Nick Hand began to fully appreciate the songs and environmental work of Pete Seeger from the seat of a touring bicycle. It was in the spring, 2012, and Hand, a graphic designer from Bristol, England, had launched a 500-mile bicycle tour through New York’s Hudson Valley.
What incites an Englishman to pedal from Manhattan to Hudson Falls? For Hand, it was the love of pedaling, curiosity, and inquisitiveness.
A typographer and graphic designer, Hand is the founder of The Department of Small Works, a small business that collects stories of traditional and contemporary craftsmen and women. He’s made it his job to look between the folds, the moss and waterfalls, rooting out conversation to learn a bit about how people live.
Zachary Myers leads the way into his horse-barn-turned-workshop in Centerburg, Ohio, a little less than an hour’s drive northeast of Columbus. Inside, along with two vintage Allis-Chalmers Model G tractors, there are rows and shelves of antique black Singer and Union Special sewing machines, their colored spools unleashing trails of red, green, and navy thread. On the wall, hung neatly in rows among farm tools, are white paper patterns of pant legs. Bolts of sturdy striped and solid indigo fabric unfurl across worktables.
Myers, his arms painted with tattoos, sits at a sewing machine with a pair of overalls, puts a work boot to the pedal, and stitches on a label bearing a drawing of a sewing machine converted into a tractor, melding together his two passions. Emblazoned with his nickname, Zace, pronounced "Zackie," it reads:
Zace The Great Overall Company The Finest Most Durable American Indigo Goods
Myers, 36, is an organic farmer by day and an indie blue jean maker by night. He is a bold example of diversification, sustainability, and DIY innovation: Understanding the need for duds that can withstand hard agricultural labor, he created a line of durable work clothes for farmers. Working into the night, often by kerosene lamps, Myers, fueled by thick coffee and Ryan Adams, says his heroes are denim slingers such as Levi Strauss. He shows a sneak photo of himself bolting from the entrance of Ralph Lauren's Rocky Mountain ranch.
“My generation is so fed up with the way our predecessors handled things in this country that we’re learning to craft things with our own hands,” he says. “And there’s nothing more American than denim."
Sculptor Frances Whitehead calls herself a provocateur. She’s no Banksy. Instead, this professor of sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago pushes people to think differently about how art fits into, and shapes, our lives, from the mundane to the political -- and how it might help us imagine a more sustainable future.
In 2006, Whitehead penned a creative manifesto called “What Do Artists Know?” The document is a point-by-point articulation of what a creative mind can bring to the broader cultural conversation. She later swayed city officials to place artists into government via her program, The Embedded Artist.
It was only a matter of time before Whitehead, a longtime gardener who frequently incorporated natural objects into her sculpture, began to focus on the combination of art and science. In 2004, Whitehead and her husband purchased a 3,000-square-foot warehouse and converted it into their Green House, a haven of sustainability and reuse. Replete with wind turbines and geothermal heating and cooling, the structure served as an educational classroom for design students and inspired new ways of approaching the post-industrial city.
Sustainability, Whitehead says, “is a cultural problem and artists can help find the solution.”
The evolution of the Chicago River from “the Stinky,” as it was once called, to the city’s second watery playground, has the makings of a rags-to-riches story. The river, like those in most American metropolises, long served as an industrial transport system. At the turn of the last century, it was re-engineered to flow backwards to prevent bacteria and pollutants from flowing into Lake Michigan. Margaret Frisbie, executive director of the environmental nonprofit Friends of the Chicago River, says it became “a back alleyway filled with sewage and trash.”
In the heat of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, even the flames, perhaps wary of its murky waters, jumped the river twice.
But this weekend, a striking new boathouse opens on the river’s banks. Designed by noted Chicago architect Jeanne Gang, the Clark Park Boathouse will help put more kayakers and canoers on the river that was paddled by early European explorers such as Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette.
When Laura Krouse heard the roar of a crop duster as it flew low, ducking under utility wires to lay down a blanket of herbicides, she sprang into action. Working deftly, she set up a small air vacuum resembling a clothes hanging rod close to her field of vegetables, corn, and hay, not far from where the plane was spraying the neighbor’s 10,000-acre farm. There, it would inhale samples of the air to later be tested to see if the chemicals were drifting onto her land.
Upon seeing Krouse, the pilot circled low enough that she could see his face. His expression read, Just what is that you’re doing, Laura? “He was checking on me,” Krouse says, “and if anyone dare ask, I’d tell them straight out that I’m taking air samples.”
Krouse, who for 25 years has run the 72-acre Abbe Hills Farm in Mt. Vernon, Iowa, is a drift catcher, a toughened breed of farmers who are taking matters concerning the threats of agricultural chemicals into their own hands. She is among 20 Iowa farmers who last winter trained with the California-based Pesticide Action Network (PAN) to use the air monitoring technology PAN specifically designed for laymen. Back home, the farmers took air samples during spraying times throughout this past season.
“I grow vegetables that are susceptible to certain weedkillers, many of which my neighbors use,” says Krouse, who uses organic practices, though her farm is not certified organic. “All it takes is for some of the tomatoes and veggies to get a whiff of a herbicide and they show damage.”
