March 21, 2016

Reaching Out

March is a great month for garden club “outreach” – a time when clubs can tangibly point to their deep ties within the communities from which they draw their membership.  Outreach can take many forms, but the common factor is that a lot of people are drawn into an event where the club’s fingerprints are everywhere.  I’ve been to three such events so far this month.
On March 19, Betty and I journeyed up to Topsfield to see the third annual installment of the “Grow Spring! Expo”.  Here’s the top-level impression:  Holy Cow!
I was at the first Expo two years ago.  It was a fine undertaking organized by the Topsfield Garden Club: a dozen or so exhibits, mostly non-profits, built around environmental awareness and enhanced gardening knowledge.  It drew about 150 people.  The second installment coincided with the Winter That Would Not End and the 100 miles round trip was beyond our endurance on a snowy weekend.  We reluctantly took a pass.
Inside the Emerson Center.  Photo
credit: Eric Roth.  Double-click for
a full-screen slideshow.
I knew something was up this year when a professionally-produced flyer arrived announcing the event.  It promised “a celebration of local agriculture, horticulture, and environmental preservation.”  It would feature a farmers’ marketplace, wine and beer tastings, antique farm equipment, crafts, and horticultural experts.  Moreover, what had been an undertaking by the Topsfield Garden Club was now also sponsored by the Topsfield Historical Society and the Essex County Agricultural Society.  Previously confined to the historic Emerson Center on Topsfield’s town green, the event would now spill over to the nearby Gould Barn*. 
Want to grow a one-ton pumpkin?
These guys could tell you how.
(Photo credit: Eric Roth)
We arrived at 1 p.m. to find every conceivable parking space spoken for, a long array of antique tractors on display, and crowds moving between exhibits in the Emerson Center and food, craft beer, and local wine tasting in the barn.  The Grow Spring! Expo had gone big time.
Topsfield Garden Club President Martha Morrison told me that by bringing in the two co-sponsors, the Expo gained an added dimension.  The vintage tractor lineup came via a contact through the Historical Society, a group that grows giant pumpkins (and attracted a gaggle of children) is a member of the Essex Agricultural Society.  Each group ran an expansive campaign to turn out the public using social media, posters, and newspaper publicity.
Bees are essential to pollination.  The
Essex County Beekeepers Assn. was
represented at the Expo..  (Photo
credit: Eric Roth)
But while the event was colorful and fun, it was the unbridled expertise to be found in the individual exhibits that set the Expo apart.  For example, an unassuming man named Jim MacDougall seemed to inhabit both a Conservation Commission booth and an exhibit for an organic farm.  He held court on the subject of invasive plants; a subject that normally flies under the radar of people not already attuned to their threat. His explanations were crisp and compelling.  I later learned he is a highly respected biodiversity consultant, lending his expertise for the morning to a worthy cause.
Another person drawing a crowd was Edith Ventimiglia.  She spoke on environmental education to adults, then offered on-the-spot mini-lessons to children.  It should come as no surprise that she is an area science teacher, and that she also helped create the curriculum for the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Ipswich River Nature Pre-School in Wenham.  That’s just a sampling of the level of professionalism that was on display.
Outside, there were vintage tractors
The Expo drew more than 675 adults during its five-hour run, plus what seemed like every child within a twenty-mile radius of Topsfield.  The organizers have already been given suggestions for next year’s event, including a tractor-drawn hay wagon to ferry visitors between buildings.
Trying to find the one person – or even one organization - to whom to give principal credit for the event turned into a finger-pointing exercise.  Martha Morrison pointed to Topsfield Garden Club Vice President Kindra Clineff (who at least acknowledged that she created the poster).  I now have an inbox full of names of people and ancillary organizations (including Green Topsfield), each of which seem to have been instrumental to the event’s success.
* * * * * *
Needham Art in Bloom
paired floral designers
with gifted high school
art students
 “Art in Bloom” programs have become staples among Boston area clubs over the past two decades.  The “ur” event of this type is held at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts where, four decades ago, a group of garden club members were invited to pair their floral designing talents with selected pieces from the MFA’s permanent collection.  The event (opening this year on April 30) had become a three-day extravaganza of high-profile speakers and master-class workshops (you can learn more about it here). 
Being asked to participate is an honor.  Those chosen have no voice in the artwork they will interpret.  A wonderful older lady of my acquaintance – with a strong Catholic school upbringing – was presented with a famed Picasso “Two Blue Nudes”.  In her words, she “made it work”.
Floral designers
captured the color and
rhythm of artwork
The success of MFA’s Art in Bloom has spawned dozens of similarly named events across the region. A few, such as Fitchburg, tie their programs to local art museums.  Most look to the art programs in area schools.  In early March, I attended Needham’s “Art in Bloom 2016” at the Needham Public Library.
The Needham event, now in its eighth year, is sponsored by Beth Shalom Garden Club but draws designers from multiple clubs.  The art – 59 pieces in all - is provided by Needham High School and showcases the breadth of art education in the town.  Needham High offers AP-level classes in drawing and painting, photography, ceramics, computer graphics and animation, and crafts. It requires at least an hour to see and appreciate the range of projects created by the students, and to take in the floral designs that accompany them. 
In Canton, floral
designers interpreted
art from all grades.
A week later, we were at Canton’s Pequitside Farm to see “Artists in Bloom”.  There, the Canton Garden Club and Canton Public Schools have collaborated on a very different project. Instead of drawing solely from high school students, there were more than 250 pieces of artwork from more than 150 students representing every grade level.  Thirty pieces were selected at random to be interpreted by Canton Garden Club members.
I had the opportunity to spend time with Joyce Stenmon, Visual Arts Program Coordinator for Canton Public Schools.  She told me “Artists in Bloom” is an opportunity to visually demonstrate that art is universal.  The art is placed cheek by jowl in four rooms, with the interpreted pieces spaced every few feet.  The effect is joyous and raucous, made all the more so by the fact that the building was full of children and adults there to see their creations on display.  The event drew more than 300 adults (who paid a nominal admission fee) and more children than anyone could count.  I came away with a keener sense of the value of art’s role in 21st Century education.
* * * * * *
Suffice it to say that garden clubs are the sum of their parts (meaning their members), but those “parts” are often extraordinary.  People join garden clubs because of an interest in gardening or floral design or horticulture, but they bring with them a wealth of skills, plus the skills of spouses or partners.  The skills may be creative (photography, design), business (finance, management), educational (teaching, consulting), or technical (science, engineering).  Pulling off a feat like the two Art in Bloom programs or Grow Spring! Expo requires multiple talents and extraordinary coordination. 
Each club deserves all the accolades they have undoubtedly received.  Great work!
*  As a purely personal side note, walking into the Gould Barn was a step back into my own history.  It was the place where, in September 2013, I gave my first presentation of 'Gardening Is Murder'.  What an incredible journey!

1 comment:

  1. I really appreciate it when garden clubs do something to actually promote gardening and give people food for thought. This is the time when our imaginations run wild, anticipating the day the weather will let us get out and roll up our sleeves. Unfortunately some garden clubs make it difficult for people to join. Congratulations to the excellent ones in your area!