Sep 12, 2012

Art, Farming and Sustainability: The Alaskan Way Hanging Gardens

Photo Credit: Sustainable Seattle
Sungold tomatoes, amaranth, salad burnet, broccoli and eggplant... did my tummy just grumble? No, this isn't a farmer’s market shopping list. These are just some of the vegetables found in plastic semitransparent milk jugs, attached together with twine, hanging five feet above a concrete sidewalk to a row of trees at the Seattle Waterfront, between Alaskan Way and Wall Street to be exact.

Last month, we posted on our Facebook page about this unexpected urban garden, named Alaskan Way Hanging Gardens. These sweet little plants, even equipped with a drip irrigation system, on a busy downtown street warmed our urban agriculture hearts. We just had to find out how this project came to be. Turns out, it took two city departments, one artist/urban gardener/chocolatier, and a couple sustainability minded concepts to build this garden that is actually, art.

Since 1973, the Seattle Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs has supported and called for local artists to help adorn Seattle’s urban landscape with public art. Creating a new art series, Ruri Yampolsky, Director of the Public Arts Program and Jason Huff, Project Manager, called out for artists to send ideas of street art, almost graffiti style (sans the spray paint cans), that will attract pedestrians to pieces of work that in a moment spread beauty, surprise or humor for Art Interruptions, a temporary project funded by Seattle Department of Transportation’s 1% for Arts Fund. Twelve pieces were then selected and installed along Greenwood Ave N. and the Central Waterfront.

That’s where Joanna Lepore comes along. Joanna is the artist of the Alaskan Way Hanging Garden. Her work promoted the departments’ vision to encourage people to walk around their neighborhoods. Ditch the car, and enjoy their surroundings. Walkable, livable cities are the core of creating healthy built environments and the art department aligns with this notion. They have many other pieces to show their support on sustainable ideas (bike rack squid at Seattle Center is one example).  But this particular art work has a sustainable mission that may not be  apparent.

Photo Credit: Sustainable Seattle
Meet Joanna Lepore, artist of Alaskan Way Hanging Gardens. Not only is Joanna an artist, she’s also a farmer and the Confection and Product Development Manager at Theo. We had the privilege of hanging with Joanna at her home garden, in Capitol Hill. Where, like a true urban farmer, she’s reclaimed abandoned land near her home. Creating a beautiful, functional space that has produced veggies for over 3 years.

Joanna is also a board member of the Just Garden Project and has helped build many urban gardens that educate community members, including low-income families, that they too can garden and have fresh, local produce. In our conversation, we spoke of the lack of connection most people have with their food, because of the U.S. food system that is heavy on large grocery stores and packaged goods. She wanted to help reestablish this connection with the Alaskan Way Hanging Gardens, and this is just one of reasons she created this art piece. With simple materials, and maybe a book (I recommend this one) anyone can have a small garden. Even apartment renters who are on waiting lists for P-patches!

Not only do we love the Alaskan Hanging Gardens for their delicious fruit, and "element of surprise" the Art Interruptions series was created for, but for the fact that it encourages an integration of art and sustainable practices to educate others on how to live a more sustainable life. As Ruri from Seattle Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs said of Art Interruptions, it is “activating the streets, activating public spaces.”  While this project brings momentary happiness to passersbywhether it be Seattle residents or global tourists   the Alaskan Way Hanging Gardens is starting a conversation about sustainable lifestyles. It's bringing the idea of choosing behaviors that can help create a more resilient future. 

There are other art pieces we haven't yet seen, so join us and ditch your car and start walking streets of Greenwood and the Central Waterfront. The collection will be up until next month, or, maybe not. These are graffiti-style street art pieces after all! 

Get to know more about Joanna and her inspirations through our Q & A:

Is farming a big part of your life? 
Food has been the focus of my life since I was a kid. I didn't grow up cooking or farming, but I fell into the world of Pastry in high school and haven't been able to get out of it yet! Even in art school, food and plants were my subject matter. I worked on a farm for a season and now grow a lot of our own food in addition to applying those skills to art installations.

Did this urban space project hit close to home? Do you have a lack of space where you live? 
My husband & I grow our food on an empty lot/parking strip around the corner from our house. We live in a shady section of the 520 Greenway and can't really grow anything beyond herbs and mushrooms in our yard. We don't have a water source directly at the garden, so we've learned a lot about alternative irrigation strategies.

What is the inspiration behind your project? 
Seattle is a progressive place- I think it is easy to forget that much of our country doesn't have the connection to nature and food that a lot of us do here. My work demonstrates a new direction for the artistic use of public space while challenging traditional ideas of where food can be grown. The prime tourist location of the Art Interruptions project presented an opportunity to reach a completely new audience. 

I'm sure you have heard of the Beacon Hill Food Forest, are these plants also edible to passersby? 
Yes! That is the whole point- to make food free and available on an urban scale.

We are SUSTAINABLE Seattle, so- let's open up that conversation. What does sustainability mean to you and how, if at all, do you apply it in your life? 
Sustainability is the most important thing! I have strong survival instinct and try to make my life decisions with sustainability in mind. My husband and I don't have a car, and haven't had one for 10 and 7 years, respectively. We grow as much of our own food as we can, and buy the rest from local producers. We try to share what we have with our friends and neighbors, and trust that living (and making art) by example is the first step towards actualizing change.

For more information on the Alaskan Way Gardens head to their Facebook page. 

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