Interview: Abe Lampert

Basic information. (Name, age, school, department [or practice], year, occupation, coffee shop you currently work at, how many years.)

 Abe, 29

School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Print-media.

Coffee shop you currently work at and for how many years?

Manager at New Wave Coffee for 3.5 years.

How did you come to work at your coffee shop?  Are you a coffee drinker yourself?  If yes, where does your coffee come from (coffee shop, local roaster, specific country of origin, etc.)?

I got my job by dropping off a resume and having had worked in food service (including various cafes) for many years. I drink coffee daily, but I’m not incredibly particular with concern to its origin. 

How knowledgeable are you about the coffee you brew in your coffee shop?  Of coffee and its trade in general?

Very. As much as my profession requires of me.

Is there a connection (if at all) between your experience with coffee and your artistic practice?

Only insofar as coffee affects my ability to focus on anything in life. 

Do you feel as if there is something that differentiates your coffee/coffee shop from local/national competitors?

Yes and no. My shop is a little more laid back than other Chicago based independent shops, and is certainly different, in obvious ways from say, a Starbucks or Cosi. Ultimately, however, all coffee shops are the same

What do you think is coffee’s role within a social realm?

I have no idea how to answer that. People drink coffee, often together. I will say that even though I work at a coffee shop and spend many hours a day adjusting grinders and attempting to pull high-quality shots of espresso, I think that people who ‘meet for coffee’, or spend nine hours a day hanging out at a coffee shop are out of their minds. People who choose coffee as their point of social interaction need to learn about bars, or better yet public parks. Furthermore, anyone who goes out for coffee on a first date is a fucking lunatic. I watch it happen every day and I can’t imagine a less ideal circumstance to talk to someone for the first time than when you’re both ingesting high amounts of stimulants. And milk. Coffee shop first date = highly nervous and highly flatulent first date. What a bunch of dumb-asses.

Do you think there is a greater dialogue to be had involving coffee production and its consumption?  Coffee culture/consumerism in general?

Sure. But just as much as, literally, any commodity purchased in the United States.

Interview by Eric Lengsouthiphong



Interview: Heather Moran

Name: Heather Moran

Age: 24

How long have you been working at Phoenix Coffee and what made you want to work in a coffee shop?

About seven months. I started as a way to earn extra money, but I feel like I’m part of a family with the staff and regulars who come and spend their time. I also really like that it’s locally brewed coffee.

Are you a coffee drinker? What is your experience with coffee? 

Oh yes! I started drinking coffee in high school…usually Starbucks. Then that progressed to actually spending time in nearby cafes when I was in college and needing a place outside of my dorm room to focus. I prefer being able to sit down and spend time enjoying my coffee. 

As opposed to the ‘grab and go?’

Definitely. I feel like there are places where you can quickly go to grab your coffee, which is sometimes necessary if you’re on your way to work or class, but I prefer to take my time.

So you are more interested in the social, community aspects of the local coffee shop? 


How many cups of coffee do your regulars typically consume? A cup? More?

Typically more than one, but it really depends on what they’re doing. If someone comes in and is on their laptop for a few hours, they’ll order more than one cup. But it’s typically slow drinking. 

One of the things my class has been exploring this semester is the idea of the ‘constant consumer.’ When considering this idea in regards to coffee, what are your thoughts on consumption habits? 

I’ve seen both extremes. I’ve had friends who need a several cups of coffee in the morning to function normally. I also know people who only have one cup every once in awhile. I think it’s important to have a balance and moderate your consumption.

Interview by Gabrielle Burrage


Curatorial Statement – Ariel Fang

“As a community we shape our lives through communication with others.” – Ben Kinmont

The understanding of our interaction with others and that reflexivity to see how it shapes our lives was both the interest and the method of making for Constant Consumer. The naturally loose structure of how the curatorial premise for both Storefront’s Blend: Discourse by the Cup and Constant Consumer developed mirrors and justifies the end conversation I desire to have from the show. ‘How is it that the daily moments of intake, of consumption, in our lives affects our larger understanding of value? Or is it that our larger beliefs in value informs the decision we have in seeing and choosing objects because we have a sense of their preciousness? Or rather is it, the answer to the previous two questions is, “yes”, and that a conversation needs to be had where both signified and signifier are acknowledged as equals?”

When thinking about how this entire show/class/experience panned out I can not help but wonder where the moment of “worthwhileness” was best exemplified. It is important to realize that this show functioned in an institutional structure, that the class was already promised a highly visible prized exhibition space. This is pointed out in terms of acknowledging the situation that we curate in, the conversation that was being spoken even before the first day of class. From a certain perspective, one could say that the act of the student’s consumption of the course was what brought value to the course. For after all, if no one was around to take the class or chose not to take the class, the meaning would be void because the purpose of the class could not be fulfilled. The monetary value, the time spent, the physical structure of a classroom space and its availability all influence and enforce the perception that the time spent in the class room and projects derived from the class room are valuable. 

This perception of value was then reinforced through the conversations we had with one another. A clear example of this was the time spent on the coffee and the concept of coffee. It was not that all these things were not already valuable before our conversation, but rather that by having a conversation (many conversations) it became more important to the whole group. With the combined incentive of caffeinated conversation and the supporting structure of a class we were able to continue the larger project to a more-full exhibition. 

Constant Consumer came about through the effort a many, many conversations. While this is certainly not different in terms of other exhibitions, it was particularly interesting in gauging how individuals involved in this project engaged in dialogue on the project. There was moments where the concepts of the show was made evidently clear by the satisfaction of a full personal conversation, while at other times it was stifled by the endless unreliable chains of constant email updates. The ways that planning this one exhibition permeated the whole of the semester was incredibly interesting, as it greatly expanded beyond a “normal” class project. 

In someways this curatorial blog post only adds to that endless dribble of insular dialogue. While there is certainly value in writing and posting and doing, it seems somewhat lackluster in comparison to other more pressing task at hand. If we moved from the era of “art for art sake” could that not tie into curatorial practice as well? If curating is not asked to “curate for curating sake”, that one could argue, implicitly suggests exhibitions as a way for the space to move outside of itself, then should not the parts make up for the sum? The requirement of the blog post, where viewer engagement can be measured down to the the quantifiable number of clicks on a page, becomes a self-indulgent task. The act of sharing is reduced to this little box on this little screen, and one can not help but think, ‘this probably is going no where’. 

Nonetheless though just like our endless mode of consumption, one seems to push through, to keep-going, to keep taking in terms of curating. I keep pushing through the requirements needed to complete the course and finish the exhibitions. For example, as part of my role as the main contact for the Eating Prosthetics portion of Constant Consumer, I needed to figure out the final resting place of the long 8 foot by 2 foot table that was built for our exhibition installation. This ended up with a new experience renting a truck in the city, pushing back the inherent fear that results from zipcar deadlines and crashing into pedestrians. (Parallel parking a truck of Monroe and Wabash was not the most pleasant experience). I keep, keep-going, this meaning that even though the class is over and there are no immediate consequences apparent with not finishing assignments like this blog-post. (Although, I could potentially be threatened with a no credit for the course). And finally I keep taking. Curating in its core is asking of others to connect, whether this is through an email response or through an understanding of the larger curatorial premise, we want to convey a message to someone else. All this is to say I find that the curatorial process of Constant Consumer was challenging and interesting just like the overall message of the curatorial exhibition. 

When posing the three subtopics underneath the larger umbrella Constant Consumer it seems already there that a split in our understanding of what it means to “constantly consume” was already inherently skewed project to project. Constant Consumer: The Ritual of Everyday Consumption, Constant Consumer: Eating Prosthetics, Constant Consumer: The Ways Our Daily Consumption Consumes Us all attempted in their own way to get somewhere while also being in that insular circle of consumption themselves. Whether any of us really where able to get the heart of the matter is highly debatable. As a whole class a combined group we may be closer to the point of the project, but without a larger discourse around the topic I do not believe that we could critically assess whether the final exhibitions/ final reflections really begin to scratch the condition of the daily consumer. 

Overall this experience has been a gratingly positive one. It would be untrue of myself to say that this was one of the most successful exhibitions that I have put together. However, I’ve learned a lot. Not so much in the technical side of curating necessarily, but on the inter-personal side of curating specific to a course within the institution. I learned about the difficulties in attempting to have a foot in both world and the unstated biases of others and myself. The Constant Consumer through the course Curatorial Practice became as much about the the world and those who partake of it was about the class – appropriate, difficult, and an overall enriching experience. 

Interview: Shawn Chua Ming Ren

Shawn Chua Ming Ren is an artist currently working in New York City. His works focus on interconnectivity and test the boundaries between positive and negative human interaction ranging from casual handshakes to violence.

(Phone Interview, abridged)

What do you think of when someone mentions coffee?

SC: If I were to think of coffee on its own, I am reminded of late nights and early mornings and deadlines…. But I tend to associate coffee with specific places and who I had it with. I have traveled and lived in several cities but I always had a favorite café where I owe several epiphanies and inspirations. 

Do you have any favorites?
SC: Oh there are many, each with special memories but there is a cafe I frequent several blocks from my flat. I go there often to read, write and sometimes just watch people. Its fun to eavesdrop on conversations. Sometimes strangers jump into chats they overhear and an interesting debate begins. The casualness of it all is pretty inspiring, this spillage of private conversations becoming suddenly public.

Just to make clear, do you hold a strong opinion on coffee as a beverage?

SC: Coffee is something I consume on a daily basis but what is more important to me is how it serves as a vehicle of communication. Like, what do people mean when they say ‘Lets meet up for coffee sometime’? We read between the lines, it could be a business meeting, a catching-up between friends, a suggestion of possible romance, and more.” But it is interesting when you see how some people are very particular about how they have their coffee. I have one friend who just can’t stand the disposable cups they give out and is very picky about the blend, the ratio of milk and sugar etc.

That reminds me of the essay in Inei Reisan by Tanizaki who stressed Japanese soup HAD to be enjoyed in black lacquer bowls.

SC: Yea yea I think drinking coffee requires special attention. Its not only the taste but the aroma, the temperature, the cup… a lot can go into it if you really care. Then the cup becomes more a culinary experience. It can become fetishized too, with the amount of attention put into the specificities. When I think of coffee extremities I am reminded of Kopi Luwak coffee. They are beans taken from the shit of a cat-creature and its considered a delicacy. It must be really good but its kind of funny too.

Okay, going back to what you were talking about coffee as a catalyst. You see it as a stimulant, not necessarily because of the caffeine content?

SC: I think caffeine might take part in its power as stimulant but you go to a meeting or hold conferences and there is almost always coffee served. Its almost a fixture, a requirement.

And what do you think of cultural variations in coffee appreciation? For example, I know an Italian friend who was appalled by the Japanese vending machines selling cold coffee in cans.

SC: I think there are differences, especially between countries that have a long tradition of coffee-drinking and those without. You even see it in the menu. American coffee is watered down coffee and Wiener coffee is a special type of cappuccino. In New York, I think its about choosing the cafe. Each cafe has its unique style and attracts a particular audience. You know that you are mingling with a familiar crowd even if you don’t actually talk to any of them. So by choosing your coffee and the place to have it is also a form of social identification.

Interview by Chisako Izuhara

Curatorial and publication process & reflections on project by Emily Elizabeth Thomas




In collaboration with Deborah Boardman’s Curatorial Practice course my curatorial partner, Ariel Fang, and I dedicated a semester to programming, curating and facilitating the creation of Constant Consumer, a student-curated show in the LeRoy Neiman Center. Constant Consumer is an exhibition concerned with the various ways in which modern consumption affects the lives of the consumer.


In our section of the show we showcased the work of the following talented artists:

David Kim, BFA 2013
Elizabeth Merritt Kong, BFA 2013
Bhagya Ajikumar, MFA 2004
Amy Deneselya, BFA 2013
Jennifer Kaplan, BFA 2014
Nancy Sayavong, BFA 2014
Jason Guo, BFA 2014
Nicole Kaufman, BFA 2014
Christine Lai, BFA 2013
SunMi Park, BFA 2014
Stephania Dulowski, BFA 2014
Sky White, BFA 2014
Therese Harrah, BFA 2014

 We received images, statements and dimensions of each proposed work from the individual artists through an open call that was sent out to the SAIC community.



Constant Consumer Open Call
Posted to Facebook on October 26th

 The Curatorial Practice course, with Deborah Boardman, in conjunction with SUGs Project spaces is looking for cup forms that are created to facilitate daily consumption. The cups can be made from any material – ceramic, wood, fabric, plastic – but needs to suggest utility beyond a single use.

 The selected pieces will be curated into a larger exhibition titled “The Constant Consumer”, focusing on dilemmas and evolution of contemporary production and consumption. The works will be exhibited specifically in the storefront window space in the LeRoy Neiman Center, 37 S. Wabash, from November 18 through December 9.

