Meeting My Idol in A Living Library

I first learned about Bonnie Ora Sherk at the WACK! show at the Vancouver Art Gallery in..2008. There was a display on her work Crossroads Community or The Farm as it came to be known; a 6 year long performance sculpture from 1974 to 1980 on seven acres of land adjacent to a freeway interchange outside of San Francisco. I got excited.  The Farm was a large scale interactive, community engaging art piece, with a working garden, education programs for kids, a theatre, visiting artists, animals…the whole shebang. And it was a project that would lay the groundwork for the work Bonnie Sherk is currently doing in San Francisco (and New York) with the Living Libraries. Anyways, the Farm got me thinkin….It was so inspiring to learn about an Artist working with ideas of ecology and community, and our relationships to our/the environment; ideas that I had been gravitating to and not sure what to do with or how to work through. Her work was the catalyst to my realization that a community garden could be a work of Art, that an artistic practice could encompass more than material objects that come out of a studio, that art could be an experience, an event, an entity. There are many artists working in this way, but it was the Farm and Bonnie Sherk that opened my eyes to it.

Through my two remaining years of art school I probably wrote about two papers and gave at least one presentation on Bonnie Sherk, and the Farm and the metaphor of the Living Libraries.

So you may be asking….A Living Library? whats that about?

“A Living Library (A.L.L.) with diverse sectors of community, incorporates local resources, and transforms them to become vibrant, content-rich, ecological learning landscapes; each Branch linked to another”.

The Living Libraries are essentially community gardens designed with intention and purpose for the communities they are constructed in, taking into account the resources of the community: human, ecological, technological, cultural and aesthetic, the history of the area, and what the community needs for the future. A Living Library = ALL. The libraries are connected to school grounds and are linked to the curriculum. The idea being learning happens in the garden, the Library; math, geography, science, language arts can all be learned hands on and experientialy. There are four branches so far, three in San Fran and one in New York, and the goal being to link the living libraries locally and globally through virtual gateways some day. There is so much that can be said about the Living Libraries, the vision is so conceptually rich and inspiring. (Please visit alivinglibrary.org and the blog for more information.)

I knew Bonnie Sherk was based in San Francisco and that we would definatly be passing through SF on our way down the coast..which meant..I could potentially, actually meet THE Bonnie Sherk and see the living libraries in the flesh, or chlorophyll…

It’s a strange experience to meet one’s idol. You would think it would be like the buildup of anticipation to Christmas or your birthday when you are little. But I just got really nervous, had a terrible stomach ache and tried to avoid thinking about the whole situation entirely. Like I have struggled with writing this blog post and procrastinated to the extent that we are over a month behind in entries, I put off contacting Bonnie to see if we could actually come visit. As I said I knew from about October 2010 that it would be rad to visit, but I put off sending the intial “Hi I’m with the Birds on Bikes…yada yada..can we come visit??” email until about a month into the trip. In a coffee shop in Gold Beach, Oregon, we had taken over, with about 5 minutes left to closing, I finally shot off a description of what we were doing, roughly when we thought we would be in SF and a plea for a moment of her time. Bonnie Sherk herself responded almost instantly, with a “Sure! no problem, call me when you are close”. omg. Bonnie Sherk said we could come visit and now I had her phone number. But now I had to call her. I have a small, somewhat manageable phobia of making phone calls. Strangers I struggle with, but my idol? oh gawd. I put the phone call off for about a week, until it was absolutely necessary verging on ridiculous, and we might miss our chance. Finally when we were at Hilde and Jimmy’s, the day before we would be catching the ferry over to SF, with shaky fingers, blushing cheeks and sweat pouring I picked up the phone and called Bonnie. She answered right away with cordial briskness. I introduced myself. She didn’t remember me. I explained, did the Birds on Bikes shpeel. She kind of remembered. blah blah blah, awkard phone conversation later, Bonnie Sherk invited us to a work day the following week. There was to be a work volunteer event at the OMI/Excelsior Living Library and Think Park with employees from SalesForce (some sort of computer software design company, I never got a definitive description when I asked the Sales Force folks) as well as classes with the day care in the afternoon, and the youth interns would be there too. Bonnie suggested rather than interviewing just her, we should come to the work party and see the garden in full swing.

