04 June 2012

Village Building at the Ujima Center

Stage 1 of the prep: Garden boxes have been ripped out.
When Susanna Low-Beer first asked me if I wanted to do something for the Village Building Convergence (VBC,) I said No. For the last several years I have been trying to transition out of my role as a permaculture teacher/leader and someone who goes gardening for other people. I have wanted to focus on writing and creative arts, and to keep the landwork to my own space at home. It just works better for me that way.

But when Susie suggested I take on her front yard, I couldn't resist. I have known her for years and that front yard has always been a pretty big mess. Not to say that it wasn't functional. She had rain barrels out there, catching water, and two large raised boxes for growing vegetables and strawberries. She had lovely little ceramic pots full of succulents all over the porch, and decorative things hanging above.

Work in progress. It happened fast!
The problem was aesthetics. Those blue plastic rain barrels are hideous! And the little pots on the porch were attractive enough on their own, but scattered around, they looked cluttered and made it impossible to sit anywhere. And the boxes? Ugh. I have never liked the way raised beds look. So weird to garden in a box like that when you could just garden in the ground.

I mean, this is her front door we are talking about! The portal to her life. I talked about this a bit before, when I was working on my own porch. But for Susie's house it was especially important because she is creating a permaculture education center there and frequently hosts parties and events.

Susie is also a healer who is really into Chinese Medicine and the I-Ching. And she lives in a culturally diverse neighborhood where not everyone knows about permaculture and organic living. So it made sense from every direction to create a front yard and entryway that would be beautiful and welcoming, plus educational and inspiring.

Voila! Much better!
So I told Susie yes, I would do it. I asked her to rip out the boxes and sheet mulch the whole front yard, to clean up as much as she could and then we would do the rest during the VBC. She wanted some sort of Mandala, so we discussed that and decided to do a basic Medicine Wheel design. She is working on a whole-system water catchment, so we decided to get the ugly rain barrels out of the front yard.

We used urbanite from her de-paved driveway to make mini-patios on either side of her porch. This will give her a place to put those cute little succulent pots, and still leave room for people to hang out on the small porch. We took the old prayer flags and broken windchimes down, leaving the space feeling more open and fresh.

After a full day of clearing the space, we were ready for the workshop. And what a workshop it was! We had a great turnout, people were knowledgeable and willing to work hard. In just a few hours we had worked together to build beds, mulch paths, and plant the garden full of medicinal herbs and fruit trees. Participants made new friends, learned about new plants, and shared in the transformation of an unattractive, disorderly yard into a beautiful, inviting garden. It was awesome!

I also spent some time getting to know the delightful Kelda Miller, and making ephemeral art around Susie's site. There were a lot of different projects happening at once, and it was nice to create tiny islands of beauty amidst the chaos.

I am still pretty committed to keeping my permaculture work close to home. But I realized through this that I do still enjoy gardening with others in this type of project, and am really happy that I said YES! 

20 May 2012

Placemaking at Home and Outward

Much of my work in the past, with Food not Lawns and before that, with Food not Bombs, Earth First and Greenpeace, could have been called placemaking, though we didn't use the word at the time. The first time I heard of "placemaking" was when I attended Portland City Repair's first Village Building Convergence in 2002. By then, Food Not Lawns had been actively place-making our neighborhood in Eugene for 3 years, and we were thrilled to find a group of people who were so well-organized toward the vision of natural, thriving neighborhoods where people share resources in friendship-based community.

Truly, the concept of placemaking has been in play since long before I started doing activist work. For as long as humans have existed, we have created spaces for ourselves to dwell, work, socialize, and share needs and resources. 

My current survey of ecorevelatory arts has led me into a renewed foray into the idea of placemaking, and though I haven't had time to dive too deep, the study warrants a bit of sharing.

There are many different kinds of placemaking, from the architectural to the ephemeral, and everything in between. 

I am particularly interested in a sort of emotional placemaking, in opening doors in people's minds to let in new ideas. I have been ruminating on this often lately.
Meanwhile, I had an idea to combine mural-painting with stage-building with landscaping, and to create a small, multifunctional work of art that would also create a place where people could share music, information, seeds, food, etc. 
a mural-stage-garden-permaculture demo idea
The structure would go up against a wall onto which a mural was painted. The mural would be the backdrop for the small soap-box stage. A small roof could be installed onto the wall to protect the stage and to hold solar panels which would power the stage, Rainwater could be directed off the roof onto adjacent fruit-tree landscaping, which would shade the performers but not the solar panels. Anyway it's just an idea, and a sketch.

I have connected my research with my current garden project--the transformation of my junked out urban backyard into an edible oasis. I just moved into this place three months ago, and I knew I wasn't going to have a lot of time to work out there all summer. So I just blitzed it, let the design evolve organically, and spent the entire time thinking about art, place, and how to make a difference.
The "Before" Pictures from February 15
It was a garden once but had been neglected for years.
People who know me have given me a reputation for being extremely good with space. I am good at finding creative space to work and live, and good at transforming that space with minimal time and money into an aesthetically pleasing and functionally productive environment. Call it a gift if you will, I consider it a necessity, and know that the placemaking that I do is, for me, more about setting myself up for what I want to then do in that space than it is about the space itself.