 Please send a 2-3 sentence artist statement, a resume or cv, and 1-5 images to with the subject heading “The Constant Consumer Open Call” by 10/31 @ 11pm.



 After the installation of Constant Consumer Ariel and I, in collaboration with student graphic designers Sky White and Therese Harrah, began the extensive process of creating a publication showcasing both the curatorial process of Constant Consumer and additional research, starting a conversation that runs parallel to the exhibition.

 The publication Eating Prosthetics: methods of daily consumption became our way of commemorating the exhibition, and beginning a discussion on the historical weight and allegorical meaning of the prosthetics we use for eating, the human eating prosthetic.

 It became our goal to provide a moment of reflection for the consumer in which they are presented with the opportunity to think differently about their own consumption, to think differently about the fork they hold in their hand.


Selections from Eating Prosthetics



 This book came about through a series of curatorial projects and events, starting with a focus on coffee. At the Storefront’s Blend: Discourse by the Cup local coffee was disguised and served to visitors while viewing coffee related documentaries. Conversation on both the healing attributes of coffee culture, and the faulted morality of foreign coffee production, and the space between these opposing views, led to a larger conversation about the physical act of coffee-drinking and its affect on the consumer, all filtered through the coffee-mug-vessel that facilitates the consumption of the dark brew. Our interest in eating and drinking vessels lead to some interesting interpretations of the significance of the coffee mug- even when an individual is not necessarily drinking coffee the moment of consumption continues in the process of holding, picking up, and even washing the cup.

The seemingly endless cycle of human interpretation of use and value – the constant consumer – was what interested us.

An open call was sent out to the SAIC community asking for student and artist participation in an exhibition centered around objects that implied more than one use, more than one purpose of physical consumption. The Constant Consumer showed works that flatten the hierarchy between utensil and art object, works that commented on the complications of daily consumption, and works that reflect a portion of the artists’ character.   

This interest in how these contingent prosthetics of eating informs the consumer’s conception of value led to a parallel conversation around the historical weight of the utensils themselves. Eating Prosthetics is the result of this interest, explored further from a historical standpoint.

Instead of creating a strictly academic publication on the history of utensils we decided it would be beneficial to exhibit how knowledge of items that facilitate eating can be reinterpreted into design that facilitates understanding. There is a hope that in some way this book would be an object consumed in order to affect viewer’s perception of consumption and in turn possibly change their understanding of their own production.

It is our hope that although we are constant-consumers, we may offer assistance in creating a conscious-constant-consum 



Ben Kinmont & Antinomian Press 


On Social Sculpture
and its significance to ongoing collaborative project:

 In creating social meaning, in defining what it is that we place significance and belief in, we create a Third Sculpture, the “thinking sculpture”. 

We have chosen, as two artists and curators, to craft meaning through experience, to re define what an object means and to give it meaning outside of its utility. We presented artists, designers, illustrators, and sculptors with information on modern consumption and eating vessels, we then urged them to re interpret that basic knowledge, add to it, to transform it, and produce something that could contribute to our exhibition.

We have communally worked to add meaning to method- through all of our conversation on a vast array of modern consumption dilemmas over the course of one semester, through programming and scheduling, through interaction with many artists and creatives, through the study of anthropological and historical fact, we have attempted to redefine the meaning of a coffee mug, of an eating prosthetic.

As a community we shape our lives through communication with others



Western Eating Utensil Encyclopedia:


The knife is the oldest eating utensil, originally made from sharp stones used as fighting tools and food processing. With the advancement of the Neolithic age, basic stone knives were developed with crude wooden or animal hide handles. In the Bronze age (3000-700 BC) metalworkers were able to forge rough versions of metal knives from copper and bronze.

 With the development of iron and steel in the Western world knives became commonplace among every class of people. It was common practice for everyone to carry their own eating knives during this time. These knives were sharp tipped, useful for both eating and fighting. Eventually, during the 17th century King Louis XIV of France banned the use of sharp tipped knives and the new ground-down point knives became commonplace at the table. 



A spoon can be used to consume both solid and liquid foods. Due to its multi-use in the process of consumption, our Paleolithic ancestors most often used simple bowl shaped utensils that looked a lot like the modern day spoon. Most often, seashells were connected to wooden sticks in order to properly serve larger amounts of food, as well as easily consume individual portions. With the arrival of the Middle Ages in Europe wooden and metal spoons became commonplace. The Anglo-Saxon word spon, meaning a chip or splinter of wood, points toward widespread use of this material for Northern European spoons.



Although knives and spoons have been in use for tens of thousands of years, forks became commonplace only 1,000 years ago. An Englishman named Thomas Coryate brought the first forks to England after seeing them in Italy during his travels in 1608. The English ridiculed forks as being unnecessary. “Why should a person need a fork when God had given him hands?” they asked. Slowly, however, forks came to be adopted by the wealthy. They were prized possessions made of expensive materials intended to impress guests. By the mid 1600s, eating with forks was considered fashionable among wealthy British. Forks used solely for dining were luxuries; they quickly became markers of social status and sophistication among nobles



Before our ancestors ever discovered how to work metal, they first discovered the utility of ceramic. This enabled them to make a very rough sketch of the modern day mug. Although these mugs had a handle on the side similar to modern-day coffee mugs, these older versions were made with all kinds of materials ranging from skulls, clay, wood and metal. However, these versions of mugs were difficult when used for hot beverages as they would leak, break or even contaminate the liquid held inside. It was not until around 600 A.D. when porcelain was invented in China that the production of the sealed and coated mugs we know today became possible.


Goblet, Chalice

After the discovery of metals the material possibility of drinking vessels became much greater than before. With advancement in metalworking the chalice and the goblet were created. Goblets are featured prominently in multiple artworks dating back thousands of years ago. One of them most common types of goblets is the chalice. Chalices are so old that they have been dated back to the early beginnings of the Roman Catholic Church originally used during Holy Communions to carry Communion Wine. Chalices were a form of goblet made of precious metals such as gold and silver and often accessorized and encrusted with jewels, designed mostly for ceremonial purposes.



The earliest form of the plate were made from been large leaves, gourd halves or seashells which would be used as simple bowls for holding food. Food items would be placed on larger leaves and would be consumed communally by all members of a tribe, family or group.

The “trencher” was the next form that the plate took. The most popular substance used for creating trenchers was bread, a technique that lasted well into the 16th century. Very coarse flour would be used to make the bread, it would then be left to sit and harden for several days before being sliced and used as an eating utensil. During a particular elaborate meal, several trenchers would be carved for each diner. After the meal was finished the trenchers would be discarded to the dogs.


Curatorial Reflection


My experience and involvement in the curatorial process over the course of this semester has been multi-dimensional and vast.  Above is my portion of the research conducted, in collaboration with Ariel, for our Eating Prosthetics publication (to be finished by December 16th).  This research and publication will serve as additional artistic agency for redefining the meaning of an eating vessel. We have taken great inspiration from Joseph Grigley’s Exhibition Prosthetics and Ben Kinmont’s various publications on art and social life through Antinomian Press. It was our curatorial goal to bring together works of art across many disciplines to close the gap between eating utensil and art object, to offer assistance in creating a conscious-constant-consumer and to define an eating vessel outside of its position on a place mat, to define it as a vehicle of consumption, and as platform for conversation about modern consumption dilemmas.

Through the experience at the Storefront, the experience of curating and facilitating the installation of Constant Consumer, the collaborative effort of our on going publication project, and countless curator-artist interactions I have gained some real experience as an art facilitator and curator. I have realized the importance of a communal effort in the face of a complicated modern question, the vast impact a group of artists and creative types can make by even beginning to find solutions to these dilemmas, and the significance and allegorical meaning of a single cup of coffee.

 Most importantly I can now add some curatorial tools to my artistic repertoire including- vinyl install, research and production, artistic negotiation and compromise, art handling, communal conceptualizing, exhibition install, event programming, proposal presentation, publication design, and experience in commissioning exhibition-specific work.

Interview with Blake Daniels

Interview with Blake Daniels: SAIC, Spring 2013, Painting graduate

Worked at Logan Square Intelligentsia from March 2013 – July 2013 (~3-4 months)

Excerpts from Interview.

Mixed Enjoyment; it was a trade job. Intelligentsia did a pretty good job in mixing it up in terms of every day tasks and mundanity.

Enjoyed working at Intelligentsia while he was in school, gave him something else to do outside of an intensely art focused degree. But this did not meant that it was helpful for career development.

Working as a barista helped with immediate bills.

Coffee considered as a process, similar to tobacco & art. The process aspect of it was interesting, but not what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

Bureaucracy of employee & employer in Intelligentsia and how coffee is produced. The model that Intelligentsia provided was great, but it was not what the Logan Square community wanted. Intelligentsia was shaping coffee culture, but it was relying on the name, the brand, too much.

I would drink 1 cup a day.

I purchase coffee from a local roaster when it’s on sale. I don’t actually drink Intelligentsia coffee now that I do not work there anymore.

Hobby Products

Undertones of culture as seen through coffee as opposed to overtones.

I’m interested in coffee as a system and the coffee shop as a location.

Interview with Lindsey Nicole Jancay

Lindsey Nicole Jancay is a current candidate of Art Administration and Policy program at the SAIC. She used to work at Starbucks. Below is the interview conducted with her through email and Facebook conversation.

Siyuan Jin: What is your experience with coffee in general?

Lindsey Nicole Jancay: My experience with coffee in general is that I’ve grown up in a household that really revolved around coffee drinking. For me it is comforting, introspective, social, and a real treat. 

S: What is your experience with coffee making?

L: Until I started working at Starbucks, I didn’t think much about the making part. I just followed directions and that was it. Though I do always add a little cinnamon to the grounds which is something  my mom does. After working at Starbucks for a few months, I found out that there were small things I could do to make coffee better. Coffee making became experimentation which is great and exciting. 

S: Is there any effect rendered by being an artist/ art professional to your experience while you were working at SB?

L: Somewhat. I think being an artist, I prioritize experimentation and take risk and failure as part of that process. That said, Starbucks is often seen as an artist friendly job, and in that regard it was not. It was more about following processes whether they made sense or not. Everything choreographed and to improvise was not usually well received. 

S: What do you think about coffee as a daily consumption?

L: I don’t mind it. I know it isn’t the healthiest thing and I do try to half caf it as much as possible. But drinking coffee daily means I have some time set aside for myself every day to indulge in something that I truly enjoy. I try to make healthier options and I always drink black coffee. 

S: And the coffee industry?

L: The coffee industry has huge issues. I am the first to admit that. I think the public needs to know more about their organic and fair trade options.

Curatorial Blurbs

The Ritual of Everyday Consumption

The Constant Consumer focuses on the dilemmas and evolution of contemporary daily consumption. Struck by how disconnected we are from the products we consume, the Constant Consumer allows us as curators to delve into issues of consumption, community, morality, commodity, and ethics. Through the elevation of the most mundane of coffee-drinking vessels – the white paper cup – to the status of a precious “art” object worthy of our attention, Ashley Szczesiak’s LATTE dada showcases how modern coffee-drinking practices can impart “carefulness and thoughtfulness in regard to consumerism” (Szczesiak).

The ways our daily consumption consumes us.

SAIC undergraduate student Stephanie Chu’s animated feature Coffee satirizes the consumption of coffee as habit forming and at its extreme, addictive. Chu’s corresponding chalkboard drawing, a growing pile of cups representing a small percentage of SAIC’s coffee consumption will be executed at regularly scheduled weekly intervals. The artist will extend the pile each week to mirror the coffee consumption by students at the Neiman Center Café. Coffee plays an important role in the exhibition Constant Consumer in a humorous nudge at the personal and social ramifications of our daily habits, such as coffee drinking.

Interview: Ashley Szczesiak

Basic information (Name, age, department, year(s) working at a coffee shop, what coffee shop, additional occupation, etc.)

Ashley Szczesiak
Former Barista

Do/did you enjoy working in a coffee shop? What do/did you do?

When I first started working as a barista, I thought it would be fun and chill. In reality, it was a fast-paced and competitive environment in which you were at the mercy of the employer.

Do you still drink coffee, if so from where?

Yes, I do. I normally drink dark roast and buy it from Bittersweet, a pastry shop at Belmont; as well as from Metropolis Co. and Intelligentsia. 

Are you satisfied with the coffee you made for other people?

I am not intense about how I feel when I make coffee for other people. I followed the five steps I was taught when trained as a barista.

Are you satisfied with the coffee you made for yourself?

I don’t make coffee for myself. I end up making too much which can be bad for my health. Besides, I like the experience of going out to get coffee.

