Collecting: Chia planters

I thought it was a mannequin head when I bought “Barnacle Bill” online

I soon realized that these were chia planters from before the days of Chia Pets

This one has penciled-in eyebrows and a mustache…  I think it makes him look like Clark Gable

Love the clown make-up applied to “Paddy O’Hair”

“Elmer the Doughboy”

A lot of army and navy dudes… these must be early 1940s?

My favorite… I found this “Paddy” at Mickey’s Monkey in San Francisco. I didn’t notice him right away as his ridges were sanded down and he has a nice thick coat of shiny black paint

These are much like the now-famous Chia Pets, which were trademarked in the 1970s by Joseph Enterprises of San Francisco. Now manufactured in China and as American as apple-pie, their true origin is the region of Mexico named after chia – Chiapas. And they have been around since the days of the Aztecs! Even Joseph Enterprises engaged craftspeople in Oaxaca in the production of their original line of Chia Pets. For more information you can read an extensive history of the origin of the chia planter here.

I found this image on the Curt Teich Postcard Archives (check out their great blog, Life in a Postcard Mirror, too):

The Robinson Ransbottom Pottery Company of Roseville, Ohio.

A dealer also sent me these photocopies along with a planter:

The Paddy Novelty Co., Goliad, Texas

Chia and Contemporary Art

More recently, the chia planter has been explored through the brilliant creations of Toronto artist Naomi Yasui. I spoke with Naomi about her chia pillar and planter and about collecting.

IPi: Naomi, how would you describe your work, what is the foundation behind your practice?

NY: I attempt to articulate ideas rooted in the discourse of archeology and anthropology.  I’m interested in the relationship between cultures and objects and what objects can communicate about both past and contemporary civilizations; our understanding of society and human experience through objects.  I try to understand and articulate these concepts through my personal experiences with the material, with objects, and the process of making.  I believe, as sentient beings, there is an impulse to create and to express and I’m on my own journey of discovery with what this means to me and what it can mean in terms of cultural identity and expression.

Naomi Yasui’s chia planter

IPi: How did you discover chia?

NY: I first saw a Chia Pet on TV, and always wanted one.  In preparation and research towards building the chia pillar, I purchased a Garfield planter from Canadian Tire.

IPi: So Chia Pets are what attracted you to utilizing chia in your work?

NY:  In a way the 2 pieces I’ve created with chia were directly influenced by the recognition of chia planters in contemporary culture. But, I think even more so, I was drawn to the relationship between the porous nature of clay and the ability to grow vegetation on it.

I’m interested in the history and culture of moving plants indoors and cultivating indoors and in small spaces, with minimal resources.  I’m also drawn to the idea of bring the outdoors indoors with our desire to arrange cut flowers in vases or keep indoor plants.  Ceramics, a material I most often work with, facilitates these endeavours/impulses to live with plants in an indoor domestic setting.

The forms and structures I create visually reference obelisks and perhaps ritualistic artifacts of unknown function or utility, and in turn greatly reference the origin and history of chia.

Naomi Yasui’s chia pillar, part of the Slap Dash Depository, a collaboration with Jennifer Sciarrino and Jacob Whibley for The Gladstone Hotel’s Come Up To My Room exhibition

IPi: Almost everyone I know has some familiarity with Chia Pets. Do you think this makes your projects more approachable to your audience? People were excited when they realized what your installation was.

NY: “Is that real?” and “Can you eat it?” were two questions I was asked a lot.  Surprisingly, I often had to explain what chia is.  I think the plant is mostly recognizable on a Chia Pet form as many thought the pillar was covered in bean sprouts.  Everyone wanted to touch it, and some felt compelled to spray it (there was a spray bottle left at it’s foot), they wanted to interact with it somehow, help take care of it.  It’s funny how people have an immediate reaction to a living thing.

Studio mate Alexx Boisjoli watches Naomi apply chia to her colossal chia pillar

IPi: I am curious to know what challenges you faced in constructing such a large planter.

NY: I wanted to further explore the concept of growing on a porous surface and was curious to see if I could succeed using different porous materials other than the traditional red earthenware.  No red clay allowed in our space!

What is the right density of seeds?

The pillar, made out of one-foot containers of plaster, was relatively successful.  I think a better stacking and watering system could be engineered and perhaps one day I will revisit this. Maybe next time I do revisit this project I’ll do it with an engineer so I can go bigger and innovate a more even watering system.

Timing is everything – the pillar must be in full bloom for the four-day event

This piece tended to leak in certain places and growth was uneven due to this.  The chia was definitely happier and more robust on the plaster compared to the ceramic piece, however, plaster breaks down over time and with its constant contact with water and is not a sustainable material choice.

The chia pillar, sadly, is degrading in a dump somewhere…..  Overall, ceramic is the most ideal material for ethical and sustainable reasons.

IPi: The blog you co-produce with Heather Goodchild, The Wardens Today, is partly about collecting, about objects. Do you think collecting is a part of what one does as an artist?

NY: I think the habit of collecting and the origin/history of objects go hand in hand.  It’s all under the umbrella of the psychology of objects and why we feel so connected to inanimate things, why we insist in surrounding ourselves with them.  As a fellow collector and maker of objects, and the older I get, the more I see objects as distractions from real truths in oneself and our relationship to the universe, though I very much understand that objects are critical tools for understanding our historical past and for psychological comfort or therapy….. As I continue my study, the complexity of my relationship to objects deepens.

IPi: Naomi, what are you doing right now?

NY: I am installing pieces from my Alchemical Vessel Series for a group exhibition, which opens tomorrow at The Latcham Gallery in Stouffville.  It runs June 14th through July 28th.

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About Ian Phillips Illustration

I am an illustrator and book designer. View all posts by Ian Phillips Illustration

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