Van Ryzin: A community garden designed as public art

It’s a bit of an unusual public art commission to begin with: Design the new North Austin Community Garden.

And so when Austin-based artists and architectural designers Lucy Begg and Robert Gay first received the project commission in 2012, they considered broadening the scope of what traditionally defines public art and how that art is created.

Located on the grounds of the new North Austin YMCA on Rundberg Lane and opening March 29, the community garden will include about 40 beds for individual gardeners, plots for community groups and plots with raised beds more accessible for individuals with disabilities.

Created in partnership with the YMCA of Austin, the city’s Sustainable Urban Agriculture and Community Garden Program as well as the Sustainable Food Center, the garden’s mission goes beyond providing space for those who might not have private access to a garden. Ecology, environmental sustainability, community-building, education about wellness and diet — it’s all part of the garden’s larger purpose.

So why create a garden with just a symbolic sculpture plunked in its center or with a decorative gate fringing its entrance — some monolithic object, something Begg and Gay conceived of all on their own?

“We’re fond of projects that have community function, that involve a social practice,” Begg says recently in the studio of Thoughtbarn, the small design firm she and Gay, her husband, operate in East Austin.

The chose the moniker “Thoughtbarn” for their design practice because they liked the implied juxtaposition.

“We like conceptual approaches” to design, Begg says. “But we also like the building process and simple construction strategies.”

Thoughtbarn’s modest but tidy office is carved out of a pair of rooms that were once part of a small roadside motel, a vestige from when the far end of East Cesar Chavez Street led to the highway out of Austin and was more roadside than the urban neighborhood it is now.

But as a city expands and shape-shifts, so do the uses of spaces and buildings within it. Former roadside motels become a funky office and studio complex for creative industry businesses. And an empty plot along the upper reaches of Waller Creek in North Austin becomes a community garden.

Outside Thoughtbarn’s offices sit several 6-foot, A-shaped metal frames that resemble the kind of trellises on which vines and climbing plants grow. Brightly colored PVC-coated steel wire loops vertically through the frames, creating a kinetic linear shimmer of blue, green, yellow, chartreuse, orange, pink.

The half-dozen A-shaped frames are just part of the 170-foot fence that winds through the 10,000-square-foot garden.

“Fences — nothing gets people talking like fences,” Begg says with a laugh.

When Begg and Gay received the garden commission from the city’s Art in Public Places Program two years ago, they embarked on a series of community discussions, workshops and public events, using whatever platform they could to mine the thoughts and ideas of those who were interested in using the garden or those who lived nearby it.

Those artist-led public discussions resulted in the formation of the Garden Leadership Committee, a group of volunteers now charged with developing bylaws and policies for the cooperative use of the garden. Membership is open to all.

But at the beginning of the community discussions the nature, purpose and design of a potential fence governed the discourse as much as how the garden would be plotted out and designed to serve multi-purposes.

“Some people see fences as exclusive, some people see them as secure,” Begg says.

Thoughtbarn in the end created the variegated fence that winds through the garden to serve several functions. It provides important landscape delineation from the surrounding YMCA parking lot and acts as a cheerful signpost from afar, signalling the garden’s location. It also functions as a potential trellis gardeners could use to grow vine plants. And the fence serves as a sculptural installation.

Mirroring the colorful fence — and also addressing the needs of the gardeners — Begg and Gay conceived of a garden tool shed fronted by a small pavilion-like enclosure.

The semi-circular structure has the same variegated vertical patterning as the fence but made of wood, not wire. The shed will have opaque paneling to allow for natural light — no electricity will be needed. Like a covered porch, the pavilion juts out from the shed to offer a shaded spot or a place away from the rain, maybe a site for gardeners to gather informally.

In the next few weeks, Begg and Gay and their Thoughtbarn designers will be building the fence and the shed along with the newly formed garden committee and other volunteers. And there are several community work days scheduled, open to anyone interested in helping.

Says Begg: “In many ways the community process, the discussions and talks — that’s just as interesting as the design and artistic process.”

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