Photo: Annie Corrigan/WFIU
Leah Gauthier is sitting in her studio looking through a bowl of plant parts she plucked from her Marshall strawberry plants, including a green and orange leaf, a short red stem with a cluster of buds and a delicate white flower.
“I am intrigued the most with this little Marshall baby,” she says. “I feel like I severed it. I feel like it should be bleeding.”
She picks up her sewing needle and some red embroidery thread and stitches the thread into the stem, looping it back onto itself. She then photographs this miniature sculpture to be included in her project Mending Season. Since the materials start deteriorating as soon as they’re harvested, the photographs are her only way to share her work.
She harvested these plant parts an hour ago and they are already starting to wilt. She enjoys the challenge of letting go of her work almost as soon as she’s created it. “I wanted to be able to give myself that challenge of resolving something and being able to move onto the next idea,” she says.
Long Live The Strawberry
While she constructs sculptures with a variety of plants from her garden, she has a special affinity for her Marshall strawberry plants. Known for its “exceptional taste and firmness,” the Marshall strawberry was once described as “the finest eating strawberry” in America. But after World War II, the plant was devastated by a virus and almost completely removed from commercial production because of its delicacy.
Meanwhile, Gauthier was doing her own research into American industrialized agriculture to find out why, according to her, a nectarine grown in the U.S. tastes muted as compared to one grown in Spain. When she found the Marshall strawberry on a list of endangered American plants, she not only wanted to taste the finest eating strawberry in the States, she wanted to bring it back to life.
“When I thought about trying to revive one little thing that was something I could do, it felt like I had some hope,” she says.
In 2007, she requested a few runners from the only place that still grew the strawberries — the USDA’s Germplasm Repository in Corvallis, Oregon. Gauthier is now one only a few private growers who are trying to revive the Marshall strawberry. She could be the only one of those growers who combines her love of gardening with her artistic life.
“All of a sudden the realization came to me that food can be art,” she says, “and I’ve been in that space ever since.”
Once she’s done creating the sculpture and photographing it, she dismantles it, replating whatever she can and nursing the plants back to life. But not so fast! As a new mom, these free moments are rare, so she’s going to take advantage of it.
“Since my daughter is still sleeping, I might try to make three more sculptures!”
More: Learn more about Marshall strawberries and purchase runners from Leah Gauthier to grow in your own garden at Marshall Strawberry.