Bowdoin’s blooms bring the outside in to the Moody

‘Sideways to the Sun’ debuts Jan. 25, marking the VADA professor’s most ambitious show to date

On a recent sunny day, the giant glass windows of the Moody Center for the Arts gave the distinct impression of a greenhouse, its Central Gallery filled with blooms. There, Rice Assistant Professor Natasha Bowdoin was busy installing her most ambitious commission to date: a collage of colossal flowers in otherworldly shades of blues and greens, shot through with occasional punches of paint, sporting names like 100 MPH, Saffron Threads and Laser Lemon.

“You couldn’t conjure up better paint names up if you tried,” Bowdoin laughed. Some are house paints, others are acrylic and oil-based. The mediums of the flowers themselves are varied, too: delicate hand-cut paper, blooms painted directly on the wall and sturdy wood-veneered pieces, fitted together on rolling structures akin to stage wagons used in theatrical scenery. Colorful printed and painted vinyl will run across the wood floors of the gallery when finished. Some of the cut flowers will climb the two-story walls.

Density, Bowdoin said, is one of her goals for the final installation. “I want to bring the outside in,” she said, “creating the sense that nature is taking over.”

Natasha Bowdoin

“I want to bring the outside in,” said Rice professor Natasha Bowdoin, “creating the sense that nature is taking over.” (Photos by Jeff Fitlow)

The installation, “Sideways to the Sun,” debuts Jan. 25 and is a first for Bowdoin in more ways than one. As she and her team worked to paint, cut and assemble the hundreds of giant flowers that afternoon, choreographer Annie Arnoult and her Open Dance Project practiced a series of movements in one corner. The dancers appeared to mimic the organic growth of flora, stretching their limbs to the sky. On the evening of Jan. 26, they’ll perform extemporaneous sets within Bowdoin’s completed scene as part of A Night of Philosophy and Ideas.

“I love seeing people move around in the work,” Bowdoin said as she watched the dancers’ improvisations.

Her work is often large-scale and site-responsive, as is “Sideways to the Sun,” which she’s created specifically for the Moody. “But they’ve never been performed in or with before,” Bowdoin said.

“Many of my installations in the past have resembled a kind of stage set for action, but up to this point the only participants have been passive ones as viewers wandering through,” she said. “One of the Moody’s main initiatives is to foster interdisciplinary interaction across fields. When Alison (Weaver) approached me with the invitation, I was really excited to see what might come about pushing this performative idea further.”

Open Dance Project

Annie Arnoult’s Open Dance Project will perform within the work on Jan. 26 during A Night of Philosophy and Ideas.

“The Moody invited Natasha to create a site-specific work as part of this season’s curatorial focus on ecology and the environment. We’re incredibly excited about what she’s making and about the ideas at the origin of her practice” said Weaver, the Suzanne Deal Booth Executive Director of the Moody.

“We’re also activating the work with performance — a long-term goal of Natasha’s that she hasn’t previously had the opportunity to realize.” In addition to dance, the Moody will also feature puppetry, film and readings of texts and poetry throughout the spring semester.

Bowdoin’s installation marks the second Rice faculty member in the Visual and Dramatic Arts Department (VADA) to exhibit her work in the Moody Center. Rice Assistant Professor Lisa Lapinski’s new work debuted last year in “Pile the Wood High!” and was also activated with a related talk and performance.

“We’ve been open less than two years, but have already prominently featured two VADA faculty which furthers our goal of elevating and celebrating the arts on campus,” Weaver said. “We’re fortunate to have such brilliant artists working and teaching at Rice.”

Bowdoin and her assistant, Linda Liu ’18, have been working since August to create the vegetation that will fill the gallery when finished. The product of a wild childhood in the woods and waters of Maine, Bowdoin has dealt in natural imagery since she started making work 16 years ago. But the fantastical flowers she’s constructed — which take on cartoonish, exaggerated shapes and give the impression of a science-fiction setting — aren’t about frills and frippery.

A team of assistants worked to help Bowdoin install the large-scale collage.

A team of assistants worked to help Bowdoin install the large-scale collage.

“We as human beings are always asking nature to stand in for something beyond itself,” Bowdoin said. “It’s an entity to imprint meaning on. If we simplify, contain, or define it, we’re safer that way. Dealing with images like flowers, that historically have often stood in for feminine beauty and eroticism, poses a challenge. In some ways I want to try and disentangle those meanings.

“Flora can be threatening; so can the feminine, while we’re at it. Nature can be messy and dangerous, maybe even more so if we don’t know what a particular kind of nature might mean. For someone frequently drawing from the natural world, ironically I’m pretty terrified of it. When I’m out of in the environment I often feel really uneasy. I think we probably should feel that way.”

Bowdoin’s work will join that of French artist Michel Blazy and Japanese film director Momoko Seto on exhibition this semester at the Moody. All three have envisioned landscapes post-humanity, whether it’s the imagined reign of mega fungi and massive insects following the Anthropocene era or a lush spread of flora that’s no longer controlled by civilization.

“The whole idea is of a nature unbound,” Bowdoin said. “No forms are fixed. Image and meaning grows, changes, fluctuates and falls. I would say only one thing’s for sure — in this place we’re just the flies on the wall trying our best not to get trapped.”

“Sideways to the Sun” will be on exhibit in the Central Gallery at the Moody Center for the Arts Jan. 25–May 18. For more information, visit

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.