In works ranging from painting and sculpture to installation and performance, Dan Colen plays with familiar materials and cultural symbols to interrogate the relationship between meaning and object. He is the founder of Sky High Farm, a nonprofit committed to improving access to fresh, nutritious food for New Yorkers living in underserved communities.
Linda Goode Bryant founded Just Above Midtown (JAM), the first gallery to show work by African American and other artists of color in a major gallery district, in New York (1974–86). In 1995 Goode Bryant began making documentary and experimental films, which led her in 2009 to create Project EATS, a work comprised of a growing network of community-based food systems supporting low-income individuals and families throughout New York City.
Dan Colen Hey, Linda.
Linda Goode Bryant Hey, how you doing, Dan?
DC Pretty good. Weird. Very busy, but that also makes perfect sense.
LGB It does, doesn’t it?
DC All right, let me jump in. I’m looking forward to seeing you in two days to do a meat donation drop in Brooklyn. It’ll be my first visit to your Brownsville farm, which is one of our original connections—Brownsville being Project EATS’s base camp and the birthplace of both of my parents.
But to start, I thought we could talk about how we arrived at these projects. We both started out in the art world, and we’ve both built these unique community-based, service-based organizations devoted to food justice, Project EATS and Sky High Farm. As time passes, the lessons I’ve learned through farming and the work we do have become such influential parts of how I relate to the world. I’m curious how you feel about this.
LGB You know, I decided at the age of five or six that I was going to be an artist. I’m from Columbus, Ohio, and the museum there had an art school on Saturdays. I can’t imagine it was easy for my parents to figure out how to put me in art school every weekend, but I started taking lessons and decided that that was what I was supposed to be in life. As I’ve pursued my passion to make things, it hasn’t been in the form of paintings or drawings or dance or music—eventually, in 1974, it morphed into Just Above Midtown (JAM), which for me was an artwork. Creating an artists’ space where we could all be together, imagining and creating other possibilities, was how I expressed myself.
By the mid-’80s JAM became a laboratory—we had a 25,000-square-foot space at 503 Broadway, and we converted half of it into artists’ studios and lofts for small art businesses so that we had rental income to help pay for the space, and then the other half was just open laboratory space. There was such a push toward commerce and marketability in the art world at that time, and I had this notion that the way to support artists was to create an environment where they could create outside of that context. So, we invited artists—choreographers, visual artists, musicians, performance and theater artists—to submit proposals for projects they wanted to do in this space. There was no requirement of them to make anything. We said, “You can come into this space and rub your tummy for thirty days. You can do whatever you like. And we will pay you.” The only thing we were looking for was that they had a desire to pursue work beyond the work they were currently creating.
A lot of really interesting, creative work was conceived in that space. And yet at the same time, as artists left that space with new ideas and work, they were still confronted with this art world that was all about selling the work and its marketability. That hadn’t changed. So I just decided at a certain point, I’m out. You all got this shit. I’m out. That was in 1986.
It’s funny, I had one of those moments of clarity this morning when I woke up, about what has been driving me since closing Just Above Midtown. I started to muse on the fact that art is uniquely human. It’s a way that we communicate with one another through stories, no matter how abstract or conceptual or literal the stories are. And those stories help us forge relationships. And our relationships lead to the meanings and beliefs and the social and physical structures and objects we human beings create.
What is my point here? Something shifted in the 1980s. And what shifted were those relationships that artists had with the people they were creating their stories for, whether for the world or a select group. What struck me was that this hadn’t changed at JAM—the relationships within JAM, between the artists at JAM and the people in our communities and on the streets in general, those relationships were intact. They were very alive and vibrant. The relationships changed between artists and the public, and artists and dealers—who at that time were among the people who believed in and supported their work. That’s what shifted. We went from much closer relationships with one another to something more transactional and distant, where our need for creating and engaging with art, and its meaning for us, is being smothered or erased by its commodification.
When I was creating JAM as my art, I was trying to create stories that could actually have an impact economically and socially where the work occurred. I’ve always been interested in creating art like that. And when the relationships broke down, when the nature of the relationships shifted so that the art was presented in ways where it didn’t and couldn’t have direct impact on the lives of people where they lived, it felt less satisfying.
