Rose Clancy says she's not a serious gardener. "I'm an artist who works with plants."
Just don't tell her neighbors, who sometimes water and help tend what they call her garden at 510 Sampsonia Way, near the Mattress Factory art museum on the North Side.
Two women stopped by Thursday while Ms. Clancy was showing a reporter the art installation she calls the GardenLab@510.
"You've done so much in the last few months," one exclaimed.
Her companion admired the kale and mustard greens growing toward the back of the small lot. "Do you know how to fix that?" she asked the artist. "Cook 'em in a little olive oil."
Although she grew up in a handy, gardening family in Eighty Four, Washington County, Ms. Clancy doesn't always know how to fix things -- or people. Her search for community and healing is often at the root of her art.
"This is an experiment with so many different levels. People pick up on what they want," she said. "I hope they come in and get something out of it."
At the most obvious level, the many herbs and vegetables that grow here provide sustenance to her neighbors. The plants that fill raised beds created from old hoses woven through steel pipe include pole beans, red and green peppers, lettuce, Swiss chard, parsley, sage, lemon thyme, basil, and Greek oregano.
Neighbors take only what they need -- "It's about trust," the artist says -- and sometimes it's more than food. Some visitors come to eat their lunch or just sit inside the Bean House Ms. Clancy created by growing pole beans over a frame of donated mulberry branches. They can do the same inside a 10-foot-long tunnel of gourd plants. At one end, hidden behind the lush vines, is a small plaster bust of a Native American that Ruth Clancy, the artist's mother, made in a high school art class. Now pockmarked by the weather, it was stained by dark liquid that leached from black walnut trees in Ms. Clancy's first GardenLab, two lots away at 516 Sampsonia. After two years there, the artist moved the project because museum officials decided to turn the adjacent building into exhibition space.
Along with the bust, she brought to the new space a weathered picket fence pocked with cut-out holes, a chunk of concrete that had been poured over a brick patio, and five tall planters made from wood scraps, including pieces of a 120-year-old Clancy family barn, recently torn down.
The planters honor her family, and the sunflowers that grow inside them, her mother. Although Ms. Clancy installed a double rain barrel and a system of tubing running from the gutter of a neighbor's garage, it was still difficult to keep the planters watered during this hot, dry summer. Her neighbors helped, but she had to come often from her home in Ingram. She puts in about 10 hours a week watering and tending the space, which is always open.
"It's a hardship for me ... The plants in this garden are metaphors for mental illness and how it affects the children."
In her first GardenLab@516, the plants were a metaphor for people healing themselves, she said. Except for the potato plants that were her starting point, that installation consisted mostly of found art from objects Ms. Clancy dug up on site. In the GardenLab@510, edible plants are the main media and building community an ongoing theme.
"My effort rippled out into the community and rippled back," she said.
The picket fence that separated the GardenLab@516 from the street gave the artist some sense of security. Passers-by could look in through holes in the fence but unless Ms. Clancy happened to be there, they could not come in. This lot is open to the alley.
"I was feeling very vulnerable at first," she admitted.
To make her raised beds, she used hoses she found on site and galvanized steel pipe left by artist Karl Burke, whose installation "7 Increments" once stood there. When she put the word out that she needed more hoses, neighbors and museum patrons responded.
Many of the project's materials are donated, and more continue to come in. When Ms. Clancy arrived Thursday, she found old tools someone had left. As she turned the crank on a hand drill, her artistic mind was already spinning.
"I like the idea of gears -- and movement."
The GardenLab@510 Sampsonia Way (15212) is always open. It will remain through the winter and possibly into the spring, continually changing. To see more photos, go to this Facebook album. Information: www.mattress.org, www.roseclancy.com.
Kevin Kirkland: email@example.com or 412-263-1978. First Published September 15, 2012 4:00 AM