Urban Garden Dreams: Student Community Art at the Sachs Museum

Urban Garden Dreams: Student Community Art is currently installed in the Stephen and Peter Sachs Museum, which is open daily for visitors, 11:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. It will be on view through March 2024. The exhibition content is available online at the Museum Twitter account here and the Museum Instagram account here. Please check the Museum site here for updates and future online events.

All about the exhibition
The Missouri Botanical Garden is an oasis in the city of St. Louis that offers 79 acres of beautiful horticultural display, historic architecture, one of the world’s largest collections of rare and endangered flora, and a unique museum. To highlight the impact of being a leading urban garden, the Stephen and Peter Sachs Museum presents Urban Garden Dreams: Student Community Art. This exhibition features artworks by students from the St. Louis region who were challenged to create their perfect urban garden. Art teachers from participating schools and community art programs worked with their students, Kindergarten to 12th grade, to envision how their dream gardens would be designed and what plants would be included. Some of the students used the Missouri Botanical Garden spaces for inspiration, as well as other parts of their homes and neighborhoods, to draw or paint their artworks submitted to the exhibition.

To visit the exhibition virtually, please check out this tour designed by the Garden’s Supervisor of Digital Engagement and Exhibit Interpretation, Morgan Maul-Smith.

Urban Gardens and Art Teachers

Humans have been making urban gardens as soon as densely populated settlements appeared in ancient times, with small green spaces dedicated for growing herbs, flowers, or foods—ancient Egyptians used potted plants in their urban spaces thousands of years ago. Today, about 56% of the world’s population live in cities, and that trend continues to grow each year, so people will have to continue to practice their urban gardening skills to make sure they have access to plants every day. For those of us living in cities, our access to green spaces is not always easy and immediate—and we have to commit to making the spaces around us as green as we can so we can both use and enjoy plants of all kinds in our lives.

Urban Garden Dreams: Student Community Art is the first exhibition at the Sachs Museum that focuses on the community relationships with schools, art teachers, and students and the creativity of gardening and horticulture. As the Garden has a long and storied history of garden design, plant conservation, and expert horticulture, it is a leader in St. Louis, in the nation, and globally on a wide variety of scientific and horticultural fields. The Garden’s William T. Kemper Center for Home Gardening is a global resources accessed online and through staff over a million times each year, and some of the art teachers whose students’ works are in the exhibition used the Kemper Center for inspiration for this community art exhibition. The Garden’s talented and skilled School Programs team’s Onsite Coordinator Carmen Buchanan was instrumental in connecting the Museum Curator with the large network of teachers throughout the St. Louis region. In collaborating with art teachers specifically, this exhibition features the best in the talents of area teachers and students in representing the importance and delight urban gardens can bring us, and expand our imaginations to access these therapeutic and productive spaces.

View of Lower Level Gallery with student artworks. Photo by Virginia Harold.

Developing the Art Challenge for the Exhibition

The key creator of the art challenge for Urban Garden Dreams was Sachs Museum intern Rachel Gonzalez. A final project in her Museum Studies program at the University of Oklahoma asked students to conceptualize an exhibition they would like to see come to life Having worked previously in a remote internship with the Sachs Museum and Curator Nezka Pfeifer, she was thrilled to collaborate again. The idea for this exhibition came from a substantial amount of reflection on two subjects: sustainable resources in unlikely environments and the simplicity of a child’s ideology.

While the initial proposal seemed simple enough, she found herself getting lost in the details of how to translate these practices into the parameters of a museum exhibition.  A passing conversation with her then 2-year-old son, Miles, wound up being the turning point in my process. While thinking out loud about where or how to garden in an apartment, he shrugged and said, “Probably the roof.” From there, her research turned to the burgeoning practice of urban farming.

“St. Louis natives understand the constraints and advantages of city living. However, in our sprawling concrete jungle, we may sacrifice the accessibility and gratitude of tending a garden. This pastime provides a possible escape from daily tumult, a boost to mental health, and a reduction of food waste” Gonzalez explained.

Of course, as the great Jeff Goldblum stated, “life finds a way,” and research has shown an increasing movement to work outside of certain housing constraints. Apartment dwellers and urbanites have taken to employing their patios, discarded egg cartons, windowsills, and the like to cultivate their tiny oases.

While the adults may have the tools and the funds to kickstart seedlings, Gonzalez wondered what other children were capable of putting together if her toddler thought so quickly on his feet. This spark led to what you see within the Stephen and Peter Sachs Museum today.

The prompt allowed children in grades K-12 to fully take the reins on their definition of an urban garden, which is showcased so thoroughly and beautifully in the children’s innovative artwork. The subtle details and vibrant colors demonstrate that our students are not only listening, but are well on their way to growing something beautiful.

View of Lower Level and Main Evans galleries with student artworks; photos by Virginia Harold

Garden Themes Explored by Students in their Artworks

When you visit the Urban Garden Dreams exhibition, the students’ works are organized by school; this installation allows visitors to see how the art teachers play a large role in helping their students create their works, as well as presenting specific challenges to tackle as they made their submissions for the exhibition. Many students were inspired by their communities and designed gardens that represented the neighborhoods that would enjoy and benefit from them.

