Posted June 15, 2017
  • View toward opposite directions with the installation; photo: Moya Sun

  • Girl running through screens, photo by Moya Sun

  • Community planting

  • Trees for the planting celebration

  • Scientific walk with people from nearby community and PennDesign students

  • Screen in the sunset light, photo by Moya Sun

  • Project concept diagram, credit to Moya Sun

Sprouting Possibilities

Sprouting Possibilities is a PennPraxis Social Impact Project and built on the shared vision of using trees to demonstrate the cyclical nature of growth and development to activate vacant land and strengthen communities. This spring, the team worked on a site in West Philadelphia to install temporary public art works and plant tree seedlings. Team partners Laura Carlson (MFA’17) and Moya Sun (LARP’17) met in a Graduate Fine Arts course called Creative Research with Associate Professor of Fine Arts Orkan Telhan, which propelled them to think beyond their own perspectives and cultural norms to conceive new ways to learn about what is around us.  The project was made possible by a gift from Jay Abramson W'83, L'86. 

Laura Carlson writes:

While we may be “nature,” we also find that we have not been acting or thinking in terms of nature, but as humans above nature (Anthropocene). We wonder how we may act in better collaboration with what is around us, especially as human-made climate change goes beyond threatening, but actively changing what is around us. Plant hardiness zones that identify where plants can live due to climate altered in 2012 and the zones will move again soon. The country is getting hotter as silver maples can no longer live as far south as they used to.

Moya and I wonder if plants can migrate in the face of rapid climate change. What constitutes a “native” plant if it can no longer live where it has lived for hundreds of years? How can or will ecosystems that have endeavored and adapted to exist persevere in the face of climate change? In the face of these questions, we must learn new ways to exist within Earth. We must ask ourselves what happens when we stop alienating ourselves from the chaotic natural processes of the world we experience and instead collaborate with those systems?

Carlson and Sun created Sprouting Possibilities out of these questions. Considering the past of Philadelphia through its native tree population, identifying as a part of the present that can help alter the trajectory of climate change, and regarding vacant lots as possible forested futures.

Carlson and Sun worked with Urban Arboreta, a local project of the City Parks Association and the Land Health Institute, now in ownership of a vacant lot on 49th and Parkside that is being transformed into the country’s first native plant nursery started on a vacant lot. Sprouting Possibilities features a public art installation—including nine 22-foot translucent banners depicting an imagined canopy of a native tree in Philadelphia, from Flowering Dogwood to Sugar Maple—and a community engagement component. On Saturday, June 3, the team hosted the event which included a massive tree planting initiative and tree give-away, and activities that showcased modes of artistic engagement with the natural world.

Sprouting Possibilities brought together disparate people from across the city, as well as a few New Yorkers, who learned to plant young tree sprouts together. The group also walked the 49th and Parkside lot with Land Health Institute ecologist Scott Quitel, focusing on the natural attributes of the site, from invasive weeds to native trees, scouting for migrating Baltimore Orioles and looking at soil layers.

An additional activity included painting with natural materials from the site. This included a wash of dirt mixed with water to prime paper, using bricks, flowers, and charcoal to make pictures. On that day, the group planted 75 trees and only stopped because they ran out of water (there was no water source on site!)

“With more and more questions we have about future and our planet, a better understanding of a collective nature as an entity of human and the non-human is needed.”

Throughout the project, the students looked to the life process of trees as a guide. The students and collaborators served as germinator: planting the seeds, caring for the young seedlings, and creating the public art piece.The community will be the migratory instigators, such as the wind, water, and animals, planting and moving the seedlings across the city (and country) to propagate widely.

Sun writes:

Bubbles of conflict are emerging and exploding at every interface between the past and the future, the self and the others, the body and the territory of the body. Every step of the progress for human beings is a trace of the fading past and a layer of ongoing hopes on top. But how can we achieve a peaceful scenario without fighting and forgetting? How can we build a place of tolerance to the changing, instead of a city of tolerance is the goal of the Anthropocene. With more and more questions we have about future and our planet, a better understanding of a collective nature as an entity of human and the non-human is needed. The conscious of this superorganism is a collaboration of mind. We live in a more and more dynamic world and meanings are always transforming. Things happened before they happened, things ended before they ended. The scene we see today is the mixture of the past and the future.

Philadelphia, like many other parts of the planet, is a venue of practice to achieve harmony. Walnut Street, Chestnut Street and Locust Street are named after plantations in order to celebrate the nature richness around the area.  Later in the urban development, the names became more than a symbol of nature environment, but a connection to a new part of the city, and homes of more people. As the culture dynamic is changing, ecosystem dynamic is changing at the same time. In this piece of the installation, image of native tree canopy shadow are printed on a set of 9 semi-transparent screens. Shadows on the screen is state of both “used to be” and “will be”. As people see through the screen, the imaginary trees and the reality scene are layered together, the latitude and longitude of the fabric breaks the scenery behind it into pixel-like unites. The imagination gets projected on the screen blowing in the wind and the existing gets rearranged in a surrealistic way with the city skyline and horses greasing in the background. The mixed image is a question to the existence: What is the place of each of us in this matrix of shadow?

Carlson writes:

This week, I spent some time at the 49th Street lot alone, potting tree seedlings in the open, cool air. As I worked I wondered at myself, a lone assembly line: fill pots with soil, put in tree root, water, label, move on. Pauses in assembly erupted as I waited for water to drain from the pots. In these moments, I looked around and was surprised to find myself surrounded by and being a part of a greater system of growth. Bees were moving between flowers repetitiously, little white butterflies moved pollen from one place to another. A horse passed the grass seeds of an eaten plant where its seeds may grow anew. All of these animals doing what was natural to them: existing within their needs, making food, eating food, releasing what’s unnecessary. Do these animals know the greater systems of which they collaborate? Can I know the extent of the systems I collaborate with? I plant trees as an action of hope for the future, as an insistence on the importance of green native spaces in urban areas, of the sustenance of canopy cover for the health of wildlife and humans. I receive benefits from my actions, just as the bee does, while also recognizing the impact on something larger than myself. Does the bee persist in hope as well, realizing the situation they exist in is morphing quickly through generations, a mythology passed down of the days before pesticides? Does the bee pollinate in its desire for food, but also in its insistence that things can be for the better in the face of rapid climate change?

The students will continue to work with Urban Arboreta to help plant the remaining trees on the site and maintain them through their early months. (Note: Carlson had 600 tree seedlings from a prior year’s art installation to plant onsite). Beyond that, the installation may find future life on other vacant lots throughout the city that wish to inspire and cultivate new growth, stirred by its natural setting.  Sprouting Possibilities is about illustrating that new life can emerge from the strength of our communities—both natural and cultural—and can be reborn in ways that are true to the site’s intrinsic value, just like trees.

Volunteer committee: Ellen Guanlee Xie, Boya Ye, Jie Yang (Pennsylvania State University), Ian Walker Pangburn, Uroosa Ijaz