How much information did your employer/company provide you with about coffee and/or coffee consumption? Was there information about the company’s coffee that your employer required you to “sell” to your customers?

No, not really. Being in Brooklyn, New York, the coffee shop I worked for sold Brooklyn Roasting Co. coffee, which everyone assumed to be fair trade and organic.

How does your coffee shop place itself within the spectrum of its competitors? i.e., better quality coffee, locally roasted, free trade, etc.

Brooklyn Roasting Co. was the brand that was sold at my coffee shop. It is known as high end, but within high end coffee it is actually middle of the road. Viewed as artisanal, not gourmet, I usually buy bags and give them as gifts.

How does coffee (different amounts, times when consumed) affect or influence your academic, art and leisure practices?

I drink coffee when I have to grade papers, answer e-mails or work on my thesis. But when I make Art, I don’t drink any. Art is the coffee. 

Interview by Natalia Sanchez Hernandez

Discourse by the Cup

SAIC, in collaboration with The Storefront, is hosting a one-day event consuming, discussing, and understanding coffee. The reasons for choosing coffee for our event are many. Coffee consumption fuels conversation and thought. We are interested in the ability coffee has to inspire discourse, both physically and as a subject. Coffee consumption is massive and growing, despite its cost both to the consumer and to the grower as witnessed in the documentary Black Gold directed by Nick and Marc Francis. Coffee consumption can be healing. In the short documentary Yoshi’s Blend directed by Mackenzie Sheppard, coffee becomes the rich and idiosyncratic vehicle for healing in tsunami ravaged Japan. The troubling origins perhaps outweighed by the sincerity and generosity of Yoshi Masuda, who takes his beloved coffee on the road.

At the Storefront on Sunday, the two coffee-centric documentaries – one a sobering revelation, one an inspiring act of humanity – will bracket an “anonymous” local coffee shop tasting.

Please join us Sunday, October 20th from 1-6 pm at The Storefront for a screening of the two documentaries, an opportunity to engage in interviews and discourse on coffee, and a free tasting of coffees from coffee shops in the Logan Square area.

Beyond Sunday, artists are invited to submit creative responses to the event that can be exhibited at SAIC’s Flex Spaces from November 11th—December 11th. We look forward to you joining us for an opportunity to discuss and enjoy some coffee.


Interview: Victoria Thurmond

Pueblo Semilla: Pilsen Mobile Seed Library

Interview with Victoria Thurmond

August 13, 2013

By Liana Li


L: What is Pueblo Semilla?

V: Pueblo Semilla is a seed library in Pilsen. A seed library is like any other regular library where people are expected to return what they take out. When you check out a seed, you take only what you need. You grow them out throughout the season, and then you bring them back once you save the seed. However, because that information is not very known nowadays, seed saving is a lost practice. Even within organic farmers, many people don’t save seed or save seed regularly. Usually it is bought. There are a lot of places where seeds are grown out in a different climate region. It’s only a few places throughout the US where you can get organic heirloom seeds. But they are only heirloom to that region, unless you save your own seed. The reason for saving seed locally is because it acclimates to the climate that you’re in. If there’s a drought season in Chicago, then that plant acclimates to the drought and if that’s the one that does best and you save seed from that, then you have a potentially drought-resistant seed. Or if there’s a heat wave, like there was this summer and last summer, and you save seed from that crop, you have potentially a heat-resistant crop. Growing out seeds in your hyper-local environment holds all of that history and that root system.


L: Why Pilsen?

V: Everything is transient in the city. I’ve seen more and more gardens that will go for a year, or maybe 5 years, and then be ripped up for some reason. Sometimes it’s development, or it was an empty lot that people were using and then something gets built on it, or people move on and move. And that doesn’t allow for the same root system or plants to re-seed themselves. So in a plant life-cycle you have the seed, and then it sprouts, it grows, you harvest. But to save seeds you have to go the next step, which means you have to leave it on there for the entire season and let it grow, get old, and start drying out. And then the seed produces, and it will disseminate itself. That’s the way plants work. That’s why they’re designed that way. They fall to the ground and re-seed, so they can grow the next year, even if it’s an annual plant. But in Pilsen, the soil is toxic. It’s filled with lead or other chemicals that have been laid down by hundreds of years of industry. You can’t just grow directly in the soil. Which is another reason why gardens are transient. The soil is usually brought in from somewhere else. Also in a city environment there is the added context that people have lost the practice of growing in general. A lot of kids in the city that we’ve talked to don’t even know that their food comes from the ground. They think that food comes from a grocery store and that’s where the line ends. There’s no idea of the whole system when you’re in the city and you’re not surrounded by this kind of thing. Even though Chicago is surrounded by agriculture, it’s not something that is known to people growing up in the city. In Pilsen, people are primarily Mexican immigrants. A lot of people coming from Mexico do come from agricultural backgrounds, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that that knowledge transfers through generations, and from what I’ve seen it doesn’t. So there’re so many parts to the seed library that need to come before explaining seeds. There’s the soil, the industry, the growing practices, the cultural divide of what grows here and doesn’t. How things grow is very different according to region, and coming from a hot climate to a mid-western climate is very different for the way that you grow.


L: You mentioned that seed saving is an uncommon practice. How did you recognize this as something that needs to happen?

V:  So like anybody else, there have been a bunch of basic ideas that I’ve gathered over the years to understand a more complex idea. I don’t come from an agricultural background. I didn’t come to this with any of that kind of knowledge. I’ve only started actually gardening this past year, and the only previous knowledge that I’ve had is an interest in sustainability and an involvement with environmental justice and activism. That brought me to the smaller actions because I’ve moved from this larger-action mindset of thinking that all of our problems are sourced from government policy and all of these issues are systemic, which they are, but that doesn’t mean that big actions are the only ways to address them. And I’ve seen smaller changes happening in communities be just as successful or more successful. Gardening is a way to produce for people what has become a scarcity, which is good healthy food. You know where it came from. Know there’s no crazy chemical or hormone additives or genetic issues or homogenization of crops, which is what our culture has become. So bringing that to an environmental justice standpoint in a community that is working-class, minimum wage, growing your own food is like growing your own resources and capital to some extent. The logical next step is to have the very base of that, which are seeds. Plants are amazing. They produce so many seeds at the end of every season. Like 4 second-year beets that we’ve let over-winter and grow the next year produce enough seed that we can give everybody beets in the neighborhood, or at least it seems that way. So seeds are something that diverts the capitalist system. They’re something that can be given to anyone because of need, regardless of what they do for them, or pay for them. They just produce like crazy, and if everyone had that knowledge then you have a system of economy there.


L: In your project, do you see seeds as a practical resource, or is it symbolic for those reasons?

V: I would say they are both. For the project there are so many things that need to be addressed.  I see seeds as the base value of all these things because they hold so much information. They hold what was in the soil. They hold what happened to the climate that year. They hold changes; such as the amount of times you watered them. They hold all that information; it’s just a matter of disseminating that.


L: What is the importance of keeping the network in Pilsen? If the soil that is safe for growing is being imported into the neighborhood, then it’s not actually representing what was already in the ground. What do you think about that?

V: Yeah. If this was a Chicago seed library, it would make a difference, but not a huge difference because it is the same climate and same environment. The reason for it to be in Pilsen is for it to connect things that are already here. There are already lots of community gardens and people talking about these issues. And there are also lots of people who aren’t. But to take hold of those systems that are already in place and connect people who are not already connected to gain a local knowledge that is already there and disseminating it, just like plants disseminate seeds. It’s easier to do it within a neighborhood, and I think it’s more successful to do it within a neighborhood that’s already an established community, rather than spreading it across borders. It’s not the only way, but there are pros and cons to that. Each neighborhood is different. There are different things that need to be addressed and ways of communicating and things that are important to them. Bridgeport, Little Village, and Pilsen are right next to each other and have similar issues going on environmentally, but they each have their own battles to fight. In Pilsen we can address one thing, while in Bridgeport we are able to address another. And we can keep those connections and those larger issues in mind, but having a sustained local community project that is connected to other projects is different than having something that spans a whole city..


L: You said that you didn’t have a lot of knowledge prior to this project, and there are people in the community who already have inherent knowledge from an agricultural background. How have you been learning from the community?

V: Because it’s something that has been a lost knowledge, I see myself learning with people. I had the idea to start saving seeds last year at the end of the season and then brought it to another community garden in the neighborhood as an idea and now everybody is starting to do it regardless of the fact that they have no prior knowledge of doing it. It’s more of an intuition, and there’s a lot to learn technically about it but there’s a lot that we can learn together. It’s a different way of approaching something than coming as a bearer of knowledge. It’s not a hierarchical system when everybody is learning. For example, at Roots and Rays community garden, we created a seed bed and have plants growing out just for seeds, and now people know that’s the way plants work, and people are learning by doing with each other. It’s not even my project there anymore. People are doing it, and I don’t want it to be my project.. Rather than saying “I know, and you don’t, so I’m going to teach you,” it’s more of an action of finding what’s already there and learning together.


L: Do you see this as art or social practice, and what is the connection for you?

V: I guess the art part, if there is an art part – everyone talks about an art part. I think the whole thing is art because I think living can be art, but not in the big A Art sense. I think the art part is seeing those connections and the things that are already there and drawing connections in my mind and bring that into a conversation. And designing something so that it can be understood and spread out between people. It’s a skill that’s learned or a design that works, and that can be passed on.


L: Who are some of the people that you are collaborating with, and are they other artists?

V: I don’t think anybody that has been in the project has identified as being an artist. Veronica Buitron identifies herself as a designer, and she very much is a designer. There’s people from Roots and Rays, specifically Patricia Bon. She’s a city planner. Jerry Mead-Lucero, who is an activist. And Stephanie Dunn who is an activist and educator. Right now it’s just connecting people who are already in the neighborhood, and who are already taking lead doing this kind of work.


L: Do you see a difference in your roles and do you think it’s even important to distinguish any difference?

V: I think there is a difference in people’s roles. When I say Veronica is definitely a designer it’s because she has those skills and that interest in making things able to be interpreted aesthetically and design them. While Patricia is very good at talking to people and figuring out how things work within a system. I think that’s her take on city planning, is doing that and figuring out what is there and what can be connected. Jerry is an activist, and is versed in everything specific to this neighborhood that is environmentally problematic, and organizing people to make changes in a bigger way. All the community gardeners who are a part of this to some extent are people who are interested in gardening, and they all have different things that they do. Everybody has different skills and everybody has different knowledge. And even if it’s knowledge of the same thing, everyone has a different take on the same thing, which is all important to know and understand.


L: How is the projecting moving forward?

V: We’ve already had all these workshops and seed swaps and going door to door as a mobile seed library. We just started doing very quickly and trying to make it happen very quickly, and that’s not really how it works because we noticed all these things that needed to be addressed beforehand. Part of this is because we got a grant, so we wanted to start making and having it happen, but without connecting the people who are already here it’s not going to work. So we’re going to start having design building workshops and what we’re calling cross-pollination dinners. Hopefully we can create a system that we think can work for all these people who are in the neighborhood and are doing and want to do this work. Things that already exist and add to it. Creating a set of ideas that we think are important to share within the neighborhood. All these issues that we brought up that need to be addressed before seeds are talked about. So creating somewhat of a curriculum that people can take and do with what they will, and have their own events and own workshops. And having little hubs around the neighborhood that house seeds that are safe from that place. People can share their seeds because you can never use as many seeds as the plants produce.


L: Ultimately, why do you want to get other people to start saving seeds. Why is it not enough to just do it yourself?

V:  On a large scale, the industrial agricultural system has wiped out the diversity of seeds that exist when you grow seeds for yourself, as well as change the genetic makeup of seeds and patent them to be some kind of capitalist growth resource. But if we do it on our own and in our local communities, then we have access to that wealth of knowledge and also of good healthy food that we know was grown from us and that we took care of and know exactly where it came from and who grew it.    Like this is Sally’s roma tomato, because it’s going to be different from Tom’s roma tomato down the street. You know exactly who grew it where it was. Ultimately, on a larger scale it’s a subversive activist socialist action. But really it’s just seeds.

Interview: Poet Dave Snyder

I’d like to begin with some questions about farming and being a writer

You are an organic grower and community activist as well as an accomplished poet. Can you briefly describe the what you do in each area? Do you consider one or the other to be your main pursuit?

I call myself a grower, not a farmer. It’s silly to call yourself a farmer if you have a quarter of an acre, and the label doesn’t change what I’m going to do in a little piece of space. Today we think of “gardener” as a diminutive, decorative term. I like to say “grower.”

