Down to Earth at the Schuylkill Center

My current curatorial project Down to Earth: Artists Create Edible Landscapes is underway at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education (SCEE) in Philadelphia, a show with 6 artists or artist teams, each creating a work about sustainable agriculture. The show takes place at a section of SCEE’s 3oo-plus acre site called Brolo Farm, complete with an abandoned farm house, barn, and farm fields that have not been actively used for decades. The overall site of the Schuylkill Center is the largest privately-owned open space area within the city limits of Philadelphia – featuring a variety of habitats including woodlands, meadows, five teaching ponds and wetlands. In addition, there are four miles of hiking trails and 7 sculpture/shelters from a current exhibition titled Gimme Shelter, commissioned by SCEE’s environmental art program.

The artists in Down to Earth are Joan Bankemper (NYC) who is creating a new version of her Medicinal Herb Garden, a large-scale garden planted in the form of an archaic feminine figure; Knox Cummin (Phila., PA) is building a rain water collection sculpture which contains a “room” garden by Ann Rosenthal and Steffi Domike (Pittsburgh, PA) titled An American Roots Garden, planted with herbs and vegetable indigenous to Native Americans such as squash, corn and beans; Simon Draper and the Habitat For Artists Collective including Todd Sargood and E Odin Cathcart (Hudson Valley, NY) have begun work on Drawn from the Garden, an art studio, potting shed, and 7 raised bed gardens, 2 of which local artists and school groups have been invited to adopt. Stacy Levy (Spring Mills, PA) will create a work titled Kept Out, a deer exclosure built partially in woodlands and partially in fields as an experiment of sorts to see what will grow when the deer are absent. Last but not least is Susan Steinman’s (S.F., CA) Urban Defense, a permaculture apple orchard housed within a built structure based on the pentagon form that the seeds make when you look inside a sliced apple.

I spent 5 days at the site last week, helping the artists get started, it was warm and sunny but low humidity, unusual for Philly but great working conditions. I’m pleased to see these projects start to take shape after several months of research on the part of the artists and discussion and planning with myself and the SCEE staff. The maintenance requirements of these living artworks after the planting (watering, weeding and eventual harvesting) are not to be underestimated. Ann and Steffi’s American Roots, will benefit from the rainwater being collected above and a hose system running through the beds, but the watering for the other gardens has not been completely resolved other than running a long hose from the farm house to the fields.

Creating “gardens as art” requires lots of advance planning, time in the field with the appropriate tools, ammending the existing soil, tons of compost – and plain old hard labor. Isn’t that always the case working outdoors? Real farmers deserve our utmost respect and this show aims to draw connections between art (culture) and working the land (cultivation). In conjunction with this exhibition The Schuylkill Center will soon be selling fresh produce from it’s own “Market Garden”. They have partnered with Urban Girls Produce (UGP) to begin growing a variety of organic fruits and vegetables, dedicating 1 ½ acres of their site for food production. UGB will plant, tend, and harvest all season to bring fresh produce to the Philadelphia market as well as having a weekly produce stand at Brolo Farm near the artists’ sites.

The rewards of presenting Down to Earth will be great as the artist’s gardens start growing (opening September 12th) and especially when we enjoy a harvest meal with the public on October 25th.

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