Carnegie Mellon University
May 11, 2012

Press Release: Carnegie Mellon School of Art Partners with Local Groups To Create Sustainable Art in Wilkinsburg Neighborhood

Contact: Pam Wigley / 412-268-1047 /

PITTSBURGH—Residents in the Borough of Wilkinsburg will soon get to experience art in a novel way ... by eating it. 

A new ecological art project in the Hay Recreation Area and on a lot on Rebecca Avenue will use fruit trees, berries and perennial edibles as the basis for a sustainable food source and as a community engagement garden.

Carnegie Mellon University's School of Art, the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation (FTPF), Pittsburgh Permaculture and the Second United Presbyterian Church of Wilkinsburg are the four partners on the project. They will be planting on May 12, May 19, May 26, June 3 and Aug. 26. Volunteers are welcomed.

Carnegie Mellon's Bob Bingham, professor and associate head of the School of Art, and Lazae LaSpina, a Wilkinsburg resident and non-traditional CMU art student, created this novel project that combines the elements of artistic design and function as they apply to a living things. Ecological art or "eco art" is a contemporary form of environmental art created by artists who are concerned about local and global environmental situations. In the Wilkinsburg project, Carnegie Mellon provides the art form and its partners provide nature's components and volunteer support.

LaSpina says she has found her true calling in the art world since returning to western Pennsylvania after a stint out west. Wanting to become more involved in her newly adopted borough, LaSpina worked with neighbors to create a proposal for a living amphitheater. When she needed advice, she asked Bingham, an expert in eco-art who studied in the late '70s at the University of California at San Diego with Newton and Helen Harrison. The Harrisons are often considered to be the founders of the eco-art movement. LaSpina and Bingham soon realized they had similar goals about how community-based art projects can go beyond cosmetic results to become something much more valuable — a food source.

"These contextual practice projects serve as catalysts to start conversations among people about ways to not only improve the landscape of their neighborhood, but also have a productive fruit and vegetable harvest," Bingham said.

She and Bingham were hoping to find a new project for her neighborhood when the garden opportunity presented itself in the form of Cem Akin, executive director of the FTPF. Akin, a Carnegie Mellon alumnus who grew up in Squirrel Hill, had just returned from San Francisco and was looking for a local project.

"It seemed that all the elements were in place for a successful planting," Akin said. "Our goal is to provide communities with fruit tree orchards that will increase access to healthy foods and, in the process, clean the surrounding air, soil and water — creating critical green spaces that all residents value."   

The Community Engagement Gardens will see the development of three different types of permaculture gardens on two urban lots: organic gardening for local food production and stormwater management; an orchard forest garden and bioswale rain garden; and a community grazing garden.

Pittsburgh Permaculture will focus on designing community-based projects that "develop human settlements and agriculture systems by modeling them on natural ecosystems," according to Juliette Jones, designer of the orchard forest garden. The Second United Presbyterian Church will be able to offer the fresh organic harvest of this garden through its We Care food pantry.

Inspired by Fritz Haeg's Edible Estates (Haeg is also a Carnegie Mellon alumnus) and Mindy Schwartz's Garden Dreams Urban Farm & Nursery in Wilkinsburg, LaSpina will design the community-grazing garden with Danielle Parnes, a Carnegie Mellon industrial design student. With a special interest in regenerative eco-design, Parnes said she is drawn to projects that bring land, people and communities together. She also will lend her talents to the design of the main lot's rain garden, which will help sink stormwater runoff and allow plants to naturally receive the amount of water needed to thrive.

Bingham will serve as overall adviser on the implementation of all three gardens. Consultants for the project include New York artist Betsy Damon and the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, an organization Bingham helped launch in 2001. Damon is director of Keepers of the Waters, an organization dedicated to "inspire and promote projects that combine art, science and community involvement to restore, preserve and remediate water sources."

The result of everyone's contributions will certainly be aesthetically pleasing, LaSpina said, but it's the other benefits that bring true satisfaction to her work.

Witnessing the cooperative efforts among all groups involved, together with the backing of Wilkinsburg Borough, has been a reward in itself, she said. "There are individuals who have been doing amazing urban farming and community development work in Wilkinsburg long before I arrived," LaSpina said. "I am proud to be part of that legacy, and I hope others will be inspired to come play with us."

Those interested in participating or learning more about the project may contact LaSpina at 724-516-2042.