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Art People: vegetation with a taste for meat



Takeshi Yamada stands over a small aquarium filled with vibrantly green and red plants. Tweezers in hand, he offers to pluck a spider from its nearby web and demonstrate how the hinged leaves of a Venus's-flytrap snap shut around its prey.

I talk him into feeding it part of a plant-food stick instead. He holds a white morsel in the tweezers and pushes it against the tiny hairs inside the leaves. On the second contact the leaves slam shut.

"Plants are usually food for the animal. With these, animals are food for the plant. It makes you think--things could be the other way around," says Yamada, an artist who usually does what he calls neo-photo-realistic paintings of people in motion in front of buildings. But he also does paintings of carnivorous plants, which have been widely exhibited; they vibrate with life, recalling snakes, clams, pinwheels, and sex organs.

Several years ago Yamada became enthralled with a friend's Venus's-flytrap. He read up on the strange plants and bought his first one at Kmart in 1995. He now has 15 carnivorous plants, most acquired through catalogs. They sit in tiny pots made from the bottoms of plastic cups, which float on a shallow puddle of water in the aquarium. The collection includes royal red and red dragon flytraps, as well as the rare Thomas Carrow, which mail-order houses have stopped carrying. The market is small, and Yamada says it's getting harder and harder to find the plants. "People don't know how to take care of them," he says. "It requires a special technique. For most people it's a one-year-and-die novelty item. Charles Darwin called it the most wonderful creature in the world."

Carnivorous plants, which are found around the world, live where other plants cannot--usually in acidic soil in high-humidity areas such as bogs or lakes. Instead of relying on food from the soil and water, they get their nutrients from bugs--ants, flies, roaches, centipedes, spiders, mosquitoes. Some work like flypaper--a sticky substance that coats the leaves traps prey species when they alight. Others have brightly colored leaves shaped like cups. The leaves attract insects, and the cups hold water that drowns them. Larger species can grow as high as 15 inches, and the remains of snakes, frogs, and birds have been found inside.

"These plants were totally beyond my comprehension," says Yamada. "It's a reminder for me--if you limit your world and think that something is a certain way, you lose out."

Yamada's plants and illustrations, as well as related reference materials, will be on display through August 30 at the Yamada Art Center, 1336 W. Ohio. It's open from 1 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday by appointment only. Admission is free. Call 312-243-0032. --Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Yakeshi Yamada and plant illustration photos by Katrina Wittkamp.

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