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Merging missions
PAA, VMNH join forces on educational garden
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Tina Sell (left) of Piedmont Arts Association and Debbie Lewis of the Virginia Museum of Natural History have worked together on the plans to transform more than half an acre on the corner of Starling Avenue and Market Street into a living natural history lesson and outdoor art display. They are shown above at the site, which is best known for the historic little post office at right. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

By KIM BARTO - Bulletin Staff Writer

A $5,000 Smithsonian grant will help Piedmont Arts Association and the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH) create an educational garden to nurture interest in art and the natural world.

The two institutions plan to transform more than half an acre on the corner of Starling Avenue and Market Street into a living natural history lesson and outdoor art display, said Tina Sell, director of exhibitions for Piedmont Arts.

The garden, tentatively named the Piedmont Art and Natural History Garden, will be filled with native plants that "have some tie to Virginia's history," Sell said.

Work is slated to begin this summer, with help from the city, the Master Gardeners and other community partners. The historic oaks and other trees will remain on the land. The plan is "to keep a lot of the existing landscape and enhance it," Sell said.

Once the garden is in place, Sell said, VMNH will offer nature-based programs that focus on plant identification and other topics, while Piedmont Arts will provide art programs there.

"We'll be putting some sculptures and art stations there" and "hopefully anchor that Starling Avenue location as a cultural destination," she said.

Sell said she has already contacted a few artists about commissioning sculptures for the garden "to make it a place to really find inspriation in making art."�

Part of the inspiration for the project came from "Transitions," an upcoming Smithsonian photography exhibit by Robert Creamer that will launch in July at Piedmont Arts, Sell said. Creamer's work involves "very organic images" of plant life and other natural elements.

VMNH also recently began their exhibit "Rediscovering the Forgotten Garden," which deals with the natural resources and history of Lee Memorial Park in Petersburg.

"I was thinking, 'Wouldn't it be nice if the two entities (Piedmont Arts and VMNH) could link on this?'" Sell said.

Sell said she found out Wednesday about the Smithsonian grant but was not expecting an answer until June, "so we're already ahead of the game."�

The first step is continuing to find community partners, she said.

"The idea is, any organization could perhaps take ownership of a small portion of the garden bed and have a sign that says, "˜This part is maintained by'" a certain organization, Sell said.

"The hope is that volunteerism and participation will make it that much more of an interesting place," she added.

Most of the preparation work will take place in July and August, "as we start to lay out the beds and figure out where everything's able to go," Sell said.

The Master Gardeners and other gardening groups that wish to participate will help with planning and planting, she said.

A later phase of the project will look at replicating historic produce gardens, "like in Williamsburg," Sell said. She envisions students growing vegetables and selling them at the uptown Farmers' Market.

"I'm hoping it will be an incredible experience," Sell said of the garden. "I think it could continue to grow and engage people of all ages."�

Hopefully, she said, by the time the Transitions exhibit opens July 10, there will be a display showing what the garden will look like when it is finished.

However, to Sell, "finished" is a relative term. "We hope that this project almost never has an endpoint," she said. "We hope it will continue to grow and continue to gain partnerships and involvement."�


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