“I want people to see my garden as a very unpopular place,” said Shadaun of Washington EleMiddle “writes of his artwork: “Cars do not come by the garden that much so it is a very quiet place for people. Especially for the neighborhood seniors and kids since they like quiet places often. Other people know about the garden by rumors and hearing about its beauty. The people that have seen the garden will be in awe by the shape and life of my garden.”
“My perfect urban garden is a neighborhood community garden in Chicago,” said Patrick at Little Flower School.
Sydnie’s artwork from Grand Center Arts Academy depicts an urban landscape with some plants peeking out of the cracks of the environment.

Some students created aerial views of their dream gardens, much like a horticulturist or garden designer would do today. Some of the Garden’s Horticulture staff were very impressed with the botanical labeling in these designs.

Oasis by Ellice Dunaway, Little Flower School; colored pencil, ca. 2022.
Pizza Garden by Isaac Irishuye, Mason School; mixed media, ca. 2022.
Fiber Garden by Luke and Matthew, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta/artscope; pencil, watercolor, pastel, and yarn, ca. 2022.

Rooftop gardens were also a popular subject for the student artists in Urban Garden Dreams as well as finding ways to incorporate plants in a wide variety of urban environments.

Rooftop Gardens by Olivia Williams, Clark Elementary School; marker, colored pencil, and glitter, ca. 2022.
Urban Landscape by Ainsley McClard, Ste. Genevieve R-11; watercolor, colored pencil, paint, and pencil on canvas, ca. 2022.
The Modern Garden by Madison Wilson, Parkway West High School; watercolor, ink, and colored pencil, ca. 2022.
Old Village Garden by Georgia Giancola, Ascension Catholic School; graphite and charcoal, ca. 2022.

There were also garden designs and artworks that featured smaller, more intimate spaces filled with greenery. Balconies filled with vertical plants, hanging baskets, and pots, or backyards surrounded by trees and succulents, or small greenhouses to grow lots of tiny plants.

Balcony Garden by Seleste Mejica, Edwardsville High School; watercolor and pen, ca. 2022.
Landscape by Elise Marx, Parkway South Middle School; acrylic paint, ca. 2022.
Lovely Greenhouse by Brielle Bryant, Harvest Ridge Elementary School; marker and colored pencil, ca. 2022.

There were student artists that focused specifically on plants and flowers; this allowed them to feature those plants that they really loved or admired. When Noelle draws or paints flowers, she “is inspired by them. I make them lots of colors. In a perfect garden, there is blossoming flowers that are all colors. The blue spots are designs from my imagination. Thinking of what I wanted to make was the hard thing. I have so many ideas that I don’t have enough time to make them.” All of the students at Hazelwood West Middle, including Brian, chose their own special flowers with intense colors as the focus of their artworks.

Flowers by Noelle Bohannon, Maplewood Richmond Heights; printmaking, ca. 2022.
Blue Kaleidoscopes by Braden Matz, Hazelwood West Middle School; pastel on black paper, ca. 2022.

The dream garden designs also explored the fantastical garden, with all manner of things growing for the benefit of the community that could use it. Caroline designed a book garden, “where paper dreams come true and evolve into entertaining stories. The garden is complete with multiple genres and ‘Pillow Place’ where you can relax by the pond and Swan library.”

Book Garden by Caroline Rowe, Willow Brook Elementary School; Sharpie, chalk pastels, and colored pencils, ca. 2022.

The creativity and sensitivity found in these artworks showcase the talents of all of the art teachers who participated in this exhibition, and their ability to work with their exceptional students on developing their wonderful ideas for these pieces. Please visit the show and check out the artworks virtually to be inspired!

Nezka Pfeifer, Museum Curator, Stephen and Peter Sachs Museum

Generous thanks to all the art teachers, students, and schools who created these wonderful artworks and shared their visions of their ideal garden spaces for the exhibition. Paige Boyer, Clark Elementary School Tarah Chambers, Ascension Catholic School Elaine Eversgerd, Hazelwood West Middle School Cassie Flynn, Edwardsville High School Jami Heflin, Harvest Ridge Elementary School Catherine Jeltes, Little Flower School Crystal Koenig, St. Genevieve R-11 School Dawn Lynn, Willow Brook Elementary Karen Norman, Mason School of Academic and Cultural Literacy Kristi Ponder, Parkway West High School Kari Schepker-Mueller, Maplewood Richmond Heights Early Childhood Center Karen Silverman, Parkway South Middle School Molly Skiljan, Little Flower School Moira Smith, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta/artscope residency Brittane Smotherman-Lindsay, Washington EleMiddle School Kate Valleroy, Grand Center Arts Academy   Grateful thanks to the team of jurors of Garden staff who spent time reviewing and jurying the artworks in the exhibition: Carmen Buchanan, Kate Gleason, Daria McKelvey, Matthew Norman, and Kelly Wehrheim.   Special thanks to Rachel Gonzalez, who as the Sachs Museum intern drafted the artwork challenge for the students and coordinated research for the exhibition, as well as served as one of the jurors. Thanks to Kristen Leonard and Zak Zavada for printing all the digital submissions for the exhibition, and to Olive Tree Design for the exhibition graphics design and artwork labels. Grateful thanks to Virginia Harold for exhibition photography.

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