Jessica Rath: Take Me To the Apple Breeder

Jessica Rath: Take Me To the Apple Breeder

February 6, 2013
Photo by: Jessica Rath. Kazakhstan Elite, Deacon Jones, Unnamed Cluster (L-R)

Jessica Rath is neither a pomologist nor a horticulturalist. She's not even particularly fond of eating apples. The Los Angeles-based artist's interest in apples is, as she says, purely philosophical. With photography and ceramics, Rath has produced a body of work that looks at the beauty, diversity, and existential dilemma of the apple: how do apples propagate, and how do varieties survive? In her current exhibit, "take me to the apple breeder," at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, a wall of austere portraiture of bare apple trees stands opposite a series of idealized ceramic apple forms: a conversation between the perfect fruits and the gnarled trees that bear them. This past Sunday at PMCA, the artist discussed her work with Dr. Susan Brown, an apple breeder, and curator Kristina Newhouse. 

Rath tells a small gallery audience that her work, which tends to probe the intersection of the built and natural worlds, turned to apples several years ago when she was inspired by a metaphor in Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire. Discussing the evolution and diversity of the apple, Pollan describes the research orchards at Cornell University's Plant Genetics Resource Unit as a "botanic ark [that] runs the pomological gamut from Adam's Pearmain, and antique English apple, to the German Zucalmagio," and includes "every variety discovered in America since the Roxbury Russet distinguished itself in a cider orchard outside Boston in 1645." The 50-acre tree archive is a living repository of apple diversity; many of the apples at PGRU grow only there, and no where else in the world. 

Rath was fascinated by a central dilemma of the apple's life cycle: Like many perennial fruits, the apple reproduces asexually, which is to say that the seeds of a fruit will not generate a second generation that resembles the first. It's likely the tree's fruits will not be edible at all. Instead, apple trees must be grafted if the new tree is to yield a reliably similar harvest. There are about 7,500 varieties of apples in the world, and the preservation dilemma is clear: a mere seed bank is useless. An apple tree of every variety must be kept alive and healthy if a subsequent generation is to be grafted. Thus the PGRE really is an ark of biblical proportions. 

Rath raised funds to travel to Geneva, NY, where Philip Forsline, curator of the apple collection, introduced the artist to the fruits, in particular those he had collected in Kazakhstan, where apple originated, and the only habitat where wild apples still grow. Rath brought several hundred apples back to Los Angeles and purchased a second fridge to keep them cold while she worked on a series of ceramic pieces, representing the diversity of form—small, large, round, oblong—and color—yellow, red, spotted, blushed—of nine varieties. 

While Rath was working in the archival orchard, a scientist at the adjacent breeding program suggested she take a look at their new trees—the fields of experimental hybrids, representing both the apples that might wind up in every kid's future lunchbox, as well as those that won't see a second generation. Interested in the architectural diversity of the trees, Rath returned in winter to photograph them leafless and revealed. She brought a fashion photographer because she wanted to trees to be bodies, not scientific specimens. 

Sisters Weeping. 32" x 41", archival pigment print on exhibition fiber. Photo credit: Jessica Rath

In the gallery, the result is a stark line-up of skeletal trees, photographed on a white seamless backdrop, with different forms and heights. Dr. Brown tells us that the columnar varieties have strong central trunks, while the so-called weeping trees are most difficult to grow, but more lucrative–the flimsy, thin branches allow the tree to allocate more nutrients for the apples, which are large and numerous. The variety in form comes from grafting: the rootstock of a first tree, with the scion bud of a second. Even the leaves of each tree are different. 

In an excellent interview with KRCW, Rath considers the Cornell orchards: 

"The work is incredibly important. They work on curating what we know of the past, and breeding. There are only three breeders in the country. She [Dr. Brown] is the one who understands these trees. I think of them as people who are connected to genetic work of the apple, but completely devoted to diversity and maintaining the genetic material necessary to provide for the world. If they fail, we're in trouble."

Rath's work makes me consider the journey of the Honeycrisp apple (Malus domestica "Honeycrisp") I had with lunch today. Its story began not at my local market, but many millenia ago in Kazakhstan, where Malus sieversii, the mother of the domestic apple, was plucked from wild trees, its seeds dispersed along the Silk Route. Eventually European apples made their way across the Atlantic, where Johhny Appleseed intoxicated the new world with hard apple cider. A subsequent public health campaign reinvented the apple's image as a healthy edible, and varieties like the Honeycrisp (grafted in 1960, released in 1990) was developed over several decades of grafting, planting, testing, and branding.

Someone in the audience asked Dr. Brown about the naming of apples, and she discussed the tension between the market and the fruit. More than most fruits, the skin of an apple can be deceptive. A sweet flesh may be concealed under a ghastly sheath, as was the case of a recent variety she bred. It's the best apple you've ever eaten, she said, but its mottled, misshapen skin was atrocious to behold. It would be a pity to deny consumers the luscious gem, so a smart marketing campaign is their only hope. The solution? Naming it "Good Personality." Of course. As Rath emphasizes in her work, apples breed genetically different children, just like people. And, according to Dr. Brown, a good personality can eclipse a superficial blemish. 

Briefly, an apple aside: The Latin for apple and evil are the same: malus, which might have led biblical scholars to interprete the Biblical forbidden fruit as an apple (it's also speculated that a pomegranate launched the fall of man). Also, the larynx's so-called "Adam's apple" is named for the putative fruit that stuck in Adam's throat. 


Dulcina 6” x 6” x 6”, high-fire glazed porcelain. Photo credit: Jessica Rath

Jessica Rath's "take me to the apple breeder" is at the Pasadena Museum of California Art through February 24.