We decided to take a bus to the work party, rather than bike, because we weren’t familiar with the bikes routes and the San Francisco hills intimidated us. Also the living library was in southern San Francisco close to Daly City, and… we were hungover. The night before we had met up with Josie’s brother, Pancho for his girlfriend’s birthday at the R Bar.  That was when we met the infamous Quebecois guys (more on them to come), who fed us too many tequila shots and turned our quiet night of an innocent birthday beer to shmammered-dom. Needless to say we woke up the next morning with boozy burps and our feather askew. With a quick greasy muffin and a dirty coffee from the hotel’s continental breakfast, we gathered our gear, tried to make ourselves look presentable in our cleanest, dirty clothes and went to catch the bus. The ride took about an hour. It was interesting to see the city change as we rode from the touristy area we were staying on Lombard St. through downtown, the mission district, into residential neighbourhoods, and away from the money and traffic. It was nice to see a new, realer side of SF away from where the tourist maps suggest you visit. We weren’t quite sure how to find to garden  from our bus stop, except the general direction to walk in, a street name and to look for a garden, but when we saw a daycare and then a gate with a hand painted sign, with hand prints and bright sloppy colours, bark mulch, flowers and a woven tee-pee in the distance, we knew we were in the right place.

We passed through the gate and what we learned later was the upper garden and saw a few people congregating by some picnic tables. We were on time, even a little early (a feat for the birds), so we wandered over to them to see if they knew what was going on..Then we saw her. She was wearing a wide brimmed hat over her long black hair, orange sunglasses, a turquoise sweater, and bright pink lipstick. She bustled over to us with her purse hanging off one shoulder and a bundle of weeds in her other hand. Bonnie exclaimed you must be the Birds! We said yes, and bumbling and bumping into each other we  quickly said hello and introduced ourselves. She told us to head down to the lower garden, that we would be starting down there, and that she wanted to introduce everyone and the living library before we got started. And then as quick as she appeared she was gone, off to tend to a last minute something I guess before everyone arrived. So that was Bonnie. Not the momentous, warm greeting I had hoped for, but we had just arrived and she was in the middle of something, we would have lots more time to bond I figured. We wandered out of another gate onto the tree lined sidewalk and around down to the lower garden. It was a small area, nestled between concrete walls and buildings, and chain link fences but it was an oasis; an overgrown, explosively blooming garden with lavender, mint, apple trees, rose bushes, lilies, onions, native shrubs, all packed together with stepping stone paths winding through the beds. It looked like lovingly designed chaos. It looked amazing.

We gathered in the far back corner by a table with a plate of brownies and a massive bowl of almonds and raisins on it, and a small awkward group of adults, the SalesForce crew we discovered. Bonnie sauntered down the path to the group, gave us the a-ok to film and called the group to attention. She gave an articulate and concise description of the Living Libraries, explaining the idea of ALL, and with maps and drawings showed us how  she and her team had transformed the area and all its vacant concrete since 1998 into the lush and thriving garden it is today. Bonnie introduced the three other teachers in attendance Susan, Aaron and Elyse who later told us stories of how she had biked for 5 years across Europe and the middle east in her youth. I found myself awestruck again by how this project lets us meet such rad people. Bonnie explained what was on the agenda for today sifting compst, diggin holes and weedin, and then facilitated splitting us all up between the different tasks, SalesForce peeps, youth interns, and the Birds, so we could see the diversity and connection making magic of the Living Library at work. The Birds were put on weeding duty. We grabbed some gloves followed Bonnie to the beds that needed the most work, watched her demo, and then set to work as she flitted off…

