Interviewsand Articles


This Larger Thing in the World: A Conversation with Mildred Howard

by Richard Whittaker, Jan 28, 2000



I met Mildred Howard at her Berkeley home and studio on a Friday morning, the day she takes off from a very busy schedule divided between her on-going work as an artist and her duties as the director of the Alice Waters "Edible Schoolyard" at Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley. I interviewed her for issue #3 of works & conversations. We began talking about gardens in general.—Richard Whittaker

Mildred Howard: I especially love vernacular gardens. There’s something about them.

works:  Yes. The gardens of regular folks.

MH:   Everyday people. Aren't they wonderful? I mean in both urban and rural settings. The wonderful way people put gardens together with vegetables and make-shift sculpture, and all kinds of things. I'm really intrigued by those kinds of gardens.

works:  You must have some personal connections there.

MH:  Well, my family weren't farmers, but they always had gardens—gardens and animals— even here in the city of Berkeley where I grew up.

works:  Childhood memories?

MH:  Picking blackberries and raspberries just right off the vine and eating them. There's nothing like that. That taste! And also, tasting a carrot just out of the ground, as opposed to the grocery store. You pull it up, wash it, and then eat it! It's filled with sugar. It tastes like a carrot. [laughs]

works:  Yes. There are people who have no idea what real vegetables taste like.

MH:  That's one reason I decided to take up the position at "The Edible Schoolyard" There is a group of kids who are being raised not understanding where food comes from, you know, the source of who we are, in many ways.

works:  And how did you get involved in the Alice Waters garden project?

MH:  Well, I was recommended by several people.

works:  What was it about you, do you think, that made them specially recommend you?

MH:  Maybe because I tend to come at things from a different angle. Some people, they go to high school and then right after, they go to college. They get a degree, then get a job. I tend to do things a little differently than the straightforward way. I tend to get jobs from some other angle, which is never planned that way. I tend to see things differently.

works:  But you were attracted to the idea of this garden, I take it.

MH:  Yes. There was something about radical change, I guess you might say. Robert Irwin talks about radical change. You know Robert Irwin? [Howard disappears into another room looking for a book of Irwin's writing.]

works:  [calling into the other room] I don't know him personally, but I love what he does, and his whole approach and attitude.

MH:  Oh, he's brilliant! I think that his garden made the Getty. If it were not for that garden, I'm just not sure. The whiteness was a bit too much for me.

works:  When I went there the garden was full of people and I didn't even go into the Getty.

MH:  Well you didn't miss much.

works:  One thing I like about Robert Irwin is that he hasn't bought into a lot of the fashionable artworld thinking. He is going his own way.

MH:  Yes. I'll try to paraphrase what he says about radical change: one could go about their day, doing things as they normally would, one step after another, but sometimes something happens that forces you to look at things differently. What would happen if you didn't do that? You're forced to look at things differently, and everything is turned upside down. That happens in life.
     An example from my life is that one day I got a call from a headhunter. At first, I was pretty annoyed. I said, "Leave me alone. I'm satisfied with my work at the Exploratorium."
     It's a great place. I had a great dialogue going on. I was tenured, had worked there for ten and a half years. But finally I decided to go on an interview. It was with Alice Waters, the principal of the school and a couple of other board people. It was such a great conversation about our different stories and on this interview we'd talked for over an hour. I'd forgotten it was even an interview. We had such a wonderful conversation talking about issues around education and its relationship to the garden.
     I told a story of my walking to school and looking at the gardens and how beautiful, at one time, the school gardens were. Berkeley High was beautiful. It was exquisite, the flowers around it. In fact, that was one of the things that kind of intrigued me about it, the flowers.

works:  I can hardly imagine schools that way.