DC It’s helpful to hear you talking about JAM, about creating an environment, a platform, and a community, and that being your creative process. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the farm and how it fits into my process as an artist, but more and more it is clear to me that it does. When I conceived of the farm in 2011, I wasn’t a farmer, and I wasn’t an advocate; I was only an artist. The thought came to me—I want to say as a whim, but that doesn’t describe the significance of it—it was more like how the idea for an artwork comes to you, as a kind of compulsion. It was only my experiences as an artist that gave me the confidence to start actualizing it. Maybe JAM or Project EATS was like this? You have this idea in your head, but it doesn’t take a form until you decide to believe in it.
You and I were talking the other day about the art industry and feeling like it can contaminate the creative process, and I think both of our shifts into this other kind of work has a relationship to that potential. We’ve talked about creating new models to offer alternatives to those that have failed both of us in many respects. When I was younger, my instinct was to burn things down. And now I kind of accept that there are things in this world that don’t operate in the way that I want them to, and I’d rather focus my energy on investigating and revealing new models instead of fighting against old ones. I’m curious about your thoughts on this, and about how farming relates in particular.
It has been the most fulfilling thing that I have done out of the many things that I have created in life. Nothing has been more fulfilling, because I think this is what art is. It is food and life.Linda Goode Bryant
LGB Well, art for me is food and life. It always has been. I cannot remember any time when art hasn’t been what has sustained me and gotten me through. And not just the making of it—the experiencing of it, the creativity of others. It has embraced me in such a way that I don’t know what I would do without it being in my life. Doing the food thing—I would have considered myself the last person on planet Earth to say I’m going to start a farm. The drive to do that certainly didn’t come from knowledge, experience, or any confidence whatsoever that I could grow anything; it came out of the need and, reflecting on it now, a sense of meaning. Because in 2008 there was a global food crisis. The price of food shot up inexplicably around the world, so that people who were living on limited or fixed incomes could not buy food. Project EATS got started after I found news footage on the Internet from Port-au-Prince in Haiti, where people were forced to eat mud pies spiked with pebbles and honey to stave off their sense of starvation. And this was juxtaposed against marketplaces where food had been imported. Haiti was one of those countries where, because of world trade agreements and bank loans and all that, they no longer had an agricultural industry that could support them and they were importing most of their food from other places. The food prices were raised by other places and they couldn’t afford to eat it. The food was there, but they couldn’t buy it.
As I was cutting this footage, I was sobbing. I was thinking, what kind of world do we live in that people have to eat mud pies because the price of food is too high? It was in that moment that I realized that we should be able to grow our own food even if we live on concrete. And I got this notion that I would start farming in New York City, which was insane. I mean, real estate in New York City doesn’t depreciate. Where was I going to get land to grow on? But then I realized, we’re going to do it like we have always done it: you use what you have to create what you need. And we’ve been able to do it. It has been the most fulfilling thing that I have done out of the many things that I have created in life. Nothing has been more fulfilling, because I think this is what art is. It is food and life.
DC I agree. For me, getting into farming was a moment where I saw I had an opportunity to give back. You talk about the idea of farming as life, farming touching everything, farming as the essence of creation. Both of our projects maintain ties to diverse audiences that the art world has the tendency to disconnect the artist from. And both have grown in ways that allow us to interact with various communities in various ways. I see more and more opportunity for that with Sky High. We’re working with a local juvenile residence center to create an educational program where the youth can learn on-site farming and processing methods, product development and entrepreneurial skills, and so on. We’re starting with strawberry jam, taking it from field to market. And for the last several years you and I have been talking about this other project that seems to be realizing itself now: the Sky High internship program has been working with the Bard Prison Initiative to train a farm manager for Project EATS.
Both of our projects maintain ties to diverse audiences that the art world has the tendency to disconnect the artist from. And both have grown in ways that allow us to interact with various communities in various ways.Dan Colen
But going back to that idea of farming as a creative practice, I love listening to you talk about David Hammons—he’s a source of constant inspiration for me. I would say he’s an artist for whom I have more respect and admiration than most others, and he’s an artist who received early support from JAM. I think his story and many of his statements speak to a lot of what you and I are both interested in, particularly this way in which we’re trying to step outside the art industry and create these new spaces.
