Art with a bittersweet twist: Couple turn a pesky vine into sculptures

Bethesda couple Seth Goldstein and Paula Stone started building sculptures out of the invasive Oriental Bittersweet vine in 2008. The sculptures have been exhibited at Brookside Gardens and the Nature Conservancy headquarters.
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 13, 2010

Some artists go to their local supplies store to gather materials. Sculptors Paula Stone and Seth Goldstein go over the hills and through the suburban woods to get theirs.

Coated with bug spray and carrying pole saws, handsaws, backpacking saws, loppers and clippers, the married Bethesda couple hike over slippery rocks and around thickets of poison ivy before descending into a ravine somewhere in Cabin John Regional Park. There, Stone and Goldstein find a mother lode of their favorite sculpting material: the insidious Oriental bittersweet vine.

"Look at all of this," Goldstein says, coming upon a stand of sycamores. Oriental bittersweet coils up and around the trees, effectively choking them to death. Goldstein admires the geometry of the woody vines when a particular plant catches his eye. "Oh, this is fabulous," he says, propping himself up on a rock and working the pole saw on a seven-foot section of the invasive assassin.

"That's a really nice piece," Stone says. "And we're saving a tree to get it." Just a few years ago, the couple had no idea what Oriental bittersweet was, let alone any notion of turning it into sculptures. Then, a friend gave them some vines he'd cut. "He didn't know what they were, either," Stone says. "But we fell in love with them. They just looked so interesting."

Stone had a dream about the vines in which, she says, "the pieces put themselves together."

The retired engineers, who met while swing dancing and who got married in their front yard, had their own artistic hobbies (she writes plays, and he works on kinetic sculptures), but they decided to start making vine sculptures, too. The first was a shark. Only later, when they showed it to a friend at the National Park Service, did they learn that their material was as deadly as the beast in "Jaws." "It's the stuff she has nightmares about," Stone says.

Now, Stone and Goldstein use their sculptures to spread the word about the nefarious nature of Oriental bittersweet, which has a prominent place on the list of the most destructive nonnative invasive plant species in the United States. Brought to the country as an ornamental plant in the mid-1800s, the vine's bright orange berries look pretty on the Thanksgiving table, but in parks, recreation areas and residential yards, Oriental bittersweet is a mass murderer.

"It's one of the worst, with kudzu and porcelainberry," says Carole Bergmann, a forest ecologist with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. "I call bittersweet the anaconda vine, because it really strangles trees. The vines are taking over in areas where they're not treated, and the problem is getting worse and worse."

Eleven years ago, Bergmann began training volunteer vine-cutters. More than 700 outdoor activists have since become certified Weed Warriors, fanning out across 34,000 acres of Montgomery County parkland to kill invasive vines. "This is D.C.; there are a lot of people who are aware of a lot of things here," Bergmann says. "People see what's going on environmentally and want to help."

Stone and Goldstein love the outdoors; they live within walking distance of the C&O Canal towpath and own matching Sierra Club daypacks. They also wanted access to more sculpting material. So they were quick to enlist as county Weed Warriors and signed up for a similar Nature Conservancy program that allows them to go weed-whacking on Park Service property in the Potomac Gorge.

"We're not going to get rid of Oriental bittersweet, but we can surely slow it down," Stone says.

"There's a limit to what a person can do," Goldstein says. "But what the hell. We're getting stuff for our sculptures, and they may turn people's attention to the problem."

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