Dave Snyder

I got my start ten years ago when I moved to Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood from Seattle. I came to go to grad school; I had no real interest in growing. I associated it with work I did as a kid, with being sweaty and wanting to play Nintendo. But Uptown is so urban. I reacted to that by being drawn to the community garden across the street, Ginkgo Gardens. They grow vegetables on a triple lot and donate them to a food bank. Annually, it’s around 1/2 to 3/4 of a ton, donated to Vital Bridges’ GroceryLand, a food pantry that donates food to low-income people living with AIDS. I really fell in love with that mission and started helping out. By “helping” I mean weeding and watering. Strangely, in reaction to this urban experience, I developed this weird addiction to gardening. Now I’ve been working there for ten seasons. It’s my favorite place in the city. But my only training is working there and with other growers.

How about being a poet?

As with gardening, poetry was not really part of my education until halfway through college, when I took a summer poetry class. I got a C or C- and the teacher was a jerk, but I was weirdly compelled by it. It was probably a bad decision [laughs], but I decided to take another poetry class. That was wonderful and fascinating. The teacher approached it like, “We’re going to spend the semester playing with language!” That, too, became a habit. Eventually I went to the School of the Art Institute and graduated with an MFA in writing.

What connections do you see between being a grower and being a writer?

The work of growing and the work of writing–there are lots of similarities and differences. Both require constant attention and constant work. It takes this sort of–tending–this constantly working on it. If you forget to do that tending, whether of your plants or your poems, they wither. I go through times when the poetry is withering, and times when the horticulture is withering. You have to tend to both.

Yes, I wrote a blog post about that–the connection between tending and paying attention.

Yes. Also, both require this sort of carefulness of looking, a fusion of perception and doing. In gardening, you are constantly reacting to what your plants are doing. You constantly have to be seeing and then acting. It’s the same with poetry–you have to be perceiving and doing, perceiving and doing. I’m suspicious of poetry that gets too far from perception.

Dave's Hands

You know, many people have this kind of divided interest in poetry and gardening. Emily Dickinson was well known as a gardener–no one knew she was a poet. Cicero said, “All you need is a library and a garden to be happy.” The correspondence between tending and attending is a real correspondence that has clearly been explained and examined for millennia. Its’ in our linguistic memory. That’s humbling.

What linkages are there in your overall world view that have led you to choose two socially- undervalued kinds of work?

I’m not a financially-motivated person. I’ve always chosen interest over a paycheck, and I’ve had almost nothing but fascinating jobs. The few times I’ve taken a desk job to pay the bills, I was able to make them interesting. I had great co-workers. It never felt meaningless. I look at people I grew up with and see different life decisions. Those people are financially more stable than me, but they don’t seem that happy. The way that you spend your time changes who you are. I choose interesting things because I’m interested in them. If I didn’t, I would no longer be interested in them–that, too, would wither from lack of attention. The most interesting people I know are interesting because of the effort they’ve put into reading, thinking about things–not watching every episode of their favorite TV program and eating caramel corn each evening.

Both growing and writing are demanding pursuits–vocations, even. How do you balance the demands of each?

I balance them very poorly. My strategy is to not get to get too stressed out about it. Writer Jill Riddell told me that at no point is your life ever in balance, but if you step back, over the course of a decade, there is balance. I took that to heart. This year, I was working part time over the winter. I decided not to teach this semester, and I spent a whole lot more time writing regularly again and producing new work. I started submitting my work to literary journals again. Now it’s April and I was out of the house at 7 a.m. for a compost delivery; after this I’m going home to plant. I’m basically working on growing from sunup to sundown. I’m not writing poetry, but that’s what happens in April and May. Things will chill out again in June. If things don’t slow down in June, they will later on. It’s ok. The process is cyclical and I try not to second guess it too much.

Many artist-farmers find themselves torn between their need of a rural environment and their desire to live in a city. Do you experience this conflict? How do you handle it?

I understand that conflict, but I don’t feel torn. I value and love both environments. I think the reason is that I’ve figured out a way to scratch some of that itch [for living in a rural place]. I have enough space at my home in Garfield Park. I have a backyard and an empty lot next door. The owners let me grow stuff if I keep down the weeds and shovel the walk in winter–that’s my rent. It’s a ton of space, and my neighbors grow there with me. I don’t have the peace of mind [of the country], I don’t have a vista, but I have the city of Chicago, which is mind-blowing. It’s such a culturally-rich city. My girlfriend and I say, “Live in Chicago like you’re vacationing in New York.” It’s a good model.

What is the most important thing you know about growing things? About poetry and writing?

Pay attention to those who are better at it than you are. There’s always somebody. That doesn’t mean emulating that person per se. If you talk to ten gardeners, you get ten different ways of doing something. Pay attention to how other people do things, because there may be something to it. It’s the same thing with writing. If you want to be a poet, read every single poem that you can. Recently, I read Gordon Massman, do you know his work? He writes brutal, ugly poems that couldn’t be further from what I do. But I read his whole book in a single sitting–it was completely compelling! It’s a kind of genius. I won’t write like he does, but my work will only get better from reading that book. In essence, don’t think another way of doing things is a dumb way. You can learn from it, so don’t dismiss things out of hand.

Now for some questions about food and farming.

What do you see as most lacking or necessary today in our relationship to food?

In the most literal way, we need to feed everybody in the best way possible. In the best and most just way. Let’s not miss the forest for the trees. The way in which you raise your food, the kind of food you raise, the way you allow people to make their money off of food, the way food is distributed–they are all important.

One thing I think is really important is that worldwide, it should be easier to make your living as a small farmer. This is a complex problem. How can we expect a small farmer to make an equitable living and simultaneously expect another small farmer in central Ghana to make a living when they are competing in the same world market?

But are they really competing with each other? Aren’t they really competing with Monsanto?

Well, yes. Large companies–seed and pesticide producers, food distributors–make it hard for small farmers to operate with a fair standard of living. There should be an expectation that you’re growing food for yourself and your neighbors. For example, in the global South and elsewhere, traditional crops are disappearing in favor of corn and rice that’s being foisted upon the farmers by governments and corporations. People aren’t growing the food that feeds themselves and their neighbors. A food stable region may become food unstable as a result.

What do you see as the most pressing food issue that we are facing today–locally, nationally, or globally?

The monopolization by a few companies to try to make a lot of money off of farming. Monsanto isn’t a food company–they’re a chemical company. They produce seeds that are in a commercial package with their pesticides. It’s profiteering and doesn’t seem to be helping that many people in the long run, except investors. And there are a lot of other companies that do that, not just Monsanto.

What’s your ideal vision of the way a community would grow, consume, and relate to food?

I can’t really say. It should be as specific as the community it’s serving. I could tell you how me and my neighbors want to feed ourselves. We want to grow goofy, hilarious stuff–

Like what?

Like cardoons and blue tomatoes and papalo, a Central American herb. We grow weird stuff, a lot of it, we work a lot together, share, and barbecue afterwards. That works for my community. There also tradeoffs. There are literally whirlwinds of litter in my neighborhood [of Garfield Park]. There are gunshots. But that’s the exact reason we are able to have land there, so we accept that. It works for us but not for everybody. Some community in the South Islands of the Philippines will have a different way of doing things, but they know how to feed themselves. If you have the skills and the land and a small amount of economic capital, you can do this. But every community does it in their own way.

Do you support / shop at Whole Foods? Why or why not?

I do. I don’t spend a lot of money there, or anywhere I shop. But let me say this about Whole Foods. Their meat program is the most progressive that I’ve ever seen. It’s more progressive than grocery stores in Europe, more progressive than co-ops I’ve been to. It’s not the most just. The most just is to raise the animal yourself or work with a farmer who raises the animal humanely. But if we’re going to have cities, we’re going to have people who have to buy meat.

It’s hard to get people to think ethically about meat. There’s an information disjunct out there. You have two chicken quarters and you don’t have any information about where your chicken quarters are coming from. One costs 99 cents a pound and one costs $7.99 a pound. They seem the same, but you don’t see chicken #1 getting dipped in bleach or sitting in a cage on top of another chicken, or chicken #2 being raised by a family. Whole Foods has done the most remarkable process in trying to communicate all this information. They have a 5 step rating scale, from 1 to 5, rating how animal-friendly the process was. Five makes the meat most expensive and they tell you why. It’s there at length on their website. Often their criteria are as strict as other certification programs, but even if you’re a casual consumer, you can make way more informed decisions just at the meat counter. That’s just remarkable.

Everybody talks about misperceptions about organic food, because we allow all these values we have about food to stand in for it. “Organic” is almost the only info we have about the food we eat, other than the old system of USDA nutrition. We have little or no information about where the food was produced. Organic is the only other largely accepted way to get information about food. Whole Foods has done a wonderful job about creating information about meat. What if that were true at Jewell? What if they had to tell you it’s a 1, or below a 1? Normal people make more responsible decisions when they have this kind of information.

And finally, a few political questions…

“Radical” in its original sense means getting to the root of a problem. Do you see yourself as a radical? If so, in what way?

The idea of a radical in common usage is someone on the fringes. I find myself on the margins a lot of times, by virtue of being drawn to these interesting places. I live in a marginal neighborhood and do marginal work. Renata Adler writes about the radical middle, and I’ve always been drawn to that concept. Maybe being a radical means being the most central. I don’t know….I’m still thinking about that.

What is one simple thing you would recommend that people do in their lives to make them more sustainable/ to improve or alter their relationship with food?

Grow something from seed. Don’t be afraid of it dying–if you’re growing vegetables, you’re going to kill them anyway. Grow something silly, not just basil or lettuce from the DIY grow kit. Save that avocado pit and sprout that. Sprout some popcorn from the bulk bin. Grow some wild flowers in your window box. I was sprouting taro root the other day that was left over from my fridge. These things are all around us. The potatoes we buy are still imbued with life. Cheetos aren’t. They are dead food. But a potato you throw out back will continue to be alive. It’s no wonder it’s healthier for you–it has all the things that keep things alive in it. A potato does you better than a potato chip.

What else would you like to say about these issues?

I had this amazing moment where my own stereotypes were really challenged. Years ago, I was at Kilbourn Greenhouse out on the northwest side, out past Cicero. I was out there doing a seed saver workshop at a harvest festival, and this guy came up. He was a stereotypical west side dad–big, broad-shouldered, with a sports jersey. He was like, “So, tell me about these Monsanto folks–what’s the story with that?” So I talked a little bit about my own thoughts on intellectual property rights in terms of genetics. Then he said, “You know, that stuff really interests me. Me and my wife, we adopted this little girl from Vietnam, and when she came out here, she couldn’t eat any of these processed foods, you know? They made her sick. So we had to get her on this totally non-processed food stuff. Then she was, like, a little bit better. Now we’re moving to the all organic stuff. We were thinking, if it’s better for her, it’s going to be better for us too, you know?” Here was a true blood Black Hawks fan, raising this little girl and completely rethinking the way that he sees food as it relates to nutrition. That may be a different thing than food as it relates to the environment, but it made me so stoked. He probably wasn’t thinking about this stuff beforehand, but faced with the responsibility for the health of another human being, he started to rethink things. As we were talking about with meat, it reinforced my belief that ordinary people will make more responsible choices if they have information to do so.

Thanks so much for talking with me today! And by the way, as a poet and grower and someone who is chronically embarrassed by her nails, I love the photo of your hands on your website. It’s perfect.

Yeah–chipped and a little too long! Just be proud of it.

Meditations from the Waste Stream

Last weekend, I had the amazing experience of being inside the first Rooting Symposium event, a springtime brunch at Ken Dunn‘s impressive City Farm. Dunn also runs the Resource Center, whose aim is to reclaim underused resources of all kinds, and much of the food was sourced from Chicago’s waste stream. This is of interest to me because, since giving up my university teaching position, moving to Chicago and becoming a graduate student, I’ve extended my urban foraging activities into what I consider their alternate form, dumpster diving.

To be more specific, I’ve learned a lot about what is euphemistically referred to as “food insecurity.” This term refers less to the fact that a person is going hungry as to the fact that she may not know where her next meal is coming from. Since the recession hit in 2008, it’s a situation more and more Americans, including middle-class Americans, are experiencing. As detailed on the USDA’s website, there are two levels of food insecurity including “low,” which means that the quality or desirability of one’s food has been compromised, and “very low,” which basically means that people in the household don’t have enough to eat. Interestingly, there are also two levels of food security: “high,” which means you have enough to eat, and “moderate,” which means that you are experiencing either anxiety about where your food is coming from or some food shortages. According to one report, in 2011, 17.9 million households, or nearly 15 percent of American families, were food insecure. My own dumpstering has been a direct reaction to my own level of food security, which I’d place at somewhere between moderate and low.

