In the bleak days heading into winter, there’s still some colour in the Western community garden thanks to students in an interdisciplinary visual arts class.
Where plants have died down, signs have popped up, quoting text from a reading assigned in Amanda White’s Visualizing Foodways: Art + Food Relational Approaches course.
Inspired by suggestions presented in How to grow liveable worlds: Ten (not-so-easy) steps for life in the Planthroposcene by anthropology scholar Natasha Myers, the signs draw attention to the garden with the hope to also prompt Western community members to consider their relationships with food and the land.
The garden installation is just one project undertaken by the students in White’s course.
White, a postdoctoral fellow in the visual arts department with an interest in the intersection of visual art, culture and plants, designed the course with fellow postdoc Zoë Heyn-Jones, who explores the urgent worldwide problem of food insecurity—and how the arts can help to solve it. Heyn-Jones is teaching a complementary course online next term entitled, Visualizing Foodways: Art + Food from Hemispheric Perspectives.
“Zoë and I decided, since we study similar topics, to join forces in our interests around food for this full-year, two-part course,” said White, who received a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Grant with Heyn-Jones to develop a creative food research collaboratory.
Through White’s course, students considered critical artistic approaches to food and agriculture from both a relational and personal perspective. Drawing on theory from the environmental humanities, critical plant studies, feminist perspectives, science-fictional ecologies and biological arts, students examined their personal and physical relationships with the world through the food we eat. Heyn-Jones’ syllabus explores art and food through works focused on environmental and food justice.
The pair kicked off the semester with Rooted in the Region: Agriculture and the Arts in Southwestern Ontario, an event they curated at Blyth Festival Theatre’s Harvest Stage. The celebration of art and agriculture included food sourced from local seasonal ingredients and a corn roast by London-based artist and gardener Ron Benner.
White continued to weave community-based aspects into her curriculum throughout the term. Local artists led workshops and the class took a field trip to Urban Roots, a local non-profit organization that revitalizes underused land for agriculture.
Her class attracted both undergraduate and graduate students, including Ashar Mobeen, who is pursuing a PhD in art and visual culture.
“This is the most fun I’ve had in a course since high school drama,” Mobeen said. “A small group of students who were passionate about the material put their heads and ideas together to build something that can make a difference. It’s really lovely to see how our unique skills came together.”
Through weekly presentations, the students related what they learned in class readings and course content to their personal interests.
Mobeen’s passion for astronomy and astrophysics saw him focus on the link between food and the cosmos.
“When you think about the food we eat, the molecules that comprise food ─ carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen ─ these four elements make up 96 per cent of our molecular mass. Every element was created in the heart of a dying star, so the food we’re eating and the molecules that comprise the food are between 4.6 billion to 13 billion years old. It’s the vast cycle. The universe keeps on going and provides sustenance. I think it’s important for us, given where we are as a civilization, to re-evaluate our relationship with the land, but also where we stand as a whole with the greater cosmos.”
Mobeen also took the lead in developing a participatory website, which includes stories collected from students, staff and faculty across campus telling of their personal connections to food plants. One participant told of honouring her grandmother each time she cooks and bakes with rhubarb while another spoke of the flat white Boer pumpkin, which originated in South Africa before being cultivated by the ancestors of Dutch settlers. “There are many children’s stories that refer to this pumpkin back home,” she wrote. “It always reminds me of good food.”
White credits her students’ initiative in creating the website and engaging the broader Western community through their call for submissions.
“The course was designed with the intent to be experiential with the workshops and the visit to the farm, but to see the students steer the projects and teach and learn from each other, merging their strengths, was wonderful,” she said.
She’s also hopeful the garden installation, which will be in place until June 2023, will inspire future collaborations with more departments across campus.
It’s a sentiment shared by Jessica Cordes, engagement coordinator (sustainability), facilities management, who is pleased the students chose to share their learnings in the context of the community garden.
“Having the students engage with the Western community through signage in the garden is incredibly beneficial for our campus as it raises awareness of food system issues and encourages reflection on our relationships to land and food through visual arts,” she said.
“The community garden is not just about growing food. It’s about food security, food sovereignty, sustainability, and community-building. The food system is complex and layered, and the students did an excellent job drawing attention to some of the most critical social and environmental issues we’re facing. The fact that the class engaged over 40 additional members of campus community also speaks to the deep engagement we aim for at Western where interdisciplinary perspectives come together for collaborative solutions.”