Artists require a steady supply of art supplies to be creative. Many are also increasingly concerned about the environmental impact and safety hazards of the materials they use.
That’s true at the Means of Production Community Garden in East Vancouver.
Located on a narrow strip of land near Clark Drive, the garden is managed by artists who believe that every material used in their work should be produced without generating toxic residues or hazardous waste.
Originally developed by artist Oliver Kelhammer and the Community Arts Council of Vancouver, the garden is a partnership between the Environmental Youth Alliance and a local art collective, with support from the City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Parks Board.
Growing a community
Vancouver artist Sharon Kallis is an active member of the garden and manages the day-to-day operations. She toured the garden last week and pointed out plants of interest.
“For us, this place is almost like an artist-run centre,” said Kallis.
“You see the plants growing, and then you see what’s being made with the materials, and there’s a direct connection between what’s coming out of the ground to the finished product.”
Even in early spring, the garden was bursting with new growth. Apple trees decorated with white blossoms stood near piles of cut willow branches used for making garden borders and woven baskets. Clover and lavender plants were lush with leaves in the “bee garden” next to a wooden beehive. New buds covered the branches of hazel trees, trimmed last season to encourage new growth.
“It’s a wonderful example of transforming land that is marginal and making it common ground,” said Lori Weidenhammer, a local artist. “The garden is like a prototype, encouraging people to be interested in using natural materials.”
Jody Macdonald lives near the garden and volunteers at many events, including last year’s popular series of outdoor “tea parties” which attracted many local residents. As a practicing artist, Macdonald appreciates the garden’s mandate.
“I love the whole concept,” said Macdonald. “It’s great that you can volunteer in the garden and then have access to the materials.”
Sustainable urban agriculture
In the garden, plants are grown without chemical fertilizers or toxic pesticides. Jodi Peters, a sustainable agriculture specialist working with Environmental Youth Alliance’s Backyard Bounty Project, supports the garden’s decision to avoid conventional farming practices.
“Because we’re so dependent on industrialized agriculture, urban agriculture is often considered just a hobby and not taken seriously,” said Peters. “But gardening, even on a small scale, helps people become aware of their local environment.”
Dr. Arthur Bomke agrees that urban agriculture can have significant ecological and social benefits. An associate professor of agroecology from the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Land and Food Systems, Bomke applauds the City of Vancouver’s recent initiative to create more community gardens.
“I think a lot of people are saying that they want to know about how things grow,” said Bomke. “Just because we live in the city, we shouldn’t be cut off from that.”
Hazards for artists
Despite increased interest in sustainable art practices, products like paint, solvents and glue are still used by many artists and often contain hazardous toxic compounds.
Landon Mackenzie, an assistant dean at Emily Carr University, understands these hazards very well. She suffered from serious side effects after years of working with toxic chemicals in art studios, print shops and photography darkrooms.
“In the mid-80s, there were open vats of turpentine in every classroom,” said Mackenzie. “Back then, even if you’ve adjusted your own art practice to make it safer, you were surrounded by 200 art students who were working with cheaper materials.”
After many years as a successful painter, Mackenzie experienced a serious health breakdown. Lab tests confirmed that she had been exposed to extremely high levels of mercury, cadmium and cobalt, linked to the paints and other chemicals used in her art practice.
Other artists have discussed the hazards related to their work. Painter Robert Bateman volunteered to participate in a 2005 study that analyzed the level of contaminants in a group of Canadian adults. The study found that Bateman had 48 chemicals present in his body, including 32 known carcinogens. He also had a concentration of heavy metals that was almost double the average sample.
Many art institutions take steps to minimize health hazards. Roxanne Toronto from Emily Carr University noted that the school has developed a number of protocols to reduce the use of harsh chemicals and volatile substances in studios and classrooms. The school also offers safety workshops and provides information packages for students and staff.
Locally owned art supplier Opus Framing also tries to encourages awareness about safety issues in their stores. Company representative Ruth Griffiths noted that Opus offers many products that are voluntarily tested for acceptable levels of hazardous materials. The company also offers in-store product demonstrations and tags certain items to ensure that sales staff inform customers about any health risks at the checkout.
Designed to inspire
In contrast, materials harvested at the Means of Production garden require no safety protocols to use. Local musician David Gowman appreciates this simple approach.
“It’s amazing to work with natural materials that have a lifespan,” said Gowman, who plans to hold a community workshop at the garden this year to make flutes out of cut bamboo.
Despite support from local residents and artists, there’s a limit to what can be produced in such a small garden.
“I think that it’s obvious that this garden can’t yield enough material for every artist in the city, and not every artist would want to use these materials,” said Pamela McKeown, a nearby resident. “I think the garden is more useful as an empowering illustration for artists who are inspired by this model.”
“This garden isn’t supposed to be Home Depot – you can’t just take what you need and leave,” said Sharon Kallis. “One of the original intentions for the garden was that it would give artists an opportunity to recognize the footprint that’s required for their own art practice.”