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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

Dmae Roberts reports on an abandoned lot in Portland, Oregon that gets revitalized by the work of a dance choreographer.


CURWOOD: When you think of public art, statues and sculptures and murals come to mind. But there's a new movement in the art world to see the landscape as the artist's canvas. Dmae Roberts talked with a dancer in Portland, Oregon, about how she's choreographing a patch of earth into a new work of art.

JOHNSON: Pick up the shoulder girdle and gauge the scapulae. A brush and a brush, feel your standing legs straight. And a duck...

ROBERTS: At the Oregon Ballet Theater, Linda Kate Johnson is teaching her Wednesday morning class.

JOHNSON: Good. And come forward and through to your first position, and lengthen the legs...

ROBERTS: A dancer for most of her life, Linda spent the last nine years creating outdoor dance and performance pieces. But since last April, she's taken a sharp turn from the dance studio to a triangle of forgotten land surrounded by three major freeways in downtown Portland.

(Sirens and traffic)

JOHNSON: I grew up here on the other side of this hill, and as a child I drove by this at least five or six times a week. And it's been empty for 75 years, since 1930. There's never been anything on it except for weeds, and it's really considered a derelict space.

ROBERTS: This derelict space is known to the city as tax lot 1S1E4 Odd. Since last spring, Linda has been transforming this tax lot into a work of art.

JOHNSON: First thing I did was build a fence, which to me is like the frame of a picture. Because it's such a traffic island, there are over 50 signs within eyesight that tell you how to conduct yourself in an urban environment. So I wanted to use a twist on that, because I think gardens ask us to participate in another way. So I took old street signs and repainted them, and tried to direct the audience that came here in another way. So they say, "Breathe," "See," "Smell," "Touch," "Taste," "Be."

ROBERTS: Along with the signs and the pathways, Linda and her volunteers built a casita or gazebo. The garden beds are lined with about 250 straw bales, two scarecrows: one a windmill with rubber glove hands that turn in the breeze, and the sculpture of a woman named Boo adorned in a blue chiffon dress. Everything in the tax lot garden is made from recycled materials. Linda says she trucked in about 2,000 to 3,000 wheelbarrows full of organic soil. But none of this would have been possible without a $7,500 grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council. The tax lot project is one of three temporary projects that were funded, and is part of a growing movement to make public art more interactive and part of what is naturally happening in the environment. Linda says she set off to not only change the urban landscape but the way people think about art. For her, every day in the garden is an improvisation.

JOHNSON: Well, for me this is a conceptual performance piece, because it's time-based. It has a beginning, middle, and end. The gardener and the plant materials and the volunteers are the performers, and the 5,000 or 6,000 automobiles and pedestrians and office people are the audience.

ROBERTS: One of the audience members who passed by the tax lot project is Peter Mason, who works downtown at the Department of Transportation. He happened upon the tax lot project during a lunch break, and then decided to become a volunteer. He says this plot of earth has added a special meaning to his life, so much so that he's contributed more than just his time to the project.

MASON: It's this little apple tree here. It's covered up a little bit by squash, which I think it probably likes. It keeps the roots nice and cool. And this is about a seven-year-old tree that's been grown in a pot.


MASON: These are shells from Coos Bay, and some fossil shells from the bottom of Coos Bay. I used to live down on the coast, and that's where this tree was originally potted. So I brought it some little friends from its original setting.

ROBERTS: So, you've really personalized it.

MASON: Oh, yeah. I think that's part of the magic of it, is that the people who get in here really do personalize it, and feel that we are expressing ourselves through this garden.

ROBERTS: The garden also helped Peter to express himself in another way when he brought coworker Holla Wenzel to the tax lot project.

WENZEL: I had a lunch date with Peter, and have enjoyed several dates in here since then. (Roberts laughs) We've had lunches in the gazebo and we've had dinner in the Adirondack chairs and talked and enjoyed the garden. And it's been real nice.

MASON: As a date spot it doesn't really compare to the 24-hour Home Depot. (Laughter)

ROBERTS: Linda says around 60 volunteers worked on the project. She estimates there was around $25,000 in donations of plants and materials. Several dancers, including Dawn Hoya Jackson, spent the summer working in the tax lot garden. Dawn says she felt like she was performing before pedestrians and cars.

JACKSON: It's very physical, and whenever we were filling all of the beds, tons and tons and tons of dirt, you definitely have to get a rhythm and a swing about it or you would end up injured and not be able to work any more. And I know that we were really conscious of it. I remember talking to Linda about that, really getting your whole body into it. And creating it, seeing it grow, is very similar to a dance piece.

ROBERTS: As well as resuscitating the urban triangle, Linda also set off to create a garden that would feed people. She says she's donated 700 pounds of organic produce to the local soup kitchens and nonprofit cafes that hire homeless workers. Linda says the tax lot garden has had a more direct impact on homeless people, who have taken to protecting the garden at night. The most satisfying part of this conceptual art piece has been the way it brought different peoples together, including her own mother.

JOHNSON: I grew up here, so one day the women who were, you know, my mother's age -- I think of them as a cluck -- brought lunch down to me here. There were, you know, four women that were 75, and were loving the garden and oohing and aahing over how beautiful it was. And then one of my homeless friends came and just served himself a bowl. He just sat down and started talking about golf, and southern Oregon. And clearly he'd been someone who'd been around the world and was very educated and very smart. And I think it was a whole re-education for them.

ROBERTS: The tax lot garden will continue until next April, when Linda says she and her volunteers will strike a set. To her, removing everything in the garden will be a final statement of her art project.

JOHNSON: So these people will go home at five o'clock, seeing the same thing they've seen for a year, very used to it. And then we will move in, and it will disappear, so the next day when they go by it will just be tilled earth. Everything will be gone. I think a lot of times we don't appreciate things until we realize they're out of our environment. It's a real demonstration. Something was here and now it's gone.

ROBERTS: Linda says luckily, the community garden program is interested in taking over the plot of land and putting in a regular garden. For now, the people passing by, like these little critics, will enjoy Linda Kay Johnson's tax lot 1S1E4 Odd in their own way.

CHILD 1: It looks like pumpkins. Pumpkin patch.

CHILD 2: Very, looks, very look it's nice. Flowers are beautiful.

ROBERTS: I couldn't have put it better myself. For Living on Earth, I'm Dmae Roberts in Portland, Oregon.




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