Wreaths have existed for thousands of years, imbued with meaning by different societies and religions. In ancient times, they were symbols of success and importance. Pagan cultures created wreaths as reminders of spring’s approach, with the circular shape evoking the turning of the seasons. And in modern times, of course, the wreath is a Christian symbol of eternal rebirth.
In a long-running annual art show mounted by the city’s parks department, the wreath takes on a different role: that of blank canvas. The wreaths at this year’s 30th anniversary incarnation of “Wreath Interpretations,” up through Jan. 10 in the gallery at parks headquarters in the Arsenal, at Fifth Avenue near 64th Street, incorporate everything from whole almond shells harvested from a grandmother’s farm in Greece to Chinese-food take-out containers.
Of the 41 works in this year’s exhibit, only one, “Nature’s Nativity” by Madeline Yanni, evokes the spirit of Christmas. Not one employs traditional evergreens. Some are not even round.
“It’s a grand tradition, having traversed four mayors and four parks commissioners, and it’s always been funky,” said Jonathan Kuhn, the department’s director of art and antiquities.
Indeed, Mr. Kuhn himself contributed a wreath in the 1990s that included a stuffed coyote and a radial tire. “The coyote had met an untimely end in Van Cortlandt Park,” he recalled. “It was an homage to Robert Rauschenberg’s combine in which he took a stuffed goat and put a tire around it.”
Hurricane Sandy inspired a few of the wreaths this year, said Jennifer Lantzas, the department’s public art coordinator and the curator of the exhibition. The deadline for submissions was extended because of the storm. One wreath, titled “Sandy’s First,” features a round wire wrapped with yellow caution tape. It is emblazoned with a fire truck patch from Ladder 164 in Queens and topped with a toy fire truck.
About a third of the wreaths were created by members of the parks department’s own staff, including “The Almond Villager Wreath” by Leonora Retsas, who is an architect. George Kroenert, who is in charge of playgrounds, contributed “Cleaning Up,” a simple assemblage of red, green and blue floor-cleaning pads.
“This is a tribute not only to those who clean our bathrooms and hallways after hours, but also to the Hurricane Sandy recovery,” said Ms. Lantzas, noting that Mr. Kroenert planned to donate proceeds from the sale of his wreath to the American Red Cross. (While Mr. Kroenert’s work is the least expensive in the show, priced at $100, several works exceed $1,000.)
Other wreath motifs include one central to the parks department’s mission: sustainability. There is a surprisingly elegant wreath by Rita Coelho called “Blessings,” made from recycled milk jugs and eggshells. Another, “Salad Days,” by Angelyn Chandler, manages to cull beauty from a metal garbage pail, a salad spinner and LEDs. And a bicycle wheel, recycled bicycle tire tubes and artificial birds are the ingredients of Shira Toren’s “Metrobike Wreath.”
Then there is Edward Gormley’s quintessentially multi-ethnic New York wreath. Titled “Yetz is ze tzeit to essen” — loosely translated as “Time to Eat” in Yiddish — it is composed of Chinese food take-out boxes, rivets, wire and plywood. “A lot of what these wreaths represent,” said Ms. Lantzas, “is how you can turn something that you might otherwise see as trash into something really fantastic and unique.”