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Meet: Tony Lennon, botanical sculptor

Photo - Robin Powell


Tony Lennon shapes rock, tree fern or bone to create a home for an orchid, which wraps its roots into its host to form a living sculpture. Robin Powell talked with him about his work.

Tell us a bit about how you work. Do you start with a rock that is looking for an orchid, or with an orchid that’s looking for a home?

I have a collection of stone - from a nearby quarry and my own property - and I have a very big nursery of orchids. I pull out some rocks, think about what I have in the orchid world and then marry them up. I might be working on up to 100 orchids, exotic and native and various hosts, but the work is mainly Sydney’s native orchids with tree fern and sandstone.

How much do you need to alter the rock to make it a home for an orchid.

I might not alter it all if it is a piece of bush rock lying around on the property. I would just work the orchid onto the rock by tying it on, or layering it, like you would with a rhododendron, padding it with a mix of tree fern, charcoal and leaf matter. I put it in a favourable position with morning sun, under some protection and leave it.

How long does it take to establish itself?

It can happen in a matter of months – even faster if I use tree fern for a host, or quarried stone which I can cut a slot in - generally though, 12 months is a good time period for viable orchid penjing.


Photo - Sheffer Gallery Exhibition 2013


Why do refer to them as orchid penjing?

When I worked at Powerhouse a colleague commented that my work reminded her of penjing, which I had never heard of. Penjing is the Chinese art of the table landscape, the forerunner of Japanese bonsai. I was wondering how I could describe what it was that I was doing, and I settled on orchid penjing.


People think of orchids as high maintenance plant material. Do you find that?

Not at all. They are high maintenance only if you don’t observe how they grow in nature – on rocks and in trees. Most gardeners have experience only with cymbidiums; not native orchids, which is rather sad. Cymbidiums grow well in pots, but you can’t do that easily with Sydney orchids. I wanted to grow them the way they grow in nature, so I made rock containers.


You also use tree ferns stems as homes for orchids.

Tree ferns and orchids are perfect for each other. And it’s even easier than growing them on stone. You just tie them onto the tree fern. Or the root ball, if you are lucky enough to have one. A tree fern root ball is a beautiful sculptural host.


Photo - Sheffer Gallery Exhibition 2013


What’s the difference between a gardener and an artist?

I don’t think there’s any difference. I’d like to see those barriers broken down. Art galleries tend to be dominated by the human face and body, but I think it’s good to bring plants and flowers into the gallery. A sad thing in the in the 20th century is that modern art has seen beauty as something not worth looking at. I think that is crazy. I’m interested in beauty.


See more of Tony work’s at Keep an eye out for upcoming exhibitions, when Tony often runs accompanying workshops on creating orchid penjing. 

Text: Robin Powell

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Author: Robin Powell