New York, New York. A metropolis of gleaming skyscrapers, majestic brownstones and concrete as far as the eye can see. But on the northern border of Greenwich Village, a strange, little biological experiment is taking place. An artist is bringing new life to a handful of businesses. Not a remake of the bathroom. No, actually, one of 15,000 thallophytic plantlike organisms—also known as lichen—is trying to give Benjamin Moore a run for its money.
When Elizabeth Demaray, an artist at Rutgers University, first started asking business owners to let her paint lichen slurry on their buildings, she got a lot of strange looks. “As you might imagine, there were very few takers at first,” she says. She even made a sandwich board to advertise the project, and handed out pamphlets on the street. It wasn’t until the businesses actually saw some samples of her lichens that they started expressing interest, Demaray says. It didn’t look at all like linen-white semi-gloss. “It has an incredibly gorgeous palette of light greens to yellows,” she says, “it’s very beautiful.”
Her sandwich board eventually turned into The Lichens for Skyscrapers Project, an art piece that featured lichens on several buildings along on 14th street in New York, an outgrowth of the Art in Odd Places project, which strives to show people art where they least expect it.
Demaray started the project to try and connect New Yorkers with the natural world in a more immediate way than a trip to the produce section of Whole Foods. In 2001, she moved from the scenic coast of Northern California to New York City. Suddenly she found herself living in a high rise, and started thinking about all the people like her, living in these giant buildings, and how they might be able to connect with nature the way she used to in California. “Lichen was a way in which people who could get their windows open just a little could plant a natural life form,” she says.
To make her lichen grow, Demaray worked with Natalie Howe, a biologist at Rutgers University who researchers lichens in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Together they came up with a slurry of a few species of lichens and mixed in some protein. Using a paint brush, they coated the surface of the buildings with the slurry, hoping some of the little lichens would take hold. (If you’re in NYC, you can find a tour map by visiting Demaray’s Web site.)
Aside from the organisms’ simple beauty, Demaray and Howe are fascinated by just how diverse and hardy lichens can be. Some species that grow in the Antarctic go dormant for long periods of time. Others grow in the desert, and can absorb 500 percent of their weight in water. Still others provide stabilization for desert soils and protect from erosion. If anything can survive on the caverns of New York’s high rises and row houses, it’s probably lichen.