And so when I moved into my place and the porch was so dingy and dismal, I had to paint it in order to get any other work done! (Read the blog post about that project here.) Ditto with the garden. And so now the view from my desk is of a thriving, soon-to-be abundant garden instead of a slimy overgrown mess. Feel me?
First I stripped off the sod by hand. It was hard work!

The sod is a great resource, loaded with soil and worms.
I piled it upside down on top of the gravel in front and planted it with seeds.
Then, I had Todd the Tillerman hit it for a half-hour!
Next step: shape the beds and start planting!
I still did a lot of digging by hand, like in this corner. Here's Before.
And After! With a new Plum tree and a nice path.
I planted 7 plum trees and about 40 other species already, mostly plants I got for free from friends' gardens, including akebia, apple mint, bamboo, banana, basil, calendula, celery, chives, chocolate mint, chrysanthemum, cilantro, comfrey, corn, cucumbers, curry, echinacea, foxglove, gladiolus, honeysuckle, ladies mantle, lettuce, lilies, lovage, marigolds, melons, mugwort, onions, oregano, peppers, poppies, potatoes, raspberries, sorrel, squash, strawberries, sunflowers, thyme, tomatillos, tomatoes, valerian, yerba buena, zinnias, and zucchini!
The original garden space in this yard was just these two boxes.
But I prefer to garden "outside the box" !

I am going to the Village Building Convergence again this year, teaching two workshops on front-yard gardening. I am looking forward to it, but still unsure that this is really my place in the world. Just because we are good at something, does that really make it our calling? I am not so sure. But what I do know is that I will have fun, make friends, and build gardens, and that can't be bad!

Here are some books about Placemaking:

Walljasper, Jay, Benjamin Fried, and Project for Public Spaces. The Great Neighborhood Book : A do-it-Yourself Guide to Placemaking Gabriola Island, B.C: New Society Publishers, 2007. Print. This book reminded me of what I was trying to do, in part, with Food Not Lawns. The author writes simply and clearly, and illustrates a ton of hands-on, practical things that anyone can do to improve their community. An excellent resource.

Fleming, Ronald Lee. The Art of Placemaking : Interpreting Community through Public Art and Urban Design. London: Merrell, 2007. Print. This is a lovely book, full of photos and project examples. You could spend years just studying this one book and the work it examines. 

Schneekloth, Lynda H., and Robert G. Shibley. Placemaking : The Art and Practice of Building Communities. New York: Wiley, 1995. Print. This heady book takes a critical look at placemaking,  and goes through several case studies. It was interesting to me to read such a mainstream approach to the concept, as my experience with it has always been in the subculture. However, the academic writing and dense, structural focus of the book makes it a tome better kept for the serious, working organizer rather than for the casual inquirer.

17 May 2012

Portal to the Self

When I was living in Granada, I was always noticing the beautiful doors, and contemplating the way our front doors are portals to our lives. For ourselves, as we pass in and out of our homes, and for everyone who comes to visit, as a first impression of the way we choose to live.

I moved into my new place in Portland in mid February. It is a sweet little studio--a "mother-in-law" unit on the side of a house owned by a friend.

There is a huge yard, which was overgrown and needed care (here's the post on that project)

I have a tiny private porch, but when I moved in it was dirty and dingy, peeling paint and junk piled below.

So I decided to attempt a simplified version at home. Minus the killer tilework, marble slabs, and religious etchings! I had a box of leftover paints in a rainbow of bright colors. I tried to channel the Moorish influence, with a little Oregon circus mixed in.

My first sketch on the door was pretty clumsy. It looked ridiculous! But it was a start. At this point I decided that I was going to paint the entire porch, create a little hidden oasis in my active urban neighborhood.

My friend Dylan painted my mailbox to look like a silly green monster!

And Voila! Private, colorful, and inspiring! Now when people come over they get a sense of who I am and what I enjoy. The mailman loves it! And everyone who come over says,
 "I feel like I am in Morocco!"

16 May 2012

Renaissance Woman; an Interdisciplinary Life

When I was  teenager I heard the term "Renaissance Man," and I determined that I would be a Renaissance woman. I guess I am a cheesy romantic fool, but nowadays the more commonly used term is "interdisciplinary artist."

Recently a friend wrote to me on facebook, “I play music every day, do a painting once a week, write once a month and do activism and scholarship sporadically.”

I was like, wow that makes so much sense! I adjusted it to suit my own goals and practice:

I will write every day, make a new song once a week, paint once a month and do activism and scholarship sporadically.

I am an interdisciplinary artist. What does that mean, you ask?

