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Art and agriculture meet in collaborative Colorado exhibition


John Yang: We recently went to Colorado's Rocky Mountains for a look at an innovative art exhibit. It uses multimedia collaborations between artists and farmers to explore the similarities between the two fields. Our report is part of our Arts and Culture series, CANVAS.

A vegetable from a small organic farm in the Rockies becomes an Asian dish cooked on a food cart in a museum gallery. Hundreds of dried corn stalks fill a wall at another Boulder County museum. And a series of embroidery panels with images of wildflowers hang in a 140 year old barn.

They're all part of a multivenue exhibition called agriCULTURE Art inspired by the land, more than 15 local and national artists and collectives teamed with Boulder County farmers to create the works now on display at two museums and three local farms. Organizers say the goal was to explore our relationship with nature.

Jamie Kopke, Lead Curator, "Agriculture": It's not a typical art show. It's not a typical gallery experience.

John Yang: Jamie Kopke, coordinates it all as lead curator.

Jamie Kopke: It allowed us to explore a topic which I think is just so vital to all of us in these times, and that's how people are connecting or being disconnected from the natural world around us. The disconnection from nature has created a whole host of problems in our lives.

Mark Derespinis, Esoterra Culinary Garden: Every season is a new opportunity to have another relationship with a plant.

Yumi Janairo Roth, Aritst: So, yeah.

Mark Derespinis: Here we are.

Yumi Janairo Roth: I know. Here we are, like months later, from the little seedlings to this lush field.

John Yang: Artist Yumi Janairo Roth and organic farmer Mark Derespinis teamed up to grow kangkong, a vegetable sometimes called water spinach. While not well known in the United States, it's a staple in Asian countries like the Philippines, where Janeiro Roth's mother was born.

Yumi Janairo Roth: The plants she grew up with and the plants that she had access to in the U.S. she had to do a lot of food substitutions. So kangkong was one of these things that was really interesting to me because I would eat the foods, but I would eat it without this core vegetable that was in it.

In the United States, it's considered an invasive weed. And I was interested in this idea of it as something invasive or illegal. And when you attach that to a plant, and then what happens when it's actually the core of somebody else's diet?

Mark Derespinis: Having this opportunity to give people this meaningful connection with a plant. Not a product, not something you buy in the store, but with a plant that you can watch grow from a seed and bring it to harvest and then bring it into your kitchen and then feed yourselves and your community with. This was just a great opportunity to sort of almost use different language to think about farming as well.

Jane Burke, Curator, Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art: Experimental it's been --

John Yang: Jane Burke at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art is another of the project's three curators. She says the collaborative nature of the project cultivated the artist's creativity.

Jane Burke: This has challenged their work. It has made them kind of think outside of their normal practice by incorporating, really, these philosophies of the farmers. For me, personally, it's really inspired me to look at farmers in a different way and to really see them as these interdisciplinary practitioners in the same way that we kind of see artists.

Jared Thompson, Curator, Longmont Museum: This piece here is by artist Patrick Merrill. He really wanted to cover scale and what it takes to feed the masses.

John Yang: Jared Thompson, curator at the Longmont Museum, explains the meaning behind the array of dried corn stalks.

Jared Thompson: He was trying to show how much corn it takes to feed cattle to produce milk. So this screen represents how much corn food energy a cow would eat to produce about three gallons of milk. So that would supply an average American about two months. This piece is actually put together with toothpicks. When the show comes down, he's actually going to return it to the field, and it's all biodegradable, so he can go back into the field, put nutrients back into the soil.

John Yang: From actual nutrients to whimsical inflated depictions of them.

Jared Thompson: This was by artist Nicole Banowetz. She created a fictional futuristic machine that actually adds microbes and oxygen to the soil. So the white part of this sculpture represents the machine. The gold parts represent the microbes and the worms that are being added.

John Yang: This would be the microbe that goes into the soil to help give nutrients and help things grow.

Jared Thompson: Yeah. She's giving visual form to these tiny creatures that you cannot see with a naked eye.

John Yang: Canadian artist Amanda McCavour's ethereal hanging panels use digitally scanned images of prairie, wildflowers and grasses.

Jamie Kopke: She'll print them into these larger than life pieces that we see, and then she presses them onto the fabric, almost like you would find a specimen pressed in an herbarium.

John Yang: Hanging in the drafty old barn they wave in the summer breeze like flowers in a field.

Jamie Kopke: She really loved that about the place. She loved that there were birds in here and that when you walk into this space, it's actually a very sensory experience.

John Yang: It sort of feels like you're out in the field where these plants are growing.

Jamie Kopke: Exactly. And she hung them in this space to create kind of this larger than life, monumental feel to the plants. But also, the fabric itself is also representing the delicacy of the ecosystem in which all of these plants interact and live.

John Yang: At the organic farm, Yumi Janeiro Roth and Mark Derespinis harvested and washed kangkong to go to the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art to be the main ingredient in a traditional Philippine dish cooked by Yumi's mom, Shirley Janeiro.

Shirley Janeiro Roth, Yumi's Mother: Roth what cooking means to me is the world. I love to cook.

John Yang: She indulged in some of that love. Taking the food cart her daughter created for its maiden run.

Shirley Janeiro Roth: Adobo is one of the Philippine main course that we always we do it every day, and we serve to our guests.

John Yang: So, Yumi, tell me about this is your exhibit. This is your piece of art.

Yumi Janairo Roth: It's the totalizing thing is the piece of art. So working with Mark, working with my mom, this is sort of just kind of an object that functions as a vehicle to bring all these different components together. So this object is actually modeled after food carts that you see throughout Manila. The imagery is actually all derived from the image of kangong.

John Yang: She says the cart's decorations upend 19th century artist James McNeil Whistler's famous bit of cultural appropriation.

Yumi Janairo Roth: The color scheme and the sort of the carving is all inspired by the Peacock Room at the Freer Art Gallery. That was an Englishman and expat American's idea of what Asia sort of meant to non-Asians. And this is sort of playing that language back, but sort of representing it for, I guess, Asian and Asian American audiences.

John Yang: From farm to table, this collaboration between farmer and artist infused the art with meaning as well as flavor. You knew it as a plant, but not necessarily its role.

Mark Derespinis: I'd never eaten it. Yeah.

John Yang: How do each of you feel learning each other's world?

Yumi Janairo Roth: I mean, amazing. I think that's been really amazing. My mom has cooked side by side the store bought stuff and Mark's kangkong. When she tried Mark's kangkong, she's like, this is better than the stuff I grew up with.

John Yang: And, Mark, for you, that learning what it means, you know, Yumi's mother. Does that deepen your feel for the plant or your relationship to the plant?

Mark Derespinis: Absolutely, 100%. I mean, we're dimensionalizing our relationships and that narrative, that connection, that personalization, that's what drives me to continue and deepen the relationship further and further.

John Yang: From seedling to plant to artist creation, fueled by collaboration and nature.

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