Hortus Obscurus (The Dark Garden), 1997
plants, limestone benches, iron border
variable height x 216 x 142 inches
Laumeier Sculpture Park Commission, with funds from the Laumeier Docents

Frances Whitehead is an amateur botanist and natural scientist, turning plants and the practices of topiary into art. Hortus Obscurus (The Dark Garden), 1997, builds associations with evil, the sinister and the funereal using seduction as a didactic tool. Hidden in a nook of the Museum Lawn, this work is intended to be a surprising displaya living garden with an atypical view of nature that is most often associated with “greenness” rather than “darkness.”

This installation is an encyclopedic collection of the darkest varieties of many well-known and other lesser-known plant varieties. Whitehead has designed the antithesis of a typical garden by selecting trees and plants with black, purple and brown flowers and foliage, with a contrived and mannered staging. An ecological statement calling for a greater awareness of the botanical world, this provocative garden installation is complete with a set of stone benches, inviting the visitor to contemplate the future of our natural world.

Sculpture Interaction Guideline: Sit, But Do Not Climb


Frances Whitehead was born in 1953 in Richmond, Virginia. She earned her B.F.A from East Carolina University in 1975 and her M.F.A. from Northern Illinois University in 1978. Since 1984, Whitehead has been a professor of sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has received awards from the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation in 1991 and the National Endowment for the Arts in 2006. Whitehead has exhibited at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Brooklyn Museum, New York; and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.