We open the boot and out comes compost, a pre-made wooden box. Then a sapling and a couple of pea plants. There on the roadside, I stand with Karen Francesca, assembling our little gardening armoury before heading out to find a spot in which to plant. We are guerilla gardening on the streets of Aberdeen!
Karen Francesca is here to support her long time friend and collaborator Carrie Reichardt. Part of the Nuart Street Art Festival, the event has brought many people to the city. Not least artists like Karen who want to add their own mark in addition to supporting the work of others.
Her micro gardens are a mixture of art and activism. That is the hallmark of the group of artists forming part of The Treatment Rooms collective. Placing work onto the streets. Often they have something to say and this is true of the gardens. A reminder of just how important green space is in our cities.
“I was really struck by the lack of street trees in Aberdeen” Karen tells me as she crouches down to bed in an oak sapling into the little elm box she’s created. On either side she plants some peas. “It’s a really fast growing bit of food. If it gets left alone within six weeks you’ll be able to pick peas from here. I really like the idea of creating these tiny edible spaces.”
Fabric of the Street
And that’s really the hope. That these little micro gardens will survive, be tended and maybe form a part of the fabric of the street. “I tend to make them where there’s a space that’s just not in use” she says. “So, as long as there’s no development that takes place, quite often they remain. But it also depends on someone actually tending that space.”
Accompanying the gardens Karen has also created some micro mosaics which she attaches to the wall above. A mosaic artist herself she’s been working with the art form for 25 years. In fact it was in this context that we first actually met. That was on the top of the 3rd floor of a rickety bit of old wooden scaffolding in West London. There she was applying some of her designs to the front of Carrie Reichardt’s house.
These mosaics though are much tinier! The messages in them are not obvious. Rather these works are about provoking thought for the passer by who may stumble across them. Made up of ceramic tile, a little bit of text and objects that Karen makes from clay. “It’s nice to put ideas and thoughts out into public space that is nothing to do with buying or selling” Karen tells me. “In fact they’re about something quite different.”
Also helping out on our little gardening campaign around the streets of the city is Shelagh Swanson. A popular local painter and glass maker, she’s been helping Karen to find the right spots and has been driving us around. Working with both Karen and Carrie for the best part of a week prior to this point. She’s been a part of the team helping to install the ambitious series of mosaics which form part of the more ‘official’ series of works around the city.
“It pushes the boundaries of what people expect” Shelagh told us. “It’s such a natural thing that gets people together. People crave green, it becomes an obsession and it’s good to provide that.”
Karen meanwhile has finished and she has hope for these gardens. Many of her past ones have survived and been adopted by the local community with some of the larger ones thriving next to the likes of City Hall and Coin Street in London’s Waterloo. For Karen it’s about both creating habitats and getting people to think. To provide something that will make people wonder why it’s there and maybe to just stop for a moment to consider why this little tree might be growing in a little box in the middle of the city.
Karen Francesca was interviewed on 21 April 2018 during the Nuart Festival. The micro mosaics and gardens can be found on Belmont, Langstane Place and Union Row in Aberdeen. Karen was in Aberdeen to support the work of Carrie Reichardt which you can also read about here.