New Energy, Ancient Desire: Reflections on NEON Fest

I carefully unpin the white post-it notes from the blue bulletin board and organize them into a pile. As I carry them outside toward my car a wave of gratitude overtakes me. The warm sunshine caresses my face and I can feel the energy, love, and thought put into the stories written on these once barren slips of paper.

We spent every evening since Monday carefully curating the space and “painting with plants” at 717 Granby St where the Glass Gardens and Friends exhibit and popup took place during the NEON Festival. Our intention for the popup was not so much to sell our visitors plants or a product. We hoped to show the vibrancy of plants and how they can be used to activate a boring or unused space. More importantly, we wanted to engage and connect with the community in new ways through teaching, sharing, and doing.

Cool as a Cactus

As I was applying paper and modge podge to our cactus collage I would often ask folks walking into the shop if they’d like to help. Many would ask what I was doing, others would decline, and some would sheepishly say “sure.”

“Just take a piece of the tissue paper or magazine clipping and rip it into a shape and help us fill in the cactus. Apply a little modge podge to the spot you want to add the paper, stick it on, then use a small amount of modge podge on top to seal it.”

One person said they used to always be afraid to “do art,” but took the leap and merrily added several pieces to our live art project. It takes a little courage to ask someone to contribute their time and sacrifice the cleanliness of their fingers. It takes even more courage to participate. Probably 7 out of 10 times people said yes and many had a childlike sense of wonder as they glued colorful bits onto the life-size cactus.

I went out on a limb getting this ready as a special installment for Friday night, trusting that people would respond positively to John’s off the cuff idea to do a “live collage.” Some people didn’t need prompting to help out, they would walk up and add to it without anyone else leading by example. Others needed a little nudge to get outside their comfort zone.

Each glued on piece represents a Small Act. People gave a little bit of energy to collectively create a piece of art. We made something together.

Terrarium Bliss

On the spot guided DIY terrarium building classes were also a means of encouraging people to be active participants in our passion. My heart fills up with happiness when I think about all the people I helped build a terrarium. Whether it was their first or fiftieth, their faces would light up over playing in the dirt, picking out a succulent, and giving it a new home.

Each terrarium built there represents a Small Act. It embodies a willingness to care for and give energy to a living thing. Caring for the plants in their newly crafted environment means much more than not overwatering and giving adequate light. These plants need your love and energy. When you build a real relationship with them, say hello to them, or sing to them, they are more likely to flourish.

What's your plant story?

I enjoyed guiding others on their journey to terrarium bliss and encouraging people to add to our collage, but Plant Stories was the project most near and dear to my heart at this popup. I wanted to engage with people about something they often “take for granted,” their plants. I have special relationships with all my plants and they all have a story so I was curious if others did too. It required a little bit of vulnerability and openness to connect about this topic.

“Do you have plants at home? Do you have any stories about them? We’re sharing Plant Stories!”

The most common initial reaction to my inquiry about plant stories was that their plants always died. That in itself requires vulnerability; to admit that attempts were made to care for a plant that were unsuccessful. Once I opened up about some of my own personal plant stories, like the rescuing of the sidewalk aloe or that I travel with my plants and have had some for ten years, people began to open up and realize they actually do have plant stories. When I showed further interest, asked more questions, and started to write it down, they became even more engaged and elaborated.

I consider each of these stories to be a Small Act. People were willing to share something personal with me, for most, a complete stranger. They gave their time, energy, and thought for our project. My gratitude for the stories folks shared with me is beyond measure.

Cultivating a Culture

Our presence at the festival is a Plant Story and a Small Act. It’s the story of community coming together with a desire to engage with each other; to cultivate a culture focused on life, creativity, and learning; to be an active participant rather than an objective observer. It might be the “New Energy Of Norfolk,” but this desire to engage is ancient. People want to connect with others in real ways, and we are “emotionally overwhelmed” by the engagement, new relationships, and unfolding of our collective Plant Story.

Help us keep the story going!

Share your plant story using the button or tag @glassgardens and @smallactscount on Instagram and use the hashtag #PlantStories