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  • Jennifer Jewell





Art in the garden, art from the Garden – these are concepts familiar to most gardeners and yet for many of us also perhaps they are concepts still largely unplumbed - not yet manifested or embodied in our own garden practices. This week, we visit with Iranian-American artist and plant person, Melody Overstreet to speak more about the culture of plant and land based art and the crafting of pigments, inks, dyes and watercolors directly from the plants and soils all around us.


Melody J. Overstreet is an Iranian-American poet, artist, printer, and educator. She double majored in Studio Art and Psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she focused on Printmaking, Public Art, and Peace Studies. She has exhibited her work locally as well as internationally. Her work has been featured in the publications Seed Broadcast, Inverness Almanac, and Chinquapin Quarterly. She was instrumental in initiating Santa Monica College’s Organic Learning Garden, a space for cross-curricular engagement, the hands-on growing of food, seed saving, and community building.

Melody teaches Book Arts, mentors to students and serves as advisor to garden, environmental, and community involvement committees. She is a Master Gardener of California and certified California Naturalist through the UC California Naturalist Program and UCSCs Arboretum.

She has worked with her students and colleagues to develop a rooftop garden featuring edible, medicinal, and dye plants for deepening consciousness of the ways in which plants and their pollinators are interwoven in and sustain our tenuous lives. Her educational approach emphasizes the importance of connection to our origins through place, community, and seeds.

Melody speaks to us with grace about the culture of plant and land based art and the crafting of pigments, inks, dyes and watercolors directly from the plants and soils all around us, in way that interweaves her art with her world view and ethics.

Melody will be on the campus of California State University, Chico on Saturday May 26th to teach a workshop on naturally crafted, locally sourced pigments for the Friends of the Chico State Herbarium. For more information or to register go to Friends of the Chico State Herbarium.

Melody joined us this week via Skype from her home and garden in Santa Cruz, California.

"And for me to have an experience with a plant (a rose) that has such a significant role in my family and in my culture, really awakened my senses and gave me a deep appreciation for plants. As food and as medicine, plants have played a very important role in my life helping me to heal my body and mind, helping to connect and re-orient myself as a human being. Helping me to really find my place on this earth,

in this place - as though I belong here."”

Melody Overstreet

Melody Overstreet's art and gardening land based and is deeply informed by the passions and codes of conduct shared with her by her Persian grandparents.

Her relating to us the story of the rose her grandfather shared with her and the long legacy of rose symbology running through Persian culture – of rose water accented sliced apples in summer and rose water being a part of both wedding and funeral ceremonies struck me as beautiful and powerful narratives and education all being held for her – and us – in this chalice of plant life and plant knowledge.

The lessons of generosity and reciprocity in the two bowls of ripe, shapely fig fruit her grandfather had her share with her neighbors as thanks for their companionship – can you not see this small girl, these bowls of deeply colored, sweet soft fruit and the delight of the neighbors gifted with such?

Sometimes it takes hearing this kind of truth articulated in someone else’s tangible, emotional and formational story to recognize the universal truth of what came to each of us this way – whether it was in passing and brief, or consistently reinforced and in depth.

When we move to the meta level of thinking about HOW we think about these things – roses associated with love, mint with summer freshness and clean breath, conifers associated with winter holidays and evergreen hopes to name a few very common cultural messages – we can then move to WHY this is so. In this expanded awareness alone we can learn a lot more about what lessons were transmitted to us through these often non-verbal exchanges. And we can decide how we want to alter and pass forward such messages ourselves.

Much of the foundation of Melody’s approach and philosophy keeps recalling for me the work of Dr. Robin Kimmerer, a scientist, a professor, a poet, a mother and a gardener – not listed in order of importance. In her book “Braiding Sweetgrass”, Robin shares with us so compellingly personal stories of her life and experiences interwoven with her understanding of science, of her Potowatomi heritage and teachings, of her mothering, of her gardening and land tending and pulls and welcomes us as anyones from anywhere into a shared respect and admiration for indigenous ways of knowing – and the critically important universal benefits of them to us as a planet in deep need.

If you have not yet had the time to read Braiding Sweetgrass, I am re-reading it now and I could not recommend it more highly. Her storied presentation of an ethics based in a Culture and Economy of Reciprocity, in a Democracy of Species, of being Citizens of the Planet and of the Honorable Harvest are powerful - I think you will enjoy and be deepened for the reading.

Melody Overstreet's plant and garden story are similarly culturally-informed, and reciprocity- and respect-based art and education plant work.

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Happy midway through May, my daughter and I are going to go to the workshop on Nature crafted Inks and Watercolor Paints: Developing A Local Color Palette at Chico State Herbarium on Saturday May 26th and I am super excited. For one thing, because I find this kind of meaningful crafting so satisfying an addition to a life generally spent immersed in words – written and spoken. To be just hands on and tactile is good for me and we ALL know that learning new things and trying on new skills is good for us – shakes our brains and bodies up and re-energizes them. Lays down new neural connections for expanding our insights and intuition and connections.

I love the natural color concept in the world and we’ve heard from wonderful color work guests on the program over the past few seasons – Sasha Duerr the dye artist as well as the weaver Sandy Goulart with the Flax and Linen cooperative. I was inspired by both of their stories and plant journeys, but I think maybe something about larger scale elaborate knowledge of dyeing or weaving fabrics and making clothes intimidated me some. And to be honest, I am not a clothes or shoes person. They are simply not a currency of choice for me. But paints! Inks! Getting my hands on a mortar and pestle and then into the dirt or holding a plant and summoning a paint or ink – for some reason this lights me up. For those of you who are with me on Facebook or Instagram, I’m sure to let you know how it goes there with stories and pictures.

Happy May!

A few words called out to me as I listened again to my conversation with Melody– and I do in fact listen to each conversation multiple times striving to hear/see/feel for what I may have missed before. In this process, words jump out at me in a sort of stream of consciousness manner and I write them in my notebook with a very sharp pencil. I then re-read all the notes at the end and I circle the words or threads of importance as seen in overview. Here were my words of this conversation:

Resilience – specifically from the abundant fig tree carved into and growing out of a hole plied into the not very generous concrete.

Generosity and Reciprocity: the circle of regeneration embodied in Melody tending to the soil of her small rental home shared with 3 housemates and her craftsman partner, Vincent Waring – shoehorned in between an auto shop and a grocery store loading dock and yet even still the land rewarding Melody and the other gardeners with ever more lushness and health in return for their care.

And finally, Ceremony. I kept coming back to the rose water and the wedding and the funeral ceremonies and the blessing of these important thresholds with the fragrant floral water.

Where do we and how do we make more ceremony in our lives and gardens and nature loving to acknowledge and embody these concepts ourselves?

I’d love to hear back from you all on this. If you have thoughts or stories to share please send them by email through the contact page at (scroll to bottom of page) or write them in the comments of this episode’s post on Instagram and Facebook.

And if you liked this episode – and feel moved – SHARE IT WITH FRIENDS. - with every single plant loving person you can think of on this planet. Because together we as gardeners make a difference in this world – in what we value and how we too embody and model these values forward.

The value we find in conversations like these is powerful action for positive shifts in this world. Thank you!

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