This has given me an interesting subject-position from which to make observations. I believe in buying organic (I used to insist on it), and am mostly-vegetarian for ethical reasons. I still shop, very selectively, at Whole Foods. (More on that later.) Having celiac disease and the good fortune to live in Chicago, I also shop at a range of ethnic markets, including Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mexican grocery stores. Though I’d rather not, these days I make the most trips to my grocery store for what Whole Foods likes to term “conventional” produce. I also frequent the bins behind many of these same stores. This range of consumer experiences has, suffice it to say, taught me a lot.

Because of the undeniable social stigma that surrounds dumpstering, I’d like to preface my discussion with a few notes and disclaimers. First, I consider dumpster diving, like urban foraging, to be a highly creative, adaptive, and environmentally-sustainable practice. As Dunn notes, tapping into the waste stream is another way of using resources from the environment. Second, forget your stereotypes of dumpster-divers as smelly, mentally ill homeless people. I’m not the only one who has embraced this solution. One fellow forager I ran into was an old woman, clearly a middle-class immigrant; one has to ask what has led someone’s grandmother to the trash bin behind her local grocery store. Third, it is legal in the City of Chicago to take what other people are throwing away, as long as you don’t trespass in the process. (Indeed, the absurdity of “stealing” trash is something to meditate on.) Fourth, I’ve applied for LINK benefits twice and been rejected both times, although my income qualifies me and my federal work-study is supposed to guarantee this benefit. (Beyond those rejections, there is an ethical issue of a person who is only “moderately” food insecure taking advantage of resources meant for the very poor, which is why I haven’t pursued this option more aggressively.) Finally, this isn’t a how-to essay, though I am happy to share what I know with the truly interested. (Like mushroom-hunters, good dumpster-divers don’t divulge their favorite spots to just anyone.) All that said, what I would like to do is share a bit of what I’ve come to realize about the waste stream and the food supply in the United States.

Here’s the main, and most shocking thing I’ve learned: the food in your neighborhood dumpster is probably in better shape than the food in your fridge. It might even be better than some of the food still on the shelf at the store. In Chicago, I frequently find perfectly good, crispy, organic produce and scrumptiously ripe fruit. Just today, I ate a small organic peach that tasted as if it had been picked right off the tree. What was wrong with it? Nothing, except that it was little and had a slight soft spot. A few weeks ago I recovered about fifteen organic Fuji apples. Each was perfectly ripe and harbored perhaps one tiny, fingernail-sized bruise.


The last two organic Fugi apples, photographed before I finally gave in and ate them.

Another time, I recovered a pound of slightly dried-out, organic medjool dates, the big kind with the slightly chocolatey flavor. Beyond organic produce, I’ve recovered ripe, sweet cantaloupe, beautiful mangoes, pounds of unblemished grapes, boxes of greens, enough broccoli and carrots to freeze up “California mix,” and even yogurt and tofu. Ok, the tofu had been frozen and was a little grainy. But much of what I find is astonishingly intact.

As Lars Eigner points out in his well-known essay “On Dumpster Diving,” all this raises the question pertinent to every dumpster-diver: why is this item being discarded? The sad truth is that it has much to do with the American food supply. As consumers, we’ve all been conditioned to want rows of perfectly-formed, familiar fruits and vegetables at the grocery store. According to Dunn, at Whole Foods, produce is pulled the day before its expiration date to ensure that customers always have an unblemished, eye-candy array of brightly colored fruits and vegetables. In addition, says Dunn, entire boxes of produce are routinely thrown out because of a single soft fruit that might (but hasn’t) affected the rest. Sadly, these boxes not only represent food that could be going to feed the hungry; the process of growing, harvesting, and long-distance shipping has already consumed massive amounts of petroleum by the time they’re intercepted and discarded at the wholesale level.

I have to admit, I’m as guilty as the next person of wanting that array of eye candy in the produce aisle. Going to Whole Foods, I’ve realized, isn’t just about what I can buy there; it’s about how much I enjoy that consumer experience, that visually stunning presentation. The fact that we expect familiarity and perfection from our fruits and vegetables has much to do, of course, with the use of pesticides, the genetic engineering of foods, and mono-cropping that compromises biodiversity. These issues tie directly to large-scale factory farming. Interestingly, many of the folks I’ve interviewed for this Symposium page, including Adam Graffunder, Dave Snyder, and Nancy Phillips, have identified factory farms as the number one food issue we face today. Factory farming dramatically affects small-scale farmers as well as consumers. And it’s integrally tied to the food we all eat, every day.

From the start of their growing process, fruits and vegetables are engineered to stand up to long-distance shipping while looking pretty. They’re treated with petroleum-based pesticides and harvested before they’re fully ripe. We are all familiar with that mushy red delicious apple, or the perfect red tomato that tastes like cardboard. The importance consumers attach to appearance over taste is best demonstrated by an anecdote from my best friend in Michigan, who runs her own organic farm and has a stand at the upscale Ann Arbor farmer’s market. She reports that even her well-educated, upper-middle-class customers often don’t recognize something as “exotic” as yellow tomatoes.

“But what would I do with a yellow tomato?” one of her customers once famously asked.

“Well,” she offered, “the same thing you’d do with a red one! They’re great in salads and lower in acid.”

“Oh,” the woman replied, “but I don’t know if my husband would eat a yellow tomato.”

Such insistence on conventional-looking fruits and vegetables is directly related to the limited number of varieties available at most grocery stores in the US. That perfect red tomato? Recent genetic research reveals that it’s actually the slightly green shoulders of many heirloom varieties that makes them intense, distinctive flavors. Michael Pollan has written forcefully about this issue of decreasing biodiversity as it pertains to apples in his groundbreaking book, The Botany of Desire.

By way of example, let’s consider another fruit I’ve found in astonishing amounts behind my local grocery store. Worldwide, the market is also dominated by a single variety of banana, the Cavendish. It may come as something of a surprise to learn that bananas (like carrots!) come in colors including red, salmon, orange, yellow, green and black, and range in flavor tones from tart apple to raspberry to strawberry, from intensely sweet and soft to firm and starchy. They also range in size from footlong to pinky-sized. Why then, the focus on the bland 7-inch yellow Cavendish? The answer: it can be farmed by Chiquita on a massive scale, then picked and shipped long distances while still green.

Despite being America’s most-consumed and least expensive fruit, bananas are neither local nor sustainable. As Dan Koppel points out in The New York Times, bananas cost about half as much as apples, although most apples are fresher and regionally-available. Sadly, the well-loved banana is also the direct product of cultural imperialism, labor exploitation, and massive oil consumption through long-range shipping. Moreover, all Cavendish bananas are genetically identical, meaning that not only is our eating experience of bananas severely restricted; the world’s banana supply is precariously susceptible to being wiped out by an encroaching fungal disease. In other words, this kind of large-scale monoculture not only decreases biodiversity, but impoverishes our eating experiences and contributes to global warming.

The fact that I often find loads of Cavendish bananas being thrown away–not even donated to soup kitchens or used for compost–should give us all pause. As noted above, we live in a time of decreasing food security and increasing economic disparity. Worldwide, the cost of food has been rising since 2008, and may continue to do so into 2020. This phenomenon is directly linked to the rising cost of fuel and to drought that may be a result of global climate change. These increases have affected the US less than other countries due largely to our reliance on highly processed foods. In other words, many of us face increasing economic pressure to eat food that’s both cheaper and less healthy; bags of Cheetos rather than those (wasted) fruits and vegetables.

Ironically, dumpstering has also made me ask questions about what stores, businesses, and other food establishments will sell as top-quality in order to ensure their own bottom lines. One other thing I’ve learned is that the food in the dumpster is not only better than the produce in most people’s crisper drawers; it was often on the shelf at the store about five minutes before. The situation is, to say the least, absurd. I’ve come to realize that not only the discounted fruit at my local produce market is a breath away from the trash bin, but also that the 2/$1 oranges on special at 7-11 are often drawn from a box that was clearly destined to be discarded and perhaps even obtained at no cost. These days, I frequently look at a $1 apple and reflect I know where to find one that looks better and is organic, for free.

In fact, dumpstering has dramatically enhanced my own level of food security. I cook and freeze the vegetables, and dry the fruit in the dehydrator I bought for $20 on Craigslist. I see this as embracing a classic American value: resourcefulness. I now have a huge supply of dried, non-sulphured fruit that my friends swear is more delicious than any they’ve bought. I have to agree. I also believe it’s important not to take more than I need (remember that old woman?) and to share what I find. When I find greens in large quantities, I cook them and invite friends for dinner; when I find lots of fruit, there’s fruit salad and applesauce for dessert. Of course, everything is well washed, though as someone who used to buy organic almost exclusively, I’m more concerned about pesticide residues on my food than about a bit of dirt from the bin. And no, neither I nor anyone I’ve known has ever gotten sick from dumpstered produce. When I do shop at Whole Foods, I’m able to buy small amounts of ethically-produced chicken. This is important to me. Dumpstering, in essence, allows me not to participate in I view as the unacceptable animal cruelty of large-scale meat production. Exploring the bins has also expanded my culinary repertoire. Because I am fortunate enough to live near a number of ethnic areas, I have discovered and learned to use vegetables and fruits, like okra and guavas, that I had only the dimmest idea about before.

In sum, the question is not one of whether such food can be good or healthy. Clearly, it can be and is. The deeper question is why such perfectly good food is being thrown away in a city suffering from poverty, recession, and food deserts–and in a world already suffering from global climate change. What if we, as consumers, demanded a range of foods available that were locally grown, produced, and distributed? We would need to embrace more diversity in our food supply, to be less wed to the idea that our food must look a certain way. We would have to accept some soft spots on our peaches, and would need to judge our food more on nutritional value, environmental impact, and taste than on appearance. But, after some initial resistance, such transitions should not be hard for many Americans. We are, after all, highly adaptable. The result would be, first and foremost, and enhanced range of eating experiences, and, perhaps, a greater sense of connection to the world around us. No doubt the would be less waste in the dumpster for folks like me. But I’m the first to admit that dumpstering is an imperfect and highly personal solution to the problem of food insecurity. What if we made a point of using only what we need and donating or composting what has been overproduced? The result might just be better food, a more connected sense of community, and greater environmental awareness. At the risk of being without bananas, I’d certainly like to find out.

What did you eat in school today?

An up and coming movement towards healthy and sustainable eating is directing awareness to schools and school children’s eating habits. People like Jamie Oliver and Alice Waters are actively contributing to this change. In addition to Oliver and Waters, there are also lesser-known people approaching this matter. I have personally spoken to and interviewed some Chicago area farmers and a school principal, namely Alexander Tuchman, Andrea Hazzard, and Anne Gillespie. Jamie Oliver has stated that most people are not even aware of where their food comes from, and he wishes to teach everyone how to grow, cook, and eat healthy.

Alice Waters was inspired to start the Edible Schoolyard project as a result of passing by a run down public middle school in Berkeley every day on her way to work, as a chef at her restaurant. Having also spent a number of years as a teacher, Waters believed that schools influence children, it is just as important to supply the students with an adequate environment. During an interview she had with a journalist, she happened to mention her disdain for the way this public middle school was treated, stating that it was “a great example of how not to use land”[1]. This comment then lead to Waters receiving a letter from that very school’s principal asking whether she would be interested in getting involved in some way to make improvements.

alice waters book pg 16

From here, the Edible Schoolyard began. A project that involved students to plant and grow their own foods, and offered a kitchen where the students could then learn how to cook the food they grew and picked from the garden. Through this project, Waters (and other adults helping out the school garden, including parents) realized that the kids were more excited to eat fresh greens after they had experienced the whole process of growing and cooking them.

Below is an image of the page in Edible Schoolyard that lists the principles this school’s (and Alice Waters’) project is based upon.


            Jamie Oliver’s work is similar to Waters’, based mainly in the UK and USA. He has founded a number of projects and foundations, such as Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, Jamie Oliver’s Kitchen Garden Project, The Better Food Foundation, and more. Not surprisingly, Alice Water’s Edible Schoolyard project is also featured in the list of companies and individuals whom Jamie Oliver connects with.




The Kitchen Garden Project is one of Oliver’s projects that I researched more closely. This is due to the fact that it is about Oliver working with elementary schoolchildren in the UK, and bringing a reform to the UK education meal plan system. As of currently, Oliver says on his website dedicated to this project, him and his team are working directly with two pilot schools. The Kitchen Garden Project aims to provide schoolchildren with integrated growing and cooking classes, alongside all the other subjects. Also, online Oliver lists appealing results sourced from the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Project in Australia. Some of which are “improved behavior and engagement in learning […] increased willingness in children to try new foods […] increases school community connection” and more. Oliver’s three key ambitions through implementing this program in schools are to educate, empower, and inspire.