MH:  I think people used to take more time with their surroundings. Anyway, I told her about my bottle-houses and about reading James Weldon Johnson's, Autobiography of An Ex-Colored Man. He writes about living as a child in a house which was set back 75 or 100 feet from the road. In the front were bottles stuck neck down in the ground. He thought the bottles grew as the flowers did. Isn't that great!? For some reason, the next morning I said, I'm going to make a house out of bottles, and somehow it came to me, I need four thousand bottles. How that notion of needing four thousand bottles came to me, I don't know. It just came to me.
     Now Rene di Rosa has that first bottle house I built. When I was making that first one, I was also making a garden in Los Angeles. I filled this room with sand and with bottles stuck in it, neck down, and with birch trees. I took phrases from Weldon's book and put them on the bottles, so that when light fell on the bottles, the words became shadows on the sand. And I put that passage that came from the book on the wall. That was in the atrium of the Afro-American Museum in Los Angeles.
     After that, I did a piece on the Soweto massacre, a cemetery. [Ten Little Children (One was shot and then there were nine)] And in some ways you can think of a cemetery as a garden.

works:  What was the Soweto massacre"?

MH:  I think it happened in 1978. It happened when children were protesting not being able to have studies taught in English. They had to be taught in Afrikaans. And as a result, there was this massacre.
     I remember because I take off on my birthday, and I was home listening to public radio, and it came across the radio. I grew up in a family where there was no problem speaking your mind. In fact, we were encouraged—not only in the home, but we were encouraged to challenge authority.
     So I thought about my own kids, and about them wanting to take another language and being massacred for something so basic. It took me over ten years to be able to respond to that through my art. That's when I won the Adaline Kent Award (San Francisco Art Institute), for my installation: Ten Little Children (one got shot and then there were nine) I haven't thought about that piece in a long time. That was in 1991. Back then, I had been working on these gardens in some form or another. I've done five bottle-houses. The last large bottle-house was just purchased by a private donor for the San Jose Museum. That was done after a slave dwelling. It's all blue, and I did it after my son was killed in an automobile accident in 1993. I think that was done for my son. I love the blue bottle-house, Abode: Sanctuary for the Familia(r) I did it in a pink room. I had the museum paint the room pink, I don't know why. Perhaps it's because, in certain parts of the country, the sky turns pink right before dusk. It may be because of the gases. It's beautiful! Imagine that kind of dwelling in that kind of setting. And I had a fence so you had to go around the space in order to enter. You couldn't enter it straight-on like my first bottle-house.  

works:  So viewers were obliged to take in impressions beforehand. It extended the period for that.

MH:  Before you entered. Exactly.

works:  Turrell does that. It's necessary. Actually, it's probably necessary in general when you're facing something. If you can take some time to let the impression form, not just on the surface.

MH:  Exactly. And not with a whole bunch of words telling you what you need to think, and see, and view. I can't stand that! I never even look at the signs. I can't stand that you know, a long statement by someone telling me what I need to see. [Long laugh] Maybe I'll take a glance at it afterwards.

works:  [laughs] I couldn't agree more. It's irritating when someone sends me something with a lot of hype... how great this is, what so and so says about it. I can use my own eyes.

MH:  That makes me think about learning and knowing. There's something very interesting; learning may not happen at the time something is taught. You may mechanically go through doing certain things, but understanding can happen much later. That's why I feel it's so important for kids to have instilled in them at an early age the real true values of their surroundings.

works:  I wonder if I can ask you to come back and tell me what you are doing exactly at the Alice Waters garden?

MH:  I'm the director of the program. And my role is to see that there's a real integration of the curriculum with the garden and the kitchen classroom. I'm trying to bring a cohesiveness to the whole program, and to help facilitate making that a model for other programs across the country. The whole curriculum will be based on sustainable agriculture with the principles of ecology built in.

works:  What do you do there? I mean, how does it work?

MH:  Every kid goes to the garden and to the kitchen. There's a one-and-a-half acre garden that the kids have designed and formed themselves. Everybody works in the garden including the teachers. There's a master gardener and a manager, but the kids designed the look of it. It's not in straight rows. So the kids are able to see something from seed to fruition. Then they take what they've grown and put it into the kitchen where they spend time cooking and developing recipes.
     Just what you can learn!- having your hands in the dirt, being able to know what it's like to nurture the land. It's so important because it teaches one so much about oneself! Working in collaboration, conflict resolution, creativity—it's all right there!

works:  What are the ages of these kids?

MH:  It's middle school-sixth, seventh, and eighth grade-11 to 13.

works:  A volatile age.

