INTRO: The United States Botanical Garden has been cultivating a project for the past two years in a seemingly average Henderson house. Yesterday that project was unveiled in the Government's Washington DC Botanical Conservatory. KNPR's Ky Plaskon reports.
ANONYMOUS: Come on in.
PLASKON: Inside this Henderson home is a giant dining room table, a wide-open kitchen and, of course, a TV, but through double doors in the living room is a sun-lit room with high ceilings where Colombian Yolly Torrez stands on a ladder giving life to this government project.
TORREZ: It is like the seed and it grows out from the tree and there are a lot of them and they grow out of this.
PLASKON: She is dabbing small spots of paint on one of six very large murals.
TORREZ: I was always learning and dreaming about working with murals and it was great , It has been one year I have been working and it is the best experience of my life.
PLASKON: This is chief artist Robert Beckman's life.
SOUND mixing paint
BECKMAN: Need more white so I have gone into this jar that has a big volume of white in it and get close to a cloud color, as you look at this it looks like a dark gray and as it dries it will look like a light lavender and be a cloud color.
PLASKON: He darts between a table of bright paints and the 6 murals that are bound to a giant custom easel in front of him bolted to the wall. Each mural spans 7 feet wide and 12 feet tall. They are rounded at the top. At the top they start with a depictions of 6 different plants superimposed on the sky. Below that a person is harvesting the plant, for instance a man chopping a cocoa pod, on another mural a woman is picking rice. And finally at eye level on each mural is the edible product from the plant. That's the level Beckman's working on.
BECKMAN: Maybe 80 percent of what I do is looking at the things and compare it, and consider alternatives before we do things with the paint. I am looking at the rice one at this point and we have clouds reflected in rice paddies and you can see through the water of the rice paddy down to the dirt and then the debris that is below it and then the clouds are reflected and just getting the clouds to look right.
PLASKON: These were the final days of finishing the project he started two years ago.
BECKMAN: A lot of fine art is like a 100 yard dash and this is like a 50-mile marthon or 100 mile marathon. This stuff takes a long time. It is a whole nother discipline, you know to just maintain month after month after month after month to coordinate everything so that it all hangs together.
PLASKON: Coordination started with a half-dozen interviews with dozens of government architects and botanists, showing them slides of his work. He was competing for a contract to paint these murals that would be displayed in the U-S Botanical Conservatory in Washington DC.
BECKMAN: They wanted something from all the continents, corn from Iowa, citrus from Spain.
PLASKON: When he won, he recognizes his usual medium of oil on canvass wouldn't work for this project.
BECKMAN: The nature of the conservatory, where they have glass as a roof and high humidity and high heat, it is the worse for art.
PLASKON: With the help of architects he settled with painting on hundred-pound concrete and fiberglass slabs with a German paint that actually binds with the concrete.
BECKMAN: I would normally take a palate and a little tiny bit of pigment that is in distilled water and mix it in a distilled proportion and with that done I will normally sample it and test it without any glue or binder in the paint and see.
PLASKON: But with the German paint came another problem, it dries half as light as when it's applied. Also, the right color orange didn't exist for painting oranges. So the company developed a special paint for him.
SOUND of rubbing hands together
BECKMAN: And they still weren't fine enough. So finally what we came up with was that I could mix dry cadmium pigments with quartz flour or finely ground sand with distilled water and mix and that could jump up the intensity, but that's all too much crazy back and forth.
PLASKON: He also made back and forth trips to Washington with drawing after drawing to get approval that they were technically accurate.
BECKMAN: Finally after all this feedback in the end after all these changes, and it was largely botanical changes, the stems for cotton aren't straight they have a certain curve to them, there are four petals on them and there were other things that help clarify. And things that I really enjoy, if they are not clear to an architect or botanist then they are not clear to the average people.
PLASKON: This process of developing public art is nothing new for Beckman who has completed more than 200 murals throughout the country. Its the biggest project he's completed for the federal government. In Nevada he's worked for casinos, the city of Las Vegas, the county, the Post Office and even Nellis Air Force Base. He hopes these bright, light-colored murals now placed adjacent to the capital, surrounded by moist air and plants will influence a powerful crowd.
BECKMAN: From my perspective when I have people look at these things I want people to have a sense of harmony. Then that becomes a metaphor for ecology, mans proper relationship with the environment, man doesn't have to abuse the earth to take a product from it. And that is what I really see when a senator or a supreme court justice comes into this space to just kind of relax and maybe subliminally that gets through their mind that maybe we can cooperate with the earth.
PLASKON: While this public art project presents his idealism in agriculture, he admits it misses an important side of the agricultural story.
BECKMAN: There are no large pig raising facilities and the sewage that comes from that thank you very much.
PLASKON: While harmony between people and the environment works for public art, Beckman finds the tension between people and nature more inspiring.
BECKMAN: Well, I don't know if I want more work like this anymore, I want to get back to my fine art.
PLASKON: His fine art presents that unharmonious relationship between man and nature. He likes to focus on what he calls sublime images, vast unlit deserts at night for instance or nuclear testing at the Nevada Test site. Such images have inspired him to add color to the familiar photographs of a house disintegrating during a nuclear explosion as part of his body of fine art work.
BECKMAN: So this project stands at odds with that, because this project is about mans harmonic relationship with the environment and it is a domesticated landscape too and it is one that has been made familiar as opposed to the desert out here.
PLASKON: In a definitive statement of man's disharmonious relationship with the environment is Beckman's work titled 86ed From Paradise. It's a copy of Thomas Cole's 1827 Expulsion of the Garden of Eden. But Beckman has replaced heaven in that painting with the Las Vegas Strip, the hostile desert environment molded and tamed to create paradise.
Ky Plaskon, News 88-9 KNPR