Cosmic Nature at the New York City Botanical Gardens: Stepping out of the Mundane

by Dr. Denise R. Ames

photo Denise Ames

Spring in New York City is a magical time. Trees outfit themselves in their spring green garb, accentuated by blossoming flowers just for added splendor. Flowering shrubs, such as azaleas and rhododendrons, display their delicate flowers in dazzling pinks or ruby reds. It is hard not to notice.

photo Denise Ames

And notice I did on my recent trip to New York City to visit my daughter and her husband, and my three energetic and adorable grandchildren. It was a long overdue trip, stymied by COVID-19 restrictions and fears. One of the things we love to do when I visit is to go to the New York Botanical Gardens (NYBG) located in the Bronx. Then, to add to the delight, we follow up with a sumptuous culinary visit to one of the many Italian restaurants that line nearby Arthur Street.  

We were especially excited to see at NYBG the works of renowned Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama (草間 彌生). Her exhibit,Cosmic Nature, included nine sculpture pieces dotting the manicured botanic landscape. It was especially fun for the children, since the sculptures were big, colorful, and playful, what could be more enticing for 4-year old twins and two 8-year old girls.

“I Want to Fly to the Universe” photo Denise Ames

Kusama, born in Japan in 1929, was trained in a traditional Japanese painting style called nihonga. However, she was drawn to American Abstract impressionism and moved to New York City in 1958. She was a part of the New York pop-art movement throughout the 1960s and embraced the hippie counterculture scene. I remember, and some of you may as well, when she first came to public attention. In a controversial and unorthodox artistic expression, she organized a series of happenings in which naked participants were painted with brightly colored polka dots. They scampered about in playful dance. I was not one of them.

“Ascension of Polka Dots on the Trees” photo Denise Ames

Since the 1970s, Kusama has continued to create art, most notably installations in various museums around the world.

We slide into a parking place at the NYBG and all six of us spilled out of the SUV. Just as we entered the gardens we were confronted head on with one of her sculptures: “I Want to Fly to the Universe.” We looked at it from every angle, enjoying her spirit. Its cheerfulness seemed to replicate the day. I was in heaven: Strolling outside in the warm May sun with my daughter and my three grandchildren (and one friend). The children scurried across the expanse of green lawn, screeching with delight.

We made our way to the next outdoor exhibit: “Ascension of Polka Dots on the Trees.” Clearly, she still had a red polka dot fetish at the age of 92. I particularly liked this exhibit, the red polka dot clad tree trunks had such a visually discombobulating effect on me, it didn’t seem like I was in “this natural world,” but in a cosmic netherworld. I finally appreciated her exhibit title: “Cosmic Nature.”

“Life” photo Denise Ames

The kids took a breather from their physical exertions tearing across the grass to cool themselves next to the spraying water fountain. We next went into the indoor exhibit that had assembled some of her work. One of our favorites was a surreal exhibit that looked as if it was sprouting from the floor, appropriately called “Life.”

Renewed, the troops were still in full vigor as we made our way to another exhibit that my four-year old granddaughter kept pointing to on the brochure: “Dancing Pumpkin.” You could actually go into this sculpture, and we waited patiently in line to enter this foreboding looking exhibit.

“Dancing Pumpkin” photo Denise Ames

Once inside, it was fun to run around the shadowy underworld, imagining that you were underneath a giant dancing pumpkin. It was a hit with the younger set, and it also transported me to an imaginary garden where I was a mere bug navigating the ins and outs of a huge pumpkin growing in a garden. 

photo Denise Ames

By now the children were beginning to tire, all they could think of was a cool drink. By chance, we wandered into the conservancy entrance where we enjoyed more Kusama sculptures that were displayed in pools of water, as if they were sprouting from organic material underwater.

Our last Kusama siting was inside the conservancy where the “Starry Pumpkin” nestled in amongst the indoor plants.

By now the wee ones were spent. The afternoon heat and hours of sprinting across wide open spaces had left them dehydrated and ready to move on to the next attraction: food and drink. I was ready as well.

Starry Pumpkin photo Denise Ames

As we made our way to the car, we took turns describing our favorite sculpture. Each one of us had a different one with different reasons as to our selection, as it should be. But one thing we did agree on: it was a fun day.

As I glanced back at the NYBG, I reflected on my experience viewing the Kusama sculptures. She certainly had a knack for taking me out of my ordinary world, where trees had bark on their trunks, and transport me to another dimension, where instead of brown bark there were red polka dots. It is so easy for me to get bogged down in what I consider the “real world,” it was fun to take on the mind of a four-year old—or “beginner’s mind” as the Buddhist say—and allow myself to experience another dimension. And I could do so without painting red polka dots on my naked, writhing body.

About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames

Dr. Denise R. Ames’ varied life experiences—teaching, scholarly research, personal experiences, extensive travels, and thoughtful reflections—have contributed to her balanced views and global perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, professional development, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded Center for Global Awareness, an educational non-profit that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for educators and students grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units.

Along with CGA’s Gather program, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a study and conversation program for self-organizing groups of lifelong learners and, Global Awareness for Educators, Dr. Ames is developing a new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, & Reflection Network. Turn encourages life-long learners to see with new eyes, learn from the past, understand others, and recognize the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel.

Dr. Ames has written 9 books for the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books 

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