Zio Baritaux’s Strange Plants

Honestly, what is stranger than a plant? You cut them, they grow back; they remain latent in a desert for decades and then with a rainstorm reanimate; and they perform all kinds of confidence tricks on unwitting insects to ensure their own survival. We need not look for aliens beyond us because, in the company of plants, we have the strange and wonderful right here. This is something that Zio Baritaux – American–born, Barcelona–based writer, editor, book publisher and creator of Strange Plants – constantly has on her mind.

“Just as art does, plants remind us of our human nature in the midst of a sometimes–sterile modern world, and rouse memories with their colours and shapes,” writes Zio in the introduction to her 2014 book, Strange Plants, the first title produced by her creative agency and independent publishing house, Zioxla. When it launched Strange Plants tapped into a starving psyche: some hidden part of our city–bound, collective consciousness that craved plants.

The book featured the work of 25 artists handpicked by Zio, and discussed the role plants play in the artists’ personal lives via interviews and short essays. Flick open the pages and plants appear: photographer David Axelbank presents ‘Night Flowers’, where foxgloves and climbing roses morph into “celebrities caught in the glare of a strong flash”. Another photographer included in the book, Helene Schmitz, goes undercover in ‘Kudzu Project’ to depict the eerie stranglehold kudzu vines have over the southern US landscape.

I tell you what, holding Strange Plants in your hands is like grasping onto a naughty bible – one that speaks directly to plant connoisseurs.

In 2015, Zio followed her muse further and published Strange Plants II. This time around there are more artistic contributors, 30 in total, and stranger plants. Misha Hollenbach from Perks and Mini (P.A.M) perverts the course of natural ikebana with ink and paper collages. Chinese photographer Ren Hang places nudes in lily ponds – a still frame mix of Monet and Norman Lindsay that allows us to peer upon the vitality of the living. As Zio says: “People are more authentically themselves when nude, and plants, which spread pollen everywhere, are constantly trying to perpetuate the life cycle.”

A collector’s edition of Strange Plants ­– which custom packages reprints of both books together – was released in September this year, and the response from readers was instant, almost akin to a convoy of plant hunters diving upon a rare collectible. At a time when real books are becoming possibly as exotic as rare plants, Zio’s work is simultaneously necessary, inspiring and joyous.

We talk to Zio in the following interview about her inspirations, and her life with (strange) plants.

Tell us a bit about yourself. Where do you live, and what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I live in Barcelona, which is such an inspiring city to live in. The architecture is so surreal that sometimes it feels like living in Galactic City from Star Wars. Gaudí was so ahead of his time, and so was Cerdà. I’m really inspired by the apartment buildings too, with their colourful facades and wrought-iron balconies, often with potted plants or dripping Donkey’s Tail. In my spare time in Barcelona, I love to visit local parks and gardens, like Parc de Laberint d’Horta or Jardins de Mossèn Costa i Llobera. If I have a lot of spare time, then I love to travel to new places, and I always try to visit a botanical garden in each place I travel to.

You’re just returning from a holiday! How was your time away? Did you manage to stay away from work emails?

Yes, it was fantastic! We went to Athens and Santorini, and totally stayed away from anything related to work. In Athens, we visited ancient ruins like the Parthenon, ate grilled feta and drank ouzo. In Santorini, we stayed at a beautiful hotel, in a room that overlooked the caldera, and just relaxed as much as possible. We hung out by the pool, took a boat to nearby islands, and snorkelled in the Aegean Sea.

Please tell us about your work – how do you describe what you do?

I’m a writer, editor and book publisher. I’d been working in print for years – I was the managing editor of Shepard Fairey’s Swindle magazine, edited a dozen–or–so books on art and culture, and created a magazine for a denim brand, among other things. I’d done pretty much every job that goes into making a magazine or a book, except for actually publishing a book myself, so it just seemed like the logical next step.

Strange Plants Collector's Edition (2015) with postcard print.
Strange Plants II (2015) featuring the work of Misha Hollenbach, Ren Hang and Francesca DiMattio, among others.

How did you dream up Strange Plants?

I grew up in my mother’s gardens, which at one time included water lilies in a koi pond, and at another time, trimmed topiaries and low hedges of Japanese boxwood. But I didn’t really appreciate growing up in these gardens until I was an adult and living on my own in an apartment with no outdoor space. There were plants throughout the neighbourhood – like night–blooming jasmine and overgrown bougainvillea – but it wasn’t the same. I wanted to experience them. So I brought plants inside my apartment – a hanging terrarium, a potted cactus, and so on. These plants brought back memories and inspired me ­– just like the art I had hanging on the walls. It seemed natural to create a book that combined the two.

Do you think there is a trend towards ‘plants’ at the moment – i.e. a renewed awareness in us of the natural world? If so, why is this happening? What do you think are the triggers?