Cool. So there I was. Standing in a Living Library, with pink gloves on, and a spade in one hand. As for our interview, or having any kind of one on one time with Ms. Sherk, I had no idea. She seemed to have the ball in her court. I was slightly intimidated really. No that’s an understatement. I could barely utter a word to Bonnie, I was so intimidated, and she seemed to hold a powerful presence, kind and friendly, but like this afternoon was going to proceed on her terms. So I focused on weeding and soaking in the connection making transformative energy of the garden by trying to make small talk with my fellow weeders. About an hour later a class began with a group of preschool aged kids. Aaron warned us they were coming down into the garden and asked for willing volunteers to team up with the kids. Like a herd of floppy puppies the children bounded into the garden. Aaron refreshed the class on what weeds were and how to pull them up and then he divvied up the group of kids to the waiting adults. Lauren and I got two buddies each. We searched for suitable weeds and I quizzed them on how they felt about gardening. It was such an amazing sight to see. Kids bounding around, teenagers and adults gently encouraging and mentoring. The children were safe in the garden, encouraged to stay on task but allowed to drift through the plants and as they got tired, or bored or needed to pee, they all ended up migrating back up to the upper garden to play in the dirt or help with the chaos that was happening up there, with hole diggin’ and bean planting, or simply to go back to the playground. I appreciated the loose fluidity of the afternoon; the relaxed trust in the group of volunteers and children to work together to get the job done, and the respect for the kids short attention spans. I escorted one of my little buddies to the upper garden, and to see where the source of gleeful screams were coming from. A patch of dirt, water and shovels in hand, and some newly planted bean seedlings and the kids were stoked…Reno was in the middle of it, beaming in the kids excited energy. I wandered back down to return to my other buddy and bumped into Bonnie Sherk. She was pruning a tree on the sidewalk. She asked how it was going and when we would like to have that interview. I stumbled over my words and said we were ready when she was. She said she was busy now and how about a little later, towards the end of the work day, we could have a chat in the garden, and then she went back to her work. It was vague, but she was going to sit down with us and then I would get to pick her brain and bask in her awesomeness.

As the kids and SalesForce volunteers started heading out, a young man, in his early twenties, appeared at the gate asking for Bonnie. We told him she was around and to come on in. It turns out this young man’s name was Dante and that he went to the elementary school and high school attached to the garden. He was one of the original kids involved in the school programs and he helped plant some of the trees that were big and tall now. Dante was working as a security guard at the middle school down the street, but he had aspirations to be a teacher. He was going to involved in a garden project over there and for the past few weeks he had been popping by to find Bonnie and reconnect with her. Bonnie was overjoyed to see Dante. She got him to sit down with us and film them talking about the transformation of the living library and how it effected him. She offered him a job and reveled in the joy of how things come fulls circle. Then we had a brief exchange with Bonnie. She was comfortable and very articulate in front of the camera, but she dominated the ‘interview’ between her and Dante and between her and us. It was enlightening and inspiring, but I didn’t get to ask her any of the questions I had hoped to.

Soon it was time to go, our memory cards were maxed, and we could barely see straight from a day in the sun and mostly empty tummy’s. Bonnie told us she was excited we had come and got to witness the garden full of action and that impromptu reunion with her and Dante and that we should send her the footage so she could put it on the blog. We all gave her hugs and thanked her for her time, trying to have a sincere moment, and then Susan appeared with a question and she was off to tend to other things. And that was it. Looking back on the footage we have of that day, it was a pretty magical experience. The project of the Living Libraries is impressive and still so inspiring to me it  makes the hair on my arms rise. It’s just our encounter with Bonnie Sherk that was not what I expected or hoped it to be. She is a powerful woman. I think I’ve been struggling with writing this post because I wasn’t quite sure how to say that it was difficult meeting her. Not warm and fuzzy and a sincere connection making experience like we have had with so many other amazing people on this trip. But we met her, in her style. And I think what I can take away from that experience is that like so many other people we have met through this project, Bonnie Sherk was inspired, she had a vision and not being an expert she gulped, rolled up her sleeves and jumped in. Maybe what happened is I went to the Living Library that day expecting to meet my idol and I left having met just a pretty incredible person.

– Haley (the curly one)

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