When it comes to food trends, it’s hard to beat the buzz of “the local” right now. Farm-to-table restaurants and food trucks achieve cultlike status in showcasing heirloom ingredients grown within a small radius of their city coordinates. “Foodies” have matured into “locavores,” patronizing farmer’s markets, buying CSA shares in farms both rural and urban, and using organic and sustainable practices in their home or community gardens. As schools and other institutions add more local and fewer processed foods to their menus, thousands of people and organizations are promoting food justice, access to fresh food, and permaculture—from the Office of First Lady Michelle Obama on down to tiny nonprofits. And that’s just a cursory survey, attempting to maximize the food-related jargon and catchphrases in one short paragraph.
In the Twin Cities, a thriving local food scene has actually been building for decades. This summer, it’s yielded two new projects that are literally growing from the ground up. In Woodbury, a St. Paul suburb affectionately dubbed “Beigeville” by resident Catherine Schoenherr, Edible Estate #15: Twin Cities has replaced her family’s blank green lawn with a small but highly productive garden boasting an array of vegetables and other edible plants. Meanwhile, across the street from the Walker, the Foraging Circle has taken root as the newest feature in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden: a geodesic dome surrounded by edible and medicinal perennial plants, it’s an artwork that also serves as a learning center and demonstration garden. It even plays into Minneapolis’ fledgling urban agriculture policy, which could eventually have locavores hunting for greens, mushrooms, and other foods on public parkland.
Both projects are part of the Walker’s six-month residency with Fritz Haeg, a Los Angeles–based artist who grew up in the Twin Cities. Edible Estate #15 is the culmination of his eight-year project that has seen front lawns from Salina, Kansas, to Istanbul, Turkey replaced with food gardens. Foraging Circle, also planted in May, builds on a similar effort undertaken last summer in Liverpool, England, where Haeg, commissioned by the Liverpool Biennial, worked with residents to create the Everton Park Foraging Spiral and Basecamp.
Given their public profile, there is a kind of natural spectacle to both the Edible Estate—the subtitle of Haeg’s eponymous book on this project is Attack on the Front Lawn—and the Foraging Circle, which basically puts a garden-within-a-garden in the role of the newest sculpture in one of the country’s most esteemed sculpture gardens. And yet beyond those provocations, a host of complex ideas and questions are in play: about beauty and utility, fine art and domestic art, nature and culture, historic traditions and contemporary needs. In different ways, Edible Estate #15 and the Foraging Circle act as sort of natural magnets. They draw existing talents and resources from the surrounding community—horticulturalists, historians, ecologists, activists, amateur gardeners—as well as the attention of the broadest possible audience, including people who don’t normally patronize art museums.
Tearing up the front lawn, a near-sacred symbol of American success and leisure, in favor of tomatoes and beans is still controversial and even illegal in many places. In fact, “The Battlefront in the Front Yard,” a New York Times story published last December, documented a nationwide string of disputes between front-yard gardeners and disapproving neighbors and city officials; some were charged with violating city codes and ordinances.
Haeg and the families he’s worked with have dealt with similar encounters in his ongoing Edible Estates project, which culminates this summer on the Schoenherr family’s lawn (a new edition of the Edible Estates book will also be published in September.) As he noted to the Star Tribune in a story about his search for a Twin Cities family, “the whole point [is] to take space that isn’t being used, that represents the American dream, and reconsider that.” Shock value and confrontation matter, too, he acknowledges: “It has to be in a neighborhood where neighbors will freak out.” That’s why Edible Estates are usually planted where they have the highest visual impact, where lawns are prominent, and in places that oftentimes have certain expectations about appearances and use.
Freaking out her neighbors was not foremost in Catherine Schoenherr’s mind when she read the Star Tribune story. Instead, “I thought yes, let’s do that,” she recalls. “We as a family were all pretty excited about it.” (Schoenherr and her husband have two children in their early twenties who live nearby.) She also says that over 18 years she’s created wonderful relationships with many of her neighbors. “I’m anticipating it will be a good experience for everyone, because who doesn’t love fresh tomatoes?”
Aside from sharing a bounty of tasty produce, Schoenherr has a larger motivation for dramatically transforming her homestead: “I personally believe there are many ways to live and be in the world, and as a family in suburbia we see this as setting an alternative to having a front lawn. Our yard will say, ‘Here’s another option to think about.’ ”
Just as Schoenherr hopes to demonstrate a new approach to private suburban residential land, the Foraging Circle aims to spark fresh ways of thinking about and experiencing gardening, food, and community in and around the Twin Cities, showing both visitors and organizers the array of resources, expertise, and innovation that exists locally. A process that’s intended to be as open and inclusive as possible (and therefore also complicated) has so far involved an array of local resources, expertise, and innovation, from grassroots initiatives to official municipal agencies, including urban farmers, food justice advocates, horticulturalists, foragers, fermenters, and artists.
