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

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 13, 2010; C01

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."

Deep in Cabin John, they find their prey. "Could be the neck or body of our next brontosaurus," Goldstein says excitedly. The couple dabble in abstract sculptures but specialize in whimsical pieces that resemble other life forms -- dinosaurs, insects, camels, cowboys, seals and such, often with cheeky names, all crafted from the weeds they gather in the wilds of suburbia. (Expect to see a cow added to their menagerie soon, possibly bearing the name Bo-vine.)

Some of their work is on display at Brookside Gardens in Silver Spring, and one of their pieces can be seen in an outdoor sculpture show in Foggy Bottom, at 835 25th St. NW, through Oct. 23.

Stone and Goldstein learned recently that one of their favorite pieces -- "Wheedle Dee," which might or might not resemble a robot crab with ears -- was accepted by the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore for an upcoming exhibit, "What Makes Us Smile."

But right now, they're out in a steamy section of parkland, hunting and gathering and hoping they can avoid ticks and poison ivy.

"The art is the least of it," Stone says. "Cutting the vines is one task, and that's hard work. Then we have to schlep this stuff out of here and fit it in the Prius."

"Normal sculptors would just go to the store, I think," Goldstein says. "I guess we're not normal."

So here they are, looking for killer pieces of a killer vine, all in the name of art.

"Look at that helix!" Goldstein says. "That's an incredible piece of vine."

You see a coil. Goldstein sees an animal's belly.

You see a multi-pronged piece of wood. Stone sees a squid.

"Honey, here's a really nice piece," she shouts.

"You might say we don't get out enough," Goldstein says, laughing as the couple trudges deeper into the woods.

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