The Things We Are: I See Plants Shaking Hands

Nowadays you can find artists-in-residence seemingly everywhere – from museums to start-ups to TV stations to tech giants. But as genuinely interesting places for artists to be resident in go, a botanical garden must be up there. 

Illustrator Joost Stokhof, working under the name The Things We Are, did just that. Armed with drawings from a recent trip to Bali, Joost contacted Amsterdam’s Hortus Botanicus, and asked if he could live there.

And so for one week, Joost moved into one of the greenhouses to draw the natural world blossoming around him. The resulting work – I See Plants Shaking Hands (s/o Louis Armstrong) – is a series of sketches and illustrations of plants, cocoons and little handwritten notes mashed together in small narratives.

It’s not surprising Joost picked a garden as his temporary home – he’s always been drawn to nature and his illustrations often feature plants. “I need some kind of reference – I like that better than coming up with something out of the blue,” he says. “I like to look around, zoom in or zoom out – that works best for me.”

The Hortus was the perfect place to closely study his favorite subjects, but Joost’s images capture the whole experience of the garden rather than just the plants. With his trusty felt-tip pen he documents the beautiful traces of a leaf, the intricate roof of the greenhouse and even someone hiding behind the bushes.

Sometimes there are short texts accompanying the images, as if the organisms in the greenhouse are actually living, talking things. “On the first day I discovered that there are male and female plants,” Joost says. “Someone told me plants have the same characteristics as humans; they defend their territory and they communicate. It’s why you can translate human emotions to plants, or the other way around.

“It’s the circle of life, in which some plants make it and others don’t. This translates beautifully to human stories. To me, it felt natural to interweave these two worlds – my emotional one and that of the plants,” Joost says.

“Of course it’s a faked version of nature. But at night, when I was all alone in the garden and walking through the greenhouses, which operate like mini-ecosystems, it feels like you step into a living creature.”

While the nights were quiet, his romantic notion of how he would spend his days hadn’t reckoned with the curious visitors. “My greenhouse was located in the middle of the garden, and during the day a lot of visitors came by to chat,” he says.

For example, there was the elderly man who shared his life story and declared his “love” for the huge Japanese tree growing in the garden.

But these sometimes inconvenient distractions turned out to be inspiring too. “In the end I used snatches of these conversations as the basis for some of the sketches I made,” Joost says.

The artist also invited a couple of musicians to make songs inspired by the garden’s vibe. “As a visual artist I’ve always been a bit jealous of musicians, because they can easily incite emotions in their audience.

“It was really nice to hear their songs originate. It is funny in a way, to be in a greenhouse and hear all these things blossom and grow,” he says.

Now Joost is busy putting together an exhibition, a book and vinyl of the project, but part of him is still very much in that greenhouse.

“I’ve got this renewed appreciation for nature. It seems as if a whole new world opened up to me. Last week I went on a holiday and I was able to identify certain plants. I can just about keep myself from talking to the plants in the house,” he laughs.

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