Whitehot Magazine

Florum Somnia: Bob Landström on Plants Dreaming & Letting Go of the Human Gaze

Bob Landstrom, Hendassa, Pigmented Volcanic Rock on Canvas, 60 x60 inches, 2022.

By VICTOR SLEDGE, August 2023

We bring everything we are and everything we’ve seen to every piece of art we experience. The heartbreaks we’ve endured, the texture of a grain of sand between our fingers, our favorite lines of our favorite songs – our interpretation of art is exactly as rich as our interpretation of our own lives. And that’s an idea artist Bob Landström seems at peace with.  

“A painting, for me, can just stand on its own for what it is,” he says. “You might be attracted to that painting for some completely different reason than I am, and that’s OK.” 

Landström is a painter, but not in the sense most will expect. For over a decade, Landström has been making paintings using volcanic rock. It’s unorthodox, but wildly striking. 

When most people think of volcanic rock, they wouldn’t expect the vibrant, vivacious color you find in a Landström painting. Most people probably also don’t think of this rock that was once at the site of scorched earth being used to depict and explore ideas around the bright, lively plant world you see in his newest series, Florum Somnia.

And, again, that’s OK because this is where Landström’s art has landed in the rolodex of his experiences.

As an artist who has always been drawn to and putting his own spin on matter painting, Landström has used different earthly elements in his career to produce his work. 

Bob Landstrom, Noodile, Pigmented Volcanic Rock on Canvas, 36 x 36 inches, 2023

“Earth seemed to make sense. Earth has this materiality, this groundedness to it,” he says. 

After years of working with the earth, he took a trip to the American Southwest where he studied petroglyphs on Native American artifacts, which were chiseled or scratched into the volcanic rock. He then took a sample of the rock home to a friend of his who is a found-object sculptor and restoration carpenter. The friend processed the rock through a rock crusher, and thus began Landström’s creative relationship with the material. 

“When I realized the alchemical characteristics it has, it just had a power to it that I felt strongly aligned with me,” he says.

At first, he mixed paint with the crushed rock. But eventually, he began to add pigment to the material itself, which is the coloring technique we see in used in Florum Somnia today.  

“In a sense, I’m painting with something dry,” he says. “And when I did that, the rock just popped. It had some real weight of its own to it.” 

Even on Landström’s website, you can see how tactile this use of material and coloring is, but in person, it comes alive. 

Technically, Landström has such a command of color that it makes you reflect on the experience of looking at the natural elements in each painting – the leaves, the birds, the flowers – in real life. The volcanic rock brings such a coarse texture to each piece that makes his work feel as though it’s almost growing right in front of your eyes. The use of texture and color come together in a way that creates a sense of sentience, which speaks to some of the ideas that inspired this series. 

Landström became interested in ideas around plants for this series after diving into the world of plant medicine, which isn’t abnormal for him as an artist often inspired by new or abstract scientific ideas. 

“It triggered my imagination when I figured out that plants can move, but they don’t have muscles or a skeleton,” Landström says.

Landström also realized that plants communicate in ways we as humans don’t perceive and in ways we aren’t capable of.  

“I’m putting all of this together and thinking about all of these different ways that plants interact with the environments in very complex ways. At what point do we say they’re sentient?” he questions. 

And from there, the wheels turned right into this exploration of the complex plant world we see today. He even began to imagine if plants were sentient enough to dream, which inspired the title, Florum Somnia, which loosely translates to “plants dreaming.”

And while these questions surrounding the sentience of plants connect to what we experience as humans – dreams, communication, movement – it seems Landström may want us to part with that humanistic perspective we bring to the work in order to view it in a way that recontextualizes our gaze to prioritize the plant experience. 

Bob Landstrom, Neoskizzle, Pigmented Volcanic Rock on Canvas, 36 x 36 inches, 2023

For example, Landström mentions that there are ways to hear certain communications plants facilitate through their root systems, and he compares the sounds they make to stove-top Jiffy popcorn, which many may relate to the snapping of synapses in the human brain. But that may be limiting our view of these complex beings that have existed way before humans came to be.

“It’s a completely different physiology than animals have. To look for synapses and neurons in a plant might be the wrong way to look at it.” 

We’re used to seeing the world through our eyes and our domain, but when we consider how long plant life has existed before us, it’s not hard to see how the humanist gaze limits our thinking around these beings and what we could glean from Florum Somnia.

In a similar way, he explains that many people are often drawn to the symbols in his work, trying to create a meaning from what they perceive as ancient text or markings. But again, this stems from our human nature, which is to communicate and make sense of any figures we see.

“I use symbols like that for their graphical qualities rather than the symbols themselves,” he explains. “People are always trying to read them. They look at the titles, the paintings, talk to their friends, but those things aren’t meant to be read at all.” 

These symbols draw you in as potential points of connection that we believe will help us understand each piece more, but in reality, it shows us some of the elements we see in the painting are so alike yet so different from what we expect based off of our grossly human experience in this world, and that’s a running theme in this series. 

We want to understand these plants only in relation to us, but we soon realize that that keeps us at a distance from the work. The more we release that, the more we can find the universal connectors between the plant life in the art and ourselves. 

From there, we can better understand what that might mean for us as humans, who have always struggled with being so different although we are actually so alike. Through Florum Somnia, we learn that these seemingly uniform plants actually have so much individuality and power in movement and communication, but they exist in such a necessary harmony with each other. 

As humans, we too have a generally uniform makeup and order of life in this world, but we have always found strife in the ways in which we are individuals. Maybe that strife is from the love of what we know, understand and want to protect about ourselves, or maybe it’s from the fear that someone else will challenge that perspective and make us realize that the differences we often toil over are arbitrary and not worth obsessing over, similar to how it seems not worth obsessing over the tiny details we may want to make sense of in these pieces.  

“All these differences we create between one another, it’s all made up. It’s made up out of either love or fear when you get down to it,” Landström says. 

Whatever the case may be, through Florum Somnia, Landström uses earthly materials and earthly life to draw our attention to the universality between the living on this planet in a way that isn’t focused on us or our understanding, which offers a lot to consider between ourselves and the natural world around us.  

If you want to see Florum Somnia in person, the exhibition at the Alan Avery Art Company in Atlanta, GA, has been extended until September 12, 2023. You can learn more about Landström and this series on his website, www.boblandstrom.com and by following him on Instagram @boblandstrom. WM


Victor Sledge

Victor Sledge is an Atlanta-based writer with experience in journalism, academic, creative, and business writing. He has a B.A. in English with a concentration in British/American Cultures and a minor in Journalism from Georgia State University. Victor was an Arts & Living reporter for Georgia State’s newspaper, The Signal, which is the largest university newspaper in Georgia.  He spent a year abroad studying English at Northumbria University in Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK, where he served as an editor for their creative magazine before returning to the U.S. as the Communications Ambassador for Georgia State’s African American Male Initiative. He is now a master’s student in Georgia State’s Africana Studies Program, and his research interest is Black representation in media, particularly for Black Americans and Britons. His undergraduate thesis, Black on Black Representation: How to Represent Black Characters in Media, explores the same topic. 

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