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Did you walk inside the much-larger-than-life “living lampshade” at Selby Gardens’ Downtown Sarasota campus last year during its Tiffany-themed exhibition?

Maybe you were mesmerized by the kaleidoscopic mirrors in the Tropical Conservatory that transformed a few plant specimens into an infinite number of revolving epiphytes during 2022’s Orchid Show?

If you’ve immersed yourself in these and other one-of-a-kind installations at Selby Gardens recently, chances are the experience originated in the mind of Nathan Burnaman.  Or at least took conceptual shape on his computer.

Nathan is Selby Gardens’ associate director of horticultural exhibitions.  He’s the only staff member dedicated full-time to dreaming up and executing the Gardens’ signature multidisciplinary shows (though he’s quick to note just how many others it takes to pull them off).  His role is part horticulturist, part landscape designer, part installation artist, part fabricator, part 3D modeler, part. . . well, the list goes on.

To put it another way, his job would be very difficult to advertise.  “It’s a broad yet niche skill set,” he says, with typical understatement.

A New Art Form

The extraordinary exhibitions created by the team at Selby Gardens are part of The Living Museum® operating model introduced by CEO Jennifer Rominiecki.  The concept:  Present a rotating program of dynamic cultural exhibitions that combine art with nature in new and unexpected ways.  The annual Jean & Alfred Goldstein Exhibition reexamines major artists through the lens of their connection with nature.  A big part of the experience for visitors is engaging with original horticultural displays that both reflect and extend the subject artist’s oeuvre and technique.

“Our team is really practicing a new art form,” says Jennifer.  “You have the visual arts and the performing arts, but I consider what Nathan and the rest of the team are doing at Selby Gardens to be ‘living art.’”

As such, these shows are much more than simply displaying artworks in a garden.  Nathan and his colleagues immerse themselves in an artist’s aesthetic and practice, then interpret and celebrate those elements using the gardens as a canvas and living plants as a medium.  On view now through June, this year’s Goldstein Exhibition explores the art of two 20th-century giants of different generations, Georgia O’Keeffe and Yayoi Kusama.

Nathan joined Selby Gardens just over four years ago as an assistant gardens horticulturist.  With a degree in biology and some practical experience in agriculture, he took to the work quickly and gained responsibility.  Meanwhile, as the exhibitions got more ambitious, it grew clear that someone needed to focus full-time on their planning, coordination, and installation.  And Nathan was ripe for the job.  “I think it was kind of the stars aligning,” he says of the newly created position.

As a gardens horticulturist working on shows like Roy Lichtenstein’s pop-art take on Claude Monet’s garden in 2021, Nathan had stepped up to help with design and installation.  “It sort of showed I have an aptitude for this kind of work—which is to say I have an aptitude for a lot of miscellaneous skills,” he says.  “And I guess the attitude for it.”  That attitude includes curiosity, problem-solving, fortitude, and some grace under pressure.

“Horticulture is an art and a science,” says Nathan.  “And there’s a lot of horticulture centered around display.  It’s a field that takes a lot of creativity.”  He’s learned much on the job—particularly when it comes to displaying epiphytes, or air plants.  He credits colleagues Mike McLaughlin and Angel Lara, in particular, for their design eyes.

While he didn’t formally study visual art, Nathan does have a college minor and an active interest in music.  “I credit some of my design sense to the time I’ve put into creating music,” he says.  “As abstract as it may seem, the overarching principles of design extend between music and the visual arts, and that certainly relates to the sort of placemaking and horticultural display I do at Selby Gardens.”

Challenges Accepted

Walking the fine line between interpretation and imitation isn’t easy.  “We try to go pretty deep on not just the artist, but the artistic context and trying to figure out what was inspiring the artist,” Nathan says. “We strive for such novelty in all of these shows, I want to take inspiration but I also want to think of something new.”

On the built side, that can mean leaning into the skills and knowledge of Selby Gardens’ formidable facilities staff and volunteers.  Prior to the Tiffany exhibition, Nathan had never used a router.  But he and the team proceeded to cut and assemble scores of intricate, oversized orchids, irises, and other plants in wood and brightly colored acrylic to reflect Tiffany’s famous stained glass at a gardens-size scale.

Nathan Burnaman holds a colored flower made of wood and acrylic while installing a display during Selby Gardens' 2023 Goldstein Exhibition, "Tiffany: The Pursuit of Beauty in Nature."


The year-round exhibition schedule leaves little time between shows, and deadlines don’t budge.  “Of all the character attributes of the job, being able to adapt is one of the most important,” Nathan says.  “Because we’re usually doing something new and complex.  It’s stressful, but it’s pretty satisfying when all is said and done and you know what you had to do to make it work.”

His outward calm and easygoing manner tend to mask any angst Nathan might feel when problems arise—and they always do.  Earned experience and quiet confidence tell him he’ll find a way.  “The most gratifying part is when an installation gets far enough along where you look at it and say, ‘Wow, that looks just like the 3D model I made!’” he says.

Avant Garden

The Selby Gardens creative team might start with 100 or more installation ideas for a given show, before eventually working down to about a dozen and a half between the Conservatory and the outdoor Gardens.  It can be tough to pick a favorite each time, but one vignette in the current exhibition ranks high for Nathan right now.  “I think my favorite is the entrance to the Museum of Botany & the Arts,” he says.  Dubbed Moments of Levity, it’s a bed of chartreuse foliage over which some 800 river rocks “float” at different heights.

The effect required drilling holes into those 800 rocks to perch them on stainless steel rods.  “I couldn’t find any information on how to drill a shallow hole into a river rock, which is an extremely hard rock,” says Nathan. “There is information on how to drill a hole all the way through, but not just partway through.  So, I had to rig quite a strange contraption using different tools to actually accomplish it.”

With each show, Nathan and the team add a new material or fabrication technique to their repertoire.  That keeps it interesting for him and, most importantly, for the visitor.  “What it all comes down to is repeat visitation and providing value to having a membership or wanting to visit the Gardens,” he says.  “We want to get people back and out into nature.”

Yayoi Kusama:  A Letter to Georgia O’Keeffe is on view now through June at Selby Gardens’ Downtown Sarasota campus. Learn more and plan a visit here.

About Barancik Foundation

The Charles and Margery Barancik family has long believed in the power of philanthropy to shape our world and enrich the lives of all people. It was the expression of this belief that led them in 2014 to establish Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation—a private, family foundation located in Sarasota, Florida.

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