted that one of his cuttings turned out to be not the kudzu he wanted but another exotic thug named Japanese knotweed. His affection for the cutting immediately evaporated, and he felt a need to destroy it.Southerners have both a love and a hate relationship with kudzu, Miller says. In late summer, when the vines are at their most invasive, kudzu's roots go deep into the consciousness of Southerners. "Many people have deep fears -- this isn't shallow," says Miller, who works out of Auburn, Ala. "People have this paranoia and hate. And it disappears in the winter" when the leaves brown and wither.

"It's not kudzu's fault it's out there. It's just doing its thing," says Felder Rushing, a prominent horticulturist, lecturer and radio show host in Jackson, Miss. "When it comes to habitat destruction, kudzu is a bad one. It's still a beautiful plant."

Miller, though he hates what kudzu has done to the terrain, also finds the vine beautiful. He is impressed by the fact that the plant has the ability to turn its leaves to the shifting sun to capture maximum levels of radiation and, in periods of drought, to show the sun the silver underside of its leaves to reflect the rays. Sutton plans to make a time-lapse film of the vines' growth that presumably will show these sentient, almost creepy traits.

Here's an ironic morsel: Yes, kudzu is a conqueror, but in the pantheon of invaders, Miller ranks it no higher than 10th worst. Other exotics cover more area. Japanese honeysuckle, for example, and other weeds are expanding at a much faster pace.

Sutton's installation is between the street window of the gallery and a wall. He has positioned a pair of growing lights for his vines, though it's not as if the plants need the extra boost.

"It's so people can see it from the street" at night, he says.

The Kudzu Project by Matthew Sutton is on exhibit at Gogo Art Projects until Aug. 1. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 1730 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-588-8777.

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