Transformation is constant. Sometimes it’s an artist moving through styles and periods, or a cityscape shifting eras and purposes.
Now that shift takes a visible form in one familiar spot in downtown Mobile. For the next three months, The Lost Garden aims to challenge concepts of urban use and sustainability.
The project is the product of artist Colleen Terrell Comer. A graphic artist by trade, her paintings of overgrown and neglected houses sparked further ideas.
“I wanted to take that aesthetic and almost create a sort of sculpture version of it,” Comer said, emphasizing her goal of creating an interactive experience. “I wanted to build it in one of Mobile Urban Growers’ gardens or near one of their gardens so that they could grow things on it.”
The group Comer referenced is the result of what began in 2011 when an Old Dauphin Way neighborhood began a community garden on donated space behind the law firm of Boteler, Finley and Wolfe near Ann and Dauphin streets. Since then other gardens have sprouted around Mobile, among them St. Mark Community Garden, the Africatown Community Garden, the Beehive Garden behind Government Street Methodist Church and Taylor Park Community Garden.
“My vision was to combine installation work with living plants in a way that would be helpful to the community,” Comer said. “So I talked to Patricia Hall (at Mobile Urban Growers) and tossed a few ideas out there and she said ‘great, when do you want to do it?’ That would have been back in the winter.”
The first order of business was to scale back on the artist’s outsized ambition. To her credit, she dreamed beyond a first-time project.
“I had a much grander idea for using temporary gardens in places that don’t have them, focusing on the Dauphin Island Parkway area, bringing in a farmer’s market and that kind of thing,” Comer said. “We decided it would be best to start small.”
The gardening group was looking for visibility in order to spread its message. Comer was amenable to a more manageable size.
A Mobile Urban Growers member, Henry Perkins, also works at the Downtown Mobile Alliance and thought of the empty lot next to the Alliance office at 261 Dauphin St. Now deemed an art park, the deed belongs to the Centre for the Living Arts, newly renamed the Alabama Contemporary Arts Centre (ACAC).
“They lobbied and got the ACAC lot and then brought Meghan Tanner at Mobile Area Food Bank on board because they were very interested since they have grants that promote home gardening,” Comer said. “They have a whole program about home growing and feeding yourself.”
Comer had worked with ACAC in the past, back when their main exhibit space was still called Space 301. She worked with visiting artists Rick Lowe and Tracy Hicks when they created a representational row house for the Memory Project in 2012. Comer was thinking along the same lines.
“I designed it out of my head using local architecture, as sort of an imitation of a shotgun house,” the artist said. “The paintings I do feature a lot of shotgun houses so it was sort of a natural progression for me.”
Her plan was a structure created from found materials, roughly 16 feet by 18 feet, with viewers able to move freely through it. ACAC expressed concerns with liability, safety and city building codes so she altered her design to three smaller houses, each roughly 7 feet high, 4 feet long and 2 feet wide.
The plants have been growing throughout the spring and will be transplanted by Mobile Urban Growers. Onsite, they will be replanted into beds made from found materials like old cans and baby pools.
“I hope we’re overgrown in the next three months,” Comer said. “We’re going to have beans and all kinds of vegetables growing through and around the houses.”
True to the wider aspirations of the artist and the involved organizations, the space will prove widely fertile. They want it to grow communal involvement and identity.
“We want it to be a venture point, a real cross-section of Mobilians that come see it and get involved,” Comer said. “Within the garden we want to have a series of programs so we’re going to do classes, like on how to pickle. Then we’re going to do some short story workshops and we’re going to do some movie nights to take advantage of that big wall down there.”
From this blossom, she wants to see the project bear fruit in myriad ways. The artist believes it can be a launching point for wider discussions.
“The theme being, we’re the lost garden and we’re growing and it’s all about growing the arts instead of looking backward at the cuts that have been made,” Comer said. “How do we move forward from this? How do we work together as organizations? The city’s not going to save arts in Mobile; artists are going to save arts in Mobile.”