Article by Gabriel Olivella
Photos Courtesy of Vancouver Arts Colloquium Society
Leah is sitting directly in front of her backyard, drinking tea, and looking into the sprouting hue of greens that emerges in front of her as she looks out the window. We sit together one Wednesday morning at her kitchen table to chat about herself and how she got interested in opening her backyard to take part of a larger community project involving food, education and community outreach.
I begin the conversation by asking Leah about how she got involved with the Vancouver Arts Colloquium Society (VACS), to which she responds that it all happened thanks to a mutual acquaintance who knew her artwork and told VACS about it. Indeed, Leah is involved in many awesome activities; she is an artist, a master recycler, a gardener, a mother, and many, many other things.
Right now, Leah partnered up with VACS to help give shape to our current project called Come to My Yard. This project is a combination of community outreach, permaculture teaching, and breaking spatial boundaries between the private and the public. A few months ago Leah, along with farmer Gabriel Pliska, and VACS representative Keiko Honda, envisioned the possibility of transforming part of Leah’s backyard into a communal space through the creation of a small-scale community garden in sections of her backyard. As I ask her about how the Come to My Yard idea emerged, she responds with a bit of laughter: “we kind of made it up.” Indeed, this project developed in a rather organic way, starting with the idea of repurposing Leah’s underused backyard for food growth and soon developing into a community space for teaching and sharing. It is in this opening of private space that Leah finds a way to address an often disregarded issue within her community: lack of human interaction.
But how is it that her house, and particularly her backyard ended up getting involved in this project?
Well, Leah’s house has been complicit in her artistic creations ever since she moved in less than a year ago. Her creativity is printed all over her house which she uses as a medium of artistic expression, giving the sense that all of her house is in an intermediate state between a work of art and a practical dwelling space (what a place to live in, I know!). She currently holds an art show in her basement that utilizes repurposed objects and materials as main components of her pieces that would have otherwise been discarded. Her house hosts examples of Leah’s great talent to transform, having created many of her belongings from repurposed materials and objects. It is in this ability for bettering the value and purpose of things that I make sense of Leah’s involvement in Come to My Yard, because she is so good at improving things.
Leah’s backyard in big, well-lit and with a lot of pretty-looking plants scheduled to flourish in this upcoming summer season. Yet, her garden can also serve another purpose aside from the aesthetic, it can also be used to invite neighbors and create a better sense of community. In Leah’s view, there is more to a living space than its aesthetics, there is also the important component of having people really use its public spaces by getting out there, meeting others and letting themselves be known. Leah makes the point of differentiating living in a community versus living in a neighborhood when she says that even though “the alleys are so clean and so well-paved” they can also get to be “uninteresting.” A community is made out of the interpersonal relations and connections that make up the social fabric of a space. A neighborhood is made out of houses, parks, streets, and neighbors. Living in a neighborhood does not equate to living within a community, and even though Leah does know many of her neighbors, she is certain that her surroundings could be improved by stimulating that same interaction and socialization that she finds so vital in solidifying a sense of community within her neighborhood.
“You don’t see people, you don’t hear people, I am kind of glad that I am going to have people here” says Leah. Sharing, interacting, and cooperating with other individuals within the neighborhood is essential in creating spaces where community members feel welcomed, comfortable, and at ease. By creating a communal space, Leah and the Come to My Yard team intend to address that separation between neighbors through direct action, in this case by literally carving up a community space where there was none before!
Aside from constantly working on all her awesome artistic creations, Leah homeschools her daughter. A practical way for her to get involved with the community is also through her house as she spends a lot of time in it. Leah is constantly looking for opportunities to enrich her daughter’s school curriculum and hence having her backyard as a space of sustainable food growth and community outreach is a stupendous chance for learning. In this manner, aside from inviting neighbors, Leah would also like to have her backyard as a space for other homeschool children to come and learn together about growing food and permaculture.
Leah’s plans do not stop here, she is working on complementing the Come to My Yard idea with apiculture through the construction of a bee hive and is additionally envisioning a chicken coop and perhaps a greenhouse for the future. Honestly, Leah’s capacity to maximize the purpose of things is limitless, and with perseverance and creativity, I am sure she will accomplish the cool vision of what she desires her backyard and her community to become.
Right before our interview ends, I ask her one last question about her expectations behind all her effort and planning she responds “I would like to live in a neighborhood where we smile at each other, where we know each other’s names”. Leah is in essence a highly innovative person, mother, neighbor, and artist. The Come to My Yard team invites everyone to join us in supporting Leah transform this neighborhood by getting together, building community, sharing, teaching, and growing more communal food.