Q&A: Landscape architect Lise Cormier on sparking a plant-sculpture craze

The art of 'mosaiculture' uses thousands of plant varieties and requires up to 30 people to create a single work. Just don't call it topiary.

Mosaïcultures Internationales, under way right now in Montreal, is like the Olympics for horticulture-heads. International competitors descend on a single city every few years to compete, drawing large audiences from around the world. Reputation and national pride are on the line, but the contestants still make new friends and swap stories about techniques and training. They also pull off some truly incredible feats.

Lise Cormier created this unique contest for the best mosaiculture -- a French word for 2-D paintings and 3-D sculptures made of colorful plants. "It is not topiary," she is quick to add of the horticulture art. "Topiary is a shrub you trim, so you have only one color and one texture. In mosaiculture, we have many different colors and many varieties of plants."

While the term mosaiculture was first used by a French gardener in the 1860s, Cormier helped propel it into the 21st-century, establishing the non-profit Mosaïcultures Internationales de Montréal in 1998 and launching the first international competition in 2000. It was originally meant to be a one-off contest, but it's now in its fifth iteration -- and growing bigger each time. When the competition was last held, in 2009 in Hamamatsu, Japan, it drew entries from nearly 100 cities around the world and almost a million people attended. The numbers are expected to be even bigger this year, with participants coming from Belgium, China, France, Japan, Madagascar, Mexico, Turkey, South Korea, Spain, the United States and beyond.

We spoke with Cormier about the art form's soaring international popularity, the industry developing around it, and how Montreal became the self-proclaimed world leader in mosaiculture. ("We say that with humility," she quickly adds.)

 When you created the Mosaïcultures Internationales competition back in 2000, what were your hopes for it?
At that time, I was Director of Parks for the City of Montreal. The international network of parks directors was very dynamic. We all did mosaiculture in our countries, but with different plants, different techniques and different designs. The first goal was to create a place where we could exchange ideas about our different ways of doing mosaiculture and encourage the evolution of this art form for the beautification of our cities. The second goal was to create an innovative event for celebrating the new millennium. For us, the best way to create a special event was with flowers. We gave flowers to the planet.

What have been some of the biggest changes since the competition's early days?
When we did the event in 2000, we used only three colors of plants: green, grey and red. We now have many more colors. We have also succeeded in having 22,000 species of plants this year, and we use them in more sophisticated designs.

Looking at the photos, I'm amazed by what people from around the world have been able to create with plants. Who makes these mosaicultures?
It's a team of professional people: horticulturalists, landscape architects, welders, designers, and for very big pieces, we also need a structural engineer. The landscape architect and designer prepare the design. Then the sculptor-welder does the frame for the exhibit. After that, the horticulturist plants the exhibit and maintains it, because it's very important to maintain it if you want to keep the shape intact.

So how many people does it usually take to create one of these pieces?
It depends on the size. For The Bird Tree, which is 52 feet tall and the biggest exhibit that has been done, you have at least -- at least -- 30 people work on that. For a little exhibit, it could be only two or three people.

"A True Story" (Shanghai)

With that many people involved in a single piece, have you noticed an industry starting to develop around mosaiculture?
Mosaiculture was created at the end of the 19th century and since then, it has had ups and downs in popularity. Now it's an up, particularly with the 3-D mosaiculture, and yes, there is beginning to be an industry around it. In Beijing, they created a mosaiculture institute with 100 employees. We have also had many requests from the U.S. for mosaiculture exhibits. Many botanical gardens in the U.S. saw what happened here and they want to do that, too. Right now, we have a small exhibition at the Atlanta Botanical Garden and they are also participating in this competition.

We've also done several projects for clients in the U.S. We did 14 exhibits for the conservatory at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. We had clients in New York who built the One Bryant Park [atrium space]. We have a lot little projects like that. We always work with the same sculptor-welder and horticulturist, so in this case we can always go further. We learn from our experiments and we learn also from the competition.

What about the mosaicultures competition in general? Do you see it as something to unite people from different places?
Yes, sure. In 2003, we met the mayor of Istanbul and he told me something that I will always remember: 'We will participate first of all because it's a peace event, and we need peace on the planet.' When all the international teams arrive at the competition, they don't speak the same language, but they try to exchange ideas. Many of them keep in contact after the event. It creates an international network between parks departments and that's really great.

You mentioned that Montreal has some of the largest pieces in the competition this year. Do you see yourselves as leading the mosaiculture movement?
We have two kinds of prizes awarded for Mosaïcultures Internationales: international jury and public vote. The host city is not in competition. In Hamamatsu, Japan, in 2009, we won the main award from the international jury and the prize of the public. It was the same thing in Shanghai in 2006. In Montreal, we cannot compete [for the jury award]. In 2000 and 2003, Shanghai won the jury award but Montreal won the prize of the public. This is how we can say that we are the leader in mosaiculture in the world. We say that with humility, but we worked very hard for it. We also work very hard to continue to be the leader in mosaiculture. We have to watch China in particular, because they really want to become the leader in this.

Tell me about the piece you helped design for this year's competition, Mother Earth.
I wanted to illustrate the speech of Chief Seattle when he met the [former] President of the United States, Franklin Pierce. He told the President: 'We will go on the reserve. We will sell you our land because you have the gun and we won't survive that. But you don't understand anything about the environment and nature.' He told him: 'The buffalo in the prairies are our brothers and the same thing for the deer. The eagle is our brother, the water in the river is the blood of our ancestors.' We wanted to illustrate that and we wanted to create a place full of serenity that will fill visitors with wonder. I think we succeeded in that. The head of the Montreal Botanical Garden told me that when some people arrive and see the Earth Mother, they start to cry.

"The Salamander According to Gaudi" (Barcelona)

What's your background in mosaiculture and horticulture in general? How did you get into this work?
I always loved flowers. When I was a child, our house was in a wildflower field and I made a lot of bouquets with those. My mother also loved flowers. I think that it is genetic in my case. I have a master's degree in landscape architecture and I decided to study that because I like horticulture. For me, mosaiculture is a new way to express art in the city.

What helps horticulture stay as relevant today as it was in the past?
Horticulture is life, it's beauty, it's peaceful. What we need at this time is beauty and peace. Horticulture is a connection between man and nature and we need that. Everything is going very fast now in these times. Nature is slow. You have to take time. The flowers, the plants and the trees cannot grow faster than nature permits.

"Planting Plane Trees to Attract the Phoenix" (Beijing)

"All in a Row" (Madagascar)

"The Man Who Planted Trees" (Mosaïcultures Internationales de Montréal)

Photos by Guy Boily, courtesy of MIM2013

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com