The landscape in the Washington region is teeming with green as the spring season settles in — prime time for Brookside Gardens to attract visitors to its lush, immaculately groomed gardens, lawn and ponds.
But in recent days, parts of the Wheaton, Md., public garden look a bit like a trash dump. And it’s all in the name of art.
Keira Hart-Mendoza, a 38-year-old artist from Bethesda, said she wanted to create an environmental art exhibit to showcase how much trash people create and its impact on nature. She said she hopes people will see the exhibit and think about how to reduce their amount of waste.
“Brookside is beautiful,” Hart-Mendoza said. “Everything is in bloom, but you’re seeing this ugly trash like a punch in the face.”
The main exhibit, called “The Legacy Project — Our Lives of Consumption and Waste,” contains more than 1,700 pieces of plastic scattered in a pond at its Perennial Garden. Along a wall around the garden, another exhibit with hundreds of water bottles screwed onto posts is called, “Plastic, Plastic Everywhere, 999,000 Bottles of Plastic on the Wall.”
Brookside Gardens director Stephanie Oberle said the stone wall lined with plastic bottles and a “skyline of trash” among manicured trees is eye-catching.
“It makes you stop and look,” she said.
The exhibit began this month and will be open to the public until Tuesday. Also planned were environmental talks, children’s programming and performances by UpRooted Dance, of which Hart-Mendoza serves as artistic director, featuring costumes made from recycled materials.
Hart-Mendoza and Brookside Gardens officials said their goal is to send a message to the public to consider how changing daily habits can help to reduce trash.
“An art exhibit that shows plastic bottles confronts us with the reality that when we throw our trash ‘away,’ it doesn’t miraculously disappear, it just accumulates elsewhere,” Oberle said.
Hart-Mendoza said she thought of the idea two years ago, when she realized how much trash her own family of four discarded. Then she started saving her family’s trash.
Within six months, she accumulated plastic bottles, newspapers, cardboard boxes, milk jugs, aluminum cans, shipping materials and tin cans. She stored it in her attic, garage and sunroom, but started to run out of space. She switched to keeping a written inventory of the trash, but wanted to do more.
While flying to Miami, she said she had an “aha moment” when she received three drinks in plastic cups during the flight — which meant three drinks per passenger in a three-hour trip.
“It was blowing my mind,” she said. “This is too much plastic waste.”
After discussions with Brookside Gardens and the Arts & Humanities Council of Montgomery County, they agreed to display her trash collection at Brookside. Organizers said they hope the exhibit is an alternative to reading statistics about waste or hearing about its effect on the environment.
“The idea behind it is that it’s dramatic,” Oberle said. “You walk through the gardens and you see all these bottles on the water, and the juxtaposition of this beautiful garden with all this trash promotes a conversation of how our waste is having a negative impact on the environment.”
The exhibit also contains a tribute to Marie Antoinette, the last queen of France before the French Revolution, who Hart-Mendoza said was known for being lavish and wasteful. She and her collaborator, Margie Jervis of Falls Church, Va., made Marie Antoinette figures from recycled materials and placed them in a conservatory at the garden.
“She had a naive sense of the world,” Hart-Mendoza said. “I think we all have an inner Marie Antoinette. We just throw things away and randomly discard them.”
On Friday, Angela Kuan, 38, visited Brookside with her two young boys to enjoy the gardens and smell the wisteria, then unexpectedly came upon the exhibit of bottles.
“It’s very powerful,” she said. “Nature itself is so beautiful, and then look what we’re doing to it. Against the backdrop of nature I feel guilty. I have been pretty thoughtless in my use. My sons and I will start changing our behavior.”
Another visitor, 37-year-old Kelly Morris of Silver Spring, said she came to Brookside to take pictures of nature and relax. She was surprised to find the gardens trashed for artistic purposes.
“It makes you sad,” she said. “It makes you think that if we don’t take more care with the things we consume, then we can ruin a beautiful place.”
Morris said she planned to take pictures of the trash exhibit and send them to friends and family outside the Washington area.
Since the exhibit began, Oberle said Brookside Gardens has received negative feedback from two visitors unhappy with the trash, who “thought it looked junky.”
Oberle’s response: Trash is being dumped all over the world. “Doesn’t that make you unhappy?”
Oberle said visitors shouldn’t fret too much: The trash will be taken down by volunteers, staff and Hart-Mendoza’s group, then recycled. Oberle said they’ll be careful not to take out tadpoles in the water while removing the plastic bottles.
“This is going to be taken away and Brookside will be back to normal,” she said. “But when you think about trash in the Pacific Ocean, that’s not going away.”