Ekua Holmes shares her experiences growing sunflowers to celebrate Boston’s vibrant community of Roxbury
“I notice that it is only when my mother is working in her flowers that she is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible-except as Creator: hand and eye. She is involved in work her soul must have. Ordering the universe in the image of her personal conception of Beauty. [...] For her, so hindered and intruded upon in so many ways, being an artist has still been a daily part of her life. This ability to hold on, even in very simple ways, is work black women have done for a very long time.”
- Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (1972)
A Woman is Like the Earth
When I started the CoVictory Gardens project, I knew I would want to talk to other artists who explore gardening as a way to cultivate community. The first artist I wanted to talk to was Ekua Holmes, whose project, The Roxbury Sunflower Project, utilizes gardening in a community in order to tangibly bring joy and beauty to the world.
Ekua Holmes is a visual artist, whose deeply layered and vibrantly colored collages illustrate moments of tender love and urban joy for their subjects. I am drawn to the fact that the natural world is a recurring theme in Ekua’s work, as plants and flowers surround black children, families, thinkers and friends as they experience moments of daily life out-of-doors. From walking to church in the rain to riding a bike or reading a newspaper, Ekuas subjects are often outside, cradled by plants and surrounded by love. These themes in her work have laid a beautiful foundation for the Roxbury Sunflower Project, which uses the beauty of the natural world to celebrate and cradle community.
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I interviewed Ekua in early May as she was in preparation for the third edition of the Roxbury Sunflower Project amidst the backdrop of COVID-19. During our conversation we centered gardening as a creative act, a way to celebrate community, a space where we can care for ourselves. As the legacy of American racism has thrust itself into the public consciousness amid Covid-19 and the horrific murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery and too many other black lives, I am grateful to share her project which centers resilience and community vibrancy for Roxbury, the heart of black culture in Boston.
In 2018, with a grant from Now + There, Ekua started The Roxbury Sunflower Project by distributing 20,000 seeds to 300 Roxbury residents. She didn’t stop there and also planted large fields of sunflowers at public locations like Grove Hall Public LIbrary and Freedom House. Community members and visitors could pass through and stumble upon a field of over 200 sunflowers, witnessing the transformation and growth over the course of the spring and summer and in the fall that is when everything is at the height of its beauty in blossoming.
Ekua shared “My intent was to create a collective action that the community of Roxbury could create together, not only to beautify but also to put a symbol in the landscape that could stand for what this community has been over the years and continues to be.”
The Roxbury Sunflower Project makes sunflowers an icon for the history and aspirations of the community. Ekua ‘s work celebrates the Roxbury community through themes that come from the sunflowers’ attributes:
Resilience - Sunflowers are sturdy and strong, resilient plants; the resilience of the Roxbury community has been key in keeping the community safe, viable and vibrant.
Deeply Rooted - Sunflowers a deep tap root that anchors the plant physically in the soil; The Roxbury Sunflower Project is similarly site specific.
Restorative - Sunflowers detoxify soil and are so effective that they have been used to clear nuclear debris or waste out of soil; fields of sunflowers in Roxbury not only heal the soil but also heal and create vibrancy for the community.
Connection - Through complex root structures, sunflowers take care of each other by sharing nutrients within a network of sunflowers, ensuring that nutrients are equally shared; Roxbury residents and community members take care of eachother, ensuring that the community’s needs are met.
Beauty and Attraction - Sunflowers are known to draw bees, butterflies and other pollinators to the garden, ensuring the plants around them are nourished and taken care of; fields of sunflowers in Roxbury manifest the community beauty in physical form.
Sunflower Seed pickups, 2020
Now in its third year, The Roxbury Sunflower Project is continuing to celebrate Roxbury amidst the pandemics of racism and coronavirus which have overwhelmed too many bodies and souls. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ekua acknowledged that and the subsequent isolation, job loss and economic insecurity requires artists to “bump our creativity up to another level. We have another entity that is inherently a part of our projects whether we want it or not.” As we talked, Ekua’s referenced “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens”, the 1972 text by Alice Walker which has been formative in her thinking. And it is clear that the resilience of the mothers and grandmothers referenced in this writing is present in her sunflowers and community, and maybe even more so now than ever.
“My mother adorned with flowers whatever shabby house we were forced to live in. And not just your typical straggly country stand of zinnias, either. She planted ambitious gardens - and still does - with over fifty different varieties of plants that bloom profusely from early March until late November. Before she left home for the fields, she watered her flowers, chopped up the grass, and laid out new beds. When she returned from the fields she might divide clumps of bubs, dig a cold pit, uproot and replant roses or prune branches from her taller bushes or trees - until night came and it was too dark to see.”
- Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (1972)
Creating joy and vibrancy in a garden, not despite but perhaps because of the pains of the world, can provide the spaces needed to heal and center in the long road of work ahead. Ekua said that we cannot back away in light of current events but rather that “we must do our projects to fight against the depression, listlessness, fear of the future, anxiety of not knowing what is coming ... Our projects are super important.”
The Roxbury Sunflower Project kicked off its seed-distributions despite COVID-19, and successfully gave free seeds to hundreds of Roxbury Residents. Luckily, sunflower seeds will still take so consider starting your own seeds now! For those not in Roxbury: you are welcome to plant sunflowers in solidarity with the project. Mark your sunflowers with this simple print to celebrate Roxbury.
Through The Roxbury Sunflower Project, all participating residents work together to create an emblem which will serve “to make a collaborative creative gesture, to beautify the landscape and to inspire people in the landscape”. This project is energized by Ekua, but owned by the community. “I’m not trying to get rich or I wouldn’t have gone into the arts. And even if I just wanted to be famous I wouldn’t be planting sunflowers. Most people who go by the sunflowers, they don’t know who planted them, they don’t know my name, they don’t know anything about me but hopefully they are struck by something beautiful that resonates.”
Artist Ekua Holmes and the 2020 Roxbury Sunflower Project
About Ekua Holmes
Ekua Holmes is a native of Roxbury, MA and a graduate of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, who has devoted her practice to sustaining contemporary Black Art traditions in Boston, as an artist, curators, and active member of Boston’s art community.
Growing up in Boston’s neighborhoods, Holmes was profoundly influenced by what she saw was an absence of positive Black images and believed that art could fill this void. Holmes became the founder and director of The Great Black Art Collection, providing a platform for emerging artists while introducing Black art to new audiences.
Holmes’ artworks reflect her vision of the world as influenced by a lifetime of moments shared with family, friends and neighbors. Ekua Holmes states: “Those relationships left impressions that are now infused in the layers of my collages and elicit both fond recollections and universal life lessons….” These voices from the past can be found in scraps of vintage wallpapers, snippets of yesterday’s news and pieces of discarded costume jewelry, laid upon fields of primary colors and multiple textures. Holmes uses these elements to bring a new and uniquely fresh approach to ageless, universal subjects encompassing families, childhood, relationships, hope and faith.
Currently Holmes serves as Assistant Director of MassArt’s Center for Art and Community Partnerships, and manages sparc! the ArtMobile, the institution’s vehicle for community outreach pursuing a mission of “igniting art and design in the neighborhood!”