Tucked into a corner of the Albuquerque Museum sculpture garden just off the historic Old Town Plaza is A Garden: The Living Room. The public art + agroecology project was created by Land Arts of the American West and Art & Ecology students from The University of New Mexico in cooperation with the museum.

In A Garden, sunflowers tower next to cornstalks, zucchini nestle with zinnias and other bright flowers. Hay bale seating lines the paths and gives visitors a place to rest and enjoy the view of what was once a barren stretch of sand.

A Garden among the sculptures
A Garden among the sculptures

A Garden is a living regenerative art + agroecology project. It grows year after year as the students explore specific topics and then respond creatively on-site in this living garden installation. During the first year the project corresponded with a large public exhibition SeedBroadcast had at the Albuquerque Museum called Seed: Climate Change Resilience, about indigenous agriculture, seeds, and climate resiliency, according to A Garden mentor Jeanette Hart-Mann.

Josie Lopez is head curator at the Albuquerque Museum. She received her Ph.D. at University of California, Berkeley and has a Master’s of Arts from UNM in Art and Art History.

“The museum provides the space and we interacted with the group in the planning process. I usually spend some time with the class that is taking on the project and we talk about the museum both inside and out. In the past we have had discussions about what it means to be a public museum and to serve the communities of Albuquerque,” Lopez said. “This process gives the students an opportunity to experience how museums select exhibitions and programs and to get feedback on their design for the project. The hard work is then done by the students and each year it has been great experience for the museum.” 

“The title A Garden was imagined during the first year of the project in Fall 2018 when it was called A Garden: The Birds Arrive. Subsequently every year thereafter we retained the ‘A Garden’ and the students rename the rest,” explained Hart-Mann, director of the UNM Land Arts of the American West program, and assistant professor of Art and Ecology. She is also a farmer, artist, activist, and co-founder and co-director of SeedBroadcast, an artist collective committed to uplifting the culture in agri-Culture through creative public engagement and open-source seed sharing.

“The name for this year is A Garden: The Living Room, stemming from the living room type ‘furniture’ the seating areas are made of, and the idea of creating a space that people ̶ human and non-human ̶ can just come be and live in,” explained Ele Edreva, an Art & Ecology grad student who is running the project this summer.

Ryan Henel, field coordinator for the Land Arts of the American West program and a research lecturer for the Arts & Ecology department, is also a mentor for the project. He has an MFA in Art + Ecology and a BFA in Studio Art from the University of New Mexico.

“I was involved in the garden project with two different classes,” Henel said. “For my Art + Ecology Class ‘Creating Change,’ we worked on creating a habitat on the west side of the garden that focused on non-human communities, primarily insects and birds. At A Garden, you will see numerous bird houses in the trees, bird feeders, and bird baths, as well as plantings to foster a pollinator habitat to attract a variety of insects.”

A woven branch trellis wall was designed to help enclose the space and support vegetation that will ultimately evolve into a shifting sculptural form, he continued. The planted area contains more native and drought-tolerant plants that will be allowed to mature at the site for the foreseeable future.

“These plant varieties help connect this micro-habitat with similar environments that are located on the museum's campus. As part of our research and design, we worked with the Friends of Valle de Oro's Backyard Refuge Program to inform our project,” Henel added. 

Hart-Mann explained, “The students were really feeling the impact of both the pandemic and the racial and historic tensions and violence that local residents are grappling with over the Oñate monument, which is located close to our project site. Their desire was to create a space that anyone can come and spend time in to heal and be nourished.”

The statue of Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate at the head of a procession called La Jornada on the museum grounds was almost toppled and eventually removed after a protest last year that turned violent.

The space is now a peaceful place that beckons visitors to sit and stay awhile.

The group decided to create a bowl shape surrounding a pine tree in the center with garden beds. The outermost plants frame the whole area with tall plants like corn, sunflowers, and amaranth. The middle bed is a mix of vegetables and flowers such as chiles, sesame, dill, and tobacco. Shorter plants, including calendula, chamomile, yerba mansa, chocolate flowers, and other hardy perennials sit in the middle of the area. The trellis of twigs in one corner hems in perennial native plants that will take some time to fully establish before they become permanent on the site. Other beds contain annuals that will be replanted year after year.