Yes, I think there is a renewed interest, particularly among people who live in big cities. Most of the artists profiled in the book live in large cities – from San Francisco to Shanghai – and I definitely think that photographing or painting plants is a way for city dwellers to reconnect with nature. Making these books was certainly a way for me to reconnect with it.

How did you go about selecting the artists who contribute to Strange Plants?

I made selections based on how an artist experienced plants and the instinctive and unique ways they represented them in their work. I thought about how each artist’s work interacted with the other works in the book. And I made a curated selection that fit together in a cohesive manner but also made sure things were varied enough to appeal to different people. For example, I asked Paul Wackers, who paints semi–representational still lifes, and Helene Schmitz, who takes eerie photos of the kudzu vine. One works with spray enamel and acrylic, and the other an eight­–by–ten large–format camera.

I viewed curating the book in the same way someone looks at planting a garden. You don’t plant a garden with one type of flower – you plant a variety of species that bloom at different times but work within the environment that you live.

A feature in Strange Plants II – Zio gathered twelve tattoo artists to create a cactus design on paper, or 'cactus flash' as they say in the biz.
Allison Schulnik's 'Still from 'Eager'' (2014) a clay-animated, stop-motion video, featured in Strange Plants II.

This is a question you often ask artists in interviews: what is your favourite plant and why? And, on the flipside, what is your least favourite plant and why?

This is such a tough question! I have too many favourites, but one of my definite favourites is the Karoo rose – it’s a pale green or lavender succulent that grows in geometric shapes and looks like something that came from outer space. Least favourite? Probably carnations. They’re so overused and, honestly, quite boring.

Do you have plants in your home and office spaces? If so, what are they?

Yes, definitely! I have several pet plants, including a 3–foot cactus that I bought in France, a multi–coloured Croton, blooming Bromeliad, hanging Golden Pothos, and a bunch of little succulents and cactuses here and there. I would have more if we had more space!

Who is your dream collaborator for Strange Plants?

I was honored that everyone I wanted to participate in the both books said yes, so I would say that Strange Plants and Strange Plants II are dream collaborations manifested.

How did you get a wonderful name like ‘Zio Baritaux’?! 

Haha, thank you! Zio is my penname – I chose it around a decade ago, and only intended to use it in bylines, but everyone started calling me Zio, so now I’m stuck with it! Haha. Baritaux is the surname of my husband, who is from France.

What work of art most affects you and why?

Another impossible question! Haha. I can’t name one work as art is a constant source of inspiration for me, and I am always trying to discover new artists and works – and by new, I mean new to me, as the work might be hundreds of years old. For example, just this past weekend, I visited the Museu del Modernisme de Barcelona, which is a museum dedicated to Catalunya’s version of Art Nouveau. I really enjoyed ‘Adelfas’, a 1904 oil painting by Joan Brull i Vinyoles.

You can use macramé plant hangers for hanging plants as intended, or you can do as Zio does and use them to stockpile and store your copies of Strange Plants! Either way your place will look good.

Where do you go to think, or be creative? What do you need to be your most creative?

The two things I need most are somewhere quiet and camomile tea.

What is good in your world at the moment?

Life is good at the moment. I’m really honoured that Strange Plants and Strange Plants II have done so well. I just released the Collector’s Edition on September 15, and it’s already sold out. I’m really thankful for the response the books have received, and I just hope I can continue the momentum.

Which artists are exciting you in the contemporary art world?

I’m really excited by the photography of Ren Hang, who was one of the artists featured in Strange Plants II. I’m also really interested in the work of Agustin Hernandez, who uses plants and petals to recreate his daydreams. I plan to work with him on a project soon.

Do you have a big book collection? What are you reading now?

Yes, I’m totally obsessed with books! I read a lot of books at once, which means it takes a long time to actually finish one, but I always find something new I want to dig into. My current list includes Gods & Heroes, Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro), Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Robin Sloan), Hard–Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (Haruki Murakami) and The Centaur (John Updike). I also love collecting children’s books, for the art and illustrations, and also for the research. I’d love to write a children’s book one day.

What does the future hold for Strange Plants and Zioxla?

I’d love to curate an art exhibition of works from both Strange Plants books, and I hope to publish a new book this spring.

People love plants. So much so, that the original Strange Plants sold out in its year of publication, 2014. Launched in September this year, the Strange Plants Collector’s Edition has also sold out!

The good news is that Strange Plants II is still available direct from Zio’s publishing house, Zioxla, and you may be lucky enough to find copies of the other releases from local stockists listed on Zio’s website.

Ren Hang's 'No Name' (2014), featured in Strange Plants II.
Zin Taylor's 'Living Systems, Narrative Haze' (2013), excerpt from 'Palms of the Fog' and featured in Strange Plants II.
Francesca DiMattio's 'Fleur de Lis' (2014) glaze on porcelain and stoneware, wood, enamel and papier–mâché, featured in Strange Plants II.
Alternative cover art for Strange Plants II – apply your choice of artwork adhesives.