In addition to the numerous school gardening projects, Oliver also work with teenagers and adults. Oliver specifically has a program called Fifteen; this is a high end restaurant that goes by the same name, located in London. On their website, Oliver explains that his incentive to open this restaurant was “on one hand to create one of London’s finest restaurants and, on the other, to use the magic of cooking to give young people who’ve often faced enormous challenges in their lives, the opportunity to unlock their true talent, through great training and mentoring”.

Locally, in Illinois, Andrea Hazzard is busy tending her own farm, and offering anyone interested the opportunity to volunteer with her. Another pioneering farmer working in Illinois, Alex Tuchman, an alumni of Loyola University is an avid operations assistant of the Loyola Student Farm. Both Hazzard and Tuchman run active CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) programs, and enjoy teaching others about their practice.

In short, for any who are not familiar with CSAs; these are programs that deal specifically with farmers connecting with their customers. Anyone in the public who is interested can buy a share for each active farming season (that works like a membership), and receive weekly deliveries of freshly picked produce baskets. The amount of shares offered by a farmer may vary on the size of the farmed land.

loyola farm veggies

            Following my research on schoolchildren and meals they are supplied with, the Loyola Student Farm sparked my interest too. I sat down with Alex Tuchman earlier this spring to ask him some more personal questions on his role in the farm, and his opinions on the connection between school meals and their students. It turned out to be a very fruitful interview, with a lot of interesting and useful information (here is a link to listen to the full version: During the interview I ask Tuchman to recall his past experiences with school meals: “Lots of salt and oil” is what he could remember.

A couple weeks after my interview with Alex Tuchman, and gathering research about Jamie Oliver, Alice Waters and her Edible schoolyard, I emailed Anne Gillespie at the Academy for Global Citizenship, asking to meet with her at the school to visit their school garden and ask her more questions. Anne Gillespie is the co-founder and principal of AGC.


As Anne and I walked out the doors into the parking lot, we were standing in the school garden. It was partially closed off from the rest of the parking lot, with growing beds side by side leading to a small greenhouse. Opposite the growing beds is the playground equipment area with a chicken coup and three chickens. Anne told me the chickens are allowed to roam freely around the parking lot area (they stay near the growing beds and playground), but they are not allowed to eat the foods their students are growing. The campus I visited was the main one that offers K-2nd grade classes, and the second campus houses the 3rd-5th graders. The children have the opportunity to plant, grow, and pick a variety of vegetables. Since the playground/garden area did not appear large enough to be able to feed 300 children daily, I asked where else food is sourced for the breakfasts, snacks, and lunches served in the cafeteria. Anne brought me into the cafeteria where there was a map on the wall, and highlighted were the areas of farms who supply them with the additional foods. All of which are in Illinois and its surrounding states.

The questions I had for Anne were based on figuring out her opinion on the current school meal system, and what could be done to reverse it in order to feed all school children more healthy options. I started off asking how she has seen the school transform lives of both children and parents; Anne lists seeing children learn to read and write, families starting to recycle or start small gardens, and chickens at home. We touched on the subject of people not knowing where their food is coming from. Anne believes that chickens are a good place to start learning where your food comes from by seeing that an egg comes from a chicken and not from the refrigerated area at the supermarket.

As the conversation turned to the current meal system in schools without gardens, Anne explains that money is the answer, and it is what drives most daily activities. However, she doesn’t think it’s too late to change the meal system in a healthier way. To make this change, the government would have to shift, and people’s mindsets making assumptions that kids won’t eat anything healthy, and they like sugar.

I asked Anne if there has been an experience that has impacted her more than others. Although she sounded like limiting the answer to a single experience wasn’t enough, she admitted the day they were approved to become a school is definitely high on the list, because it gave her the opportunity to be in the position she is in now, and has learned a lot.

Later this summer I plan to compile a bound book of images and hand written sentences made by the students at AGC. These images and sentences will come from some prompts I have accumulated; asking them questions like what is your favorite food? And draw you and your friends picking vegetables from the garden. The book will then be exhibited in SAIC’s Sullivan Galleries this summer through fall.

The aim of this project is to collect as many sheets I can from the students, and each student will have the freedom to choose any color of paper to either draw or write on in order to create individuality. I am also hoping that through the different ways the prompts are responded to, anyone who chooses to look through the final book is able to notice differences, and pick up on the children’s characters.

Valeria Ledda 

[1] Waters, p. 10

Nature & Aesthetics

If we look at natural forms as ornamental objects then we will be unable to perceive beyond a surface understanding of nature. In the name of efficiency and profit, man made systems tend to dominate and subjugate nature. These intentions are not always functional, but rather visual. When trees, flowers, and shrubs are planted in the strip malls and lawns of our urban and suburban environments, they are used as decorative and static objects isolated from their natural environments. The man-made environment is restrictive about the kinds of plants allowed, and these plants are maintained and controlled to a large degree.  It is worth realizing the ways that our cultural preferences have disconnected us from the natural cycles, restricting us from advancing as a more sustainable society.

We must also realize that beauty is relative and subjective to different cultures, and therefore it is not fixed. As we see in fashion it can change quite regularly, so if we recognize how our visual choices are actually burdening us, we can work to change them. Beauty is subjective, but also influenced by society. The images we absorb visually are transformed in our minds by various influences of personal experiences and cultural values. Through the process of cultural conditioning we create a judgment, or a visual taste. Our visual preferences play a large role in our decisions and experiences.

Why do chefs spend so much time perfecting the appearance of food that will only exist temporarily until it is eaten? Perhaps it is a personal art exploration, or it allows them to charge more for a dish. However the consumer no doubt eagerly receives it because food that is visually pleasing stimulates appetite. If a person were handed a plate of transformed mystery ingredients that resembled what is fed to pigs, or a well-considered plate of beautifully arranged food, he or she would likely be more attracted to look at and eat the latter. A study from Max Planck researchers showed that even the mere image of food is powerful enough to stimulate appetite and influence eating behavior. The study suggests that the abundance of food advertising images in our culture might be a contributor to our national obesity problems.

Grocers are also aware of the power of visual influences on the consumer. Many grocery stores, such as Whole Foods, display produce that exhibit ‘perfect appearance’, disposing anything with minor abnormalities on the skin, or in size or shape, as if these qualities would greatly affect their taste. Common supermarket practices reflect and simultaneously mold the visual preferences of its consumers. Consumers are familiar with food that is provided to them, that look a certain way, and in turn increases the demand for physical perfection. Consequently many million tons of perfectly good and edible food being dumped into landfills each year because the produce do not meet grocery store standards. Such standards are not sensitive to the exciting and random chance that is produced by nature. Fruits and vegetables do not grow in homogenous replicas like tools and toys come out of a factory.

As a culture, we have engaged in many damaging activities based on visual decisions. We enjoy bright, colorful, and vibrant lights, so we live in brilliant energy-draining cities that are littered with light pollution. We appreciate minimal, ‘clean’ environments. Because dirt is considered, well, dirty, we use glass, steel, and concrete to construct our surroundings so that they can be easily sterilized. Our idea of incorporating a little bit of nature into our constructed environments is by planting large plots of useless green lawns. The American lawn is nothing more than another example of monoculture, alongside the great American soy and corn fields that both support our livelihoods and are slowly destroying us through pollution, loss of biodiversity, and unhealthy food.

For artists, visual decisions are often critically considered as an essential component of a professional practice. With great understanding of how people perceive beauty, artists have the potential ability to affect larger cultural perspectives. Artists like Haeg are transforming minimalist lawns into more diverse natural environments that can activate multiple simultaneous functions, from providing visual satisfaction, healthy food and self-sustainability, while providing a more ideal habitat for insects, birds, and other animals. In the Edible Estates projects, artist Fritz Haeg attempts to address the faults of our cultural affinity towards green lawns and our faulty food system by replacing entire suburban yards with edible landscapes. Rather than green grass, his yards were blooming with vegetables and food plants. Haeg’s gardens are thoughtfully arranged by his experience and understanding of compositional elements. He begins his projects by delineating where things will be planted and creating lines for pathways and complimentary shapes. Then he invites the residents and neighbors to help plant. Those who choose to convert their lawns no doubt have the opportunity to develop a closer understanding with natural processes as they interact with their plants.

Kathy Cummings, a Chicago resident who at one time in 2004 received an award from the city for her native-plants garden for being the “Most Naturalized City Garden”, is issued a $640 fine eight years later for having “weeds” that are too tall. The accused weeds were actually Milkweed, an important native plant that is both the home and food source for monarch larvae. The actions of the city displayed an apparent lack of awareness for how healthy and developed native vegetation should look, and their regulations further prohibit the potential restoration of these plants.

It is interested to consider how ancient Chinese culture privileged nature, recognizing man’s insignificant stature. The traditional Chinese perception, influenced by Daoism, is that nature is powerful, vast, and all-inclusive. Every part of it, including water and rocks, has qi, or vital force.  In this dynamic vision of nature, it is acknowledged that all parts of the ecosystem influence each other in a profound way, and nature as a whole is superior to the mere human race. The appreciation for natural forces and nature’s creations had great influence on the visual decisions apparent in Chinese gardens. Abnormally shaped rocks and gnarled driftwood were highlighted to display and reflect the powerful influence of nature.  “In contrast, old Chinese gardens lack elements which westerners would expect to find; in particular, the formal symmetrical arrangement of the plan (both in its major outlines and in the patterned details of garden bedding and parterres), the artificial manipulation of water in fountains, and the extensive use of grass in lawns” (Thacker 44). Much of the traditional Chinese garden designs were also based off of scroll paintings. They depicted vast mountains and in contrast to Western paintings, in which human figures were the main concentration, the people included in Chinese paintings are depicted as dots in the landscape. Chinese paintings reveal “the pervasive influence of the philosophy of the Tao, involving meditation on the unity of the creation, a creation in which nature possesses a hidden yet real order and harmony … such a concern with the order and harmony of nature is often and clearly at odds with the ways of the world, and the works of men are often considered inferior and distracting” (Thacker 43). However, as China’s efforts have been towards rapid modernization to compete in the current global economy, much of the traditional values towards nature seem to be pushed aside to make way for industrial Western methods.

So of course it is not adequate to claim that as long as we alter our visual dispositions then we will live harmoniously with nature. As we know, our economy, the growing population, and the politics involved are great factors. However, we can recognize and study aesthetics as a valid and influential component in our relationship with nature. it is important to realize how many of our current decisions are in actuality based on visual decisions, and that we can more critically consider how they may be inhibiting our development towards a more sustainable future. Learning from John Dewey, aesthetics are not simply how objects are viewed but rather, “the relationship between the individual and the environment… Rather than a subject-object relationship in which the observer parades before the supposedly beautiful view, we have instead a process, an interaction between the viewer and the viewed, and it is that joint association that the aesthetic experience lies” (Evernden 96).

Works Cited

Glotfelty, Cheryll, and Harold Fromm. The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Athens: University of Georgia, 1996. Print.

Greiner, Michael. “Pictures of Food Create Feelings of Hunger.” Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, 19 Jan. 2012. Web. 08 May 2013.

Haeg, Fritz, and Diana Balmori. Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn. New York: Metropolis, 2008. Print.

Thacker, Christopher. The History of Gardens. Berkeley: University of California, 1979. Print.

Yates, Jon. “Problem Solver: Award-winning Garden Ticketed for ‘weeds'”

Chicago Tribune, 30 Dec. 2012. Web. 08 May 2013.

On Darkness, Silence and the Loss of Negative Space

As an artist, the idea of negative space is one of the most important concepts I’ve learned. For those unfamiliar with the term, negative space refers to blank areas in a composition. Although it’s counterintuitive, negative space is one of the most important elements of any work. Think of the white space behind words that allows them to be read, or the musical rests in a concerto draw attention to the specificity of the notes.

One doesn’t have to look far to see that the world around us is losing negative spaces. I mean this not only in terms of the disappearance of sparsely-populated landscapes or CNN-style visual cramming of our television and computer screens. We have lost, or are losing, many blanknesses that once gave our lives meaning and shape. Of these, consider two: darkness and silence.

It has now become a truism that our planet is suffering from light pollution. People once used the space of night to contemplate the heavens, to trace the shapes of constellations, make up myths, and share stories. Writing in The New Yorker, David Owen describes how light pollution not only impacts people but can decimate bird, insect, and sea turtle populations. These environmental effects demonstrate that light pollution is as “real,” and as potentially devastating, as other forms of pollution.

But it is not only excess of light that we need to consider: it is lack of darkness. Watching it get dark outside was, Owen writes, a common evening activity, a moment of calm contemplation. Today, ask someone what phase the moon is in and you’re liable to get a confused stare. One might ask how this loss of connection to spaces beyond ourselves has impacted our contemporary psyches. Divorced from larger cycles, how are we to understand ourselves, our place in a larger order, our impact (or lack of impact) on the world?