To me, interdisciplinarity implies not just work that occurs in more than one field or genre,  but moreso work that navigates the connections between those fields and genres. An interdisciplinary work emphasizes the relationship between the artist, her work, and the varied aspects of the community that is affected by that work. And as such, an interdisciplinary life exhibits a creative wanderlust that carouses between worlds and sheds light on the delightfully diverse places between.

Personally, I have never been able to limit my creative expression to any medium or genre. Whether I make a painting, write a song, design a garden, teach a workshop, or write a book or a story, the work is not defined by its discipline. In some ways I have seen this as a weakness, taking it to mean that I lacked focus or conviction in any one area. I criticized myself for being so random in my work, for refusing to commit to one specialty, audience, and style. But lately my interdisciplinarity has started to feel more like a strength, and now I am looking for a place from to work where I can best put my own unique skillset to use.

All of that being stated, I want to mention that, the more I continue to study, the more it comes back around that I am, first, a writer. When I look for the bridge between art, music and agriculture, that’s it: writing. When I look for a place to put myself in the community, considering my wide range of interests and introverted character, I see that the role I play best is that of writer. This blog has helped me to realize that I actually enjoy the process of writing, and that it does not have to be the dark, dreary event that so many of my bohemian peers and fore-writers would have you believe.

And I enjoy the writer's life. I enjoy putting myself into a million different situations, trying on as many hats as I can find, and then writing about it. Further, these last 9 weeks of intensive study and personal reflection have made it obvious to me that, regardless of the medium in which I am currently working, the primary muse behind each project is usually some sort of story. Sometimes it is a story of mine that I want to tell, but more often, there is someone or something else--a person, a creature, or a plant that I feel called to give voice to.  

Perhaps this little manifesto here is me admitting to myself that my role in all of this is as the teller, the scribe, the imaginer and re-imaginer. And the gardening? Well, everyone needs food, and exercise, and sunshine. I think that the main reason I garden is so that I may have a nice place to write/paint/create art. And I paint so to visualize what I want to write, or to illustrate something that I cannot find the words for. And I set the stories to music sometimes, so that people will be more likely to listen. 

And so it is with this new (or newly reaffirmed) reflection of myself, as human and artist, as storyteller and scribe, that I move forward. I plan to spend the rest of the year finishing writing projects. Right now I am writing a comic play about a Tortilla Machine. Next in line after that? We'll see what the muses bring forth. To be continued...

15 May 2012

Photographer? Me?

I got a bunch of books from the library about photography. I was instantly overwhelmed with all of the details, the f-stops and light exposure and aperture. Sheez! The mathematical klutz side of my mind rebelled against the details. And yet I live such a photogenic life. And so I shoot zillion of photos and hope for a lucky moment. Here are a few of those lucky moments from the last few years. These are untouched, currently, but I am learning more about photoshop and may decide to play with some of these images and maybe make a coffeetable book?!?
Bulls Blood


Worm's Eye

Three Days Old

Ephemeral Art



Naked Sunbathing

New Housemate


Leonotis and Nicotiana on a Perfect Day in Oregon

Feathered Friend



Seed Swap

Tiny Mushrooms on a Maple Stump


Work Party

14 May 2012

Top 5 Books About Writing

The more I study, the more I work and garden and interact with people, the more I travel and learn and play music, the more it becomes clear to me that my central identity is that of a writer. If the way I am remembered is as a bringer of stories, then I will consider that a life well spent.

These are the books that I return to again and again when I need inspiration, motivation, or a new perspective on what it means to be a writer. Find these books, read them and do the exercises they recommend. And let us give voice to ourselves and each other!

Top 5 Books About Writing

1. Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

2. On Writing by Stephen King

3. Telling Lies for Fun and Profit by Lawrence Block

4. Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg

5. The Right to Write by Julia Cameron

13 May 2012

Academic Shivasana

I have been taking a few days off from studying. Sort of an academic shivasana. It is good. I am going to write a play.

07 May 2012

Old Paintings

I just got this one back from my sister. I painted it back in 1999. It took about three days. One for the lady and two for the sky. I had a lot of pregnant friends back then, and was thinking about doing it myself. I really have never wanted children, but I did consider it once.

!!! Here's something interesting! I posted a painting of a naked pregnant lady here and Blogger removed it!!!!

29 April 2012

The Smallest Artists?

Biologist Eshel Ben-Jacob was trying to find cures for diseases when he realized that even pathogenic bacteria makes creative, beautiful patterns in the petrie dish.

This Science Daily article goes into more detail about Eshel's work. I would like to take some of these images and transfer them to a giant wall mural. Wouldn't that be amazing?

And this is even more amazing!

Other people have started to use bacteria as a medium for painting. I find this fascinating. I have never been in a laboratory in my life and the idea that art and science are so closely linked makes me really happy! Turns out we are not all so different, after all ;-)

This artist made an image of Ophelia Floating in a Petri Dish and asked people to call in and read poems to the art while it bubbled away there in the lab. What a bizarre and haunting piece of living artwork!