Plants float in mirror glass cubes filled with fluorescent sand in a storefront window. It’s nighttime and Lauren Wilson and Madison van Rijn are carefully building their latest plant-based installation at Palm Sunday salon. Tonight’s theme is “Cosmic L.A.” and the two artists meticulously hoist and descend plants like puppeteers behind the stage of a glowing palm tree. I stare in enchantment as a cactus takes flight like a hot air balloon into Harbord Street. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
For those who aren’t familiar, Wild Altar is a plant mural company comprising floral artist Lauren Wilson of Timberlost and illustrator Madison van Rijn. What began as a decorative plant mural in Lauren’s bedroom transformed into a collaborative art project to tell stories with plants. Bridging the gap between nature and art, Wild Altar has planted its roots in sacred spaces across the city with plant murals in Wychwood Barns and local businesses like Victoire Boutique, Glory Hole Doughnuts and Bolt Fresh Bar.
Fascinated by the craft, I met with Wilson and van Rijn to chat about Wild Altar.
Where did the name “Wild Altar” come from?
LW: We were building a plant mural for fun in my bedroom using wildflowers that we foraged, and then I just said it: “Madison, how about Wild Altar?” We thought it defined the basis of our brand, which is to create sacred installations where rituals take place.
MVR: I loved it.
What types of projects have you worked on so far?
MVR: We’ve been so lucky to work with businesses that we support ourselves (Bolt Fresh Bar, Victoire Boutique, etc.) that are open-minded to our vision. We have so many ideas, and we want to work with businesses that are as excited as we are about them.
LW: One of our first clients was Bolt Fresh Bar; we did two murals for them. One using tropical plants, succulents and cool plants like Protea. It was amazing. We also do weddings and events. The plant pieces work well for weddings because that means we can use the most perishable and vibrant items. When we don’t have to use dry goods, we can go all out and have fun with it.
How do you connect plants with brands?
LW: Clients often will come to us with a rough concept. We’ve been fortunate enough that a lot of businesses have just said, “We’ve got this space. What do you guys want to do with it?” Sometimes, they’ll give us mood board words. We try and get a strong feel for each client’s brand. Their branding is very important to us.
MVR: When there’s a space to work with, we like to imagine what type of plants exemplify the brand is as a whole and what kind of materials speak most to their brand.
How long do plant murals last?
MVR: There’s a whole dry flower market that will last forever. For Victoire, we made a mural using wheat sheaves, flowers, and dried roses. For Bolt Fresh Bar, we chose tropicals that are a bit hardier and put tubes on the stems, but it still only lasted one week. But that’s a part of the charm of Wild Altar: Some of the installations don’t last forever. It’s their transient nature that invites the observer in to reflect.
LW: We also offer a Wild Altar subscription service so that businesses can invest in an ongoing yearly subscription.
How are plants different from other art materials you’ve used in the past?
MVR: Plants are living, fragile and special. When we bring home a bunch of them, we’re taking care of them and giving them a new home. It’s much more of an emotional material than painting.
LW: My materials for Timberlost are plants, but for Wild Altar, we’re taking plants and bringing them into an art domain. It’s how it differs from my previous plant work. We enjoy building a narrative with natural materials.
Where do you get your plants from?
LW: There are a few suppliers in Mississauga, and we also go to greenhouses in Hamilton and the outskirts of the city.
MVR: We go foraging a lot too. That’s really how it all started. We liked collecting things, and we wanted to do something with all the beautiful pieces we found. Wild Altar was the answer to that.
Where do you pull inspiration from?
LW: We derive inspiration from our clients. The fashion designer that we want to work with is so inspiring to us. She has amazing taste, and that gets the conversation happening.
MVR: We often ask the people who inspire us, “We love what you’re doing. Do you want to make something together?” Collaboration is a huge part of each of our practices. Wedding floral, for instance, you’re working with a couple and working on something together to make it perfect. We’re constantly working to make something memorable and unique.
Follow Wild Altar here.