It was a mid-May early evening in Salem, one of the first warm nights of the season. The kind of night where the sun refused to set quickly, instead baking the city’s cobblestoned downtown and encouraging everyone out of hibernation.
Summer was in the air; life was returning and that night Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum hosted the official greeting party.
DIRT@PEM, part of the museum’s popular 3rd Thursday program, aimed to give attendees a whole new perspective on where they could find art when the weather turns nice: from a clump of dirt filled with seeds to the spices on the kitchen table.
The museum’s main hall was packed with people enjoying the after-hours offerings: In one corner were bartenders whipping together seasonally-inspired cocktails. A band played neo-folk on the stage in the middle of the room. Representatives from the Salem Farmers’ Market had a table as well, where they could talk with patrons about how easy it is to buy locally.
And nearby a woman in a beautiful vintage spring dress sat perfectly still as groups gathered around her. There were sketchpads and pencils on the tables encircling the model and, slowly, people sat down and began to sketch her. What at once felt voyeuristic and out of place in a hall filled with hundreds of people became an intimate art project that attracted nearly everyone on hand.
And then there were the seed bombs.
Artist Kyle Browne’s hands were covered in dirt as she worked across from the pristine model. Browne, an educator at PEM and an participatory artist, handed out mixtures of clay, compost, and wild flower seeds to whomever sat down. Then she encouraged them to mold the dirt into whatever form they could think of. Some children had made small animals out of the clay. Another person had improvised a cartoonish-looking bomb to reflect the nature of the art. Seedbombs are a vital tool in what has become known as “guerilla gardening”. Guerilla gardening’s main mission is return the beauty of nature to areas overrun with development or have been long abandoned. To plant in blocked off areas usually in need of natural beauty, gardener’s grab a seedbomb and throw, hoping that their ball of dirt and seeds land in a spot with enough water or sun.
“I love this quote,” Browne said, as she lifted a sheet of paper between her muddy finger tips. “‘Seedbombing is a way to contribute to the community by way of a spontaneous floral attack’.”
Michelle Moon, Assistant Director of Adult Programs at PEM, watched as attendees moved from booth to booth, then from the main hall to the museum’s current exhibits. The 3rd Thursday program, which hosts an after-hours themed event the third Thursday of every month, has steadily grown to become one of the area creative communities most anticipated evenings. Moon spearheaded the project three years ago and has watched the program flourish.
“I really felt, living in Salem, seeing what was going on around the city, that we were becoming a creative destination,” Moon said. “There were many more people involved [in] many creative scenes, and [I felt] we really needed a night like this to unite the community of locals, people who live in the surrounding towns, [and] people who are involved in the arts really looking for more to do afterhours.”
Moon said she constantly receives compliments and suggestions for upcoming themes. DIRT was actually inspired by the staff’s love for the art of food.
“I have a lot of love for the local food community,” Moon said. “I think it’s a way for people to reconnect to their neighborhoods, [provide] a sense of place, and perhaps provide a little bit more meaning in their lives by participating in the seasonal cycle.”
Moon made her way from the main hall to the museum’s maritime gallery, passing a man handing out samples of exotic spices from local vendors. A smaller group had gathered in the gallery to learn more about how local food is more directly connected with the art on PEM’s walls.
Karen Scallia is the owner of Salem Food Tours, which offers walking tours of Salem’s local eateries that allows people to try samples and get an understanding of Salem’s diverse foodie scene. But she wasn’t at PEM to feed patrons appetizers from some of the city’s newest restaurants. PEM staff had asked her to lead a mini-tour through an exhibit of local artwork dating back to the 1600s, pointing out how food was incorporated in traditional art.
“What was wonderful was when I started looking through the lens of [Salem’s] spice trade and food history, which I do know…and can relate to – everyone can relate to spices on the table – when I started to look through that lens, all of a sudden these pieces that I’ve been past a million times kind of came to life,” Scallia said.
From studies of cornucopias to landscapes capturing fishermen at work and replicas of trade ships, it quickly became obvious to most everyone how subtlety food and agriculture had made a home at PEM. It was riveting, listening to Scallia segue way from a spice jar on the table in one portrait to the history of America’s first millionaire. Scallia also noted how art can draw nearer when it touches on our base instincts.
“Suddenly, you’re seeing it in a very different view. In a very human view,” Scallia said. “We all eat. We all taste. We all smell. We all experience our senses and pains and happiness. When you look at the items through that lens, I think it’s really interesting.”
Scallia’s tour was based on a simple concept which turned into a group of people exploring the role of food not only in art, but in our own lives. In fact, the entire night was built on a simple concept that turned into a communal event that exposed how art infiltrates everything we do.
Moon and the PEM staff are hoping to continue the success of the 3rd Thursday program tomorrow evening, June 20th, with INDIVISIBLE: WE THE PEOPLE IN BLACK, WHITE AND GRAY. The event, in collaboration with The Tannery Series, celebrates African American art and all it has contributed to the American identity. PEM’s current exhibit, In Conversation: Modern African American Art, sets the backdrop for the evening, which also includes readings by authors Jerald Walker and Tisa Bryant, tours of the exhibit – drawn from the Smithsonian American Art Museum – and music by soul and jazz master Diggs Duke.
If you missed playing with DIRT last month, check out INDIVISIBLE and find out why the Peabody Essex Museum is one of the most exciting art institutions in the country.
Original photos: Dagan/ Painting: PEM