Light, Air, and an Organic Garden Inspire the Artist for a Jail Project

An unusual greenhouse, built with public funds set aside for art, offers a respite from prison life in a San Francisco facility

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ON seven acres of rolling grassland in San Bruno, Calif., just outside San Francisco, an artist and agro-ecologist have collaborated in a project that is helping to transform lives.

It's an example of a growing partnership between artists and environmentalists who are designing creative solutions to urban or natural ecological problems, says Rebecca Rickman of No Time To Lose, an organization that promotes the environment through the arts. Ms. Rickman is coordinating a series of talks at Harvard University and Radcliffe College here featuring teams of artists and environmentalists.

The partners in the San Francisco project (the second of four talks) recently shared their collaboration with an audience.

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The site is the San Francisco County Jail, where a new prison and an old jail share space on former farmland. On a portion of this land, agro-ecologist Cathrine Sneed runs a horticultural rehabilitation program for 160 inmates. Men and women incarcerated for crimes ranging from drunk driving to possession of narcotics spend part of their time weeding, picking radishes, and planting turnips. The produce they harvest is donated to homeless shelters and people who have been diagnosed with AIDS. The project's meager start

Ms. Sneed started the Garden Project in 1982 with no tools, a budget of $100, and four prisoners. Today it has blossomed into a program that also includes an organic training garden on a once-dilapidated city lot where former inmates dig in the dirt, receive counseling and job-skills training, and participate in alcohol and drug-rehabilitation programs. They get paid when Sneed is able to wrangle donations from foundations and businesses. Many of those who graduate from this program are hired to work in the Garden Project's Tree Corps - a venture with the San Francisco Department of Public Works that plants trees in low-income areas of the city.

So how does art fit into all this?

That side of the story started in 1989 when artist Ned Kahn was chosen to create a piece of art for the new jail, which had a requirement that 1 percent of its budget fund some type of artwork.

At the first meeting to discuss the art, the sheriff's department was hostile because it viewed an art project as a potential obstacle to making the building deadline, Mr. Kahn recalls. Kahn is a resident artist at San Francisco's Exploratorium, an eclectic science museum, where he creates art that uses water, light, wind, and other natural phenomena.

``They said, `We have this space for you,''' Kahn says. `` `It's this waiting room. It's 20 feet by 20 feet. There's exposed fluorescent-light fixtures on the ceiling. Three walls are lined with vending machines, and it has a linoleum floor with plastic chairs. We want an artwork that costs $130,000 that has to go in the center of this room. It can't require any electrical power, because we're not going to put in any outlets. It has to have all smooth surfaces so no one can hide drugs in it.' As this guy is going on and on my shoulders are dropping. I decided I was going to tell them to find someone else.''

At that point a woman at the San Francisco Arts Commission, which administers the money, suggested he might get ideas by taking a tour of the jail grounds. She led him to the gardens, where Sneed and inmates were tending the earth. ``She dragged me around to the back side of the jail where there's this amazing organic farm that Cathrine started from nothing,'' he says. ``I was so inspired by what was going on out there - not just the transformation of the land, but the transformation of the people - that I decided the artwork should somehow interface with [that],'' he says. A greenhouse becomes art

``Ned asked me, `What do you really want out here?' '' Sneed remembers. ``I said we want a greenhouse, and I'll never forget his face when he was like, `Well, how are we going to make that into art?' ''

The difficult task was convincing the sheriff's department and the San Francisco Arts Commission that the greenhouse should be the art project.

He designed the structure to be as open, light, and airy as possible with the purpose of making it a complete opposite of the oppressive concrete interior of the jail.

To accomplish this, Kahn used dichroic glass panels in parts of the greenhouse. This special glass makes light more apparent and infuses the greenhouse with cobalt blue, gold, and other colors.

``What was going through my mind was to create something that would make the angle of the sun visible, the whole idea of making the passage of time visible,'' he says. ``Time is a big thing on people's minds when they're in jail, and it's always in a negative connotation, so I was trying to think about the positive aspects of time - the changing of the light with the time of day and the seasons. In some ways [the greenhouse] is a metaphor for what the whole gardening program does for the people out there.''

Some people still debate if the greenhouse should be called art.

Kahn says the once-skeptical San Francisco Arts Commission now views it as an example of artwork that grows out of and ties itself into a community. ``So much of the criticism of public art is that someone does their sculpture in their studio and lowers it in a crane in the middle of your plaza, and it's just this thing that doesn't really relate to anything but is a tribute to the artist's ego,'' he says.

``For me, it was definitely a departure from other things I've done, but it was the kind of thing where the sight of what was happening out there called for this,'' he says, adding: ``There's definitely a growing core of artists who are interested in environmental-related things,'' though it is often difficult to get projects started partly because of economic conditions.

This is art that ``is saving lives. It's feeding homeless people,'' Sneed says. ``It helps to have a model of what can happen with art ... when people work together.''

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