There are some new plants abloom in south Minneapolis’ Kingfield neighborhood. But instead of garden plots, the flowers and edibles are popping up on garage doors and walls, in alleys and side streets.
The horticultural murals don’t scream for attention with big, bold splashes of colorful paint. In fact, they’re so subtle you might catch them only out of the corner of your eye as you pass by.
“It’s like a whisper,” said Jane Powers of the milkweed flowers and seed pods daintily etched in white on the tan garage door she shares with her husband, Michael Green.
The milkweed mural and a handful of others are the work of artist Rachel Breen, who lives in the neighborhood. They’re part of her “Heirloom Project,” a public art installation designed to sow appreciation for native plants and the habitat they provide for bees, birds and butterflies.
Breen, a “social practice artist” who also teaches painting and drawing at Anoka-Ramsey Community College, was inspired by the work of Seed Savers, the Iowa-based organization committed to preserving heirloom seeds. “They’re doing really important work,” Breen said. “We’ve lost so much plant diversity.”
Her project is about celebrating plants, but is also “a metaphor for a much bigger question: How do we think about the future, and what do we pass on to the next generation?
“I love the word ‘heirloom,’ ” she said, with its connotation of treasured valuables to be inherited. Our forebears knew that seeds were precious; they sewed them into the hems of their clothes when they immigrated to America. “I want to bring back that preciousness.”
Breen also wanted to have her conversation about heirlooms in public, to engage with “people who don’t usually go to galleries,” she said.
That’s how she decided to paint garage doors.
Armed with a $10,000 grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, Breen spent time in city gardens sketching plants, concentrating on “ubiquitous Minnesota prairie flowers.” She expanded the drawings and transferred them to sheets of clear plastic film, then ran an unthreaded sewing machine over the film to trace the designs in a series of tiny needle dots, producing stencils she could tape onto garage doors and paint with an airbrush.
“These are really common; you see them all over the neighborhood,” she said of the coneflowers she recently installed on a garage door facing Pillsbury Avenue S. As she sprayed purple and gold and green paint over the stencil, the tiny dots formed a delicate pattern that suggests seeds. “I want them to look ephemeral,” she said. “Seeds are delicate things. They’re not guaranteed to be around forever.”
For her “canvases,” Breen recruited a few neighbors she knew. Some agreed enthusiastically; a couple of people turned her down. For the installation on Pillsbury, Breen approached neighbors she didn’t know because she liked their large flat garage door and high-visibility corner location.
“I just knocked on the door, gave them a handout and invited them to look at one I had done in the alley,” she said. They liked what they saw and gave her their permission to paint.
Participating garage owners don’t know exactly what they’re getting, Breen said. “People were surprisingly open.” She asks them to sign waivers agreeing that, even if they don’t like their mural, they will wait at least until spring before painting over it. She’s hoping to use the murals as a springboard for future seed-saving initiatives. Her “big dream” is that people in the neighborhood will ultimately start a seed library and seed swap.
Powers, an artist herself, is more than satisfied with her milkweed mural. She volunteered her garage door after meeting Breen at the Kingfield Farmers Market. “She’s using art as a way of speaking about the issues of native plants, preserving heirloom seeds and creating these murals that become an ‘aesthetic moment’ in an alley,” Powers said. “I loved the project, and I’m delighted to be one of the people.”
How long will she keep it? “As long as it lasts,” she said.