The lines, drawn in ink, tell stories, carry messages, and speak volumes about the passion their wearers feel for the land and the things they coax from it. There’s the tomato plant to remind its bearer of his favorite food and a grandfather who grew them healthy and hearty. There are bees as reminders of what could be lost, and the importance of working together. There are the colorful fields of corn, a barn, cows, and goats, cascading down the arm of a farm-to-table chef. Across a belly the words: Farm Life.
Here are some of our favorite farm tats, examples of the ink work artists are doing for growers, beekeepers, vintners, and chefs -- people of all ages. Together, they bring truth to the thought that beauty is skin deep.
Standing in the spotlight at the quaint Thrasher Opera House in rural Green Lake, Wis., clad in a sleeveless plaid cotton shirt and jeans, cradling an acoustic guitar, Susan Werner could pass for a folk or country singer cut from old cloth. That she was a farm girl herself, and her audience is made up mostly of farmers, only adds to that impression: The uninitiated might expect songs about lost love, lost teeth, tight jeans, or a swig of whiskey whetting away the Dust Bowl days.
But then Werner leans in toward the mic and in a clear, strong voice, elicits hoots and applause from the audience with the tongue-in-cheek "Herbicides."
Skies of blue and fields of green, waterfalls of Atrazine Hundred acres to explore, acres of Alachlor Hey, hey, ho, ho, mom and dad how could they know Ho, ho, hey, hey, herbicides done made me gay
Dubbed the “Empress of the Unexpected” by NPR, Werner, 48, takes on farming chemicals, climate change, drought, and the changing farm landscape in the vein of ‘60s folksters who rallied against Vietnam and government wrongs -- musicians like Dylan, Mitchell, and Baez. And while she has been on the music scene since the early 1990s, her music has caught on recently with both a new generation of farmers and older ones, who fill the small theaters and opera houses to hear her perform.
From appetizers to entrees, the menu at Chicago’s Uncommon Ground restaurant touts fresh ingredients from above. Not from heaven, mind you, but maybe the next best thing: The Swiss chard and herbs adorning the beer-braised mussels were grown on the roof.
Today’s harvest, which comes care of “Farmer Jen” Rosenthal, includes a bounty of fresh basil, tomatoes, peppers, and salad greens. “The staff can pick at the peak of ripeness and the food literally comes down a flight of stairs and straight into the kitchen,” Farmer Jen tells visitors during tours.
Five years ago, there were no rooftop farms in North America, says Steven Peck, president of the Toronto-based nonprofit Green Roofs for Healthy Cities. (Gardens, sure, but nothing producing food on a commercial scale.) Today, he estimates there are 20. Five years from now, there will be more than 100, he says, and numbers will continue to soar.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg," Peck says. "Rooftop farming is under consideration in every major city in America.”
A tent. It manifests the spontaneous thought of “let’s get away from it all” even if it’s in your own backyard -- or atop the neighbor’s roof.
Tents, and an evolving notion of what it means to “camp out,” have of late spawned a fresh design movement aimed at reconnecting us to the outdoors, even in the din of a city. The designs are often beautiful, otherworldly, and thoughtful: Pup tents are giving way to space pods and lunar landers suspended from the trees. Once a canvas tent, tents become a canvas.
And lest you think that this is all frivolity and giant sperms, a tent is often all a person has, the simple walls between their life and elements. Some of these artists and designers are creating spaces and places for the homeless and communities harboring those without homes, empowering tent villages and camp communities.
In truth, all should have a home on Earth. If your flat happens to look like a spaceship or a cement mixer -- or even a giant purple sperm -- all the more power to you.
“It was a time to socialize and look at the stars,” says 24-year-old Ariel Abrahams, describing a recent camping trip. He talks about “the rush of the water from the creek, the chirping of birds,” and the trees standing close around him.
The hitch? Those natural sights and sounds were only in Abrahams’ imagination. His tent was actually pitched atop a Brooklyn warehouse.
The man behind this “camp out,” conceptual artist Thomas Stevenson, calls his collection of wood-framed, canvas tents Bivouac NYC. Bivouac, a word known better among mountaineers than urban denizens, is a French term for a temporary campsite. Participants -- up to 18 at a time -- sleep for a night or two under the stars, their shelters often tucked amid cone-topped water tanks, in the hopes of experiencing the Great Connect by disconnecting.
Now in its second summer, the urban camping project has caught on, enough so that Stevenson has been asked to bring it to Boston, London, and possibly California.
I know what you’re thinking: Camping, sure -- but in the city?
The appeal, aside from not having to “drop trou” in the woods, is the chance to experience urban environments in a new way, Stevenson says. “Even though you’re in the heart of a city, it’s quiet up on the roofs and suddenly people begin to understand what they might be able to do without.”
Stevenson launched Biouvac in the fall of 2011, only days after the Occupy movement emerged. For many people, the appearance of tents in Zuccotti Park, right in the heart of a city, was startling at first, he says. But their eyes adjusted, and Stevenson’s project began to look a little less outlandish -- even fun.
For the past several years, artists around the world have been designing innovative ways people might camp in inner cities, going so far as to reimagine the tent for more urban surrounds. They’re on one edge of a broader movement that is getting city residents back out into nature -- right in their own front yards (or right on their own rooftops, as the case may be).
Lori Rotenberk is a Chicago-based journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, The Boston Globe, Chicago Wilderness Magazine, and the Chicago Sun-Times. She is also also wild about nature. Follow her on Twitter.