Creative Influences: Tending chickens in the backyard when it was not urban chic

8x10 Film Contact Prints of Spring Planting and Harvest

There was always food being grown wherever my father lived.  When I was very young he lived in rural western North Carolina and rented houses where he could farm a small plot.  I recall picking and then stomping grapes in the bathtub with my sister to mash them up for home-made wine.  We milked the neighbors milk cow on saturdays.  I watched as the heavy cream would rise to the top of the bucket.  We skimmed it off and made butter with a vintage wooden paddle wheel that screwed on to the top of a giant mason jar.    Admittedly I was traumatized on several occasions by having to eat overlooked squashes which had become bitter in their advanced age and overgrown size.  When my father moved to Atlanta, he chose a house with a large back yard where he kept chickens, bees, fruit trees and a small vegetable plot.  When his back yard could not contain his miniature urban farm, he befriended the neighbors and starting farming their back yards too in exchange for produce.  Later he worked with a group of friends to plan, develop and move into East Lake Commons, a co-housing development in East Atlanta.  This co-housing development has individual condominiums, a common house with a commercial kitchen where weekly community meals and meetings are held and a working farm that provides education and community supported agriculture to the surrounding community. 

Recently I was reflecting on what my creative influences have been that lead me to create the artwork that is most meaningful to me today.  I realized that this upbringing connected me to the land even in an urban context.  It connected me to the seasons and an awareness of growing and eating seasonal healthy food.  I developed a sense of enjoyment in nurturing life from small seeds to plants or baby chicks to adult chickens.  This connectedness to the cycles of life contributed to my developing environmental ethics which began when I was in high school. My mother encouraged my involvement in civic life.  I was involved in a local environmental youth group which raised money to create the children's forest preserve in Costa Rica and engaged in a massive tree planting campaign on Mount Mitchell in western North Carolina. In high school I lead the environmental club in weekly letter writing campaign on environmental issues to our state senators.

Years later I had the good fortune to marry my husband, who is a professional chef.  His creativity is expressed through his love of cooking seasonal healthy food. His love of good food was instilled in him by his mother, who had a back yard garden when he was a child.  When we wanted to purchase a home, he insisted that we have a plot of land around it suitable for growing a vegetable garden.  At his insistence we began growing food at home and over time I began photographing the garden and the associated activities.  At first I included our faces in the photographs, because I saw them as portraits.  Over time I realized that what I really wanted to share were not portraits of us, but instead I wanted to images that express the pleasure of living, growing and eating sustainable food grown in the back yard.

As an artist, you never know where your creative influences will come from.  I believe that a person's upbringing has a profound impact.  In my case, my father was always a farmer at heart, even though his career path lead him elsewhere. He came from a farming family in Ohio.  In 1999 we attended a family reunion and visited the family farm.  I took these photographs that year.  This was the last time I saw my Great Uncle Carl who was the family farmer.

Starting when my sister and I were children and continuing on into my twenties my father always had a flock of chickens clucking around the yard.  We never ate the hens, because we were lacto-ovo vegetarians.  At the time it was very unusual to be raised as a vegetarian.  I distinctly remember at 6 years old having to explain to adults what a vegetarian is and why I do not eat meat.

These days it is becoming downright trendy to keep backyard chickens!  However, back then it was unusual and in some locales, against town ordinances.  My father would bribe the neighbors to not complain about the noise with free eggs, and when the hens stopped laying due to age, the neighbors got free chicken too. 

Portrait of Rooster 1999 Atlanta, GA

Portrait of Rooster 1999 Atlanta, GA