September 28, 2010

Planting Art on the Quad

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While most Cornell students spent the summer interning and relaxing across the globe, Maggie Prendergast was learning to garden on the Arts Quad.

For her B.F.A. senior thesis, entitled Photosynthesis, Prendergast created a vegetable garden as public art to raise issues of land use, sustainability and local food production. The garden, located on a 15 ft. by 100 ft. plot of land in front of Tjaden Hall featured a wide assortment of plants.

As a B.F.A. student, she was required to complete a two-semester thesis, but she did not want to showcase art in the traditional sense. Instead, she followed the inspiration of some non-traditional artists such as Franz Haeg, an architect who planted a series of gardens called Edible Estates, which encouraged people to replace their lawn with a vegetable garden.

Sun: To begin with, what did you plant in your garden?

Maggie Prendergast: [They are] all mostly things you can eat raw. I planted lettuce, carrots, chard, strawberries, basil, marigolds, tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, peas, beans, squash, corn, okra, herbs, fennel, watermelon, peppers, ground cherries, rosemary and lavender.

Sun: What was your inspiration for the project?

M.P.: Dullman Hill [a cooperative student garden on campus] inspired me to farm and garden — it got me excited about local vegetable production.

Sun: Why a vegetable garden as opposed to a more conventional medium?

M.P.: [As a sophomore] I started to learn about the art market — such as galleries in New York City — and I decided that I do not want to participate in it. […] In order to not participate, I decided to create public art — non-traditional art where an artist makes the decision to create a project in the community.

Sun: How did the project develop?

M.P.: For the final project, I constructed a prototype of the Cornell campus. I designed green space around Olin Library, the Johnson Museum and Mann Library. The more I thought about it, the more I thought it could be a cool idea.

Sun: What were some of the difficulties with the construction of the garden?

M.P.: As it was on university property, I had to speak with the Cornell University Grounds Department, Cornell Health and Safety, Cornell Police, a Cornell lawyer, representatives of the university at Day Hall and the [AAP] events manager. It took all semester to get it approved. […] The Grounds Department generously gave me compost for a raised soil bed. My best friend has a truck, so we shoveled the soil into and out of the truck — [after awhile,] the grounds crew let us use a Bobcat.

Sun: Has the gardening been more or less difficult than you expected?

M.P.: It’s difficult and simple at the same time. Seeds want to grow if you give them water and sun. But, planning the space of a garden effectively is difficult. I learned what to plant in combination to fend off pests and promote growth.

Sun: Why do you consider the garden art?

M.P.: [The garden] is framed as art — it is site-specific to the art school. It tries to engage students visually, to bring up critical issues.

Sun: How will your project expand to the greater University?

M.P.: It’s not feasible to make Cornell into a vegetable garden, but what we could do is make more space naturalized — similar to the seasonal meadow on Libe Slope — as an approach to sustainability.

Sun: How will this experience play into your future plans?

M.P.: [After Cornell] I will be more involved in the urban farming movement in New York City. I will learn more about it and participate — possibly in local food distribution.

The garden came to fruition on Sept. 17, at the gallery reception in the Experimental Gallery at Tjaden Hall, in which she hosted a dinner for her thesis project. The dinner consisted solely of ingredients from her garden in an effort to celebrate local food, featuring a fresh salad, zucchini bread and other vegetables.

In addition to the garden, her thesis consisted of a website and self-illustrated publications that contain information on how to make your own garden. The project has inspired her to promote sustainable land use practices at Cornell in the future.

This semester, she plans to petition for more naturalized university property in addition to illustrating and writing a column in the Cornell Daily Sun about local food. Her emphasis on sustainable, local agricultural processes is not just limited to Ithaca, as she hopes to continue the initiative after graduation.  ­­

Original Author: Chris Leo Palermino