Magical Botanical Tour: Bishop’s School tile-art project uses smartphones to ID campus plant life


By Pat Sherman

The Bishop’s School students and those visiting campus will soon be able to identify more than 55 tropical and nonnative plant species on campus by using their smartphones.

Under the guidance of Bishop’s School artist-in-residence Nicholas Kripal, nearly 200 students created decorative tiles last week that will be mounted on pavers around campus, each near various plants. Each tile will contain the plant’s common and Latin name, its image and a Quick Response (QR) code. Once scanned, the QR code will direct the botanically inquisitive to a website designed by students that includes their photographs, paintings and illustrations of the plants, plus information on each species and the year it was added on campus.

Art and history students in grades 6-12 are photographing the plants and creating art for the website, as well as conducting interviews with the school’s longtime gardener, Betty Vale, and alumni who remember when the plants were added.

“They’re also doing some research on global warming and its effect on the plants, so it’s a long, ongoing process,” said Kripal, a renowned ceramics artist and chair of the crafts department at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Students in Sara Ahmed’s sixth-grade history class used maps to explore campus last week, sketching, researching and writing about their chosen plant.

“It’s a really fun project,” said student Ava Delonge, 11. “I like that we’re able to kind of go on our own and research it by ourselves. It’s like an independent sort of project. My plant is the giant bird of paradise. … Some cool facts are that it can grow up to three stories tall, it’s native to South Africa and the flowers look like birds.”

Logan Schwarz, 12, is researching bougainvillea.

“I’ve learned that it’s a vine that was discovered in Rio in 1768, that it can grow up walls vertically and has many flowers that are pink,” he said. “It’s kind of fun because … (this project) will be part of the school’s history forever.”

Each clay tile is embossed with a compass-like icon that was inspired by a bronze Episcopal cross that has graced the school’s Gilman Hall for decades. The cross image was transformed to a non-denominational compass to be relevant to students of all faiths, while its arms point to the various corners of the globe from which the plants originate, Kripal said.

Kripal was invited to tour the campus last fall by Visual Art instructor Jeremy Gercke, who was one of Kripal’s graduate students. During the visit, Kripal took photographs of the plants, which he used to create decals, which will be fired onto the tiles when placed in a kiln.

The entire project will take about a year to complete, though Kripal said some tiles should be in place by the end of the year.

As part of a group called Contemplations on the Spiritual, Kripal has created ceramic sculpture installations at sacred spaces across the country and abroad. Part of his residency at Bishop’s School was to educate students about his work on these projects, which include installations in Rome, Glasgow, Cologne, New York and elsewhere.

The Bishop’s School’s endowed scholar-in-residence program — established in 2003 by an anonymous donor — brings scholars in the fields of science, art humanities and social sciences to the campus for a week-long residency to inspire students and faculty academically and artistically. Since its inception, the school has hosted authors, artists, journalists a mathematician and others.