MH:  Oh! Kids need to be working at that age! And in this program kids are part of their own learning process. They're asking their own questions and answering them. I see a natural curiosity that's developed, and a sense of wonder about things. I find that's one of the things that's lacking in the traditional way of teaching. Kids are not provided with enough resources to stimulate that curiosity and sense of wonder. Instead of "do this, do that," involving them in their own process of learning so that they feel empowered. I think that is really important for that age group. For any age group!
     Also there is the fact that we're helping support this larger thing in the world, the need to protect the land and take care of it. That's really important. It shows one that, I'm a part of this. And that doesn't always happen. It didn't happen with me, but fortunately I had parents who were interested in things like that. At school I didn't get that kind of information.

works:  We're pretty much abstracted from life, aren't we?

MH:  From everything! From life. I can remember in beginning algebra, or just simple math, figuring out square feet. I was very young. I went home and we had to put tile down, and I thought, why didn't they just show me this? Why didn't they relate it to the real world? It's ridiculous. When you provide children with tools to build conceptual understanding, then when they have to take that concept and make in into reality, its so much more wonderful. You have that background, that foundation.
     So with The Edible Schoolyard, what we're trying to do is to build a foundation, a skeleton of information, or a scaffold, so that you can take that framework and adapt it any way you want to fit one's own needs. I think that is what drew my interest. It's different, but it's very much like art. For me, art builds that kind of foundation.

works:  A foundation.

MH:  A foundation which the scaffolding sits on.

works:  The thing about a foundation is that it's on the ground. That's important isn't it?

MH:  Oh, yeah. On the ground.

works:  We're not much on the ground. We need avenues to the ground.

MH:  Yes. The earth. It's so basic.

works:  Yes, avenues to the ground. Because I live [gesture of my hand at my neck] from here up. In my head, which is full of blah, blah, blah.

MH:  Exactly. That's what was happening at the Exploratorium. I was around a bunch of intellectuals. Heady people. Very challenging to talk about these kinds of issues. But now it's like my hands are in the dirt. And I like it.

works:  [laughs] You know what? I think everybody likes it!

MH:  It is wonderful. That's the only thing I don't like about my new studio—no garden. I'm hoping that my neighbor—that's his driveway—that he'll get rid of that. Because if he let's me, I'll really make it beautiful!

works:  There's a great vacant lot, you know, just down the street.

MH:  I saw that! And I want to know who owns that lot. I could turn that into an oasis. Can you imagine if you just went down the street and every season it changed. Wouldn't that be beautiful? Even if it were a field of baby hyacinths. It would be really beautiful right there. Yes, I've been looking at that lot. It was once a welder's studio.

works:  I've had a question about your term, "memory garden." How did that term occur to you?

MH:  Because so much of my work stems from stories and experience in the past. Not that I'm living in the past, but it's like re-thinking my life. What forms who I am, and how I think?

works:  Why "garden" then?

MH:  I see my life, in some ways, as a garden. Things come, they go. It's beautiful, and it's sweet—and it's bitter. I see that, in some ways, as a garden. It comes and it goes with the seasons. I see my life like those seasons.

works:  There's a lot of concern about the environment, and that's good, but I don't hear people talking or thinking about the inner world as also an environment. Shouldn't we also consider this as an environment that needs some concern? My inner world could be getting polluted in all kinds of ways, too. Shouldn't there be something like a wilderness preserve inside? A garden inside. You know what I'm saying?

MH:  Well yes. Your inner world. I guess you could look at yourself and how you think, and what creates who you are. What you read. What you surround yourself with. Have a dialogue with what you're feeling. All of that helps to feed one's inner world. Not just material things. Again, it leads back to the moment, being captured in that moment. And sometimes in conversations—because during the conversation we were having—you get that kind of feeling when your total focus is in a particular area. I think that is something that happens in one's inner self. When I think back as a child, there were a lot of moments like that. I could get lost in what I was doing, captured.

works:  would you say you were even more present in such moments?

MH:  Oh, yes! It's a great feeling. Very present. It is like now! [Laughs] The garden allows one to feel that way!

works:  I think so.

MH:  It allows one to feel that way…

Learn more about the artist.


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine   


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