The Persephone Project is an eco-art project that connects the public to art and the environment by promoting gardening as a contemporary art practice and by recognizing gardeners as artists. My hope is that this connection will bring personal transformative change to the lives of those who can realize that they are involved in a creative practice through their gardening. My hope is to also bring transformative social-political change as the project breaks down the barriers (class, race, education) between artists and non-artists. And finally, my hope is to effect environmental change as the project promotes a respect for nature as collaborator in the work and in the world. The project takes its name from the Greek goddess Persephone whose return each year from the underworld brings the change of a dark barren world to that of light and growth – to spring.
To implement this vision, I found myself back in a very familiar role of arts administrator. (I was the executive director of a contemporary dance company before I woke up with what I used to call “my crazy idea.”) Peers questioned why, I would I want to take on a project that would largely cast me back to administrative duties, after I had discovered my own artistic practice.
The answer was in the methodology –a methodology guided by intuition. My pre-artist career arc took me from campus radical, to environmental educator, to community activist, and finally to arts administrator. Politics and morality—a sense of justice—led me in my choice of work and how I conducted myself in the work. My artist life includes all this, but there is an additional element. It is a spiritual connection that is letting me trust my nighttime dreams and daytime synchronicities to lead the way.
In a way, following the dream references and synchronicities has become my artist methodology. My radical college training taught me that a spiritual life (as well as the artist life) was too individualistic and self-serving. As an arts administrator, I came to de-bunk the latter notion and served community arts projects with “good politics.” In my artist life, I have found that I must strive to be open not just to my internal voices but also to the world around me—natural and human. I try to treat all with respect and listen. I have found that when I am on the right track, doors open. I have trusted most of the big decisions, such as site and artist selection to this process. The work is slow. Patience is always required; there are sometimes dark periods where I am not sure where I am going or what is next. But so far, there has been just enough encouragement, assurance, and progress to keep me on the path and address the never-ending administrative details the project requires.
Public events and volunteer opportunities are an important part of the project. Hundreds of individuals have come forward in the last two years to participate in some way. What is particularly striking is the level of enthusiasm of those who attend. Many individuals have expressed that the project has struck a personal chord with them, challenging them to reconsider the role of art and creativity in their non-artist lives. Often they have been following the project, have clipped the articles, or have told others about the project. One woman expressed that she walks in her neighborhood with new eyes, with a new way of looking with appreciation at the gardens there, since learning about the project. Several individuals have made spontaneous cash contributions to the project both at events and just stopping at neighborhood sites where volunteers were at work. It is with the utmost sincerity that individuals have expressed their gratitude for the project. I have been capturing these anecdotes as a way to tell the story and assess the impact of the project.
Media coverage, which can be a barometer of public interest, has been practically overwhelming at the local level. The project has been prominently covered in all of the local daily and weekly newspapers and magazines. There have been numerous radio interviews, and a feature report was produced and aired on Pittsburgh's public television evening news magazine.
I also felt it was important to honor the site of the ArtGardens before planting actually took place. I uncharacteristically asked for help from a variety of people who I had met through the project—a woman who does earth celebrations, another who blesses gardens, an artist who practices water alchemy, a landscape architect with psychic abilities, a federal parks service employee who loves to chant—as well as a friend who is interested in the sunrise and a woman at my synagogue who leads a healing service there. They each expressed that they were honored to be asked. I hosted a dinner at my home where we planned a sunrise ritual for February 2, the day associated with the Quickening of the Seed, the day that holds the promise of spring (and Persephone's return). I invited friends of the project and colleagues to reach across our comfort zone—spiritually and physically (we met in the dark in freezing temperatures)—to dance and chant, to witness the sunrise, to bless and pray on behalf of the project and the world. Ritual has continued to be an important part of the project at both public and more intimate events.
I came to the project with the realization that my backyard garden is my artistic practice and therefore I am an artist. The project grew out of my wanting to share this awareness with other backyard gardeners in the hopes that it would have the same transformative impact on them that I experienced. Yet the doubts created by a lifetime of I'm-not-an-artist conditioning were pervasive.
At the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry I was considered an artist because of my conceptual inquiry. And it felt right that the project itself – the inquiry into the notions of hobbies, creativity, gardens, community, environment – is my artist pursuit. And yet I was continually asked if I would make a garden. This seemed fair, that I should practice what I preached, but at the same time it terrified me. I was relieved when someone on my advisory committee suggested that we ask Lily Yeh of the Village for Arts and Humanities in Philadelphia to make the first Magic Penny Garden. Her inspiring work in a distressed neighborhood over the last 20 years made her the perfect artist to represent the community gardener category, and I was off the hook.
Strangely, I did begin a practice of mark making in my morning journal. One morning after writing about a particularly poignant dream, I felt the pen move on the page as if my hand was guided. Because of the striking similarity of the drawings to the work of Matisse, I later experimented with paper and scissors. The scissors took on their own direction more surely than the pen. What started as a private practice went public when I connected one cut shape to the silhouette of the stream insects I studied in college ecology. Days later it was front-page news that swarms of mayflies had returned to Pittsburgh for the first time in 105 years – bringing the good news of cleaner rivers.