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WAM Updates are short, informal posts that put the spotlight on small, but exciting, Museum-related projects, such as the addition of a new painting or sculpture to a gallery. They also serve as updates on staff, new services or programs, and other WAM news.

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Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Spotlight: Meet the Gardeners of WAM's Art Garden!

If you've visited the Worcester Art Museum this summer, you've probably seen the Art Garden growing in our Stoddard Courtyard. A joint project with the Southeast Asia Coalition of Central Massachusetts (SEACMA) and the Regional Environmental Council, WAM's Art Garden features Southeast Asian edibles grown in a milk crate structure designed by artist Andrew Mowbray. The plants grown this summer include purple perilla, fish mint, mustard greens, and especially Vietnamese lettuce!

Earlier, I sat down with three of the volunteer gardeners from SEACMA, elders in Worcester's Vietnamese community who take care of the three community gardens (the other two are located in downtown Worcester). These gardens are repeatedly harvested and replanted throughout the summer; the produce is sold in small shops and farmer's markets in the city, or shared as gifts in the community. After our conversation, they provided me with a good deal of lettuce (which is like Romaine, but with a buttery, slightly bitter taste) and several serving suggestions - lettuce with rice noodles, lettuce spring rolls, or using cut-up steak to make lettuce wraps with fish sauce.

Volunteers, artist and WAM staff gather to celebrate a successful summer!
"The gardens are helpful," says Son Ho. "It gives people a job to do, it connects them back to the community and their roots, and it's beautiful."*

Son Ho moved to Worcester from Saigon six years ago, and for the last five has worked at SEACMA. Warm and friendly, she does much of the talking, saying that her work with the Vietnamese community "matches her personality." Formerly a farmer, she loves working in the gardens especially, and looks forward to the planting every spring. "It feels good to have something I know, from my homeland."

Quyen Truong, Dong Nai province, arrived in Worcester four and a half years ago. He also works part time at SEACMA, where he interacts with the Vietnamese community, and is very enthusiastic about the gardens. "Having a garden is like having a child," he explains. "You nurture it and watch it grow. I'm very happy to have it."

On the other hand, Cam Tu Le grew up in a city and doesn't know much about gardening. "They just tell me where to water," he says. "It's very fun." Cam Tu teaches Vietnamese as a second language at SEACMA, and recently completed a course at QCC; he is now continuing his studies in mechanical engineering at WPI.

All three have been working in SEACMA's community gardens for the past few years. "When things are growing, there's a lot of pride that comes out of those moments," says Quyen.

"It's beneficial to the community as a whole," adds Cam Tu.

Anh Vu Sawyer, Executive Director of the Southeast Asian
Coalition of Massachusetts
One of the most important benefits is the opportunity for the elder volunteers to work closely with the younger, bridging the generational gap. Whereas Son, Quyen and Cam Tu are relatively recent arrivals, many of the youths have lived most, if not all, of their lives in America. They go to American schools, and grow up speaking little or no Vietnamese, leaving them feeling disconnected from their family and their past.

Sharing the gardens creates an opportunity to build those connections. "We work with the youth volunteers, actively teaching them how to tend the garden and water plants," says Son. These seemingly simple tasks serve as a gateway to deeper conversations, giving the youths a chance to learn about the community's history and culture.

Thu Nguyen, Director of Projects for SEACMA, explains that the program is also vital to the mental health of the older members of the community, who can come to feel isolated in the unfamiliar city. "This is active, socially engaging. It helps them feel normal, familiar, at home." Many of the elders have gardens of their own and come alive every summer when the time for planting arrives. The community gardens give them a chance to share this love, and interact socially with other gardeners.

"It's good to have exercise, to go out and be with people," says Quyen.

"I love having the gardens," adds Son. "It makes you healthy, it makes you happy, gives you clarity of the mind. It's so meaningful."

Over the course of the summer, all three have visited and worked in WAM's Art Garden. "It's very pretty compared to the other places," says Son. "Not just a patch of dirt. It has a vibe and energy. You get to decorate the place and have it look beautiful."

"Let's make an appointment," she laughs, "and come back every year!"

-- Sarah Leveille
Digital Media Specialist
September 24, 2019

*Translations provided by Thu Nguyen.

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