May 20, 2014

Social practice, story elicitation and puzzle plants: An interview with Kaitlin Pomerantz, Zya S. Levy of WE THE WEEDS botanical arts collective

by: Julius Ferraro

As Mural Arts Philadelphia highlights its focus beyond traditional mural-making into social practice we continue to be guided by a fundamental drive toward local participant as expert and coproduction.

As part of an expansive neighborhood integration effort around the Environmental Justice Initiative’s ongoing Conestoga Recreation Center project in West Philly, project manager Shari Hersh has engaged botanical arts collective WE THE WEEDS for a series of story elicitation and youth engagement projects.

The product? A comprehensive package of stories, drawings, and discoveries by community participants they have worked with and interviewed over two years. This collection will drive the designs of the murals and etched concrete, whichin an intentionally cyclical processare intended to inform, educate, and reflect the people who live with the rec center, a vital community gathering place.

In an exclusive interview with the Mural Arts Blog, collective members Kaitlin Pomerantz and Zya S. Levy talk about social practice and the importance of weeds.

Mural Arts: Why weeds?

Kaitlin Pomerantz: Weeds are examples of nature asserting her presence within the urban space. Weeds grow untended, thriving off of the little resources they have access to. All weeds have stories—many are immigrants, have travelled great lengths and gone through many adaptations to survive here. Most weeds are persecuted, reviled and ostracized, but most have uses—medicinal, edible, material—that they were once prized for. Weeds are remediators—they remove leads, stabilize soil, create oxygen, capture Co2, and create habitat and nourishment for animals. Weeds are resilient, diverse, ubiquitous and stunning. Weeds are us!

MA: You conducted workshops with students at the elementary school to formulate a questionnaire, which you then used to inspire community members to discuss their relationships with nature. Tell us about that process.

Zya S. Levy: We had a great time with the students in Jared Wood’s afternoon art class—what a great bunch of kids! We did a few different exercises with them to get them thinking about the role of nature in their lives and how relationships to nature aren’t always obvious. For example, we had each student look through their backpacks and pockets and select an object from their personal possessions that they felt most related to nature. The students drew those objects and explained the relationships creating an in-class natural history museum. Then we did some brainstorming about ways to ask people from the neighborhood about their relationship to plants. We got great ideas, like “Would you mind if someone planted flowers in front of your house?”

MA: What have you discovered in your work with the community that surprised, inspired, or motivated you?

KP: I’ve been really excited about people’s immediate and instinctual connection to plants. There were a few moments in the beginning of doing weeds-work in the neighborhood, where I’d just be out in plant patches, trying to identify different plants, and strangers would come up and start talking about the significance of such-and-such flower, the role it played in their family history, the way they use it for food or medicine… etc. It really seems like everyone has a nature story to tell.

I was equally and similarly impressed by the students from Mastery Charter and their ability to remember plant names, facts, and characteristics. It’s been over a year since we did some of our first explorations together, and students still come up to me to talk about the “peanut butter tree” (Tree of Heaven) or the Velcro plant (Burdock).

MA: So what are your plant stories?

ZSL: So, when I was a kid my mom would always plant comfrey in her gardens. It’s a tall plant with blue-purple flowers and over the summers it would spread out into the garden paths. I liked to nibble its big, very fuzzy leaves; I can still imagine the feel and taste. My mom grew comfrey because she really loved it and yearly she would dig up its roots to make a salve for cuts and burns. Later, in my teenage years, when I was first learning about herbal medicine, I decided to make an herbal first aid kit and took my first attempt at making a salve, which turned out to be quite the disaster. I got my mom’s recipe and advice and set about digging up and making an oil infusion of a mess of comfrey roots, but I was a pretty impatient teenager and while I was supposed to very gently heat the chopped roots in oil I basically fried up a batch of dirty comfrey chunks!

KP: One of my best plant memories occurred the day I met Zya. A friend brought her over to my house in West Philly, and we sat chatting in my backyard next to my favorite tree—which I fondly referred to as the puzzle piece tree, because of its puzzle piece-shaped leaves. Zya immediately said, “Oh, you mean that Paper Mulberry—Broussonetia papyrifera?” And thus our friendship, and weed-ship, began!

MA: How was this story elicitation project unlike anything you’ve done before?

KP: For a while I was doing work about oysters and marine ecology, and my first community engagement project had to do with these topics. I got a commission to do an eco-sculpture down in the Southern Chesapeake Bay, where I ended up working with watermen, environmentalists, marine biologists, captains, archeologists, historians, waste resource managers, students and community members to realize this task. It was a trip! At the time, I wasn’t actively aware of “community engagement” or “social practice” in art—I was just making the connections I needed to make to get people talking and thinking and involved in the environmental issues I was looking to tackle through my art.

ZSL: In 2011 I started a club, the Collecting Collective (more casually called “Herb Club”) with the aim of gathering and making stuff out of wild plants. One of our events was a public potluck in Liberty Lands Park, during which we took a walk through some of the vacant lots collecting medicinal weeds and made an herbal salve right there in the park. Another recent project is a botanical speakeasy. I built a decorative mobile bar from which I serve beverages at public events made from native plants and noxious weeds. When you get a drink it comes with a little botanical rant. I like to create tactile plant-human experiences because they create a direct relationship to the natural world and hopefully make people happy and more environmentally aware.

The story elicitation project was different from most of my community engagements because it was a listening, not a teaching role. We were trying to draw out stories about plants, so we were asking the community to be the plant experts.

KP: Yeah, this project was different for me precisely because of that listening role, and the complexity involved in that. I am very excited and curious to see what all of our listening and coordinating will turn into, in terms of our forthcoming book, the murals it will inspire this summer, an eventual rain garden, and who knows what else! The idea of art coming from something more than just an artist’s head and hand—art coming from a collective consciousness and conversation—is a pretty exciting thing!

Thanks, Kaitlin and Zya!

The murals for the rec center walls, and homes surrounding it, are currently being designed by Pittsburg-based artist Kim Beck, and will be installed this summer by muralist Briana Dawkins. The process will be documented on the Mural Arts blog. Check out murals which Kaitlin Pomerantz and Beverly Fisher have already installed in the area here.

The Environmental Justice Initiative was started in 2009 by project manager Shari Hersh. Read more here.

Last updated: Jun 3, 2020

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