Mindy Lam remembers climbing trees and her mother calling her when she sat quietly in high branches, not wanting to come inside. She would pick the fruit when her younger brothers and sisters were too small to reach. They would call up to her, she said, laughing.
Growing up on a farm in Hong Kong, she saw the bright flashing colors of birds, and moths as large as her two hands. She would jump from rock to rock and wade in the river, looking for shrimp and minnows and dragonflies.
Her family restored the farmhouse, and she would help her father, collecting eggs from the chickens.
“It was my escape,” she said.
The moths are gone now. Human development has changed the land.
“People take over a lot of treasures,” she said.
And so it means a great deal to her now, as an internationally known jewelry artist living near Washington D.C., to bring her own to the Berkshire Botanical Garden. Lam has created and curated Flights of Fancy, setting her bright work among spring flowers as the garden opens for the season. Her show will run at BBG’s Center House in May and through June 6.
Lam has a wide following as a designer for luxury clothier Henri Bendel in Manhattan, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Elle and Glamour magazines, People, Vogue Italia and many more.
She is known for her work in semiprecious stones and metal lace, blending in natural elements, like a lapel pin with a gleaming frog among flowering vines. At BBG she has a vision to bring the winter garden into the spring.
She first came to the garden in the fall, she said in a conversation on zoom, and she walked through the trees and flower beds on a November day.
“She loved the garden and was inspired by it,” said Michael Beck, executive director. ‘Even in the cold season, in the snow, she walked through the garden looking at seed heads and branches. She is a creative, generous, caring person, and she has worked with nonprofits, but never with a botanical garden before.”
She has been making new work for the show since then. Before creating a project, she always wants to come to the place, she said, to see and feel the environment. In a pandemic, it moved her doubly to come outdoors and walk through the gardens, and hear birds singing even when the trees were bare.
In Flights of Fancy, she wants to open a door into a new season or a new place. Walking into a garden can feel like taking a flight, she said.
“For me, for a lot of people, a garden is so natural and so peaceful, you enjoy the beauty of it,” she said. “When you step into the center room, you step into a whimsical, magical world, in your imagination. And the flowers inside will never die.”
She has imagined the show in three rooms. In the first, her sparkling works of metal and stone take the shapes of bees, butterflies, all of the creatures who live in a garden, sometimes hidden from human eyes.
“People walking in a garden often hear the voices of birds they can’t see,” she said.
In this room she will show her lapel pins, works from her Homme collection (meaning for men) — women also wear them as brooches or pins, anywhere they want a touch of light.
She makes many of her pieces by hand, she said, like vintage pieces, she said, and each one is unique. Even though the materials may be similar, the time and the light will be different, the way she feels when she sits down to work, her energy and mood and the way she works, and so no two works will be the same.
In the second room, branches float above the door. On the left, Lam envisions a spring garden, bright with color, and on the other side, winter in cooler shades.
She will set her jeweled butterflies among living plants from the garden.
“Being there in May,” I’m so fortunate,” she said, imagining flowers hanging in the air, cherry blossom, rosebuds, peonies.
The third room she has transformed into an art installation around one of her signature works — a gown of wire lace, like a sculpture, set with stones. She will turns the mannequins themselves into sculpture, she said. Inspired by her daughter, Kai Sia, she has taken these bland frameworks and made them part of the artwork, with moths lighting on them, twining flowers, a soft touch of moss.
Lam is well known for her metal lace. Artists who work with wire often think of it as firm, tough, flexible metal, she said. She thinks of it as thread. She has always loved vintage lace, and she has seen handmade lace so delicate it can tear at a touch. She creates lace that can last forever.
Her work has held a balance of fragility and endurance from the beginning. She first took up working with metal and stone 20 years ago, when she was recovering from a long illness. She was in pain and needed to let her body rest, and her sister brought her wire and beads to occupy her hands and her mind.
Ten years ago she survived end-stage kidney disease. Her daughter donated a kidney, and Mindy fully recovered.
Since then, it has become more and more important to her to with organizations meaningful to her, to share passion and imagination and, in many different ways, help people to find the resources to heal and grow.
When she came to the garden in the fall, she saw children outdoors. The garden has held programs throughout the pandemic — music outdoors in the summer, workshops on caring for the land, cooking and knowing the names of trees, children’s activities …
“They are still offering life and joy,” Lam said.
So throughout the show, she will donate part of any sale (including some sales through her website) to support the garden’s education programs.
“A lot of kids may see flowers (in other places),” she said, “but the garden shows them how to plant a seed. It’s important. I have unlimited imagination because I grew up with nature, and I had a chance to explore. A lot of kids now are afraid of creatures.”
They have never gotten to know the small fish and frogs and dragonflies she knew as a child, and they don’t know that many are not only harmless to people but helpful to plants and flowers, birds and animals and each other.
She could learn what was dangerous and what was not. She could watch a snake sunning herself in the grass and marvel at the light on smooth, sun-warm skin, or pick berries and know they were as sweet and safe as wild strawberries.
“Every day I can go back to my childhood, to a whimsical world,” she said.
As the outdoor world has strengthened her imagination, her imagination has given her confidence. She wants to share all of these overlapping worlds.
“As a child, we have a lot of dreams,” she said.
As people grow, some dreams can be hard to hold. But she has faced challenges and made hers real.
“I did not go to college or art school,” she said.
To have her work in a museum and a botanical garden fills her with excitement and purpose.
“I can set a modern example,” she said. “If you can cream, and dream big, and keep working on it — I always wanted to have an exhibit and be in museums. I wanted to show people. When people tell me, ‘this will not happen in my life,’ I tell people, ‘We can do it.’”
She knows how many people have helped her, and she feels deeply fortunate to work for the love of it. So many people do the work they do because they need to make a living.
“I’m happy that my career is my passion,” she said.
And now, in the pandemic, her work and the botanical garden’s work feel still more important to her. She feels the need for art and healing, for everyone, and the need for places where people can step out and feel calm.
“People are fighting — we get tense,” she said.
Now more than ever, when the leaves are budding, we all need a place where we can close our eyes and breathe and relax.
This story first ran in the Berkshire Eagle on May 1 and 2, 2021 — my thanks to features editor Lindsey Hollenbaugh.