A History of Art in the Garden

A History of Art in the Garden

One: From Separation to Connection

My earliest memories of working with the land are on a farm that started as an apple orchard my great-grandparents planted. As a toddler, I lived with my great grandmother and she and I would pick strawberries together on the farm. Fast-forward to my pre-teen years, my first paid job was landscaping at my father’s office. We didn’t know how to make that land beautiful in a way that was healthy for the earth and all beings, so we sprayed “weeds” along the highway with Round-Up and planted annual flowers. I disliked this work but didn’t know how to tune in when something felt off or unhealthy or disconnected, how to listen to my heart and stay grounded. I was in high school when a beloved poetry teacher brought potted plants to a summer program I was attending. I couldn’t fathom why she brought plants with her; this led me to wonder why I cringed whenever anyone talked about gardening. It took me a long time to see that the experience of landscaping with pesticides had came to define gardening for me; gardening became depleted of possibility, healing, and connection.

This all changed when my partner and I moved into the Borland Green Cohousing Community. The community shares land—Borland Garden—resources, skills, and frequent meals with the vision of living in ecologically regenerative way. We were among the youngest folks in the community and had a lot to learn from our elders. One afternoon our neighbor, Scilla Wahrhaftig, was teaching me how to plant an apple tree. As she put the roots into the earth, she began to talk with the tree. It all changed for me at that moment: while I had never lost touch with nature, I had lost touch with the deep knowing within me—within each of us—of our inter-connection, our interbeing.

Two: Supporting One Another and Transforming Conflict 

Scilla, who was the head of the Pittsburgh branch of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), founded Art in the Garden in 2012 as a healing way to meet the needs of children and their families and to address conflict in our cohousing community. 

As the vacant lot that is now Borland Garden was cleared of debris, the soil remediated with sunflowers, a native food forest and fruit trees planted, and a cistern installed to collect rainwater, children began to come play. Children also came to my home, which is adjacent to the garden, to build castles in the sandbox with my firstborn child, for homework help, to play drums and piano, for impromptu dance competitions, for help transforming a conflict with a sibling or cousin (sometimes returning the next day or week to share success stories), to paint and draw with chalk and blow bubbles, to feed the chickens and collect eggs, to harvest vegetables and make food, for snacks and meals. Children came because their mothers were still at work and without childcare. Children came because there was violence in their own homes–a mother’s abusive boyfriend, SWAT and police raids. Two children came almost weekly during these raids, reenacting them through play. When we created art projects based on the book The Best Part of Me, one of these children wrote—in spite of the trauma she witnessed—“My eyes are my favorite part of me because they let me see the beautiful world.” Children came to talk. Children came for a place to sleep when they were headed home at the start of a police raid and their family was inaccessible, when their apartment caught fire due to gas leaks and a landlord’s negligence, when a mother had to work the night shift. Children came to participate in listening projects like one with Saturday Light Brigade centered around the question, How can we create more just communities? Tracey, who was nine at the time, described the changes she experienced in East Liberty like this: “The people I live around, well, they’re very nice. [Development] is about housing, getting kicked out, and vultures. You’ll have to go to different schools and leave all of your friends and it’ll just be a tough job for you.” As she was sharing, there was a knock on our back door. The mother of two of the boys who were participating stood weeping, “I don’t want to be homeless with my children.” Evicted from their apartment that afternoon, she had no housing voucher, no job, and the shelters were full. “I will have to tell my sons.” She watched while they leaned into the microphone, watched while they told a story that was about to change. Children came for the monthly reading and music series in our home, Bonfire Reading Series, and heard local and international writers like: Toi Derricotte, Jennifer Clement, Anne Boyer, Tameka Cage Conley, and Yona Harvey. My life grew rich with the children and my heart felt full. Children came because on warm days the front and back doors were propped open and they and their families knew our home as a safe home, they knew it as their through-way. 

It became clear we needed a program. 

Recognizing a growing divide in our young cohousing community in Pittsburgh, Scilla listened to find a way to transform tensions. Part of the tension was a conflict between white adults in an historically black neighborhood. On one side, were adults who were concerned about the massive displacement black residents were experiencing as more white folks moved into the neighborhood; many of these folks participated in the fight for fair housing, looking to models such as the Northside Coalition for Fair Housing. On the other side, some of the group members called themselves “urban pioneers,” invoking a history of white supremacy and settler colonialism; some of these adults saw the children who played in the garden as a problemYes, children picked and threw tomatoes, took tulips home, ate the ripe berries they hadn’t tended, and played unsupervised in the grassy plot—the only accessible green space in the neighborhood. The question of who had a right to the garden land might have been at the crux of the tension. Or maybe it was a question of valuing people or plants. Or that the group hadn’t found a way to do both. Or maybe it was all of these things and that we hadn’t yet learned how to let go of control and created a space of vulnerability and connection.

Whatever was going on, the children really hit on a way through: they knew the earth as a home we all share and they saddled up next to any of the adults, ready to play catch or water seedlings. 

Scilla knew that all conflict holds the possibility for transformation and healing. Instead of engaging an either-or discourse which privileged plants or children, she presented a program model that engaged a both-and approach, centering people and plants. The program that emerged became Art in the Garden. In the early years, Art in the Garden was held one day a week for a few hours at a time during the summer. Children and their families have continued to express a desire for expanded programming. Art in the Garden is now a collaboration between Borland Garden Cohousing Community and OMA Center for Mind, Body, and Spirit. We run an intensive six-week arts and ecology camp, year-round community events centering on ecology and the arts, and hold trauma informed trainings with the vision for Pittsburgh to become a model for best practices in social and emotional learning and trauma informed care and resilience. 

One of the life-changing lessons I’ve learned through the creation of Art in the Garden is that when we listen deeply to what is at the root of tension, we make space for the possibility of transformation and healing. 

Three: The Climate Crisis as Our Teacher

Art in the Garden’s approach to ecology identifies the climate crisis as a teacher. It is clear that the “solution” to healing the earth isn’t found through statistics or science alone. It isn’t found through scare tactics or guilt. When we look deeply we can see that the effects of the climate crisis are entwined with histories of racism, colonialism and capitalism. We can see that the climate crisis reflects our distance from and difficulty being with the living world, including being with ourselves and each other. This can be a catalyst to wake us up to re-connect. A catalyst to create systems powered by principles of love and justice. A catalyst to support young people experiencing daily anxiety about the planet and their own lives. A catalyst to embrace all of ourselves, instead of turning away from suffering and pain and even from joy. For when we re-connect to our own hearts we can see with utmost clarity that what we do to another we do to ourselves. 

That early day in the garden, planting an apple tree with Scilla, my awareness shifted. 

As the director of Art in the Garden, I envision the program as one that supports youth in remaining connected to their hearts, their innate wisdom, and their abilities to let intuition guide their lives. I envision Art in the Garden as a program that supports all people in holding themselves and others in compassion as they remember—and live from a place that honors this remembering—our interconnection. 

For more about our programming, go here. 

Want to connect? Email us at artinthegardenpgh@gmail.com