Playing with Light and Flora at Oak Spring Garden

From Fine Arts Department Chair Julie Fisher

A perfect union between the arts and sciences coalesced during two separate events this past week at the Oak Spring Garden Foundation in Upperville, VA. Home to alumna Rachel “Bunny” Mellon ’29, this connection between Foxcroft and the Oak Spring estate made these experiences all the more meaningful.
First, our photography and biology classes traveled to the estate to collect plants and experiment with cameraless techniques using sunlight to make impressions on paper. Nina W. ’24 explained, “We walked around the beautiful garden and got to see all the different plants. Each group was assigned one plant, and we took photos of it. After that, we got to work with our plants and turn them into three different types of pictures.” 

The first challenge was to create an anthotype using the plant itself to extract the photo emulsion. “I liked working in the dark room and being able to grind up the plant and squeeze the juice out of it using the cheesecloth,” shared Raquel L. ’25. “There was a lot of teamwork involved, and it was cool to work with people that I haven't really worked with before.” Assigned at random, groups worked together, first coating the paper with the plant material, then arranging the leaves and flowers on top, and finally, leaving it in the sun to expose for more than 12 hours. 

For the second technique, students used a cyanotype solution for a much shorter 15-minute exposure. This process achieved a rich, cyan blue print. The third and final print was a lumen, made by exposing a plant on darkroom photographic paper to the sunlight. Each process yielded unique results. Philippa P. ’25 reflected, “I think it was interesting to experiment with the different plants and connect Biology with Photography. I was surprised by how different every plant turned out on paper. Some were unexpectedly pretty cool!” 

Immense joy was felt by all just being in this magical setting. “I had no idea that somewhere that beautiful was so close to us,” observed Shea G. ’25. “I was surprised when we arrived at very organized gardens and areas, each with its own plants and plant types. After we left, I learned how important it is to understand each plant and its properties. Even more so, how it is used in everyday life.” This project will live on in a collaborative exhibit, including a printed field guide with pages dedicated to the light impressions, the flora characteristics, and the connection between Foxcroft and Oak Spring.

Artist and MacArthur Fellow Elizabeth Turk — who spoke during Morning Meeting about a collective art experience she was conducting at Oak Spring just days after our field trip — was impressed to hear that Bunny designed our Library Courtyard with its iconic fox and hound statues. She was equally enamored with the sweeping panoramic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains that encircle the estate, one of the reasons she chose it as the site of her Ridgeline Project, which she opened to local private and public schools.

In collaboration with the Oak Spring Garden Foundation and the Piedmont Environmental Council, Turk explored endangered plants native to our area. She then created hundreds of umbrellas adorned with patterns of the plants layered with patterns of their immediate threats. The umbrellas were illuminated and dispersed to students, teachers, and families at sunset. “I loved the creativity of the Ridgeline Project and the opportunity to be a part of art,” offered History teacher Stephanie Young ’00. “I loved that it was a family event. It was a great example of community building. I also liked being a part of a conservation effort in a fun way.” 

Our students also worked with sidewalk chalk to engage children in artistic play. Madison B. ’24 recalls, “A few other volunteer members and I decided to draw the sun from "Tangled" on the pavement with the provided chalk. We even had other kids at the event join us in creating the details. It made me realize that I have much more fun when I simply live in the moment and am not afraid to embrace my inner princess.” 

A professional dance performance and energetic music inspired creative movements, while a drone captured the patterns of dancing umbrellas and blinking lights from above. “The Ridgeline Project was joyful and moving,” reflected STEM teacher Dr. Meghen Tuttle. “Participating as a volunteer was rewarding, and being a part of the ephemeral art exhibit was incredibly fun. I loved the event's different stations and how children (of all ages) were engaged in different sustainability-related activities. Elizabeth was relatable and engaging, and the entire event was inspiring.” 

The Foxcroft community benefited immensely from both of these experiences at Oak Spring estate, taking away an appreciation for nature and a reminder to be joyful and just play.
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An all-girls boarding and day school in Northern Virginia, Foxcroft prepares young women in grades 9-12 for success in college and in life. Our outstanding academic program offers challenging courses, including Advanced Placement classes and an innovative STEM program. Our premiere equestrian program is nationally recognized, and our athletic teams have won conference and state championships. Experience the best in girls' boarding schools: visit Foxcroft.