An Interview by Nicole Ringel

Site-specific and intensely researched, the many projects of Lynn Cazabon investigate complicated relationships between humans and the environment. Her most expansive project, Uncultivated, is a massive database of forgotten plants found in overgrown urban spaces, suggesting parallel values within society. Cazabon identifies, documents, and investigates these naturally occurring plants with coordinates and archived research, and displays them on as billboards and banners to challenge our assumptions and create empathy.

Another large scale project, Portrait Garden is a literal and metaphorical garden created with and for eleven women incarcerated at the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women in Jessup, MD. The project joins environmental stewardship with self-reflection and personal growth and developed over a 1 1/2 year long collaboration between the artist and inmates. After extensive travel, a new project, Baltic Portraits, investigates further into the relationship between individuals and the environment.

I visited her studio in Hampden to talk about these projects.

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Plants have become central to your work. How were you drawn to that subject? You mentioned climate change earlier – was it inspired by that?

I think that climate change has been in the background on my mind for many, many years. Human relationship to the environment has been a larger umbrella into a lot of my work. A lot of my projects in the past have had to do with what the side effects of human progress are. It kind of ended up thinking about what parts of nature have been affected by human progress, and, well, it’s a lot. And from that I focused in on the plants.

I think also it came from [that] I grew up in Detroit, Michigan and there are a lot of similarities between Detroit and Baltimore actually. One thing in common between those areas is vacant lots with lots of growth, or abandoned houses with lots of plants growing and taking over. That’s been a proto image in my mind, of seeing abandoned and decayed houses with plants growing out all through my childhood. You see these now, about Detroit, but this has been going on for decades. I think that, and coming to Baltimore and thinking about how I have noticed that the climate has changed even in the 15 years I’ve lived here. I can say that I’ve noticed we have more rain, more precipitation.

Also reading and researching about CO2 has proven that it will make certain plants thrive. It will increase the growth of plants in certain parts of the world. With that, along with my observations, there are certain species that are going to do really well, and other species that won’t. That’s where it comes to climate change is as things are changing the landscape is changing. Most of us are not aware of that. Humans are not aware of that, we’re just going about our daily lives.

Whatever climate you were born into is different from whatever climate I was born into, and so your scale of what is normal is different because you are much younger. The project is documenting and keeping record, so I know “this is what it was like in Baltimore in 2010” and if I keep doing this project into the future, what is the landscape going to look like? Other projects I’ve worked on recently have dealt with that as well.

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I am really drawn to Portrait Garden. Could you talk about the process behind that project a little bit?

That project had to do with the relationship between humans and the environment. What I did was I worked with a group of 11 women who were incarcerated at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup, and I proposed to give them perennial gardens on the prison grounds.

Of course I had to get permission and everything, I couldn’t just go in and do this. They were enthusiastic about it, but the catch was that I wanted them to self-identify with plants. They had to pick plants to represent themselves so that the garden would become a kind of portrait garden that would represent them. It ended up being several – I picked some plants, they picked some plants; it was a collaboration. Also I did interviews with each woman. I did those interviews in order to pick plants for her, but also for her to be able to talk about which plant she identified with. In the end they created the garden, they cultivated the garden, and I photographed the plants after a season. We started talking in the summer, in the fall we began planting, and then the following spring I started photographing the plants.

The photographs become what I display, and then the QR code leads to the interview I did with her. You scan it, and then you can hear it on your phone. The posters were actually displayed in the Baltimore lite rail in December through January 2014. There were 100 copies of them displayed in the Baltimore lite rail trains. So while you were sitting, you would see the picture of the plant and read the quote from the interview. You also see the name of the person and how long her sentence is. The project has a website too, so that you can look at all of the sound files and images there.

