Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Artist takes the term 'living room' literally

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This gives a whole new meaning to the green, green grass of home.

While many of us have been watching our lawns turn brown this parched summer, sculptor and landscape designer Erica Swendrowski has been watering and trimming a lush "outdoor living room" that features a sod sofa ("turfa?") and ottoman.

Hey, if this catches on, lazy homeowners won't have to get off the couch to mow the lawn.

The whimsical room, installed on a low platform in a former outdoor hockey rink, is "carpeted" in grass. It includes a hollowed-out wooden coffee table and end table with plants such as coleus, sedum, zinnias and petunias spilling out, and a wooden rocking chair with a sod cushion and a thyme pillow.

"I like art that people can touch and use and feel comfortable with," says Swendrowski, 36, who responded to a call from the Winnipeg Arts Council (WAC) public art program to serve as artist in residence at inner-city community gardens this summer.

The gardens, which are becoming more popular every year, have plots or boxes tended by individuals or families. Swendrowski thought if she made nature-based furniture in inviting groupings, the gardeners might come together and sow seeds of community. Volunteers have eagerly helped her build the furniture.

The project has only been in place since late July, but it's a hit, especially with children. There are furniture pieces at six community gardens, but the most elaborate grouping is at the rink-turned-garden at the Valour Orioles Community Centre at the corner of Burnell Street and St. Matthews Avenue.

Passersby often smile, ask if they can try sitting down and quip, "It's a giant chia pet!" Swendrowski says.

The Windsor Park resident, an avid gardener, is working on her master's degree in landscape architecture and has studied sculpture at the University of Manitoba. She first saw living furniture in a magazine about six years ago.

There are various methods of making sod couches and footstools, she says. For each of her couches, she used a base of four rectangular straw bales, shaped with electric pruning shears. She coated the base with a "mud slurry" about an inch thick, made from earth, straw and water, then rolled out the sod, trimmed it and secured it with homemade metal staples. The sod is now rooting nicely into the mud mixture. Each sofa cost about $50 to make.

For the wooden pieces, Swendrowski bought thrift-store tables and chairs, refinished them to make them weather-proof, cut holes in them and used landscape fabric to hold the soil.

For the just-completed rocking chair, she sewed a seat-cushion cover and a smaller back pillow out of felt, then stuffed them with soil. "I'm hoping (the sod) will root to the cushion," she says. Thyme is already sprouting out of the pillow.

Swendrowski's previous sculptures include giant jelly beans displayed on Portage Avenue in 2006 and massive candy hearts emblazoned with textspeak messages near the Fairmont Hotel in 2008 -- both part of Art on the Avenue.

The $80,000 WAC artist-in-residence gardening project has a second, higher-profile phase that will see Swendrowski creating organic sculptures for Portage Avenue between Main Street and Memorial Boulevard. Delays have pushed that phase back, probably until next summer.

Swendrowski is the fourth artist commissioned to do a residency project in response to a city site, says Tricia Wasny, public art manager for WAC. Previous projects include songwriter Christine Fellows' 2009 work Reliquary, inspired by the St. Boniface Museum, and filmmaker Paula Kelly's Souvenirs, a trio of short films that grew out of a residency at the City of Winnipeg Archives.

Anyone can try lounging in Swendrowski's public living rooms -- if you spill your drink on the couch, who'll know? -- but there's also a free Community Garden Tour on Thursday from 5 to 8:30 p.m. that starts at the Orioles garden. Refreshments will be served, then participants can board a bus or take the tour of eight community gardens by bike. For more information, call 774-7005 or email greening@dmsmca.ca.

alison.mayes@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 20, 2011 G3

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