There is a simple genius to Steve Wheen’s pothole gardens. With nothing more than soil, flowering plants, and a few miniature props, he is able to stop his audience – AKA general passers by – in their tracks. This is no mean feat when it comes to our busy city streets. As pedestrians, we’re conditioned to keep our heads low, our eyes downcast and our minds elsewhere as we navigate our urban world.
We’ve always got some place to go and somewhere else to be. And, while we’re getting to wherever it is we are already five-minutes late for, the experience is rarely pleasant. We’re bombarded with advertising promising us a better life or playing on our fears. We’re assaulted by the sight and stench of last night’s vomit and pavements streaked with urine and whatever has been left behind by sly dog owners too lazy to pick up after their animals. We’re tripped-up, elbowed and jostled by the crowds. We stick headphones in our ears, hoping that our own personal soundtrack will take us anyplace far away from where we are right at that moment.
If someone does manage to distract us while we rush from A to B, it’s often because they want something. Spare change, directions to Big Ben or a brief moment to press a leaflet into our hands in the hope that they might save our souls, teach us salsa or offer a two-for-one at the greasy pizza place down the next lane. It’s no wonder that suspicion is our default position for such encounters. We have no patience, we resent the disruption and our collective benevolence is rare.
So, what is it about Steve’s pothole gardens that breaks us out of this well-trodden rut and touches us so deeply? Is it that he’s actually spent some time in the same spot on the street? Is it the narrative of his gardens? Or perhaps it’s the empty chairs and tables that our imagination lets us believe could’ve once been home to the modern-day Borrowers or the cast of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids? Perhaps we’re merely in awe of his idea – and the fact that he’s taken the time to implement it. Ultimately, however, all the questions raised by these little gardens are subjective and personal.
I find it interesting that Steve is so often compared to infamous street artist Banksy. On the surface, it’s easy to understand why. Both operate in predominantly urban environments. Both use public infrastructure as their canvases. And the authorities sanction neither Banksy’s art nor Steve’s gardens. It’s the motivation behind the creations, however, where the two differ.
Bansky’s work comes from a place of anger and frustration. His pieces are, more often than not, political protests, illustrating silly ironies, contradictions and hypocrisies. His identity is purposefully guarded, he’s staunchly anti-capitalist and he risks arrest each time he grabs for his spraycan. Steve, on the other hand, is not trying to make a political statement, though most people viewing his gardens assume that he’s an ecowarrior or that he’s demonstrating in silence (and beauty) against the local council and their neglect for road maintenance. But, despite the fact that he refers to himself as a guerrilla gardener, his reasons are much simpler.
Born in Australia into an outdoorsy, gardening mad family, growing up Steve loved nothing more than to potter about in the backyard. It also helped that a love of horticulture was in his blood – Steve’s grandfather was the first person to cultivate red-trumpeted daffodils. So, it’s easy to understand why leaving this kind of life to live in London could come as quite a shock.
Of course, London is an amazing city, but space is most definitely a premium and you spend much more time indoors than out. Most people put up with pokey homes with little or no garden or balcony, but not Steve. Instead of allowing himself to be confined by the four walls of his flat, he decided to do something about it. And thus armed with his knowledge and love of plants and the ubiquitous supply of potholes and other cracks in the pavement around his Hackney home, The Pothole Gardener was born.
With a new way of looking at poorly maintained infrastructure, every dent, folded and mottled slab of bitumen he could find in East London has had a make over, temporary or otherwise. Instead of rueing a missing paving stone or tut-tutting at eroded nooks and crannies in the pavement, Steve thought of new and ever more elaborate ways of fashioning his small-scale worlds. And, what started as a weekend project has now become something of a phenomenon, attracting local and international media attention and a legion of fans, including me.
For Steve, it’s the reaction of the people who encounter his gardens that has been the most surprising. On the street, people have been known to take pictures, steal his flowers and stop and stare . His little gardens have attracted all sorts of animals, including inquisitive pigeons, skittish squirrels and their fair share of dogs. People have shaken their heads in wonder, smiled wryly and run over his gardens with their cars. Some have promised to water his flowers and protect his plants. Online, his videos and blog posts have been shared countless times, from fellow bloggers the world over and local publications to media juggernauts such as The Independent, CNN and Oprah.
The reasons for his success are obvious. Steve’s little gardens are beautiful, ephemeral and whimsical. I’ve been privileged to go pothole gardening with him a couple of times, and I’m always amazed at how his creations make me and the others who gather to watch us so purely happy. It’s because he’s giving us something innocent and unsullied. And it’s because he wants nothing back from us in return. His simple creations are a reminder of the good in people and they make us present and appreciative of our world. And there in lies his genius.
Kate McAuley - www.i-am-not-a-celebrity.com