Sharecropper Art Project Unites City Folk
In June, artist Leah Gauthier drove from Indiana to New York City — 300 seedlings in tow — to initiate a public art project that called upon New Yorkers to do an unusual thing: donate spaces to grow the seedlings and be part of a living, breathing micro-farming installation that the artist conceived and called “Sharecropper.”
The response was stronger than she ever expected. More than 100 New Yorkers responded to her call for space donors and volunteers. Gauthier soon had a far-flung, five-borough micro farm consisting of small bits of land in gardens and backyards, as well as grittier growing spaces like fire escapes and concrete alleys. She amassed 17 sites in all.
The plan, explained the artist, was to involve as many different people as possible in growing food in as many different urban spaces as possible. She made an offer that was hard to refuse. In return for donated spaces, she would be a “sharecropper,” paying donors with a portion of the produce she grew on individual locations for the season.
“I was interested in this project so even a city gal with a brown thumb like myself could do some exciting farming,” wrote Rachel Dahill-Fuchel in an e-mail message. She donated a 20-square-foot section of her concrete alley on the Upper West Side, where 25 planters were planted with a variety of peppers.
Though donors didn’t need to lift a finger, most wanted to learn how to garden and grow food, said Gauthier. Dahill-Fuchel, for example, often watered and even “talked to the peppers.”
Dahill-Fuchel explained that she wanted her children, ages 9 and 14, to experience the joy of planting and harvesting. “As city folk, it is too easy to forget where our food comes from and what is naturally required for food to grow and thrive,” she wrote.
In addition to the donors, Gauthier developed a loyal group of some 10 volunteers who helped set up the sites and filled in whenever the artist, who worked a full-time job as a web designer, was not available.
When deciding what and how much to grow, Gauthier considered what would be manageable for the donors. She didn’t want to overwhelm them with tasks that might be required in her absence, like watering plants. She made sure that watering wouldn’t take more than 10 to 15 minutes.
“Giving someone a garden is like giving them a puppy,” said Gauthier. “I wanted to make sure that it’s not too much of a burden.”
Each site was dedicated to a different crop. Not all were equally productive. Pumpkins planted in the working garden at Lefferts Historic House in Prospect Park were coming in like a “shop of horrors,” said Gauthier. Dahill-Fuchel’s concrete alley brought in a bumper crop of peppers, while a space in Queens produced plentiful tomatoes, free thankfully of late blight. The roof atop EyeBeam, an artists’ residency in Chelsea, produced a fair share of melons.
It wasn’t easy covering 17 sites in five boroughs. Gauthier developed three routes that helped her make her gardening rounds. One took from her from Williamsburg to Staten Island to the Upper West Side to Chelsea, a route that required all forms of public transportation, including the Staten Island Ferry. Gauthier estimates it took her about five hours to make her rounds each day.
“It was challenging but also very rewarding,” said Gauthier. She explained that as arduous as it was to manage the micro farm, she got to know the landscape and the plants in an intimate way by visiting every day.
Sharecropper didn’t bear the most fruitful harvest, Gauthier admits. But that, she said, wasn’t the goal. The goal was to bring people together and “re-incorporate agrarian sensibilities and simplicity into modern life.” On that score, Sharecropper did great. “As an art piece,” she said, “it was very successful.”
To learn more about Sharecropper, click here. Crops that were harvested as part of Sharecropper will be featured this weekend at Lefferts Historic House and at Snug Harbor Cultural Center.