A sprouting clove of garlic caught my attention sometime in September 1991. It sat around too long in the kitchen, an emerging leaf of green suggesting where it had come from and where it would return to. I had just entered my final year of architecture school, where this garlic became the inspiration and medium for my first detour into art. It was a detour that became permanent, shifting my focus from architecture to art, and cultivating dynamic living relationships between environments and people, with buildings at the periphery and food as the great connector. These are seasonal foods, prepared from plants grown in living soils free of chemical inputs, enriched by decomposed matter, nourishing a diversity of other plants and organisms. Tended by my hands and friends’ hands within a network of intentional green spaces, they provide pleasure and bounty for human and non-human species. Food is prepared simply in a carefully considered space for a convivial shared table. Everything I do more or less supports that cycle, an all-encompassing enterprise.
Food is not what we find on our farms or in our markets, gardens, cupboards, bowls or bellies. It is the relationships between all of these, as well as pollinators and their forage, soils and their organisms, air and rain, streams and oceans, even toilets and trash dumps (where a third of all the food we grow ends up). And then there’s the equipment that cultivated it; the trucks, trains and ships that moved it; the fuel they consumed along the way; the factory that processed it; the supermarket complex that received, stocked and sold it. There are the people who planted and picked it: their lifetimes of invisible labour; the hands that moved and sold it, cooked and processed it. Your own hands that you used to eat it – and, finally, the place where the kitchen and bathroom waste went at the end of the day.
At Salmon Creek Farm, where I live now, we have ‘humanure’ outhouses, which we use to compost human waste into soil. Where our food ‘ends up’ is also where it begins again. This is true whether you’re composting or not, but we benefit from the daily reminders of this reliable natural resource. Salmon Creek Farm was never actually a farm, but one of many hippie communes along the Mendocino coast of northern California. It has enabled me to reimagine a farm as a place where food is not a commodity, but a daily practice.
This shift from making things to cultivating environments was gradual, but marked by abrupt and revelatory encounters with the work of a few artists. A Meg Webster sculpture, installed for the 1988 opening of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden at the Walker Art Center, made an especially vivid impression on me as a teenager. I entered a Cor-ten steel passage through a mound of turf to discover Webster’s hidden flower garden for pollinators, full of riotous colour and life. At age 13, I was mystified by a magazine photograph of artist Agnes Denes walking through a field of wheat surrounded by the towers of Lower Manhattan. In May 1982, she planted two acres of wheat, and on 16 August harvested 1,000 pounds of grain, on the landfill that is now Battery Park City. Wheatfield – A Confrontation was preceded in 1974 by The Farm, also known as Crossroads Community, initiated by architect and artist Bonnie Ora Sherk, who saw the potential to cultivate newly available land under San Francisco’s 101 freeway interchange as ‘a place for people to come together with plants and animals’. This came just after Tina Girouard, Carol Goodden and Gordon Matta-Clark opened the artist-run New York restaurant FOOD in 1971, the year the commune at Salmon Creek Farm was founded.
Like FOOD, Salmon Creek Farm is comprised of an extended community of artists and friends. They come and go from their mostly urban lives to experience and participate in this cycle of resources, which passes through us a few times a day in the form of food. In the spring, a garden will be planted by people who may not still be around in the summer to eat from it, but those who are able to enjoy it might make a fermentation or fruit preserve to be savoured by groups in the fall and winter – some of whom will harvest and press fruit for a vinegar that won’t be ready for a year or two. The steady work of building soil, saving seeds, pruning and planting slow-growing trees is a microcosm of the cross-generational mindfulness practised by many indigenous cultures that urban life has allowed us to forget.
The freedom to choose this sort of bucolic subsistence based on manual labour is a privilege today. As the existential threat of climate change increases, and we face the possibility of remaining human generations few enough to count on our fingers and toes, it’s what those of us who have that freedom do that will prove the most decisive.
From a very early age, and throughout my teenage years, I was fixated on becoming an architect, spending most of my free time drawing floor plans and reading the architecture trade journals. I wanted to make new worlds and other ways of living. I also desired permanence, control, authorship and monumentality. It’s a stereotypically masculine and often megalomaniacal impulse. Studying and working in the last gasp of a toxic patriarchal modernist tradition,
the garlic episode was the beginning of a turning point for me towards other ways of thinking.
The previous year, I had taken a leave of absence from university and moved to Italy to study under architect Aldo Rossi at the IUAV University of Venice. I found myself living communally for the first time, in a house full of Italian architecture students. We took turns shopping at street markets and cooking for each other every day. I had to feed others, not just myself. All the young Italians seemed intimately familiar with every nuance of their seasonal and regional culinary traditions. Garlic, at the centre of those traditions, became magical to me.
That autumn, I enrolled in a class with visiting sculpture professor A. Laurie Palmer. She was making work with plants at the time, and I recall being regularly blown away during each session. For my project, I planted hundreds of sprouting garlic cloves in a pile of dirt on the marble floor in the grand lobby of our College of Fine Arts building. As the green shoots went up during the following weeks, a towering structure in the centre gradually filled with trash collected from the building. The project culminated with the distribution of the garlic plants to passersby, potted in containers collected from the trash, with the sprouting cloves ending up on kitchen window sills across the city. Almost 30 years later, I find myself planting garlic again, in late autumn for a midsummer harvest, but this time in the earth, as part of a wider interconnected and cultivated family of plants, creatures and friends.
Main image: Agnes Denes, Wheatfield – A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan – With Agnes Denes Standing in the Field, 1982. Courtesy: the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects; photograph: John McGrail
First published in Issue 205