“One of our first commitments during our design process was that the site needed to include seating, as a gesture of invitation telling people that it’s OK and encouraged them to come and spend time on the site,” Edreva said. After some discussion it was decided to use hay bales for seating for several reasons.

“The choice resonated with us on multiple levels. The first is that our project site and the entire property the Albuquerque Museum sits on used to be a farm, and the hay bales are a subtle nod towards that history. We also liked the modularity of this seating that could be moved around to suit different configurations and events.”

“Especially with this being the first year that seating was introduced on the site, the impermanence of the hay bales was a benefit, as we could keep an eye out for which areas of the garden people actually tend to sit in, and think about creating more permanent seating there in the future,” Edreva continued. “Additionally, the hay can come off the bales and then become mulch for the beds and eventually decompose. With a mind towards the health of the plants and the soil, we tried to use all natural and untreated materials that wouldn’t leech harmful chemicals into the soil as they degrade over time.”

“Not all the plants grew to the heights we expected, and not all of the seeds stayed where we intended them to, but that’s part of the beauty of the process,” Edreva enthused. “The plants were our collaborators and we had to give up some of the control over our vision to what they wanted to do as well. We also wanted to select drought tolerant plants that wouldn’t need excessive water, and could survive under the intense sun that the site receives for most of the day.”

Summer events are planned for August. The project has funding to invite local artists and educators to co-lead each of them. 

August 19: Physical Theater Circus Workshop with SJ Moody of Wise Fool Santa Fe

6-7:45 pm – Register here

SJ Moody of Wise Fool New Mexico will guide us in a physical comedy exploration of the garden, finding ways to get to know the plants on the site through humorous and joyful movement. The workshop will consist of a series of physical theater games inviting participants to orient towards themselves, each other, and the garden with laughter and openness.

August 21, 6-9 p.m.: Permission to rest: a one-night exhibition

Permission to rest is a one-night outdoor exhibition showcasing work from current University of New Mexico MFA students. The exhibition takes place at A Garden, an evolving art + agroecology project created by UNM Art & Ecology students in collaboration with the Albuquerque Museum. The work exhibited will be a mixture of 2D, 3D, and digital artworks and will respond to the garden’s themes of healing and nourishment and to the plants themselves.
On August 22, Edreva and local artist Alyssa Frye will lead a listening and storytelling workshop. 4-5:30pm – Register here
Join local artists, growers, and storytellers Frye and Edreva for a workshop weaving together voice, senses, and movement to creatively tell stories about our inner and outer landscapes. They will do a series of verbal, sensory, and movement-based storytelling exercises leading up to the creation of a collaborative story co-authored by all workshop participants. The plants and animals of the garden will join them as collaborators as they actively listen to and learn from the sensory strategies they use to communicate. The themes of the stories they tell will draw from each of their recent pasts and weave together to create a story of a future that they want to co-create.
Edreva recommends people stay up to date on these events by following the Land Arts Instagram page or the Albuquerque Museum’s page about the garden.
Otherwise, Edreva pointed out, the space is always open for people to come and spend time in.
“I’m there on a regular basis, and if anyone wants to come by and learn more about the plants or anything else, I’m always available to meet up and chat.”
Students involved are an interdisciplinary cohort of Graduate and Undergraduate students Art & Ecology, Photo, Experimental Art and Technology, Landscape Architecture, Dance, Geography, and more. This project corresponds with course work they take in Art & Ecology and Land Arts of the American West, Hart-Mann noted, adding, “It gives students real-life experience in working on community engaged projects with institutional partners from beginning to end. Students learn how to engage in site-specific research and analysis, negotiate and propose public projects with cultural institutions, collaborate across disciplines, design and create work on-site, and finally present and promote. This all wrapped up into one semester of course work. At the end we are all pretty exhausted – but excited about what we did together."
She continued: “Campus can be intimidating and difficult to navigate for many people. Working at the Albuquerque Museum, right off Mountain Rd, in this space of beauty and abundance has created deep connections, relationships, and conversations that will continue to grow into the future. That is what a garden is all about, no?”
This project has been funded through Land Arts of the American West, Lannan Foundation Grant and the Center for Environmental Arts and Humanities.
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