Jul 17, 2014

Designing with nature & community: an interview with artist Kim Beck

by: Julius Ferraro

Every afternoon, in a big, sunny corner room at Mastery Charter School’s Shoemaker Campus, sixteen students busily paint away in bright strokes of green, brown and purple. Standing around large, five-foot-square pieces of parachute cloth, they steadily color in sections of a mural.

Though each square appears to feature abstract shapes, when they are installed onto the walls of Conestoga Recreation Center across the street, the end product will be a gorgeous botanical mural. The rec center stands at the heart of the West Philadelphia’s Carroll Park neighborhood, and is the locus of Mural Arts’ Environmental Justice Initiative’s latest environmental project, Room for Growth (other parts of which we documented here in the spring).

The mural, which will wrap around three exterior walls of the rec center, was designed by Pittsburgh artist Kim Beck. Beck’s work has been shown in galleries, sculpture parks and museums nationally and internationally, and often blends urban and architectural “invasive species” (billboards, cell phone towers, electrical transformers) with botanical ones: weeds.

Many of the same students painting Beck’s mural today were involved in the creation of a Field Guide to Philadelphia’s Wild Urban Plants last year, which celebrated the beauty and usefulness of the indigenous plants which are so often called weeds.

Informed by the students’ drawings of local flora—included in that same field guide—and her own photographs, Beck’s mural, as if by magic, formulates a blissful oasis out of the chaos of overgrowth. Brightly colored plant silhouettes overlap one another, ultimately creating a deep, mysterious forest.

In an exclusive interview with Mural Arts, Beck talks about community process and her own relationship with plants (particularly weeds).

MURAL ARTS: How did you get connected with the Environmental Justice Initiative?

KIM BECK: A copy of my book, A Field Guide to Weeds, made it into the hands of Kaitlin Pomerantz [of WE THE WEEDS], who’s worked with Mural Arts, and she recommended me.

MA: Tell us about your process developing this mural.

KB: After speaking with Mural Arts I came out to walk around the community center and neighborhood. I took loads of photographs of plants and weeds to use as sources

MA: A lot of your source material comes from the community’s personal plant stories, and you’ve done a lot of work with weeds in the past. What’s your personal relationship with weeds?

KB: When I moved into my current place in Pittsburgh, the backyard was thick with weeds. Even as I’ve gradually cleared it and turned it into a garden, I’m constantly confronted by new plants and have to distinguish between friends and foes, who stays and who gets pulled.

In overgrown urban lots, I like how plucky weeds are, growing where other things might wither, how dense and lush they can be too. I was influenced by Frieda Knobloch’s The Culture of Wilderness (1996) where she looks at the relationship between plants and people through immigration, colonization and agriculture. It helped me consider these plants as more than they appear to be.

MA: How is this project different from your previous work?

KB: This is the first time I’ve designed a mural covering four walls. It’s also the first time I’ve made a piece for a community center, in a community that really wanted an artist-designed mural, in the context of a program like Mural Arts that facilitated neighborhood involvement. It’s the second time I’ve made a piece that takes some of its content and imagery from the city it’s in, the first being a few pieces I made in Indianapolis last year.

MA: The mural really has an incredible balance of shapes. How did you come to that balance?

KB: It’s really just the combination of the shapes dictated by the weed silhouettes. The color palette came from my sense of the place and imagining it with the future rain garden. I also used color relationships that created depth, texture, playing with harmony and dissonance. The community response was pretty great in helping me recognize that adding even more warm colors (pinks, warm reds, purples) would help bring out the cool yellows and greens, so I did!

MA: What’s next for you? What else are you currently working on? 

KB: I just finished up a residency at Cannonball Miami and now I’ll be working towards a show at Locust Projects in Miami next spring. I’m also continuing to work on drawings of turf and weeds in my studio and for other upcoming shows, such as the Monument to Cold War Victory, organized by artist Yevgeniy Fiks and curator Stamatina Gregory opening in October at The Cooper Union. Of course summer’s only half over so I have a lot of weeding left, too.

Thank you, Kim!

Members of the public are invited to a community paint day and neighborhood cleanup this Saturday, July 19thfrom 1-4 pm (RAIN DATE: Sunday, July 20th from 1-4 pm) at the Conestoga Recreation Center, corner of 53rd and Media streets.

Room for Growth is part of an ongoing renovation and re-creation of the Conestoga Recreation Center in partnership with The Trust for Public Land (TPL).

Kim Beck grew up in Colorado and currently lives in Pittsburgh where she is Associate Professor of Art at Carnegie Mellon. Her work has been shown  at the Walker Art Center, Carnegie Museum of Art, Smack Mellon, Socrates Sculpture Park, Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center, Warhol Museum, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Indianapolis Museum of Art and on the High Line. She is represented by Pentimenti Gallery in Philadelphia and Mixed Greens in New York. More of her work can be seen at: www.idealcities.com.

Last updated: Jun 3, 2020

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