Naoko Wowsugi and Valerie Wiseman
Naoko Wowsugi and Valerie Wiseman Credit: Elizabeth Tuten

The patient intake form for a lifeless Christmas cactus reads like a semi-neglectful parent’s guilty defense. Yes, the environment was humid and not very sunny, but it was loving. Perhaps the cactus was exposed to too much cold air, but it was wanted, purchased either in Colorado or at a Baltimore hardware store—the plant parent doesn’t remember. 

The cactus was admitted to Very Sad Lab in Georgetown on May 18, when D.C. multi-disciplinary artists Naoko Wowsugiand Valerie Wiseman, the lab’s creators, had an open house. It’s already showing signs of improvement. “Too much water, too little water, too much sun, too little sun, something ate it, the air conditioner is blowing on it, it’s next to the radiator—those are the common plant problems in urban dwellings,” says Wiseman. 

Very Sad Lab is a safe space for serial houseplant killers. It takes in ailing houseplants for short-or long-term stays, where Wowsugi and Wiseman examine, diagnose, and create treatment plans. “We’ll work with both the plant and the plant caregiver to develop that relationship and give them the tools they need to bring that plant back into their home,” Wiseman says. “The point is to rehab the plant caregivers, too. We’re interested in home visits; we’ll offer a concierge service because a big part of it is needing to know the environment.”

“This snake plant, its diagnosis is that it was told it wasn’t wanted,” she says. “The person who brought it in said, ‘I hate the pot it’s in, I hate the plant, I don’t want it.’ It’s going to stay here indefinitely, it was a surrender case. Its care plan is more sun, more love.”

Wiseman started the first Sad Lab in January of 2018 as part of a show at Montgomery College in Germantown, Maryland. “It was a group show, and I rehabbed houseplants in the gallery. I was living in a basement apartment in D.C., as one does, and needed to get those plants out of there,” Wiseman recalls. The two artists and amateur botanists turned Wiseman’s Sad Lab into Very Sad Lab, which will have more community engagement, while collaborating on Wowsugi’s March 2019 mushroom-themed project The Fungus Among Us, for which Wiseman drew illustrations. 

Wowsugi is known for community-based art projects—she led gong baths, in which she plays a gong while nearby listeners recline and relax, at this June’s By The People arts festival—and she had been working with superfood plants. She is interested in how plants and nature impact human culture and activity. “There’s not much nature in D.C., so instead people do houseplants, in-house farming,” she says. In 2016, her show Permacounterculture brought local punk acts and a wheatgrass greenhouse to Hamiltonian Gallery for a series of concerts. The idea was that the sound waves of the music and the CO2 of the crowd nourished the wheatgrass, which in turn nourished the participants when it was juiced. “The wheatgrass gushed after every show,” Wowsugi says. “It grew so much.” 

In the absence of live punk music, the plants at the lab are treated to Wowsugi’s gong practice and a playlist Wiseman found on Spotify called “music for plants,” on which The Mystic Moods Orchestra and composer Alexandre Desplat feature heavily. “When plants are growing in nature, they’re getting all sorts of vibrations from the ground,” Wowsugi says. “There have been many studies on the healing of sound waves.”

The Very Sad Lab studio is part of Wowsugi’s Halcyon Arts Lab fellowship—a nine-month residency that culminated in the By The People festival. D.C.-based fellows can use the Halcyon Arts Lab studio space in Georgetown for an additional year beyond the festival. 

“This studio is perfect for plants,” Wiseman says of the cavernous room in the former school house, where seedlings propagate in glass bottles along the window sills, a compost bin in the corner turns dead plants into soil, and shelves of convalescing plants glow under magenta light. “With the high ceilings, they can breathe.” 

“Magenta is the opposite of green, so they grow better,” Wowsugi explains. “They grow six times faster with the magenta light.” 

Very Sad Lab itself will grow much faster thanks to a one-time grant from the D.C. chapter of the Awesome Foundation, which funds a spectrum of creative ideas. “They micro-fund, it’s a ‘seed’ grant, so it’s perfect,” Wowsugi jokes. The pair recently received the money and are attempting to officially launch in a few weeks.

They had originally applied for a standard Awesome Foundation grant in April, but were not selected. Then, they were invited to an Awesome Foundation live pitch event.

Chris Mihm, a trustee for the foundation’s D.C. chapter, saw another opportunity for Very Sad Lab to win funding when a collaboration with the Awesome Libraries Chapter led to a library-themed live pitch night. “It just so happens that in their initial grant proposal, they had some ideas where they could take their combining art and plants and social movement with libraries,” he says. “They were talking about doing curated, art-driven pamphlets on how to take care of plants, as well as plant-lending libraries, and they’d already identified a D.C. library.” 

Wowsugi says she and Wiseman asked everyone at the Awesome Foundation pitch, “Have you ever had a plant?” Everyone raised their hands. The next question was “Have you ever made them sad?” Everyone kept their hands up. It’s a common failure, she says, and she likes channeling that human failure into something positive. 

With their sad plants and coveralls, Wowsugi and Wiseman took home the $788 fan favorite (and fan-funded) award. The library through which the pair is proposing to run a pop-up Very Sad Lab is Woodridge Library, which has a rooftop garden and is next to a park. 

The two are currently working with the library’s schedule, still in conversation about the details of the program. They’ve proposed a pop-up clinic, plant adoption days, a curated book section on plant care, and easy-to-follow takeaway materials so that people have good, accessible information. 

“We want to get more sad plants into the lab, so this collaboration with the library is a chance to promote, to get the word out,” Wiseman says. “Let us help you take care of your plants, you don’t have to just throw it out in the alley and buy a new one.” 

The Georgetown studio will continue to be Very Sad Lab’s main location, and those who want to get a plant diagnosis can reach out through Instagram or email to set up a time to visit. There will also be public events in the space throughout the next year. Between the public events and the library collaboration, Wowsugi and Wiseman hope to make plant parenthood more accessible.

“There are so many great plant places in D.C., but it’s hard because everything in D.C. is so expensive, plants are expensive—it’s an extraneous expense,” Wiseman says. “It’s a little bit of a privilege to be able to buy one, so we’re hoping to make some of these plant adoptions accessible to people who might not normally buy plants. We’re propagating these spider plants to give away,” she says, gesturing to the window of mineral water bottles overflowing with foliage. 

While the project has a scientific core encompassing botany, Very Sad Lab is still about art. “The whole thing is a living art project,” Wiseman says, adding that the team is creating artsy educational plant care booklets. “We’re calling them ‘LEAFlets,’” Wowsugi interjects gleefully. “If you’ve made a plant sad, join this art project. Be an artist.”

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