LGB Yes, we have this footage from 1979–80 or maybe 1980–81, when we were creating a documentary called The Business of Being an Artist, which I hadn’t looked at until I started digging into the JAM archives. For this documentary, we interviewed David, and in this one moment he talks about artists being artists, no matter what they’re doing. He says, “The thing is that most artists think they have to be making something all the time. Well, if I just stand on the corner and watch the world go by, I’m still an artist. That makes me an artist.” Then he says, “If an artist decides to go grow food, they’re an artist that grows food.” And I started laughing when I found this footage, because I could not believe how many decades later I decided to start farming. But yeah, no matter what we pick up and make something with, we are always going to be artists creating things that help us relate to one another as humans. That’s what we do.
DC Another thing that Hammons talks about is his intention to live a nomadic lifestyle. I think he saw that as necessary to maintaining his creative process—he talks about staying outside of any official world as a way to stay connected to the ancestral. Not to jump on his bandwagon, but to me farming is another way to stay connected to the ancestral—to stay connected to the basic, core energies that drive the universe, which I think are the same energies that motivate the creative process.
You’ve talked about deciding recently to reenter the art world a bit. You’re working on some projects, and you have some new ones coming up. Can you talk about this?
LGB Well, I took myself out of the art world in 1986 when I closed JAM. After that I started making movies, and that was fantastic. Visual art was still my family, and it still is. I can be angry with it, but it’s still my family. For a number of years, people had been asking me about JAM shows. And I would say, no, go away, I’m not interested in that. Finally, I got to a place where I started saying yes. If I’m going to be honest about it, part of it was for Project EATS—trying to create farms in New York City and having to find a way to support that.
And then I agreed to JAM being part of some exhibitions. After several years of discussions with MoMA, I decided to do a JAM show, and we’re planning that for 2022. But now I have a problem [laughs]. Because how does JAM do a JAM show at MoMA, an institution that was four blocks away from JAM when it opened on 57th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, and did not acknowledge it? What does it mean to do a show inside MoMA? How do you channel this creativity to be JAM in all of its essence in a place that is not JAM? So that now has become an artwork. And we’ll see what happens. We’ll see what type of structure and paradigms get created.
To me farming is another way to stay connected to the ancestral—to stay connected to the basic, core energies that drive the universe, which I think are the same energies that motivate the creative process.Dan Colen
DC That’s such a huge challenge, going back into the institution that wouldn’t validate you at a different time. It’s an act of courage. Taking on these challenges and working inside these uncomfortable places, within these paradoxes, is in a sense what being a professional artist is always going to be. We have to have some relationship to the industry, to the institution, in order to be a part of the dialogues we care about.
I’m reading into what you’re saying a little bit, but the farming is what seems to have saved the art for you, in a way. You were never going to let it go, but you couldn’t make art in the art world until you needed the art world to help support the farm. I love that.
For a long time I was conflicted as to whether or not I should really commit to this mission of Sky High—it takes so much energy, time, and money, and I was worried that it was taking away from my creative practice. Now I feel the opposite. What I was trying to get at before is that we go into the art world because we think that that’s where diversity and creativity are. When we’re young, we find an amazing community of artists to be with and to grow with, but as you get older the art world inevitably becomes smaller. And this world of farming justice work is so big; it’s a different place. At least for this part of my life, it has not only fostered my creative process, but also kind of protected it. It’s just cool to hear you tell a similar story.
LGB Don’t you love moments when you feel you’re with a kindred spirit? And we couldn’t be more unalike [laughs]. We couldn’t be more different, and yet at the core we’re very, very kindred.
DC Yes! Let’s talk about the present moment and its impact on our work. You mentioned being confronted with the idea that it’s going to take a lot more than what we usually do to get through the current pandemic. I think we both knew as this crisis started that unless we were one hundred percent committed to our missions, we should basically just leave it for other people. The fallout from the pandemic is resulting in staggering rates of unemployment and crazy stresses on emergency feeding systems. In this context, Sky High remains committed to playing an adaptable and instrumental role in helping meet the need for fresh, nutritious food. We are working with new organizations and within new communities with the hope of spreading our impact.