Ginger Cannon is a planner with the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board (MPRB), one of the Foraging Circle project partners (and the Walker’s partner in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden). She points out that the city’s park system already has gardens dedicated to growing food and views the project as “another educational tool to create dialogue and learning focused on growing, harvesting, and eating the produce from your own yard or a shared community space.” It’s also well-timed with the MPRB’s drafting of a plan this year to support urban agriculture within the park system.
The Foraging Circle is also designed to help build connections among its organizers. “An amazing number of people are doing good work around food: food trucks, food access, growing food in the city and in the peri-urban area,” says Anna Bierbrauer, an avid gardener with a master’s degree in landscape architecture who’s serving as the coordinator for Fritz Haeg’s artist residency at the Walker. Despite the organizational challenges, she envisions the project creating cohesion among this disparate group; the reward for her is in hearing “people from these different realms say that one of the best things the Walker can do is to bring them together around these topics, shine a light on what people are already doing. Creating those opportunities to reach new audiences, and to speak face-to-face rather than through the media, is a powerful piece of this project.”
The value of those direct encounters became apparent in the Foraging Circle’s earliest planning stages, when a host of questions came to the fore around the concept of using “native plants” in its design. For Bierbrauer, it revealed the ways plants tell stories about people, “and not just in a romantic way. We heard stories about limiting people’s access to their familiar cultural foods, about cultural domination. There’s a lot of sensitivity around how people use plants and adapt them for their needs, what is native versus invasive, and so forth. In the Twin Cities, it reflects the complex dynamics between our Native American and white European populations and more recent immigrant communities. How do we tell those stories through this small garden in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden?” She regards this exploration as an ongoing function of the project as more and different people get involved.
The issue of which plants to include, and why, “is loaded, and still very contentious for some,” she says, and even extends to issues of land ownership versus stewardship. “So we included a range of perspectives from cultural groups who view and use plants very differently from white Europeans.” Ultimately, criteria for Foraging Circle plants emerged with the help of Paula Westmoreland, an agroecologist and permaculture designer with the Permaculture Research Institute–Cold Climate: perennials with uses as foods, medicine, or some domestic purpose such as dye or textiles. In this way, the plants reflect the range of communities involved both today and historically in urban gardening and farming in and around the Twin Cities.
The Foraging Circle’s centerpiece is a geodesic dome, the site for discussions, workshops, meals, demonstrations, and other activities. Jane Shey, who heads up Homegrown Minneapolis, the city’s initiative to build a healthy local food system, coordinates the activities there. “I’m excited about the entire project,” she says, “but for me personally, the neatest part is having people talk about the things they do.” Recent MPRB research shows that learning how to use and cook with local foods is important to residents, notes Annie Young, a Citywide MPRB commissioner whose “regular daytime jobs” involve organizing community gardens and helping start a food co-op in North Minneapolis. “The Foraging Circle makes cultural, artistic, and sustainable connections for people who are learning about the food that is right here, finding blackberries, fruit on trees, and medicinal plants in our immediate neighborhood. We hope that our urban agriculture plan will show that finding what you can pick in a public park in the middle of the city is more than a person might bargain for.”
With both Edible Estate #15 and the Foraging Circle rooted in age-old practices as well as current trends, where does contemporary art enter the scene? As Haeg told the New York Times in 2006, on the occasion of establishing the second Edible Estate in Lakewood, California, “it’s about shifting ideas of what’s beautiful”—and even setting the stage for confrontations over those ideas. Both projects have a more direct translation into art via the exhibition Domestic Integrities A05, opening in the Walker’s Medtronic Gallery on August 8, which Haeg describes as an installation of “items that local residents have found in their environment.”
Ultimately, of course, visitors and participants will apply their own standards in judging the artistic elements of the projects. Bierbrauer finds art in focusing on “how people care for themselves and their homes, and celebrating that as the highest art form—one worthy of being in a museum.”
For his part, Haeg regards the trio of projects as addressing a “desire to get rid of the purity and isolation of the separate domains in our city. On the one hand, I’m domesticating the museum, while the Schoenherr’s private home is being institutionalized to some degree—it’s becoming visible and public.” So while the Edible Estate defies suburban isolation and privacy, the Domestic Integrities exhibition brings a homey intimacy to the Walker as an institution. “A similar distinction could be made between the domestic and the wild,” he says. “ ‘The wild’ is somehow connected to what we share, whereas we think of domestic things as yours or mine: private property.”
After eight years of creating Edible Estates, Haeg also sees his work moving away from cultivated land and private gardens. “It may not be readily apparent with the Foraging Circle, but I’m moving toward projects that propose a new way of thinking about the urban landscape that’s communal and collective,” he says. Taken all together, Haeg calls his Walker residency a career highlight: “It’s bringing together so many aspects of my work and having them come to fruition in these projects, which are turning out the way I’d always hoped. And it’s taking place where I grew up, which makes it even more meaningful.”
“Tearing up the front lawn, a near-sacred symbol of American success and leisure, in favor of tomatoes and beans is still controversial and even illegal in many places.”
“An amazing number of people are doing good work around food: food trucks, food access, growing food in the city and in the peri-urban area.” —Anna Bierbrauer
“It’s about shifting ideas of what’s beautiful.”