Adolph Street Community Garden (centre), 2021, 30" x 40"
Adolph Street Rose (left), Adolph Street Yarrow (right), both 2021, 24" x 18"
Materials: oil on canvas (centre); watercolor on paper (left and right), 24" x 18"
Location at Summa: Akron Campus, ground floor hallway outside Endoscopy Department, Green Neighborhood
This piece was acquired for the Summa Health System-Akron Campus Wayfinding Project.
The oil painting in the centre of this grouping records the Adolph Street community garden that is within a stone’s throw of Summa’s Akron campus and on land owned by Summa, an important component of the urban fabric of this city. Artist Avery Mags Duff underscores this point by including a distant view of the Summa power plant on the right.
Gardens for horticulture are the urban cousin to fields for agriculture and traditionally are bounded by an enclosing wall, here a wire fence. As a practical matter, fences intend to keep out city pests - especially groundhogs here, sometimes rabbits - and they also, more metaphorically, function to mark a protected area reserved for cultivating atypical or precious specimens. A kitchen garden is the direct descendant of the medieval hortus conclusus, the enclosed garden, which late medieval writers saw as a reference to the virginity of Mary, mother of the Christ. With time this image came to refer to the woman of aristocratic birth, recipient of vows of love by knights errant and protected by virtue of privilege from the chaotic world outside.
(Emilia in the garden, by the Master of the Hours of the Duke of Burgundy, c.1465, now in Vienna, Austrian National Library, cod.2617, fol.53r - photo credit: Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index, https://inpress.lib.uiowa.edu.)
That may seem a long way from Adolph Street, but here, too, a protected plot as large as three city lots, within the fabric of the larger, civilized (a word that comes from the word for “city”) tapestry, attests to the basic human instinct to nurture, protect, and encourage growth, no matter where. Within the past decades, community gardens also demonstrate civic recognition that we find fulfillment in growing our own food.
The painter takes a high viewpoint to lead our eyes down into the Adolph Street garden, very green in mid-summer bloom. Community gardens aim to re-purpose underused or abandoned spaces and to give volunteer participants the opportunity to produce fresh food and learn basic garden practices while getting to know one another. Describing themselves as an “urban farmer,” Duff — who has lived nearby for about ten years — coordinates the human and other resources to attain specific goals for this garden plot, goals which include balancing seasoned, returning “crew” with novice gardeners. Duff says that being an artist, for them, means having a preference for a hands-on job, with the benefit here of working with their own neighbors.
In this grouping of works, the watercolors on each side — a wild rose at left and yarrow at right — belong to a specific tradition of botanical illustration which, long before photography, aimed to instruct users in practical matters: How to identify beneficial plants and their parts, as well as how to then turn them into tinctures, decoctions, and other usable products to improve human diet and health . In this tradition, Duff isolates each specimen and gives us characteristic views to assure identification. The wild rose is known for producing rose hips, high in vitamin C and makes a good tea; we have a botanical illustration of it, made for a Byzantine princess, that goes back about 512 CE.
(Rosa centifolia from the 6th century copy of Dioskorides’ De Materia Medica, now in Vienna, Austrian National Library, cod.med.gr.1, fol.282r. - photo credit: Web Gallery of Art, wga.hu)
Yarrow (Achillea millefiori) is a native North American plant whose Latin name derives from the Greek hero Achilles, who was described as having carried this plant into battle to use it to staunch wounds of his soldiers. Its leaves and flowers, dried and powdered, are still used to stop bleeding (‘though not just in soldiers), and they too make a tea good for general well-being. Duff’s delicate watercolors capture what the herbalist sees above ground at the height of each plant’s flowering, at its most attractive.
Avery Mags Duff is a lifelong artist, based in Akron; they now manage several of the Summit County community and market gardens. They earned a B.A. degree in Spanish as well as a B.F.A. degree in painting from the University of Akron. Duff sees their art as exploring and deepening the relationship between plants and human bodies and expression. A deep respect for plants as repositories of knowledge and history motivates their work over many years, some more abstract and sweeping, some as intimate and almost autobiographical as this garden.
Where you can see more of this artist’s work:
Avery Mags Duff’s webpage offers an overview of work since their undergraduate days. The oils and watercolors directly inspired by experience in the community gardens since 2019 are mostly grouped under “Edge Effects.”
And while you’re thinking about plants, gardens, and neighborhood views you might want to have a look at other works on gardens and plants in the Summa Collection by artists such as Meaghan Reed, Susan Danko, Barbara Gillette, Gretchen Goss, Caroline Rowntree, Susan Squires, P.J. Rogers, and Taryn McMahon.
Other works with plants as design elements were created by Laurie Jacobs. Ian Adams’ Sunflowers offers an exploded version of the tall specimens growing in the back corner of Duff’s Adolph Street Garden.
Other Summa Collection works with views of Akron neighborhoods include those by Rita Montlack, Michael Loderstedt, Lizzie Aronhalt, Scott Goss, María Zanetta, Ibojka Friedman, Joe Levack, and Timothy Callaghan.