Honoring Seed Saving: Rachel Breen's Social Practice

Seed saving is a topic Rachel Breen’s explored from a number of different angles over the past four years. The practice preserves heirloom seeds by collecting them and then sowing them, with the goal of keeping the plants in circulation. Seed saving speaks to the very essence of sustainability. In husbanding what we have inherited from the past and passing it onto future generations, we are fulfilling a sacred duty.

We’ve all heard about the threat from GMOs, but as Rachel explains there are other factors negatively impacting our agricultural biodiversity. “One of the problems is that we’ve lost a lot of edible plants over the last 100 years,” she says. “Many farms, in their effort to provide a particular kind of tomato or apple to a grocery store, have only planted certain varieties, letting other ones disappear.”

Prior to arriving for her VCCA residency, Rachel visited Association Kokopelli, the largest seed saving organization in France, where she made drawings of the seeds in the collection. “In all my research about seed saving what I’ve seen are storerooms with shelves full of brown glass jars or plastic containers or plastic bags. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I wanted to depict the seeds in really important containers, like treasure chests, because that’s how precious I want to say they are.” This sense of value is evident in the very nomenclature: an heirloom being something valuable passed down through the generations.

While in France, Rachel also went to the Louvre to source rare and beautiful containers: jewel encrusted snuffboxes, ornate reliquaries and so forth. Influenced by folk art, her renditions, which she’s been working on while at VCCA, are not completely representational. The project has forced her to think about things she hasn’t thought about in years like composition and dimension. She’s fiddled with the colors using brightly hued pencils and played with their shapes a bit before pairing them with a particular heirloom varietal like black Aztec corn, Japanese millet or Bloomsdale spinach.

Recent research has revealed the Cherokees carried black bean seeds on the Trail of Tears. Her next challenge is to do a drawing about this. “When you think about the Trail of Tears how awful it was,” says Rachel. “And yet, they carried these seeds. It tells you how important they were, and in a sense they represent the future and hope. How can I do justice to the seed and to the people that carried them?”

The work Rachel’s been doing at VCCA is a departure for her. Like many Fellows, she has been able to use her residency to push herself in a more experimental direction, exploring new ways of expression. Typically, Rachel works in a non-representational mode, with a major piece of equipment being an unthreaded sewing machine which she uses to punch holes in paper. Sometimes she runs the paper through repeatedly so it falls apart and then she sews the pieces back together. Other times, she uses the sewing machine needle to make a stencil. She shakes powdered charcoal through the holes to produce a design on a surface, or, in ephemeral installations, directly onto a gallery wall.

This fall, funded by a grant from Minnesota, Rachel bought an airbrush and reproduced the effect of her charcoal stencils on garages in her neighborhood as part of The Heirloom Project. The medium was well suited for the delicate heirloom plants and seeds she created; their delicacy and fragility neatly evoking the precious plants and seeds they represented. Rachel led walking tours of the murals, teaching participants about seed saving and giving out free seeds donated by the Seed Savers Exchange. She encouraged people to both plant those seeds and also to save seeds from their gardens to be placed in a seed library at the local community center.

“My work has always been about social issues and political issues, but I get really tired of art that’s just critical,” says Rachel. “It’s really easy to complain. I’m interested in work that can be political, but also offer solutions. Seed saving is such a cool thing,” she continues. “Because it’s affirming—it’s such a positive way to be political and to make a point. It’s a very optimistic act to me, very hopeful about the future. Seed saving is something that affects everyone and it’s something anyone can do. It’s not only cheaper than buying new seeds it also ends up making the plants stronger because you tend to save the seeds from the hardiest plants, and this helps to cultivate that strength and the plants therefore can adapt to our changing environment.”

Rachel’s next project focuses on the relationship between the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and the Ranza Plaza Fire in Bangladesh. Because she works with a sewing machine, she feels a special kinship with the workers in both these tragedies. Thanks to a grant, Rachel and her collaborator, a writer, will be going to Bangladesh in February to meet with survivors of the Ranza Plaza fire, go to the site and visit other garment factories.

“There’s something very intimate about working with the stitch, because almost all humans throughout the word wear a stitch close to their body,” she says. “It’s so common, human and intimate. I want to get people thinking about that and who makes our clothes. I don't see getting people to buy fair trade as a viable option for many of us. But I am interested in coming up with specific actions people can take to address the terrible working conditions garment workers face."


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