In New York City, Growing Greens As Art and Local Food

Artist Jenna Spevack has converted everyday objects into minifarms.

I was sitting on a desk in Jenna Spevack’s studio for about 20 minutes before I realized it was actually a piece of art. It was a month before her the opening of her show, "8 Extraordinary Greens," and the pieces were still stuffed into her studio, a corner of a vast shared space on the 7th floor of a former bank in Brooklyn. Trays of Spevack’s greens sat on the bookshelf, and she had shown me a small suitcase in which she’d installed one of the mini-farms. She had pulled out the table so we could sit down to talk, but I’d popped on top in order to sit a little closer to her. She hadn’t said anything at the time, but when we started getting into the details of the show, she pointed under the table.

“Part of the show are these converted objects,” she said. “So the desk you’re sitting on has this converted farm underneath. You can still use it as a functioning desk but it also can grow food for you.”

I looked underneath the desk, in the well where a chair would go. Tucked underneath was a tray of thickly matted baby greens.

8 Extraordinary Greens opened last week in New York, at the Chelsea gallery Mixed Greens. It features pieces of furniture—the desk, a couch, a chair, a victrola, a set of drawers—that double as mini-farms growing greens. These clever objects (Spevack calls them “cute”) have earned her a good deal of attention. “People just like these,” she says. But there's more to the show than novelty—it also digs into questions about urban agriculture and the value of growing food in small, urban spaces.

Spevack started working on this project after completing a permaculture certification and training to be a master composter. “My initial idea with that was to run away from New York and live in the woods, in some way more in line with natural life,” she said. “But I realized that New York City need permaculture more than any other place.” She started thinking about how to grow food in a New York City home, but in a low-maintenance way, one that would fit in with the busy lives New Yorkers tend to lead. The sub-irrigated system she used to grow the greens in the show is made of a chafing dish, the type found in high school cafeterias: Water goes into the bottom pan, soil and seeds go into the top pan, and hemp rope wicks water from the bottom pan into the soil, keeping it moist. If the grower forgets about the plants for a week, they'll do fine.

Once Spevack had developed the system, she started thinking about how to use it. “I wanted to figure out a way I could grow food for other people, but by donation,” she said. “So how could I make that happen?” She was experimenting with these ideas when she learned she’d have this show. Maybe, she thought, she could try out these concepts.

Now, when gallery-goers visit the show, they can sit down in front of the desk/micro-farm, at a chair with its own bed of greens installed in the rungs. On the other side of the desk, Spevack or one of the gallery’s employees will invite visitors to donate whatever they think the value of one ounce of greens might be to one of five food-related causes. In exchange, the gallery-goers receive a portion of the greens. They can take them away or they can choose to give them to a food pantry. All of these decisions are recorded on a receipt, signed by the gallery-goer and Spevack, and sealed with wax.

“You've met the grower, you know how the greens are grown—all the usual urban agriculture stuff,” said Spevack. “Does that change how you value that little bit of greens?”

On the back of the receipt is quote from the Barnyard Cockerel, a character from “The Cock and the Jewel,“ one of Aesop’s fables. “Give me a single grain of barley corn before all the jewels in the world,” the cockerel says. There’s references to the tale throughout the exhibit: pillows, kitchen curtains, and hanging prints feature cockerels, a copy of Aesop’s fables is stacked on top of one piece, and jewels are embedded in the furniture. In the story, the cockerel is looking for food to bring back to his hens and turns up a shiny jewel. He realizes it might be valuable to a man, but he prefers a single grain of food.

“It’s about food versus objects that don’t have an intrinsic value, and weighing that,“ said Spevack. “The original version was interpreted as: Oh, this rooster is a moron, who couldn’t even tell that this was a valuable thing.” But more recently, she said, it’s been interpreted as a story in which the jewel’s value was determined in the context of one culture. Food, on the other hand, should have a value to everyone.

Photo courtesy of Jenna Spevack

Julian Meehan

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