Creative Ecology: Environmental artist Nancy Klehm tries to keep up with her own work

(MehveÅŸ Konuk)

“My work is context specific. It’s about social context. It’s about place. Place refers to more than land; place is about land that has history. It feels more alive,” explains Nance Klehm, an artist and activist based on the South Side. This particular morning, Klehm is in a motel room in Tucson, Arizona. It’s 6am, and she’s ready to hit the road.

For the past three weeks, she has been working on a project in the Los Angeles area that assesses waste flow and finds creative ways to redirect it. The project involves three different locations: a public housing project in L.A., a hospital for Vietnam veterans in a mental health program, and a community of ranchers and members of the Shoshone Paiute Indian tribe in Owens Valley (where the city of L.A. obtains most of its water).

Klehm’s L.A. project has many independently evolving parts. She has developed two bio-filters, which contain a mechanical sand-gravel filter in addition to a soil-plant filtering component. One is constructed from a shipping crate, the other from 55-gallon barrels. Both filter rainwater and river water from the city. She is also cultivating wetlands for water filtration and purification. In Owens Valley, Klehm set up a large-scale earthworm composting and green waste program. “I’m working with the dynamic of my context,” explains Klehm. “The Latino community’s dynamic, the veteran’s dynamic, and this tiny town of ranchers and natives’ dynamic.”

“A lot of people don’t really see what I do as art-making,” Klehm pauses. “But I really don’t care. Others say this is art. I call it ‘social ecologies.’ I use aesthetic strategies to re-enliven dialogues around land use. And I engage people and help create a system that works for them.” Although Klehm has been in California for the past several weeks, most of her projects are based in her hometown Chicago, a historic center for community-based art forms.

For example, in 1993, the arts organization Sculpture Chicago joined with artists and local community organizations to create eight large-scale public art projects in several Chicago neighborhoods. The project, entitled “Culture in Action,” included a neighborhood parade that brought Mexican-Americans and African-Americans together, a hydroponic garden for HIV and AIDS patients, and a block party organized by neighborhood youth groups. Despite the project’s attempt to create a new dialogue between the artist and community, seventeen years later almost none of its effects remain. Most of the works in “Culture in Action” didn’t last; Klehm wants to make sure that hers do.

A few years ago, Klehm started the “Seed Archive Project.” Housed in Chicago, the archive is a public-access surplus of seeds, which Klehm gives to anyone committed to sowing and growing them. The project has an estimated eighteen-year development period. Klehm also started a “Neighborhood Orchard” near her Little Village home. The project has been developing for eight years, and continues to grow. Klehm began the community apple orchard when her neighbor, Trevino, refused money for a favor, asking her instead to plant him an apple tree. The orchard now takes up three-quarters of an acre. In 2007, Klehm built “Greenhouses of Hope”: two 2,500-square-foot earthworm compost sites in Chicago’s Pacific Garden Mission, a homeless shelter on South Canal Street. The project is continuous and ongoing. “Everything I do, I birth, has its own momentum, and eventually projects move away from me. I just have to keep up with them.”

Klehm, who grew up on a farm, clearly knows how to keep up with nature, but reconnecting urban residents with their landscapes is more difficult, and she knows what happens when community projects become dependent on a single individual. Twenty years ago, Klehm planted a hundred fruit trees in Grand Crossing. Today, only two remain, and they are now located at the Experimental Station at 61st and Blackstone. “People may want urban gardens, but they don’t know how to take care of them, or what it means to build an ecology and maintain it. That’s the missing piece, and that’s the hardest thing to teach because we’ve been so divorced from those long-term rhythms.”

As Klehm’s career continues to take her to new places, the resilience and relevance of her projects will be tested. But she has confidence in both her work and the communities they engage. “What I do is teach a system and see how people grab onto it. People I work with become collaborators. We are all on equal ground.”