amy franceschini: politics, art, farming and the rebirth of the victory garden

Last Sunday, before leaving San Francisco, I made a quick visit to the Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). There was an exhibition on the influence Picasso’s first New York shows had on American artists of the time, which was quite good, but the thing that had me reaching for my notebook and scribbling furiously was a tiny piece on the gardening-related work of San Francisco designer Amy Franceschini. Franceschini, who teaches at Stanford and heads a design entity known as Future Farmers, was a recipient of a 2006 Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art (SECA) award, for a project she’d developed to reintroduce the concept of “victory gardens” to the bay area. Here’s a clip from World Changing dotcom (where I also got the attached image):

…Design can be used as an activist tool, and Franceschini uses it adeptly. In the project, she uses good design to organize, and mobilize community activity. The exhibition of her pilot Victory Garden program features, among other works, historical documents, Franceschini’s own Victory Garden kits, posters advertising planting parties, a video of the pilot project in action, and related sculptural elements. The pilot gardens were realized in under-utilized front- and back yards in San Francisco using Franceschini’s vision. She supplied each garden with a carefully designed kit containing seed-packets and other tools helpful in the realization of these gardens…

If you’ve been reading this site for long, you know that I love when projects jump boundaries, and when people find new ways to attack old problems. This exhibition of Franceschini’s work, small as it was, was hugely inspiring. A lot of us think that the localization of food production is one of the critical elements necessary if this country of ours is going to make it in the future, but how many of us actually do anything about it? And, of those that do, how many approach it from an artistic perspective? I was going to wait and post on this after I’d had a chance to touch base with my friend Amanda, who runs the pro-gradening non-profit Growing Hope, but I couldn’t wait… Anyway, here’s more. This clip comes from the “San Francisco Chronicle“:

…Franceschini, 36, lives in an artists’ cooperative in San Francisco and resents agribusiness practices that produce artificially engineered food. She sees the shift in public opinion on the war in Iraq as a signal that now is a time for healing — and a time to mix art, politics and gardens. She advocates “self-sufficiency and living a life that is not harmful to the environment.”

Franceschini found her latest and perhaps most important work through personal circumstance and chance.

“My father was a farmer and had a pesticide company. When my parents got divorced, my mother started an organic farm,” she said. “I saw both sides of the coin.”

Meanwhile, a chance encounter with a neighbor during a visit to Ghent, Belgium, where her husband has a home, led to an epiphany. Franceschini was pulling out a brick in their front yard in order to plant a seedling when the neighbor walked over and informed the couple excitedly that the city would pay for fresh soil and plant material as part of a city-funded program.

The subsidies were available twice a year for planting flowers or food crops, and a family could get as much as 5,000 euros ($6,500) for such “greening.” Greening could be as esoteric as keeping bats (to prevent mosquitoes) or having three chickens in the back garden (for recycling kitchen scraps and creating a mini-farm for eggs and fertilizer).

Inspired, Franceschini proposed her garden-renewal idea to SFMOMA as part of her SECA submission and won a grant of $2,500. She designed a special kit for planting gardens that included a pogo-stick spade and a wheelbarrow that could be attached to a bicycle to transport soil and seeds. The “possible/impossible” prototypes, including drip systems, posters, flags, seed packet labels and other graphics she designed, are on display at SFMOMA.

“During my research I found a photograph of the Victory garden from 1943 in front of City Hall in San Francisco,” she said, adding that 8 billion tons of food were produced in Victory gardens around the country.

San Francisco was among the cities where gardens were most widely planted. Franceschini found more facts and figures documented in the book “City Bountiful” by Laura Lawson. “It wasn’t just individual gardens, but also city parks had gardens. It was a citywide movement, and every city that adopted the city garden did a publication”…

I’m not sure what’ll happen with the initiative now that the $2,500 has been spent, but my hope is that it lives on in some capacity. The materials that Franceschini had put together were really compelling, and I don’t see why other groups around the country who were interested in similar things couldn’t make use of them… Anyway, check out the links and let me know what you think.

(update: I’d like to thank Ed Penet for just reminding me that this is a great post in which to mention people that this spring there is going to be a community garden in Ypsi’s Frog Island park.)

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9 Comments

  1. mark
    Posted March 18, 2007 at 12:36 am | Permalink

    I’m not a big fan of Bill Mahr, and I don’t really have time right now to explain why I think it’s relevant to this thread, but you might want to check out this clip on

  2. Cousins Vinyl
    Posted March 18, 2007 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    Ypsi soil seems to be great for gardening. This area has historically been a farmers community. My uncle used to own the gardening/farming supply and feed co-op behind where the Frog Island Brewery is. You can still see the grain elevator there. One of the best parts of summer is planting vegetables in the backyard. A little corner of your backyard can produce an amazing amount of food! The Krogers vegetables are overpriced and not nearly as good. It’s certainly not as fresh as picking them and then five minutes later eating them.

    That’s a cool find Mark!

  3. egpenet
    Posted March 18, 2007 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    GARDENING COMING TO FROG ISLAND!

    Mark. while you were away Council approved a plan by the new Riverside Neighborhood Association, in conjunction with the Historic East Side Neighborhood Association, for a city-wide community garden at the Forest end of Frog Island. It was the original inspiration of Amanda Betzler with design help from local landscaper Chris Mueller.

    Laout and construction will begin this Spring and Summer. Plots are NOW available for a modest seasonal rental. And donations are accepted to help get construction materials. The RNA has held sevral flowr and plant sales to raise funds and plans more fundraising events.

    The design will incorporate garden plots, a gathering space, several spots to sit and muse. The City has been very cooperative and will contribute mulch and other available plant materials, as needed, for the “bones” of the garden.

    And, yes, the project is networked with Growing Hope to some extent, but I’m not sure how. Yea, Riverside Neighborhood and hoorah to Amanda and Chris!

    Watch for flyers, posters and ads soon throughout the City and get your plot going!

  4. mark
    Posted March 18, 2007 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    I can’t believe I forgot to mention that, Ed. It ties in perfectly. I’ll update the post ASAP. Thanks.

  5. mark
    Posted March 18, 2007 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    I wish that I’d been able to find images of her printed materials, like the packaging for her seeds. That was what I really liked… Some of the other stuff, like the sculptural elements of her piece, weren’t really my thing, but the materials she constructed to roll out the c ampaign were brilliant.

  6. egpenet
    Posted March 18, 2007 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    At the next meeting, I will suggest that a fundraising idea for Amanda & RNA might be to put little packages of seeds and other simple things like garden staks, twine, a trowel and who knows what else together for sale to plot renters, the public, garden sponsors for give-aways … etc.

    I’m very proud of the RNA and the energy of our neighbors in this area of town. Our other projects are going well, also. Again, kudos to Amanda, Trey and Chris … and the entire RNA gardening committee! Huzzah!

  7. egpenet
    Posted March 18, 2007 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    Oh, Mark … you may want to contact Amanda for contact data, so folks can plug-in to the project. Rather than me give her email … she may want to set up something specific.

  8. Lisele
    Posted March 19, 2007 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    Interestingly, we in Recreation Park Community Garden have just welcomed an Art Chair to our garden council. I agree that the boundary crossing aspects add so much interest. I feel like there’s so much we could do with signage (a point of debate among the gardens) to create interest and enhance participation — on a multitude of levels. So that’s part of what we hope to achieve with our efforts towards art… but we are open to all kinds of ideas. Thanks for this link!

  9. Garrett Treleven
    Posted January 7, 2011 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this post.

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