It is not only larger celestial cycles we are failing to connect with; it’s also the cycles inside our own bodies. According to historian Roger Ekirch, in the preindustrial night it was normal to go to sleep at dusk and waken, mid-night, for a few hours of quiet. During this time one might pray or meditate, talk or be intimate with one’s bedmate, study or interpret dreams. Such nighttime quiet wakefulness, called segmented sleep, is, Ekrich and others have argued, actually part of our natural human sleep cycle. In the centuries before the Industrial Revolution, night was a negative space giving shape and meaning to those quiet hours it surrounded. I can’t help but wonder how our experience of the world might be changed if such nighttime quiet were still part of our lives—if it were part of mine.

The collective loss of darkness affects not only our psyches but, like the species we are impacting, our biological processes. Recent research has linked ambient light at night to melatonin disruption that contributes to breast cancer and obesity. That’s right, sleeping with too much ambient light can make you fat. And nearly every urban environment contains an excess of ambient light. By way of example, my friend Toby Altman and I recently hosted a poetry reading meant to take place in complete darkness. We soon discovered that even in our quiet neighborhood, there was no escape from the light of the street outside. Although we eventually made do by pulling closed his curtains, there was still plenty of light in the room. Beyond shutting everyone in his bathroom or another windowless space, we realized that true darkness was going to be nearly impossible.

Beyond these very real health effects, we have little negative space inside our own nighttime minds. We all know that Americans don’t sleep enough; I personally could be a poster child for this cause. But try asking people about their dreams. Most will tell you they don’t remember any. This is, I submit, integrally related to the loss of nighttime experience. In contrast, I think of my time in the jungle of Ecuador. There, the Quicha people I stayed with went to bed early, rose at 4:00 a.m. and gathered around the fire to share and interpret their dreams. With the loss of darkness, it seems we may also be losing the free associative spaces inside our own minds.

All of this points to loss of another kind of negative space: quiet. I won’t even say silence. Just as the planet is filled with light, sound now pervades every corner. Like light pollution, noise pollution is as real as chemical pollution and has been linked to severe environmental impacts.  For example, a recent story on NPR described how sonar seriously impacts whales and other species that use echolocation to communicate and to orient themselves in space. To be more specific, according to Scientific American, “evidence shows that whales will swim hundreds of miles, rapidly change their depth (sometimes leading to bleeding from the eyes and ears), and even beach themselves to get away from the sounds of sonar.” Whales and other animals, it turns out, need the negative spaces of the ocean’s quiet to communicate, to navigate, and to be heard.

For humans, too, the negative spaces offered by quiet moments are hard to come by. We are not only surrounded by cacophony, but have been conditioned to prefer it. Many of my friends comment on my propensity to spend time at home with no radio, no music, just simple quiet. They freely admit to the need to fill the space with sound, of having no “tolerance” for quiet. Tolerance for quiet seems to me an odd concept, since biological evidence points to the taxing effects of constant loud noise. One roommate I had went so far as to imitate sounds in the environment–the ringing of the phone, for instance, or a single word from someone’s sentence–when she wasn’t talking, whistling, or passive playing (rather than watching) the television.

Yet it seems we are not really listening to the sounds we hear. Writing in The Journal Acoustic Ecology, Kendall Wrightson uses the term “soundscape” to describe the acoustic environment in which a listener finds herself. According to Wrightson, a soundscape may be “hi-fi” or crowded, or “lo-fi.” Lo-fi soundscapes include not only moments of silence, but, like the broadcast airwaves, also have available frequency bands in which different communications, human or animal, can take place. In contrast, “hi-fi” soundscapes are so crowded that communications overlap and sounds crowd each other out. In today’s hi-fi environment, Wrightson describes how many people are so bombarded by ambient noise that they cannot list as few as five specific sounds (not music) that they’ve heard throughout the day. As an exercise, he routinely asks his students to write a list of sounds they have heard, as well as those they like and do not. “Many,” writes Wrightson, “do not recall ‘consciously’ having heard any sounds during the day, and many do not complete the sound list even after fifteen minutes” (10). Rather than being an exploration, my roommate’s need to react mimetically seemed largely unconscious, a way of preventing silence rather than a way of exploring her environment.

Wrightson seems to confirm this view, pointing out that one strategy for coping with a high-noise environment is to block out the sound with music, what he calls “acoustic perfume.” I’m often struck by how many people on my daily commute use headphones to block out the train noise. Headphones are complicated. They give us the private space we so desperately need, but at the expense of connection with others and with our environments. Wrightson goes even further in his analysis: “The psychogical significance of sound used as a controlling force—as an offensive (weapon) or as a (defensive) barrier against the soundscape—” he writes, “is that the environment and the community become the enemy.”

Like the loss of darkness, loss of quiet not only alienates us, but affects us biologically. Research shows that chronic exposure to traffic and airport noise can lead to acute and chronic changes in the body’s stress hormones. While too much light can contribute to cancer and weight gain, too much noise can damage your heart. Chronic exposure to loud noise, like that from airports, may also disrupt our hormones and damage the quality of sleep, leading to an increased chance of heart disease, hypertension and myocardial infection. Although there is less research to support the hypothesis, there has also been scientific speculation that in pregnant women, noise exposure may lead to birth defects; in children, it may contribute to problems with learning and reading comprehension.

I wonder about this loss of negative spaces, and our apparent fear of darkness, of quiet. There is no space in our environments or, it seems, inside our heads. With no time for introspection or connection, we, like the marine animals we are affecting, are losing the ability to orient, to understand our own subject position relative to our environment. Wrightson writes that in preindustrial times, communities had distinct acoustic profiles “heard at a considerable distance, reinforcing a sense of space and position and maintaining a relationship with home.” I can’t help relate our loss of negative spaces not only to our loss of connection, but to the loss of attention, a topic I’ve written on previously. Indeed, what is attention but the capacity to hold, if only briefly, a mind filled with blank, receptive space? And what is orientation but a pause to take stock of the environment and assess one’s place within it?

Darkness and quiet bring us closer to our environment at every level. Without them, we lose connection to the stars, to diurnal cycles, to other species, to other humans. Instead, our experience becomes a jittery canvas of moment-to-moment stimuli. Graphic artists speak of “activating negative space,” by which they mean making sure that the curves and shapes around the blankness charge it with its own form of energy. Negative space does not “do nothing.” It allows rest for the eye, peace for the ear, renewal for the mind. Negative space renders what is around it comprehensible, and can allow us to understand more fully our complex and often overwhelming lives.

Silence and darkness can be viewed as two natural resources we are depleting. In doing so, we impact the planet, compromise our health, and destroy the internal spaces that allow us to imagine and create. Without the capacity to rest, dream, attend, connect, and reflect, how are we to understand or imagine our place in the world? So here’s a challenge: spend some time in darkness, if you can, or in silence. Or as near to them as you can get.

Interview: Margaret Leininger


Could you please describe your studio practice?

My studio practice is informed upon a foundation of art theory, craft theory and technical expertise in a wide range of media including many textile related skills along with performance, photography, sculpture and other media. Recently, I have begun to include many forms of social practice into my studio investigations that encourage, seek, and rely upon public interaction.

What are the key concepts you explore through your visual work? Could you describe one or two specific projects?

Site, place, temporality are all things I explore in my work and have been a constant throughout my career as an artist. In addition to these main themes, I also explore the notion of connection, complexities, and systems as it relates to both intimate and distant relationships we have as human beings to each other and this earth. One work that demonstrates such concepts is Industrious Anarchy which is the latest project of mine. The work consists of weaving site specifically informed cloth using sustainably procured fibers. The cloth will then be marketed through alternative market structures. Through these actions the work explores the complex interconnections between materiality, environment, social economic structures and the complex systems that we navigate on a daily basis such as how we define ourselves within a material culture.

Where do you find inspiration for your work?

My environment influences much of my work. As does my deep interest of sociology, economics and sustainability. Often, my work stems from direct observations of the varied histories of globalism from the ancient Silk Road to the present day issues of clothing workers in Bangladesh. My interest in cotton and sustainable agriculture, for example, comes from daily immersion among AZ cotton fields, produce fields and hay fields. I often ask myself how I can contribute my viewpoint through a visual expression or artistic action as that is the power or gift I have that allows me to participate in a broader conversation beyond myself. Often, though, through research I discover that of course nothing is black and white. That would be too easy. Rather, there are a multitude of grays out there, and my work attempts to illustrate just one particular viewpoint.

Do you ever work collaboratively? If so, what type of projects have you worked on and what was your role?

I have worked collaboratively on many occasions. I have worked on two projects specifically that have served to promote humanitarian issues in our society. These include Care Packages where 17 Uighur detainees at Guantanamo received hand made pieced and quilted prayer mats and Found Objects where I collaborated with knitters around the country to raise funds to support the National Coalition for the Homeless through the knitting and placement of 365 miniature sweaters. When found by the public, the attached tag instructed the finder to make a monetary donation to the National Coalition for the Homeless. In both of these projects I was the creative lead, but I have also enjoyed working amongst a group of creative artists of all disciplines to work towards common goals as in my teaching practice as an artist in residence at Snow City Arts that provided art instruction to hospitalized children.

9 Yard Proto2

As a weaver exploring issues of production, labor and intellectual property rights associated with textile manufacturing, do you also investigate the environmental impacts of textile manufacturing?

Yes. I am particularly interested in the environmental impact of textile manufacturing especially as the post-industrial economy demands over production of goods. Just by going into a large retailer or big box store, you see that there is no way the local economy can consume all of the textiles in the store for example. Where does this surplus eventually end up? Dumped into a landfill or the ocean. There are some organized movements that are urging larger corporate entities to think more responsibly when it comes to the materials their products are made from as well as the environmental impact of such overproduction. Such organizations are urging large retailers to re-think their carbon footprint and to utilize this as a marketing strategy to offset the cost of higher production. EcoTextile is one such organizing group making tremendous strides among larger contributors including Wal-Mart, The Gap and others. As a weaver, I am most focused on utilizing locally sourced sustainable products in my work to emphasize the connection between the environment and our tactile sensibility.

Does your activism enter into your artwork?

Most recently, I find my work containing some form of activist element whether in a more direct approach as in the ARTivention projects or more subtly in the Industrious Anarchy project. By making specific choices related to materiality, marketing and purpose, much of my work aims to activate the viewer in some manner.

Do issues relating to food ever enter into your artwork/activism?

While specifically food itself does not enter into either my work or activism, I do find a direct correlation to food as it is a primary need that is essential to human sustainability. Creating a textile often includes very similar actions to producing food. It takes knowledge, planning, tending, adjusting and an understanding of organic processes. In addition, with the current development of an urban fiber farm in the city of Chicago, I am hoping to partner with a local CSA, or agricultural model, to create a space where the community can directly make the connection between clothing that they wear and the land around them. So, similar to the CSA, or other urban farming initiatives, the dependence and connection between us and the land is paramount. Thus, the similarity between food and cloth.

What kind of environmental initiatives or organizations are you involved in?

I am an avid follower of groups supporting non-traditional methods or re-visiting traditional methods of production that aim to eliminate or reduce the environmental impact of textile manufacturing in both a cottage and industrial system. Such groups include Ecotextiles as I mentioned earlier, the CA Fibershed, and various other initiatives in the U.S. fighting a good cause. While I am definitely not the first to make the connections between local producers, CSA models, and sustainable practice, I do hope to create a unique model of urban farming that includes fiber production, harvesting and textile manufacturing that invites the community to become more invested in their local neighborhoods, in themselves and each other. Similar to farming and other agricultural practices, textile production is often a very social, collaborative method. It invites dialogue, exchange and interdependence that we as a culture need to embrace.

Could you offer some advice as to how to become involved in local, national, and global environmental programs? 

First, I would invite people to investigate their own backyard. It is very interesting to see what’s going on in even the smallest of communities. By starting local, supporting those who are keeping traditions alive, and the power away from GM production, we are guaranteeing the survival of many species of plants and animals. It is important that everyone participate in even the tiniest of ways by making clear conscious consumer choices to move away from the corporate identity of name brand products and mass produced food/clothing elements. These actions, even if only a couple a week, a month or year (depending upon the type) contributes to a broader, richer cultural heritage.  Each choice that results in not choosing a mass produced good by a corporate identity takes away power from a larger, often national and/or international identity, and empowers a local maker, farmer, producer. Support Industrious Anarchy by contributing to a crowd source funding mechanism through USA Projects, (click here) for example. By making a tax deductible contribution, people can become involved in the foundational support of Chicago’s first urban fiber farm. And there are many more projects and ways to support our collective creative community that provides us with food, shelter, warmth and comfort. It’s just whether or not people will actually take action NOW.  



