Susan Goethel Campbell’s “Garden Repairs” traverses the intersection of natural and man-made worlds


Garden Repair No. 2, 2024 Stains from black walnut, iron oxide and dye on Japanese paper with hand embroidery 55” x 88”

Susan Goethel Campbell, Garden Repair No. 2, 2024. Stains from black walnut, iron oxide and dye on Japanese paper with hand-embroidery. 55” x 88”. Photo by Tim Thayer.

Not long before visiting Ferndale-based artist Susan Goethel Campbell’s Garden Repairs installation at the U-M’s Institute of the Humanities, I’d shared a photograph on social media of a cluster of snow-dusted daffodils in my backyard, shriveled and hunched over. I’d been struck by how often nature mirrors human gesture; how these flowers visibly conveyed what many of us were feeling that morning, as we pulled winter coats and gloves back out of our closets, just days after walking around in shorts. I’d wondered if the natural world shaped the way our physical bodies communicate emotion, or if this is all, in fact, subtle, visible evidence of our inter-relationship with each other.

As it happens, this train of thought was a perfect foundation for experiencing Campbell’s work, which marries the natural and man-made worlds in surprising ways.

Contained within one small, street-level gallery at U-M’s Institute for the Humanities on Thayer Street, Garden Repairs offers visitors the opportunity to engage with a handful of Campbell’s unidentified works in an almost confrontational way—for without the usual wall placards indicating each piece’s title and the materials used, you have nothing to look at or think about but the works themselves, and how they interact with each other in the space.

Curator Amanda Krugliak, in a statement displayed outside the installation, suggests that Garden Repairs is a meditation “on the natural cycles of the garden—from planting to growth and decay to rebirth—as potentially reparative and offering perspective in a present day of precarity and loss.” And indeed, the first large piece I met in the space was a dun-colored print, with small cut-outs and holes of varying sizes, through which a bright yellow peeks through. The holes and shapes subtly form the shape of sunflowers, with petals falling earthward; and the closer you look, the more flowers you spot, along with yellow pigment trailing down the white wall beneath the print. 

The piece put me in the mind of a flower that somehow manages to grow between concrete sidewalk squares. No matter how much man builds, nature keeps finding a way.

Garden Repair No. 1, 2024 Woodblock print, and stains from eucalyptus/iron oxide, on Japanese paper with hand-cut perforations 55” x 59.5”

Susan Goethel Campbell, Garden Repair No. 1, 2024. Woodblock print, and stains from eucalyptus/iron oxide, on Japanese paper with hand-cut perforations. 55” x 59.5”. Photo by Tim Thayer.

As if building on this idea, the next work seemed to juxtapose industrial clouds of gray with the verdant greens, yellows, and oranges of the natural world. White connective tissue, with tiny holes poked throughout, gives the piece texture and an organic sense of fragility—as if the balance between worlds depends on something as delicate as lace. (This was my favorite piece, as it joyfully embraces its contradictions.) Campbell also uses bursts of hand-stitching to create the illusion of flowers, marrying the world of man and nature— since the artist’s hand, in this case, is the one creating flowers.

The next prints return us to a muted palette, with subtle, small bits of bright green sewn in and peeking through. For even in the garden’s moment of decay, there are still hints of life’s imminent return. And though the final print’s image suggests wilted flowers in their last throes, the yellow pigment on the wall again suggests a replanting; a rejection of this as the end.

Besides Campbell’s prints, three of her “stacks” are part of U-M’s installation. Made from plastic muffin trays and plastic rotisserie trays, which Campbell repurposes as grass-growing planters, she stacks several vertically onto a pole. In the end, they each resemble a small skyscraper—but a structure perhaps more at home on the Ewok planet Endor than our familiar Earth cities. Regardless, the neat, architectural columns are a small wonder, challenging our sense of the seemingly insolvable problem of plastic. Through these works, Campbell makes you question whether we’re just thinking about our climate change problems in too narrow a way.

Susan Goethel Campbell, Survival Brick, 2024 (Edition of 7). Acrylic medium on box, and polycarbonate filled with seeds, soil, water. 2.75” x 8.75” x 4.25”. Images courtesy of David Klein Gallery and the Institute for the Humanities Gallery.

Susan Goethel Campbell, Survival Brick, 2024 (Edition of 7). Acrylic medium on box, and polycarbonate filled with seeds, soil, water. 2.75” x 8.75” x 4.25”. Photo by Tim Thayer.

Meanwhile, Campbell’s Survival Brick—created specifically for Garden Repairs—contains what we might need to start again: seeds, water, and dirt; and this “survival kit” appears again in the transparent frame that partly surrounds the installation’s eye-catching centerpiece, Building Repair, which was inspired by a blueprint for the building where the installation lives (Thayer Academic Building). Hung from the ceiling, with six grass-sprouting, mat-like horizontal levels (with the lowest hovering above a square of untamed grasses), the piece is again architectural, encouraging a thoughtful marriage of, instead of a battle between, nature and man’s creations.

Garden Repairs is a balm in the form of art. Our ecological future is scary, and Campbell’s work acknowledges that. But it’s also comforting to consider that despite all our flaws—and they are legion—we might still find ways to meet our natural world in the middle.

Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.

"Garden Repairs" by Susan Goethel Campbell runs through May 3 at the Institute for the Humanities Gallery, 202 South Thayer Street, Ann Arbor. Admission is free. For gallery hours, more information, and visit