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TED Residency

tobacco brown: What gardening taught me about life

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Gardens are mirrors of our lives, says environmental artist tobacco brown, and we must cultivate them with care to harvest their full beauty. Drawing on her experience bringing natural public art installations to cities around the world, brown reveals what gardening can teach us about creating lives of compassion, connection and grace.

- Social artist
TED Resident tobacco brown is a social artist working at the public intersection of environmental art and restorative justice. Full bio

At age four, I found a garden,
00:12
living underneath the kitchen floor.
00:15
It was hiding behind
leftover patches of linoleum
00:18
on the worn-out floor
my mother was having removed.
00:22
The workman was busy
when the garden caught my attention.
00:26
My eyes became glued to the patterns
of embroidered roses
00:29
blooming across my childhood landscape.
00:35
I saw them and felt
a sense of joy and adventure.
00:38
This excitement felt like
a feeling to go forward
00:44
into something I knew nothing about.
00:46
My passion and connection to garden
started at that exact moment.
00:50
When spring arrived,
I ran so fast through the house,
00:55
speeding ahead of my mother's voice.
00:58
I pulled on my red corduroy jumper
and my grey plaid wool hat
01:00
before my mother could get her jacket on.
01:05
I catapulted out of the front screen door
01:07
and threw myself
on a fresh carpet of grass.
01:10
Excited, I bounced to my feet
and flipped three more cartwheels
01:14
before landing by her side.
01:19
Mother dear was in the garden
01:21
busy breaking up the soil,
01:24
and I sat beside her,
01:26
playing with mud pies in the flower bed.
01:29
When her work was done,
01:33
she rewarded me with an ice-cold glass
of bittersweet lemonade
01:34
and then lined my shoes
with sprigs of mint
01:40
to cool off my feet.
01:43
My mother cooked with the colors
and textures of her garden.
01:46
She baked yams and squash
01:50
and heirloom tomatoes and carrots.
01:54
She fed love to a generation of people
01:58
with purple hull peas and greens.
02:02
It seems that during my childhood,
02:07
the blooms from my mother's gardens
have healed all the way from her halo
02:09
to the roots on the soles of our feet.
02:14
In our last conversation before her death,
02:18
she encouraged me to go
anywhere in the world
02:21
that would make me happy.
02:25
Since then, I have planted her gardens
02:28
through art installations
throughout the world,
02:32
in countries of the people that I meet.
02:35
Now they lining
parks and courtyards,
02:38
painted on walls and even
in blighted lots off the street.
02:42
If you were in Berlin, Germany,
02:47
you would have seen my garden
at Stilwerk Design Center,
02:49
where rosemary and lavender,
hydrangea and lemon balm
02:53
trailed up the glass elevators
to all six floors.
02:58
In 2009, I planted "Philosophers Garden,"
03:03
a garden mural,
03:07
blooming at the historic
Frederick Douglass High School
03:08
in Memphis, Tennessee.
03:11
This school’s garden
fed an entire community
03:14
and was honored by Eleanor Roosevelt
during the Great Depression.
03:17
Again, in 2011, I planted
at Court Square Park --
03:22
six entry gardens
03:28
with 80 varieties
of deliciously fragrant floribunda
03:30
and hybrid tea roses.
03:36
Gardening has taught me
that planting and growing a garden
03:39
is the same process as creating our lives.
03:43
This process of creation
begins in the spring,
03:48
when you break up the soil and start anew.
03:50
Then it's time to clear out
the dead leaves,
03:54
debris and roots of the winter.
03:58
The gardener must then make sure
04:02
that a good disposition
and the proper nutrients
04:05
are correctly mixed in the soil.
04:09
Then it's important to aerate the topsoil
04:12
and leave it loosely packed
on the surface.
04:16
You won't get those
beautiful blooms in life
04:19
until you first do the work just right.
04:22
When our gardens are balanced with care,
04:26
we can harvest the beauty
of living a life of grace.
04:29
In the forests,
04:34
when trees realize through their roots
that another tree is sick,
04:36
they will send a portion
of their nutrients to that tree
04:41
to help them to heal.
04:44
They never think
about what will happen to them
04:46
or feel vulnerable when they do.
04:48
When a tree is dying,
04:51
it releases all of its nutrients
to other trees that need it the most.
04:52
Below the surface,
we are all connected by our roots
04:59
and sharing nutrients with each other.
05:02
It's only when we come together
that we can honestly grow.
05:05
It's the same for humans
in the garden of hardship.
05:12
In this garden,
05:16
when the caterpillar transforms
into a chrysalis,
05:18
this involves some struggle.
05:22
But it's a challenge with a purpose.
05:24
Without this painful fight
05:26
to break free from
the confines of the cocoon,
05:28
the newly formed butterfly
can't strengthen its wings.
05:32
Without the battle, the butterfly dies
without ever taking flight.
05:36
My life's work
05:42
is to illustrate how to integrate
human connectivity into the garden.
05:44
Gardens are full of magical wisdom
for this transformation.
05:51
Mother Nature is creative energy
waiting to be born.
05:57
Gardens are a mirror
06:03
that cast their own reflection
into our waking lives.
06:04
So nurture your talents and strengths
06:09
while you appreciate
all you've been given.
06:11
Remain humble to healing.
06:15
And maintain compassion for others.
06:17
Cultivate your garden for giving
06:22
and plant those seeds for the future.
06:24
The garden is the world
living deep inside of you.
06:27
Thank you.
06:33
(Applause)
06:34
(Cheers)
06:35
(Applause)
06:36

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About the speaker:

tobacco brown - Social artist
TED Resident tobacco brown is a social artist working at the public intersection of environmental art and restorative justice.

Why you should listen

tobacco brown paints the landscape with the authentic medium of flora and fauna. She initiates living art installations from nature's products and materials with the intention of creating a collective consciousness that results in liberated and healthy communities, focusing on art as a tool for blight remediation and therapeutic healing.

brown has created social environmental art sculptures and installations for public art, permaculture for resilient community projects and blight remediation that results in the restorative healing from socio-political inequalities. She received her BFA in 1978 at Memphis State University in communications design. She continued to study at School of Visual Arts, when selected by portfolio to study with Milton Glaser. During those SVA years, she also studied advertising design at DDB+O, Young and Rubicam and Mary Wells in invitational classes at professionals home in New York City.

brown currently travels between New York City, nature sites, art residencies and communities that seek and promote healing and continuity. She believes that nature principles when amplified can impact the behavior of global cultures.

More profile about the speaker
tobacco brown | Speaker | TED.com