Artist Kija Lucas’ selection of framed images highlight indigenous and introduced botanical specimens, as well as tools and supplies for plant propagation (such as a seed collection envelope with a handwritten note affixed to it).
Upon entering Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, you may have noticed a small tile-roofed building just behind the main gate. A mere 100 square feet in size, the historic military guardhouse is a diminutive reminder of the fort’s original purpose as a site of surveillance and defense. The structure’s relationship to aggression and protection makes it an ideal venue for a photographic installation by artist Kija Lucas that debuts a new body of work reflecting on the techniques that shape our relationship to plants and our understanding of nature over time. The show, on view through March 12, is also the first iteration of For-Site Foundation’s The Guardhouse Program, which will commission three artists a year to create work for the space in alignment with the nonprofit’s mission to support art about place.
While occasional programming has activated the guardhouse — including interventions by artists Sofia Ramos (2018) and Matt Goldberg (2019) — this recently established program, maintained in partnership with FMCAC, is ongoing. Artists can apply through an open call, and those selected receive a fee and funds to cover production-related expenses. In addition to greater visibility and resources for art and artists, The Guardhouse Program will provide more visibility for For-Site, the 20-year-old organization that presents large-scale thematic exhibitions roughly every 18 months — a goal that founding executive director and chief curator Cheryl Haines notes emerged in its 2022 strategic plan.
For-Site curator Lisa Ellsworth, having followed Lucas’ work for almost a decade, engaged the artist. “I’ve always admired how Kija’s work supports looking at difficult subject matter even when it is deeply complicated and personal,” says Ellsworth. “It seemed like a natural fit for thinking through the natural and cultural significance of the guardhouse.” A Bay Area native and daughter of a gardener, Lucas is keenly aware of her natural surroundings. The proverbial seed for this work emerged when, while walking in the Presidio, she noticed a patch of grass that had been marked as an endangered species and realized that “it appears wild, but it’s actually very planned and managed,” Lucas recalls. “And it made me wonder what other threatened organisms might be going unnoticed.”
With Ellsworth’s support and For-Site’s connections, Lucas worked with the Presidio Nursery, which cultivates the indigenous plants used in restoration efforts across the Presidio and other park sites. Staff granted Lucas access to photograph indigenous plants as well as the tools utilized to conserve and cultivate them. Through the project, she came to understand the complexity of her relationship to the ecosystem, as the plants she considered reminders of “home” — such as blue gum eucalyptus, fennel and ice plant — are all invasive species that, due to their introductions by human settlers, have endangered the indigenous species that the Presidio Nursery now aims to save.
Thus for the installation, which is viewed through the windows, Lucas hung framed images of Franciscan manzanita (which is both indigenous and endangered), seed packets and clippers from the nursery on walls she covered in wallpaper. For the first use of wallpaper in her practice, she designed a floral composition that employs her own photographs of familiar invasive species, made with her signature flatbed-scanning technique. This process highlights the delicacy in each specimen while the background is reduced to blackness, allowing for meaning to be created in the images’ relationships to each other. Held within the guardhouse — once a line of defense that now welcomes visitors — Lucas’ work gives shape to the layered complexity of human agency as it exerts its power through time and space.