Growing Pride- the journey of a living artwork

Growing Pride - synthetic felt, organic insulation, chicken wire, steel hardware, various grasses and plants, P.E.I Clay - in finished (top) in progress (below) - Becka Viau 2011

Written by Becka Viau

** before I begin I want to thank Phil, Nancy and Shaman from Atlantic Living Walls, Ann Carrier, Gail Hodder and Mauricio Aristizabal, Dave Mayne, and Scott Brown for making this project super smooth .. or almost

Two and a half  months ago I was asked to create a mural in celebration of Charlottetown’s Cultural Capital of Canada Designation. The mural was to be created live from 9 am – 5 pm  during the Canada Day celebrations in Ottawa. This is the journey of creating that mural…

So I had received the invitation…what an incredible honor! I was excited to have been selected to represent my home city at a national event, yet I wasn’t sure exactly how I would capture a whole city jam packed with culture on one 8 ft by 12 ft piece of plywood. I was also a little nervous about the other artists that would be creating beside me. Both were graffiti artists from Levis Quebec and Vancouver B.C., and in Charlottetown we all know how many opportunities there are to legally develop your urban graffiti art portfolio… so I started to brainstorm …

I began by asking myself what is it that defines Charlottetown as a place within the province of Prince Edward Island? Is it the churches? Is it province house or city hall? or the brick houses or the confederation centre? I really didn’t think it was any of those things so I started poking around in the provincial and municipal symbology for some clues. I found out some pretty interesting things but something I will never forget is that at some point Charlottetown soil was named the provincial soil of P.E.I.! I thought that was strange but in the crazy world of brainstorming that tid bit of information sparked my interest in the City of Charlottetown’s Sustainability Plan, and it was here that mural project was born!

Spring was starting to show up and everyone in Charlottetown was getting antsy to clean up their yards. The weather was still cool but you can’t stop the people of Charlottetown from cutting the grass and fancying up the yard. There is a great sense of pride in the manicured green space here, and I do  find myself smiling when someone from away comments on how beautifully maintained our properties are…

So how do you make a living artwork that will survive a trip to Ottawa, and be able to hang on the wall? …. I didn’t know, but I did know that Phill Ferraro and Nancy Willis have been involved in similar projects so I set up a meeting. Little did I know they were minutes away from launching their new business Atlantic Living Walls, serendipity perhaps.

creation of the living mural - featuring Shaman Ferraro - photographs by Becka Viau

I was quickly introduced to Shaman Ferraro, the recent business grad and green design enthusiast, met the dog Sandi and toured the amazing back yard. We discussed the possibilities of growing a living wall from seed and transporting the structure to Ottawa while exploring various plant types that were already growing in their yard. This was not going to be an easy task BUT! I did fall in love with a small patch of baby chia grass. It was for sure that I would be using that grass sprout as the main part of my design.

The difficulty of the project for me was figuring out how to transport this living wall, keeping the whole structure under 100 pounds and of course working on budget. Things started off with flying colours, like most projects do, the wall was to be built in eight 4ft. x 4ft panels that would then be fastened together on site. (see photo above) It looked like canvases of felt, a synthetic felt that is used in all of Atlantic Living Walls’ products.Then once the seeds were planted and things started to sprout the panels started to look like mini landscapes, beautiful mini landscapes.

The seeds started to sprout right on time, magic really… and when the sprouts were big enough to touch the surface was so soft, it made me want to walk on it in my bare feet or just keep touching it. (see below) The plants at this stage are pretty fragile like most young things and with a risk of frost peeking around the corner I could only keep my fingers crossed.

chia seed sprouting! - photograph by Becka Viau

The frost stayed away but the cold damp cold did not. That provide the perfect atmosphere for fungus to invade my little manicured landscape. A bunch ended up dying. That was a sad day, and a day of panic since I was leaving in one week! But like most negative things something positive was hiding behind it. The great team at Atlantic living walls came to the rescue with their incredible problem solving skills. We beefed up the frames with some more insulation (organic materials of course) that would support the growth of longer roots behind the felt and planted some already grown ornamental grasses in the Chia badlands. After  few deep breathes and a couple of pictures from above I started to see that by adding the insulation to the back of the mural created we had “hills” in the landscape and the new plants added a great 3-demensional feel to the whole wall. Phew, a happy outcome from a difficult situation.

I drove the mural in its parts to Ottawa in a pick up truck borrowed from a friend. Thank goodness the trip was made on an overcast day because the back of the truck would end up cooking the surviving little Chia sprouts if I had to travel in hot hot sun. I drove straight to Ottawa on July 29 to ensure I could get the mural out of the potential oven quickly and be ready to set up for Canada Day on the 30th at 9:am.

It was the day before when I tested the red clay harvested from Tea Hill on the felt. (see photo below) It looked wonderful, and it smelt like home. Instantly the people around the event grounds were intrigued. I quickly had an audience asking me questions about Charlottetown and P.E.I. about the technical side living walls and roofs and of course everyone wants to know how hard it is to get red clay stains out of white clothes.

the mural in the back of the truck and the clay test - photographs by Becka Viau

The mural was set and ready to be finished during the celebrations. An early night and some awesome friend support got me to the site on time the next morning and I dug right in. Up to my elbows in red clay as the first visitors arrived.

The experience of being so filthy in public and talking to people from all over the country about sustainable design, green roofs, Charlottetown and Island Culture was incredible. I felt so incredibly proud to be from Charlottetown, and from P.E.I. We have a special little home here. We have a kind of life that most people only ever dream of.

To finish the mural off I took some gold spray paint and stenciled the royal lion from our provincial flag onto the oval, or manicured lawn of the mural. Someone asked me why and this is what I told them … Before I left for Ottawa I received notice on my front door that my neighbor was going to be spraying their lawn with chemicals to rid it of broad leaf weeds… I was disgusted. the notice warned about keeping pets and children off the grass, and what are broad leaf weeds anyway? Dandilions …

At the very end of the day I sprayed that lion in gold spray paint onto my living mural to acknowledge that behind most manicured weedless lawns and landscapes are pesticides. Sure the company that sprayed my neighbors yard had to notify me, but they still sprayed chemicals. I was still exposed and so where the children who play next door. Sure magazines tell us our lawns should be weed free and perfectly green or the market will tell us that we must produce vast amounts of potatoes which requires pesticide use to ensure yields … but I am from P.E.I and I want my kids to be healthy. I want to believe in an organic P.E.I. no matter what the people in power say. … and so I sprayed that royal lion onto my mural, even though I never thought it would be that pretty.

All in all I am still very honored to have been chosen to represent the City of Charlottetown in Ottawa. I hope I created a piece of art that Charlottetown is proud to call their own. I learned a lot about not being afraid to ask when you need help, working collaboratively with a small business and I learned an incredible amount about what it means to live in Charlottetown. So I thank the City of Charlottetown and the National Capital Commissionfor the opportunity!

royal lion - detail of growing pride 2011 - photograph by Becka Viau

It is up to us to keep our home clean and green. From our pride in our landscape should stem our desire to keep it sustainable, to keep it healthy so it lives on for future generations.

for some organic ways of ridding your lawn of weeds click here … or google it!

1 thought on “Growing Pride- the journey of a living artwork

  1. Growing Pride – fantastic peice, love your article – loved the use of the gold spry painted lion as pesticide metaphore, red clay and crooked view point – brilliant – thanks Becka

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