You seem to have doubled down in reaction to COVID: you’ve introduced a new program doing these weekly meals at Project EATS. We’ve been talking about all these shared interests for years, and your new program has finally created an opportunity for us work together more directly. The day after tomorrow I’m going to get to drop off 170 pounds of beef, pork, and goat, as well as thirty dozen eggs for you to include in this week’s grocery drop-off for seniors at the Marcus Garvey Apartments.
LGB It’s so great.
DC I love talking about how our work relates to the creative process and so on, but right now what we’re doing has such a direct impact. What’s changing now for Project EATS?
The challenges we face in society are challenges that creative folks can take on. Creative folks can think of other possibilities. They can envision other ways of being.Linda Goode Bryant
LGB With Project EATS, what I envisioned was creating community-based food systems so that every community would have a farm or a group of farms that’s growing food to be eaten by the community and also to be sold, because these farms need to be financially and socially viable so that they’re still here a hundred years from now. I believe firmly in the fact that communities should be growing their own food. I think this virus has made that even more clear—that our food supply and food prices are determined outside our communities. If we were growing food right where we live, we could steward it, protect it, and make it available in ways that make it possible for everyone to have and eat fresh and nutritious food.
In addition to a network of small plots farms, where we use organic methods and high-yield, sustainable techniques to grow food, Project EATS also provides programs in schools. We have afterschool programs called PEAS (Project EATS After School) and provide classroom curriculum and projects that support student learning in high schools. We’re also able to identify students who are interested in learning farming. Because ultimately if we succeed we should be more or less obsolete in that community. We shouldn’t be doing this as a way to take us all to retirement—that’s not why we’re into this. If we do our job effectively, residents in the communities will operate and manage farms and programs. Working with youth, and identifying youth who are interested in farming, is one way we do that. We’ve now worked in probably twenty high schools throughout Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Manhattan. We also provide training programs and employment for community adults. And we are collaborating with the Bard Prison Initiative to develop the skills of and provide employment to folks who are reentering the community, as you mentioned before.
We are also going to start producing prepared foods, vegetarian meals. We have an income-based pricing model in the communities where we farm. We also offer “pay what you think it’s worth” pricing in the communities where we farm. Both of these are designed to make it possible for everyone to eat what we grow.
The whole mission and goal of Project EATS is for everyone to be able to live healthy lives and thrive, regardless of income. Health is a right. The ability to thrive is a right. So how do we create conditions to make that possible? We shouldn’t have to go outside where we live to thrive because that means somebody else is determining how we’re thriving and what thriving means. We can be creating things within our communities that allow us to do that. We’re talking about going back to how humans did things for a long, long time. And that’s not to say that global’s not essential—it really is. It’s not one or the other—it’s both. It’s about creating a balance so that everyone has the ability to support their most basic of needs.
I believe that the challenges we face in society are challenges that creative folks can take on. Creative folks can think of other possibilities. They can envision other ways of being. Artists are as critical as scientists right now—visual artists, dancers, musicians, writers, artists in all fields play a critical role in helping us shape what the new normal is. For us to envision it in a way that can make it more equitable for everybody, I think that’s going to come from us. I really do. I think we’re rooted in our need for creating and sharing what we create with others and forming conversations through stories that strengthen our relationships with one another. We do that. That’s what we do. And it’s essential we do it now.
Sky High Farm grows fresh fruits and vegetables and raises livestock exclusively for the purposes of donation. It operates with a sustainable and regenerative farming model and is committed to addressing food insecurity and improving access to fresh, nutritious food for underserved communities in New York. Sky High Farm also collaborates with nonprofits and government agencies to provide education and work training programs.
Project EATS was founded by Linda Goode Bryant in 2008 during the global food crisis. It is a neighborhood-based project that uses art, urban agriculture, partnerships, and social enterprise to sustainably produce and equitably distribute essential resources within and between communities, especially those where people live on working-class and low incomes.
Project EATS images, unless otherwise noted: video stills © Paul Pfeiffer, courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York