November 11, 2011
By Xavier Cortada
When I started out as a professional artist in the mid-1990s, I would engage others in painting collaborative murals to amplify their voices.
I would bring people together in public spaces to address important social concerns: street children in Bolivia’s main plaza; former gang members in a Northern Philly barrio; Greek and Turkish Cypriots at the UN Green Line; Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland; AIDS workers in South Africa; kids jailed in Miami’s adult prisons and psychiatric facilities, etc.
Years ago, I remember telling a journalist that I could never see myself painting flowers.
As I type this, there is still some paint on my right forearm. It’s from painting wildflowers. I guess I’m not a good fortune teller and can be a little careless when cleaning up…
In the studio I’m creating studies for wildflowers that I am going to paint next month on the exterior of a container for the 2011 Kaohsiung International Container Art Festival in Taiwan’s port city of Kaohsiung.
I guess I see flowers differently now. Let’s call it growth.
Wildflowers magically rise from the soil in a triumphant celebration of color and form. They are architectural masterpieces, miniature cathedrals. Ever building and ever decaying. And ever regenerating themselves again according to plan.
Wildflowers hold medicinal powers to combat diseases we have yet to encounter. To solve problems we have yet begun to imagine.
Wildflowers allow the planet’s pollinators, with whom they co‐evolved through time, to fulfill their joint responsibility of sustaining life’s fragile web. An intricate and complex biological process that makes Earth verdant, sustains all animals (including humans), and balances atmospheric gases (that accelerate global climate change).
Obviously, wildflowers would naturally continue to blanket our planet were it not for the displacement caused by the concrete we’ve poured ‐‐ and the parcels we’ve platted ‐‐ to build our homes and grow our society.
In the spring of 1513, with its flowers in full bloom, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon landed on the eastern shore of the peninsula where I live. Wanting to claim it for Spain, he named it Florida, from the Spanish word “flor” or flower.
Thirty‐one years later, Portuguese sailors traveling across longitudes on the other side of the planet, were taken by Taiwan’s natural beauty. They named the place “Ilha Formosa” or beautiful island.
In time, others followed and eventually colonized both presuming that everything before them ‐‐ from finite natural resources to the lives and labor of the indigenous population ‐‐ was theirs for the taking. It is an approach that endures to this day: The collective need for sustainability and balance is trumped by individuals’ insatiable want for more, more and more.
Almost everything in my home was made somewhere else. It was produced in a land where the cost of labor is cheaper than in Florida. It was manufactured and packed into a container and shipped across the sea, along with its huge carbon footprint.
Every day, containers sail across the Earth’s longitudes filled with products consumers are taught to “need.” Containers filled with products engineered by man for near‐term obsolescence, so that consumers constantly grow their demand for the newer model. The latest thing.
What if we would instead demand things slowly engineered by nature to stand the test of time, products that never lose their usefulness because they are made for a true purpose. Things that are renewable, sustainable. Life‐giving.
We need to better coexist by better tempering our personal demand for excess so that our growth is managed in a way that sustains not just humans but all living beings with whom we share (and need for our survival on) this planet. Not just now, but for generations (and millennia) to come.
We need to recreate lost habitats, rehabilitate dwindling ecosystems and engage in sustainable practices across every single one of the planet’s longitudes.
We need to engage in a new kind of “colonization” – one that uses green flags, not political ones. One that reclaims Earth for nature.
That is why inside the container, I will display the green flags participants will create to reclaim their very own yards for nature.
Instead of having paint on their forearms, I want the participants to have dirt under their fingernails.
I want them to use their neighborhood as a canvas and plant native wildflowers.
Wildflowers “Made in Taiwan,” naturally.
Let them bloom.
(Learn more about the participatory eco-art project at www.nativeflags.org.)