Staffer designs unique Lady Bird Johnson exhibit

Appreciation for the work and mission of Lady Bird Johnson and the native plants of America inspired designer Leslie Ernst to create an innovative and unique new exhibit in Washington, D.C. to honor the late First Lady.

Ernst, a designer in the Office of Public Affairs who created the exhibit for the Wildflower Center, was asked to help design the display after her noteworthy visual design work on the Center's Web site.

"The U.S. Botanic Garden invited the Wildflower Center to do a project honoring Mrs. Johnson," Ernst said. "It was to highlight her legacy around sustainability and environmentalism."

The Lady Bird Johnson exhibit, "A Clear Vision," is part of the United States Botanic Garden's Conservatory and National Garden summer 2008 exhibit, which continues through Oct. 13. The exhibit is in the new First Ladies Water Garden.

Johnson, who died July 11, 2007 at age 94, was a visionary environmental leader. She expressed her passion for native landscapes through beautification programs in Washington, D.C. and shared her environmental ethic when she helped open the Wildflower Center in Austin in 1982.

"My appreciation for Lady Bird Johnson has grown so much from working on this project and her eloquence is just amazing so there were plenty of materials to work from," Ernst said. "Saralee Tiede, communications director at the Wildflower Center, compiled some choice quotes from Mrs. Johnson and that was kind of the starting point for me."

In the exhibit, Johnson's words tell her story through quotations such as "The environment is where we all meet; where we all have a mutual is not only a mirror of ourselves, but a focusing lens on what we can become."

"When we were in the space I felt like the space was very formal. It's all bluestone and granite," Ernst said. "I started to notice that we were surrounded by circles - there is the Capitol Dome and the National Museum of the American Indian, that has beautiful curves to it.

"Because we had all these different metaphors that had to do with circles, I wanted to emphasize the circle."

The exhibit features Johnson's words floating on steel spirals in the granite and bluestone fountain that anchors the First Ladies Water Garden.

Exhibit messages about the value of native plants appear in unexpected, whimsical ways- on the underside of umbrellas that cover four seating areas and on stakes in native plant pots.

"The First Lady Water Garden is an area where people come to sit and have their lunch," Ernst said. "We wanted to build in this aspect of discovery so people could make their way through the site and engage with it at their own pace.

"Reading those circular quotes is kind of analogous to the way people walk the labyrinth. You don't get a straight read, you contemplate it.

"It was an amazing project in terms of the breadth of design from those 7-foot wide steel pieces to plant stakes and seed packets," Ernst said. "My background is in sculpture and installation but in the last 10 years, I have been working on graphic design. For me personally, this project brought both those aspects of work that I love."

Ernst said she worked closely with Office of Public Affairs graphics designer Tillie Policastro on the production of the seed packets and information cards for visitors to take home. She also worked with Jim Miller, from Austin Waterjet, who fabricated the steel pieces from her designs.

Others participating in the Botanic Garden's summer exhibit include the United Nations Environment Programme, U.S. Department of Energy, American Horticultural Society, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Longwood Gardens and the National Wildfire Federation.

"I wholeheartedly believe in the mission of the Wildflower Center," Ernst said. "This project brought together the graphic with the sculptural and my love of native plants."

The Botanic Garden's Conservatory and National Garden, which contains the First Ladies Water Garden, are open to the public free of charge. For more information, call 202-225-8333 or visit the United States Botanic Garden Web site.