By Sarah K. Benning

An Introduction: Nance Klehm, Ken Dunn and The Plant Chicago

Throughout Chicago, mounting concerns of soil contamination and fertility continue to fuel the growth of an increasingly complex urban agricultural community in which both well-established and newly sprouted innovators are working together to create deeper connections between people, food and soil. For years, soil pioneers such as Ken Dunn and Nance Klehm have created the foundation of this network through their research, gardening, urban farming and composting projects. Additionally, and now more than ever before, innovative technology-based sustainability initiatives such as The Plant Chicago are popping up throughout the city, introducing new ideas and opportunities regarding how we can conceive and implement more efficient and sustainable food systems.

Being relatively new to Chicago, I am just beginning to become familiar with this constantly evolving and growing network of environmentally and culturally focused people and their projects, and I am privileged to have become personally acquainted with a few of them. The following is simply an introduction to their culturally and environmentally indispensible work.

Nance Klehm grew up on a farm in northern Illinois, and since moving to the city has witnessed the drastic transformation of her homeland from wild land and farmland into suburb.  Her work is grounded in her past, and during an interview a few weeks ago, she described her connection to this work; “What I am doing is my nature, is really deeply rooted since birth and is possibly biological.” Klehm currently works throughout Chicago as an ecological systems designer, landscaper, horticultural consultant, and permaculture grower. She actively addresses local and global issues concerning soil, sustainability and systems in her own life as well as through professional outreach. She employs a variety of creative and visual strategies including working on collaborative projects, teaching workshops and giving urban foraging tours that help her audiences gain a deeper understanding of the interconnections between our bodies and the environment.

“On a forage, the first question is always, “How is it safe for me to eat anything in my environment?” I ask, “If it’s not safe for that plant, why do you think it’s safe for you? You’re breathing the same air, you’re exposed to the same environmental pollution.” We are no safer than the plants around us. We are in communication with all our orifices—nostrils, mouth, pores. Every breath is a literal exchange with our environment, so we are filtering our environment through our bodies. Because it’s all the same, we need to work more carefully with our environment” (Interview: Nance Klehm).

While Klehm’s interactions with her audience range between personal one-on-one experiences to somewhat larger group discussions and events, urban farmer Ken Dunn has been working on a broader city-wide approach in creating a healthier food system.

Dunn began focusing on resource-related issues when he began graduate school at the University of Chicago. Upon his arrival, he immediately recognized the high unemployment rates and serious quality-of-life issues in many neighborhoods throughout the city. He began to view vacant lots with the discarded items that lay upon them, and the unemployed people that hang out around them, as wasted resources, and has since developed a network of farms, composting projects and resource collection systems that combine these elements together to create productive and culturally valuable community spaces.

Over 80,000 lots remain vacant throughout the city, which together make up approximately 30,000 acres of wasted land. Dunn believes if these lots were transformed into active community gardens and food-producing farms, our currently unused space could effectively feed all of Chicago while providing employment for hundreds of people. In his approach, Dunn advocates making change by listening more than talking. His role is to listen to the communities that want change and then to work together to create the change:

“Your role is by listening and then – building a narrative that leads toward an action. And then when it comes to action, some of the ingredients of the action like the compost, or the truck to haul away the recycling or garbage, that comes with no fanfare, the resources are sort of magical. You don’t come in with a sign saying, this compost provided by resource center, or if you do this for me ill take away your garbage, don’t emphasized the expensive or the resources you bring. For a project to be owned, it has to be owned from day one, they perceive their own cleanup as worth more than the truck hauling away the recycling or the compost, and their own work spreading the compost is worth more than delivering the compost so the compost appears off hours and you forget about it as the ingredient they use to transform a vacant lot into a farm, and instead of 2-3 inches deep of compost you do it generously”(Interview: Ken Dunn).


Above: Washington Park Farm, one of Dunn’s newer projects

Dunn also is the founder of City Farm, an urban farm that sustains itself by growing and selling produce thorough local community farm stands and to high-end restaurants on the North Side of Chicago. It is also connected to Dunn’s environmental education non-profit, the Resource Center, which creates compost from the restaurant’s food scraps, runs a recycling project called Creative Reuse Warehouse, and operates its Perishable Foods program, a food distribution program that picks up and distributes food that would otherwise be thrown away by grocery stores to food banks and pantries. Much of Ken’s day-to-day work involves driving a gigantic composting truck from his different locations throughout the city picking up and dropping off food, supplies, compost and doing whatever needs to be done that day to keep his programs going.

While their methods may differ, Dunn and Klehm seem ideologically aligned and agree that huge changes with regard to food production, distribution, consumption and disposal need to happen throughout the city and at all levels of society. To begin learning how to feed ourselves in a truly sustainable way will require major lifestyle changes and this begs the question of exactly which kinds of efforts are going to be the most effective in creating such massive change. Another more recent venture called The Plant Chicago is working to answer this question.


The Plant Chicago, located 1400 W. 46 St. in the Back-of-the-Yards neighborhood, is rapidly becoming a unique example of culturally and environmentally focused system innovation. Originally designed and built by the Buehler Brothers as a meatpacking facility in 1925, the warehouse is now being transformed by John Edel and his team into a net-zero energy vertical farm and food business operation. When complete, which is estimated to be sometime between 2016 and 2017, The Plant will physically support and connect a closed loop system of approximately one-third aquaponic growing systems and two-thirds sustainable food businesses.  It aims to be economically profitable and create no waste, while actively working to improve the lifestyles and community of its inhabitants, neighborhood and city. It already houses many developing businesses including a rooftop garden, the Kombucha brewer, a mushroom basement, multiple aquaponic and hydroponic farms and a bread bakery.

A large focus of The Plant’s system involves the relationship between its hydroponic and aquaponic farms. The Plant farms Tilapia, a sturdy fresh-water fish that grow quickly and easily tolerates crowded tank environments. The Tilapia’s nitrate and ammonia infused wastewater is circulated into the hydroponic gardens and also used to nourish mushroom farms. The gardens plants, which thrive and grow quickly with the additional nutrients, in turn cleanse the water, which then is circulated back to the Tilapia tanks.

Additionally, the hydroponic gardens and breweries will work in tandem and any excess oxygen produced by the plants will be utilized to fuel its existing Kombucha and future beer breweries. The brewery’s carbon dioxide outputs will then circulate back to the hydroponic gardens to help facilitate even more robust plant growth.  Additionally, the beer brewery’s material waste, such as spent barley, will be used to feed the Tilapia.


Truly sustainable interaction between these two systems would not be possible without the third and possibly most crucial piece of the puzzle. The Plant is currently preparing to install an anaerobic digester, a machine that transforms organic waste into energy, in its backyard. The digester will take in various forms of organic waste including the breweries spent grain, the Tilapias waste material, food waste from The Plants future commercial kitchen and waste collected from neighboring businesses. It will then break the waste down into three key materials: hummus-like solid sludge, nutrient-rich liquids and bio-gas which is 2 parts methane and 1 part carbon dioxide. The methane/carbon dioxide mix will be pumped into a combined heat and power system and burned in a turbine generator to produce electricity and year-round heat/cooling for the building.  It will also produce additional carbon dioxide that will be re-directed to the hydroponic farms to further assist with plant growth (The Plant Chicago).

It is quite clear that The Plant’s model also presents big risks. Any attempt to connect so many different elements and systems while sustainably incorporating them into the infrastructure of a single building is an entirely new technological frontier, and most likely ripe with unknown contingencies. While there is a good chance that their project could fail, the great thing is that The Plant’s employees completely recognize these risks and are doing it anyway.

They do it not only because our world so desperately needs new strategies to begin solving the massive food and climate related problems facing our generation today, but also because even if the project doesn’t work, their attempt can serve as a base of research from which other innovators can learn important lessons. The knowledge gained can be used to further new ideas and eventually figure out how to make this kind of system work. In fact, one of The Plants long-term goals is to create a case study that will detail their ideas and construction processes to assist others in starting their own sustainable systems, independent of the outcome of this particular project.

Interconnected projects and systems such as those modeled by the Nance Klehm, Ken Dunn and The Plant are a crucial part of our transition into a culturally and environmentally conscious society. They exemplify a few of many different strategies and opportunities that society must actively take advantage of and employ in order to facilitate this transition. Our long history of environmental disregard has brought us to a point where we desperately need innovative projects like theirs to continuously push for the extreme change that needs to happen.

By Megan Isaacs


“Interview: Nance Klehm.” Telephone interview. 10 Apr. 2013.

“Interview: Ken Dunn.” Personal interview. 11 Mar. 2013.

The Plant Chicago. Plant Chicago NFP, n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2013.

“A” is for Apple…

And apparently so is every other letter of the alphabet.

I was recently enlightened to the incredible diversity of the apple and have since become completely enamored with the fruit.  Worldwide there are 7,500 named varieties, and within North America the number stands around 2,500.  These varieties are referred to as cultivars, which means they have been created or selected intentionally and maintained through cultivation.

This information is fascinating to me on a number of levels.  Firstly, who knew that something so iconic, like an apple, is in reality a diverse group of thousands of varieties, each with individual characteristics differentiating them in color, shape, and (most importantly) taste?  Secondly, cultivation implies human intervention, meaning that apples as we know them do not exist independently in the wild.  In fact, the only native apple to North America is the crab apple, a tiny and very bitter cousin to the apples we eat.  In this way, the apple, which has inserted itself into any number of significant contexts, has developed hand in hand with human societies.

Because of this fundamental link between apple cultivation and human development, the apple has very successfully inserted itself into numerous human stories.  Apples are key figures in American propaganda, folklore and fairytales, and, perhaps the most well known reference, the Garden of Eden.

Historically, the first apples brought to North America were cultivated to produce hard liquor for the early settlers.  Since then their functions have multiplied and apples are now a staple of the American diet.  They are incredibly versatile for cooking and eating raw.  This versatility is a product of the variation within the various cultivars available.

However, despite the incredible potential for variation, the commercial market for apples has been severely reduced.  Only 100 varieties are grown commercially in the United States (though there are many heirloom varieties grown privately and for niche markets), and only 15 cultivars account for 90% of apple production.  These 15 cultivars (Red Delicious, Gala, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Fuji, McIntosh, Rome, Empire, Honeycrisp, Braeburn, Cortland, Empire, Ginger Gold, Jonagold, and Idared) are among the sweetest cultivars known.  They have been systematically selected and propagated for this characteristic in addition to being among the longest lasting varieties making them ideal for shipping long distances. Apples are commercially produced in 32 of the 50 states, with the top being Washington.

This abundance, in terms of history and biological diversity prompted me to investigate the apple varieties in my own life.  Over the course of several weeks, I explored the marketplaces in my neighborhood on the north side of Chicago including a Jewel Osco, a Treasure Island, a Whole Foods, a Trader Joe’s, a Walmart Express, a Walgreens, and a corner store.  Some of these markets I frequent and some I do not, but all had a selection of apples to choose from.  (All of these locations are within walking/reasonable public transportation distance from my apartment, which brings up many issues of privilege and accessibility that I won’t get into here.)  During my meandering visits to these retail locations I began compiling a list of apples that I came across, which resulted in 20 different cultivars including Fuji, Pink Lady, Granny Smith, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Gala, Honeycrisp, McIntosh, Jazz, Braeburn, Empire, Cameo, Criterion, Gravensmith, Matsu (Crispin), Ginergergold, Jonagold, Pippin, Rome, and Winesap.  As an exercise I have illustrated each type of apple, trying to emphasize the visual diversity within this common (and taken for granted) fruit.

Braeburn Red Delicious Granny Smith Pink Lady Fuji Honey Crisp Mcintosh Jazz Jonagold Ginger Gold Gravenstein Criterion Matsu (Crispin) Pippin Cameo Empire Golden Delicious Gala Rome Winesap

This process over the last few months of researching the history, biological potential, and the commercial aspects of apples combined with store visits and observational drawing has been an intensely rewarding experience.  My eyes have been opened to the complexity and subtlety of such a familiar thing in such a wonderful way.

As an artist, my practice often deals with various degrees of obsession and archiving structures.  I was immediately drawn to the existence of apple archives and seed banks that preserve and propagate the thousands of varieties that exist.  And the beauty of the fruit themselves, each type possessing its own color palette and patterning, has greatly inspired me.

The end result of this effort will be the production of an alphabet book dedicated to apples in hopes of propagating the notion of biological diversity and potential early in life.  This project is currently in progress, but will consist of a selection of 26 apple cultivars paired with a corresponding alphabet letter, for example, “B” is for Braeburn.  Look for the end result later this summer!

Sarah K. Benning