Project to Graft Branches is Blooming on Campus
By Tim Meehan
When Cal State San Marcos visual arts senior Sarah Bricke went to Balboa Park in February 2020 to pick up single graft branches as part of a project with CoLab series visiting artist Margaretha Haughwout, the branches, in Bricke’s most accurate description, looked like dead sticks.
Bringing what appeared to be dead sticks to CSUSM a month before the pandemic changed the dynamic energy of the campus community was certainly not the intention of the project. But the fact those small branches had no leaves or blooms was, visually at least, a sign of things to come.
As part of her week-long stay at CSUSM, Haughwout grafted the fruit-bearing branches on to some ornamental trees on campus.
And then the project – and life, in many ways – took a long pause.
Last month, art, media and design lecturer Tony Allard visited campus and found that these grafts have taken and are flowering. The hope is that they will bear pears in a few years.
“I always had faith in the project and the process, but there was something very powerful about the images of the grafts thriving on a campus that has been for the most part deserted ever since the workshop took place,” said Bricke, who is now a Master of Fine Arts candidate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “There is something very powerful about that.”
The flower that grows through adversity can inspire generations.
“I was so happy when Tony Allard sent me the first photos of the trees,” said Haughwout, who is an assistant professor of art and art history at Colgate University. “It seemed especially portent because of the year we've been through – a sign of life, spring, hybridity and connection. The trees were waking up and coming out of dormancy, and so were we.”
Haughwout is part of a group called Guerrilla Grafters, which is an internationally known collective of environmental artists. They look at non-fruit bearing ornamental fruit trees, and then graft fruit-bearing branches on to those so that over time they produce nutritious fruit that’s made available to urban residents.
Art, media and design professor Kristine Diekman brought Haughwout to CSUSM as part of a grant intended to focus the AMD department on interdisciplinary teaching. The collaborative arts initiative looks at art through many different lenses, including physical and social sciences, global studies, public health, anthropology and American Indian studies.
Haughwout engaged with close to 300 students in different general education and art courses. She also worked closely with environmental studies students, Inspiration Studios and the student-led art club Staircase Exhibition.
“One of the things that she talked a lot about was how things coexist,” Diekman said. “So you might find what we consider a weed that's growing next to a cultivated plant and that, instead of removing the weed, these things coexist for a reason together. I love that idea that life grows out of the discarded things, out of the things that we want to remove. There are things that sometimes we need to keep there to coexist along with this other complicated thing.”
Haughwout’s visit wasn’t just about the grafting. The project also included presentations and hands-on workshops as she worked with students in printmaking, photography classes, digital drawing classes and a special mini project with Allard’s digital drawing course.
They made multispecies seed packets where students were assigned a tree in the CSUSM landscape. They not only had to draw the tree itself but also the textures and species around it. The artwork was then printed and turned into seed packets for companion species for the trees.
One of the students Haughwout connected with was Addy Lyon, a fourth-year AMD major with a minor in psychology. Lyon is involved in many eco-art projects on campus, including running the community garden.
“Working with Margaretha was a wonderful experience, learning more about the technical process of grafting and the community activism aspect of her work,” Lyon said. “Especially learning about how non-fruit bearing trees hold the ability to grow fruit through the grafting process was very eyeopening to the possibilities in which nature holds. Seeing the grafts blooming on campus is so beautiful and knowing that it was successful is an extraordinary feeling.”
Said Bricke: “I found her ability to connect with students and faculty inspiring. I think that for many students who participated, it was an opportunity to discover new places on campus and see in greater detail the places and plants that surround us.”
Haughwout said one of the highlights of her visit was getting a tour of the campus with Diekman from George Martinez, the assistant director of facility services. He provided a history of the campus landscape as well as plans for the future.
Martinez’s PDF about the landscaping on the CSUSM website helped her enormously as she made plans for her visit.
One of the stops was at the statue of César Chávez. The blooming trees in question are on the sides of the steps leading to the statue, just to the east of the USU.
“As an artist, I am always looking for moments and spaces in everyday life in which I can intervene,” Haughwout said. “I work with technologies and ecologies to do these interventions – to reveal possible worlds, worlds of presence, relationship and abundance. In so doing, I want to antagonize capitalist and colonial organizations of place (property), work and nature.
“I loved that they stood beneath the statue of César Chávez, the incredible leader of farm workers’ rights and such an important figure in agricultural history. I like to imagine he is expressing solidarity with this project we were doing.”
It’s not a stretch to say these trees can give future CSUSM students the gift of life. A junior who hopefully steps back onto campus in the fall may enjoy some fresh pears before he or she graduates.
The entire project was meant to give students not only nutrition but, as Diekman puts it, “a multimodal experience of a better understanding of their environment on this college campus.”
When Allard returned to campus recently for his vaccine, the “dead sticks” had blossomed.
“It just felt like some kind of hopeful renewal because everything stopped so quickly right after the visit,” Diekman said. “I love the fact that these grafts just kind of on their own decided to continue the life of the project they took, and they worked and they're growing now because you don't know if they're going to work or not. I just find these grafts inspiring and renewing and makes me feel hopeful about a return to campus. And these will always be there. The life to the project continues on.
“Flowers grow through weeds sometimes. For as tough as we've had it the past year, and the campus certainly was not immune to any of the tough situations, now we're moving back, and here's the symbol of what that can be.”
Eric Breier, Public Affairs Specialist
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