Q&A with Susan Leibovitz Steinman: the Artist of the AAC GREEN ACRES Site Project “Straw Bale Farm”
Californian assemblage artist and activist Susan Leibovitz Steinman uses collaborative installations to create a dialogue about contemporary political, ecological, and personal issues. She is also the editor and co-founder of WEAD, Women Environmental Artists Directory. We are thrilled to include her Straw Bale Farm as one of the AAC GREEN ACRES site projects this summer and fall!
Is the Arlington Art Center’s Straw Bale Farm the first experience you have had with straw-farming?
Yes. That’s why I wanted to build this one. I want to see it in action. It’s a great premise.
What attracted you to creating a Straw Bale Farm?
I am always on the lookout for innovative, low tech, low cost, low stress, easy to copy ways to grow organic food where it’s most needed. As an artist I also look for materials that appeal aesthetically, innately double as raised planting beds, and would interest and be relevant to the local audience. It was pure serendipity. Researching online I discovered straw bale guru Joel Karsten’s website. One look and I knew I had both sculpture material and strategy.
How else did you prepare for creating a straw-bale garden for the first time?
After reading Karsten’s book, I sketched a dozen possible designs and visited to scout sites. The hard physical work was enriched by the volunteer help of nearby relatives and long-time friends. We showed up and installed it in one weekend, amid rain showers, threatening tornadoes, and flash floods.
How did you decide on the sculptural layout of the straw bales, cinder-blocks, trash cans, and blue PVC that make-up the Straw Bale Farm?
These designs coalesce in an improvisational dance of educated intuition, flexibility (replace what’s not working with what can), insistence on function and low cost, attention to place, and listening to local people. No amount of pre-planning in my studio replaces working on the ground, sizing up the real place with real limitations. For example, the first plan had several planting areas. Then the straw bales arrived smaller than ordered, it had to be thrown out. I knew one big sculpture trumped several small ones; and to use low cost soaker hose, bales needed to connect sequentially. I lay down the contiguous “snake” pattern onsite without a drawing. I like using every day materials. Trash cans and PVC are favorite palette stalwarts. Cinder blocks are low-tech (no construction skill needed) and when planted mimic an herbal “rock garden.”
So this is really a garden that anyone could replicate! Why did you choose the Arlington Arts Center (AAC) for this project?
Again, pragmatics and aesthetics met. Several sites were considered, but this was the best fit. I like the open public access visibility of the site: folks going to the tennis courts or kids playground would walk by and discover it. The GREEN ACRES installation inside and outside the AAC may draw the curious inside to see more.
How would you describe the garden as art? What sculptural components do you feel make this installation work as both a garden and an artwork?
I am not a gardener or a farmer, I’m a trained sculptor. I depend on the knowledge and advice of local gardeners, farmers, and environmental specialists. I believe functionality in art is strength, not a weakness. I do my research to make sure it’s based on “good science,” as well as good art.
Who is helping maintain and growing produce for the Straw Bale Farm? How did you decide who the gardeners would be, and how do they fit into your artistic goals for the installation?
Home in CA, I studied the community gardens programs website, and discovered that there is a long waiting list for garden spaces. I also found that the food bank has a wonderful outreach program where local gardeners share a row of their crop with the food bank so it can have fresh food, not just packaged ones. So I knew I wanted part of this crop to go to the food bank.
AAC staff contacted the community garden program folks, who put out a call for volunteers from the waiting list who wanted to garden here. Three came from that connection. The fourth gardener lives across the street. This is what I call the “Tom Sawyer’s Fence” effect—by working in public spaces, passersby stop to talk, find out what’s going on, and often want to take part. It’s what I enjoy about working in public, sharing the process, and giving it over to those most interested in it.
And that’s exactly what AAC hoped would happen as well; a straw-garden is sure to attract curious visitors! How are the materials in the Straw Bale Farm important to the installation as a work of art? Why did you choose to include flexible-blue PVC, and how have you used this material in the past?
The straw bales have a strong sculptural appeal, reminding me of Minimalist use of common materials to build repetitive patterns. The repetition builds up into one collective sculpture. Colors of the yellow bales, red mulch, silver trash cans, and blue PVC are deliberate “artful” choices integral to the total “picture”. The same goes for the diverse contrasts in texture and scale of the materials. I liken the PVC to “drawing lines in space.” Its flexibility lends itself to my improvisational way of working. I like the way it captures a larger space without being opaque or dense.
Your interest in intertwining and juxtaposing the natural elements of the garden with the man-made/commercial materials is very interesting. What is your artistic relationship with gardening and landscape design? Are you a gardener yourself?
Historically, socially, aesthetically … I’ve always been drawn to architecture and landscape design. A world traveler, I search out sites affected by time, culture and nature. Steeped in the environmental and food justice movement, I use a garden design technique called “Permaculture” – a biodiverse, dense, organic strategy to grow more food on less land sustainably. It employs raised beds so healthy food can be grown anywhere there’s sunlight and water—on concrete, porches, empty lots, and even, contaminated soil. I wish I could say I had a huge garden at home, but mine is pretty wild, more like an urban habitat than a garden. I am nurturing a mini apple orchard of trees grown from seeds from an earlier project series, The Urban Apple Orchards. I always think there’ll be time this year to put in my own garden, but I rarely pass up the chance to travel to another community to build another environmental social sculpture installation. Perhaps I could say, I’m an artist who “gardens gardens.”
I’d like talk about intent. There’s always a concrete sculptural outcome to my projects, but I’m motivated by the process and collective action. What I practice is called “social sculpture”—creating art with/for communities. Especially interested in ecology, I call it “environmental social sculpture.” Knowing these terms is not essential to understanding and enjoying the artwork. But it is important to understanding why, as a trained artist, I work this way. I like to say the real art is like performance art—it’s in myriad small conversations and live actions. I don’t claim ownership of the finished artwork; it belongs to its community. But again, that’s the underlying political philosophy, important to me. I like the work to speak for itself, and hope it does.
-Written by Carolyn Bauer, Curatorial Intern at the Arlington Arts Center
This exhibition is made possible by an Emily Hall Tremaine Exhibition Award. The Exhibition Award program was founded in 1998 to honor Emily Hall Tremaine. It rewards innovation and experimentation among curators by supporting thematic exhibitions that challenge audiences and expand the boundaries of contemporary art.