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Garden Provides Food, Inspiration For Artists

The heirloom tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, butternut squash, basil, arugula, endive, radishes and carrots are thriving in local artist Linda Kunik’s backyard. She plans to harvest the cantaloupe and watermelon in a couple of weeks.

These days, many people are turning their backyards into “mini-farms,” but Kunik has turned hers into a co-op of sorts for fellow artists termed “Plant It Forward —The Starving Artist Project.”

Kunik, a 31-year resident, has “referenced” the land since early in her career as a watercolorist and landscape painter.

Addressing issues of globalization and ecology, Kunik’s “Deforestation and the Land” series highlighting Bolivia and Brazil, led to paintings about global warming and ocean pollution.

Her quest for sustainable uses for the land led to her fascination with organic gardening and after five years of practice, Kunik decided to put her money where her mouth was and turn her yard into a working garden and focus on productive land use.

“It was a way to combine my love of gardening with my love of art,” Kunik said.

So with the addition of 10 cubic yards of soil, Kunik has taken out lawns and flowerbeds and created five gardens at her Coldwater Canyon Drive home.

The largest takes up most of the backyard and boasts custom-built supports for the eight-foot-tall heirloom tomatoes among the lettuce, spinach, eggplant and beans.

As any artist would do, Kunik shaped the gardens asymmetrically with a walking path between them and sunflowers adorning the corner of each vegetable bed.

Another raised bed has chives, potatoes, cucumbers and watermelon.

A garden near the wall close to the street holds corn stalks, and lemon, orange, peach and avocado trees are studded throughout the property.

To turn the garden into a fullblown project, Kunik invited artist friends from her “community” to volunteer one to two hours a week to work in the garden in exchange for a weekly recycled bag of whatever produce is ready to be harvested. Artists can also swap art for food, but so far none has taken her up on that offer, Kunik says.

Photographer Ginger Van Hook is not only helping with garden tasks, but documenting the changes in the garden for a fall exhibition that will feature a visual and digital record of the garden’s progress, paintings by Kunik and a journal of each participating artist’s reflections on creating the garden.

Plant It Forward artists include Juna Amano (painting and sculpture), Marissa Magdalena (installation, performance and drawing), Ofunne Obiamawe (photographer), Suzanne Oshinsky (videographer), Michiko Smith (painting) and Whitney Stolich (photographer).

For its inaugural year, Kunik  has drawn Plant It Forward participants from her ”community”  of artists—mainly members of professional organizations she belongs to, like the Los Angeles Art Association and the Southern California Women’s Caucus for Art, and especially from her O Salon.

Kunik established the group, which meets in the airy upstairs studio behind her house, to give artists a chance to critique and discuss each other’s work. Named for the Otis College of Art & Design where Kunik earned her MFA, the group, which begins meeting again this month, helps the demonstrating artists answer such questions as “what message you trying to convey?” and “how is it working?”

Kunik sees her garden not only as a chance to feed people in “a difficult time for artists,” but also for education. With a bachelor’s degree in Spanish education and psychology and a master’s in reading and learning disabilities, Kunik was a Spanish teacher while her seven years as a Los Angeles County Museum of Art docent convinced her to pursue art as her passion.

And with her education background, Kunik sees the garden as a way to show people “where food come from, and what goes into cultivating the soil and the fruits and vegetables.” Her goal is to grow the project “so there are community gardens and we begin to educate young people,” Kunik said. She’s had inquiries from the Watts Housing Project and some high schools about establishing gardens.

Plant It Forward is also a chance for Kunik to promote her sustainable, organic philosophy.  The soil has been amended with compost and manure, and continues to be enriched with nutrients. A compost tumbler makes new compost from yard waste and vegetable leftovers. A drip soaker-hose system makes watering more efficient and cost effective. All vegetables are cultivated from organic seed, except for the wild strawberries, which came from the forest. Flowers that bring in beneficial insects and lacewings help keep the garden balanced naturally and cotton seed oil takes the place of conventional pesticides.

Kunik is now sending out proposals and seeking a venue for the final project in October which will include four-foot by four-foot photos, 30-inch by 40-inch pictures of people working, two videos and some of her abstract “mapping paintings”—and preparing for next season’s garden.

In the meantime,  Kunik is blogging about the garden every day at http://plantitforwardla. blogspot.com  (her Web site is www.lkunik.com) and hoping to spread the message. “Plant It Forward is really about establishing community while reconnecting with our earth.”

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