Paper dandelions will be sprouting all over Canada this year

Don't call them weeds — they're survivors. And thanks to artist Monique Martin, spring's arriving early.

Don't call them weeds — they're survivors. And thanks to artist Monique Martin, spring's arriving early

One down ... 1,599 to go. Artist Monique Martin "planted" her art in Edmonton this past fall as part of The Works. The installation will appear in several Canadian cities through 2021. (The Works)

It's odd to be planting flowers in winter, and stranger still if you're cultivating dandelions, a plant that's never seemed to have much trouble proliferating on its own. But then, Monique Martin's not in the business of honest-to-goodness gardening. Rather, the Saskatoon artist tends dandelions of the paper variety — and now through Jan. 15, the Estevan Art Gallery & Museum in Saskatchewan is blooming with Martin's hand-crafted flowers. 

For the installation, Context is Everything, these scrappy true-to-life-sized sculptures are lit to mimic a sun-dappled meadow. But much like the real thing, these li'l guys are eminently adaptable. They thrive just as well in non-traditional venues, and, says Martin, that's her favourite way to show them. 

Through this past October and November, for example, some 1,600 of her paper posies were installed in seven locations around downtown Edmonton, sprouting from revolving doors, window ledges, concrete. From the street, it might have looked like nature in revolt — albeit an uprising that's way too cute to feel truly dystopian. Because what could be more magical than seeing flowers bloom in winter, even a scourge like the dandelion? 

Installation view of Context is Everything at the Estevan Art Gallery & Museum. (Chantel Schultz)

"It's interesting how the symbol of the dandelion is so strong for so many people," says Martin. "People will see a dandelion growing somewhere and send me a picture. They'll hunt me down on Facebook and say, 'I saw your exhibition on dandelions and now I look at them completely differently.'"

For lawn-obsessives, of course, they're simply the enemy. But if you can forget the Sisyphean challenge of yard maintenance, the same qualities that make them weeds also happen to be extraordinary. Seeing that just requires a different perspective — or a different context, per the project's title. 

Dandelions are survivors, growing and thriving wherever they're planted. Pluck them, and they'll spring back meatier than before — persisting no matter life's slings and weed whackers. And through it all, they're indomitably cheerful, their fluffy yellow tops perennially reaching for the sun. On that front, Martin's dandelions are an invitation to reconsider what you believe to be true — to stop and smell the paper flowers, so to speak, before jumping to conclusions. 

View of Context is Everything's 2020 appearance in Edmonton. (The Works)

Three years ago, she became fascinated with that idea. On a drive, she spotted some western goat's beard flourishing on the side of the road, another common bit of flora that resembles a sort of deluxe, softball-sized dandelion when it's gone to seed. "I saw them and I thought, 'Those are so beautiful,'" says Martin. "Why do we not cherish those?"

Inspired, she got to work employing goat's beard and dandelion motifs in her artwork: collages comprised of parachute seeds, linocut prints, pastel drawings. Eventually, though, the idea blossomed into something on a larger scale. "I wanted to do an installation, something where people would stop and really think about why — why would someone go to the effort to make an installation of dandelions when everyone hates them?"

Context is Everything has appeared in different forms since 2018. The dandelions themselves are made by hand out of hanji, a Korean paper with just the right heft to be sculpted into a lifelike sprout. Silkscreened details are added before Martin cuts the paper and then constructs each piece, and the process is a never-ending, assembly-line affair. "It takes over my house when it is happening. I'll have cutting going on in one room and gluing going on in another one," she laughs.

Everybody needs to think about the dandelion's strength during COVID.- Monique Martin, artist

So far, her crop totals 2,400 dandelions. A large collection is especially required when her work's requested for concurrent exhibitions, and demand is high this year.

Following the show at the Estevan Art Gallery, Context is Everything is expected to pop up in various locations around downtown Saskatoon this spring (March 1 – April 15). Saskatchewan's Humboldt Museum and Art Gallery is scheduled to welcome the dandelions March 1 – April 15, and another exhibition is scheduled for the Seymour Art Gallery in North Vancouver starting April 24. The next month, it'll appear at Crafted Vancouver, and in October, the Port Moody Gallery (also in B.C.) will have them. All of these dates, however, could be impacted by the pandemic, which has, coincidentally, given the project a refreshed significance.

"Everybody needs to think about the dandelion's strength during COVID," says Martin, who took the project to Instagram and Facebook during lockdown last spring. In daily posts, she planted paper dandelions around her house, pairing them with messages of encouragement. 

"It's really a strong plant, and it's resilient and it perseveres. This is really a mental health symbol that we haven't clung on to," she says. 

"I think the big underlying theme in this is we have to accept [things]. We even have to accept that the pandemic happened," says Martin, who says the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton harvested some of her dandelions as part of their COVID-related rapid response collecting. And personally, she keeps a paper dandelion on display in her kitchen to serve as a little pick-me-up. 

"When I walk by, if I'm having a bad day, I go, 'It's OK, I can be like a dandelion. I can be a dandelion and survive.'"

In October and November 2020, Context is Everything was installed in seven Edmonton locations: Edmonton City Hall, Fairmont Hotel MacDonald, the Melcor Building, the Downtown Business Association, the Royal Alberta Museum, the Armstrong Block Building and Edmonton Tower. (The Works)
These dandelions peered out the windows of Edmonton City Hall as part of Monique Martin's installation Context is Everything. (The Works)
Martin says collectors have asked her to sell individual dandelions. "The Remai Modern in Saskatoon sells them in the gift shop," she says. "They have ones that are in glass domes just like Beauty in the Beast," she laughs. (Monique Martin)
Another installation view of Context is Everything in Edmonton, fall 2020. (The Works)
Context is Everything is up at the Estevan Art Gallery & Museum to Jan. 15. (Chantel Schultz)

Monique Martin. Context is Everything. To Jan. 15 at the Estevan Art Gallery & Museum. Estevan, Sask.


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.

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