Update, Part 1: “The Phantom Leaves. . . Beautiful in Death”


“. . .Patterns make themselves from the interplay of physical and chemical forces on materials living and non-living. The result is an ever-changing, kaleidoscopic array of forms.”
-by Phillip Ball

This work is ethereal and unearthly, but the material comes from the earth. A mimicry of environmental destruction and of the decay process. It is a copy, a remnant of what once was. A shadow of the degraded landscape. What is left is something that cannot be returned to its original state and is forever altered.

Disclaimer: This blog is long, it’s a documentation of what I’ve done so far. I think it will come in handy later during thesis writing so, it exists.

The Process

Some leaves need more care while others get ripped and torn apart. Both are important, I don’t discard or set aside the ones that may not be as perfect as they could be. Each leaf has it’s own materialistic qualities that require either more or less time in the cleaning process. This project has as much to do with the ideas behind the work as it does with process and material study. Found in the hills of Appalachia and beyond. . . the material is important to this particular environment which continues to be exploited as well as the people of this area.

The leaves are handled multiple times to get to their final state. Collected (all were collected in Oct/Nov. 2014), sorted, boiled, rinsed, rinsed again, scraped, rinsed, bleached, scraped again, rinsed and then left to air dry. In pots of about 100-300 leaves each (depends on which pot I use) they are boiled with sodium carbonate for an hour or more. Then they are either left to sit for a few days or rinsed. Most were boiled in November. Once the sodium carbonate is rinsed off I let them sit for a few weeks or months. This helps decomposition. This entire process is an accelerated decomposition process.

Combining common household items and a natural material (maple leaves) I have produced (with the help of a few others) almost 1,600 skeletonized leaves and more are in process. These leaves will be used for an installation as my thesis work. Originally, I was planning a wall painting or drawings but this is still to be determined.

Most of these leaves were created over the last 4 weeks. While it is hard to say exactly how many hours it took, I attempted to keep track of week 4 and it was about 50-60 hours for a rough estimate of 350-400 leaves, give or take a few. 10-15 of those hours were logged by additional helpers, combined with my time in the studio of at least 40 hours. Ahh math, this is a rough estimate, but should be pretty close. Keep in mind that I have 3 others that are contributing to the process which is helping tremendously. Actually, it is unlikely that I could make that many by myself in that short amount of time.


The tradition of skeletonizing leaves has a long history. If you are interested click here & here for a quick reference. I have been interested in the second link which is a book written in 1863 called, The Phantom Bouquet by Edward Parrish (romanticism period). I came across this resource last semester but didn’t revisit it until winter break. It’s funny that this embellished writing has been replaced with quick how-to’s on the internet that have about 5-10 points and a couple photo’s. Anyways, that is probably a point for a completely different discussion.

Below is an excerpt from the first chapter. Maybe it is pivotal to the process, to document these things here on the blog. There is something interesting that links this to my previous research of environmental issues and water systems, or maybe I just like this book. Either way it must be important. I think the language and references as well as the history of how this object (the leaf) was viewed, is relevant to my work.

It’s funny that the author describes it as something observable, beautiful, and ornamental that was to be preserved in the home as a decorative object. . . (A term that likes to surface from time to time)

I think it is important to research this process of skeletonizing leaves and understand its history even though in the natural world it is a process that is vital to ecosystems. It was elevated to a practice long before this book was written in Chinese culture. In a way, this book hits a nerve, especially when it is being described as a “revived art”. Which feels like an entirely different can of worms.

Regardless, it will be interesting to see what others have to say about this work. . .

The Phantom Bouquet, 1863 (page 6) historical introduction:

“. . .these plant-structures deprived of their grosser particles, and of such brilliant whiteness as to suggest the idea of perfectly bleached artificial lace-work or exquisite carving in ivory. This elegant parlor ornament was brought by returning travellers as a novel and choice trophy of their transatlantic wanderings: none could be procured in America, and no one to whom the perplexed admirer could appeal was able to give a clue to the process by which such surprising beauty and perfection of detail could be evolved from structures which generally rank among the least admired expansions of the tissue of the plant. 

“Beautiful In Death” Stereoscope card photographed by James Cremer.

The novelty of this spectacle [skeletonized leaves] then constituted one of its attractions need not be denied; for who that has learned to dwell familiarly on any object of unusual beauty, but can still recall the emotions of delight it created when for the first time it attracted the unaccustomed eye? Yet the “Phantom Case,” now that hundreds of pier-tables and étagère in city and country are garnished with its airy forms, and its photographic miniature, under the well-chosen motto, “Beautiful in Death,” is displayed in almost every stereoscope, still delights with a perennial charm, creating a desire, among all amateurs in matters of taste, to add an ornament so chaste to their household treasures. . . to this end, an unpretending though sincere lover of nature proposes to lay before his fellows of that genial fraternity which knows neither sex nor nation, simple and easy art, which, while it will prove a pleasurable addition to the arcana of home-occupations, will in its results add to the tasteful embellishments of the household. . .

. . . Reader, suppose not that this elegant art for which we have no more elegant name than skeletonizing, is any thing new under the sun. Place it rather among the lost arts revived; for among the quaint old curiosities to be found in the houses of retired sea captains and East India traders you will often find . . .”

If anything this is an interesting read into an era from a time that is strange and unearthly itself. . .

Why a leaf? Part two. . . sometime soon.

2 responses to “Update, Part 1: “The Phantom Leaves. . . Beautiful in Death”

  1. OMG, Kim, I love, love, love this!!! No, I don’t just love it; I lerve it! Beautiful images and beautiful exposition. Also reminds me of something in art history I read about this week in Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch: the tradition in painting of natures mortes. Not sure if that relates, but what you say here reminded me of it.  xoxoxoxo Kathleen

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