October 23, 2014

SPARK T.H.I.S and City Soil: Making Art Work

As seems the case with many cherished experiences and relationships,
RAYS and City Soil,  an artful partnership.

RAYS and City Soil, an artful partnership.

the partnership between City Soil Farm and Spark T.H.I.S. almost didn’t happen. Allison Mountjoy and Casey Plank at City Soil had an elaborate idea for a community project: over the course of two days, local youth would learn about food systems, harvest produce in the garden, and help create art that would attract attention to the surprising location of their farm. Allison and Casey had all of the resources they needed for the project, but they were struggling to find a group of young people to partner with. They were about to give up on the project, but they decided to contact Renton Area Youth and Family Services for one last inquiry.

Luckily, the Spark T.H.I.S. youth development program at RAYS emphasizes community involvement, so we enthusiastically agreed to partner with City Soil.

On a sunny July day, thirteen middle and high school students piled into the RAYS van to venture to City Soil. Upon arrival, we filed into a conference room on the giant premises (City Soil shares space with the King County Wastewater Treatment Plant) where City Soil had prepared a presentation on food systems for us. Small bundles of students huddled around world maps guessing where foods like pecans, black tea, and coffee grow. Allison and Casey facilitated a conversation around the origins of our food, how it gets to us, and the implications of that process. They also discussed the essential qualities of “healthy” soil, which, to the dismay of some of our students, included a lot of bugs.

After the food systems discussion, our group shuffled out into the garden to experience firsthand some of the lessons we’d learned in the classroom. Within ten minutes, our group was outfitted with gardening gloves and tools, ready to harvest tiny potatoes that were hiding a couple inches beneath the soil’s surface.

SPARK T.H.I.S. Youth digging in healthy soil.

SPARK T.H.I.S. Youth digging in healthy soil.

Miraculously, the students who were horrified by the prospect of bugs were still willing to submerge their hands in the very “healthy” soil to unearth the prize produce.

After filling buckets of freshly plucked potatoes and wandering around the garden to taste not-quite-ripe apples and berries, we marched back to the administration building to watch a demonstration on how to make spray paint art. Rico, an employee at the treatment plant, captivated us all with his swift spray can strokes that produced an impossibly precise outline of a tropical flower. The following week, he said, we would be spray painting sharp, vibrant images like him, but first we had to practice. Our homework assignment for the week was to draw a picture of something that we saw in the garden that day on a piece of cardboard.

The following week, we brought back our cardboard sketches as evidence that we were ready to translate our pencil drawings into aerosol art. On a shaded hill overlooking the garden, plywood canvases leaning against plastic buckets sat waiting for us.

All of the students approached their projects with bold creativity and energy.

The crew making art in the garden!

The crew making art in the garden!

By the end of our time at City Soil we had over twenty art pieces depicting everything in the garden from strawberries to sunflowers to spiders to trees. One student gave her piece an alternative touch by slowly dripping different colors of paint from the top of her panel over her original image. Meanwhile, another student was spray painting her hands and using the imprint of her fingers and palm to accent her picture. More than one student took proud selfies in front of their finished products to display on their Instagrams.

In early October, City Soil invited us back for the final chapter of the project.We gathered with over 50 community members for a potluck in the garden where our student’s artwork now formed an inviting and colorful mural along the entrance. We sunk into fold up chairs around a fire pit munching on marinated squash, grilled kebabs, pumpkin pie, and s’mores. Casey unknowingly created one last opportunity for inspiration when she invited one of our students to command the barbeque for awhile. She surprised us all by returning from the barbeque with grilled green apples complete with caramel sauce for dipping. Needless to say, they disappeared quickly.

The students along with SPARK T.H.I.S. Youth Life Coaches and City Soil staff

What started out as a last minute proposal from an unknown urban garden transformed into one of the most unique community relationships we’ve built.

We’re grateful for local, grassroots organizations like City Soil that reach out to our youth and lucky to work with young people who are willing to take on new experiences. Even when those experiences involve bugs.