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“I chose morning glories because they happen to be my favorite, but I’m intrigued by them because once they grow, they blossom when the sun rises, and they close back up when the sun sets. They’re so pretty, but they take over if you let them. My personality – I don’t take over, but I can relate to the opening and closing because I tend to shut down if I’m feeling overwhelmed. I tend to be busy throughout the day, and so rest is something that is mandatory for me. I’m learning how to close myself when there is a need to find balance. I see balance in that opening and closing.” -Carlita

Many of them talked like that – They considered my prompt very seriously, and responded in a really interesting way. And also I think as you listen to these interviews, every time I hear them, I think, wow, she is really intelligent and really articulate, and she is serving a 28 year sentence. She is in her early 30s, and she is about halfway in, so just think about that. She went in as a teenager and her life, and her best years in a way are been spent in prison. It’s really sad. Almost all of them are really interesting in different ways. Some are long and some are short because some people talk a lot and some don’t talk much at all, but they’re all very interesting.

A couple of the women have actually been released, so she just has just one plant because the project was interrupted. This happens in prison all the time. I’d go in, and find out that “oh, she’s been released!” because things happen really quickly, and I’m an outsider so I didn’t know the particulars of her case or whatever. She was in prison for 5 years and was released, and then another woman, Sherri, she also has one because she was released and then again I went back and she was there again. She had violated her parole or something so she was back in prison. It’s a simple premise in a way, but there is all of this complexity to their lives.

Was the prison itself receptive to you coming in to work with the inmates?

On the big level, there was actually a change in wardens in the middle of my project, but they were supportive and they liked the PR. The prison system really isn’t having very good PR in Maryland, so anything that’s good for PR they like. Also they have a bigger initiative in Maryland called Maryland Green Prisons Initiative, and they’re interested in having ecological programs in the prisons. They were for it, but on a daily basis it was not always smooth.

I had to always call and get permission to go in, and it could take weeks before I could get a response. Just the whole process of going back and forth was not always smooth, and going in and trying to teach something was difficult. There actually are actually classes in prisons. There are plenty of programs, like Goucher has one. I would go in and informally give information to them, and it would be nice to have a classroom, but they don’t have a classroom. To have a space where there is no computer and have to make it up on your feet is challenging. Sometimes the women were preoccupied by other things, or were talking to me about something completely different so it was kind of chaotic sometimes.

It sounds like in general they were very responsive to your project!

They loved it. I really hope the gardens are continuing to be treasured and tended. I actually put together a show of the project in the prison. This was in January, I did a display with smaller versions of all the prints with the intention of giving the prints to the women. I don’t even know if this is still up, because I haven’t been able to get back in. I did this in January and then I was away for 6 months on a Fullbright. When I came back I tried to go back in, but I still haven’t gotten a response. I don’t know why, but I think it’s probably because my project is done and they’ve moved on to other things. I don’t know.

We did a display but I also asked the women to do some sort of visual or poem that was responding to this process of doing the whole project and gardening. One woman did paintings of the garden, and some did poetry and things like that. The exhibition was the ending of the project.

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I love how they look so fragile and delicate to the viewer. It’s so contrary to our ideas about prison and so the posters themselves are somewhat misleading at first, and then intriguing because of the content.

That was my interest—This double whammy, because actually it’s the most clichéd subject matter ever. I mean, can you imagine a photographer choosing to photograph flowers? It sounds like such a cliché. It’s right up there with sunsets. That was kind of interest to me, to reinvent it in a way. It was a personal challenge: How can I make pictures of flowers that are interesting? I think the context that these are portrait of people who are serving time who maybe committed murder is super important.

You recently started another project in Latvia. Could you talk about the time you spent there, and what the new project is about?

Latvia is next door to Russia. It was occupied by the Soviet Union so it was on the other side of the Iron Curtain for decades, and it was also occupied by Germany. It became independent in the early 1990s, and now it’s part of the European Union. It’s way up north on the other side of the Baltic Sea from Scandinavia. It’s one of the 3 Baltic countries.

I continued with my interest with the connection between people and the environment. I decided to focus in the project I’m calling Baltic Portraits on internal landscape, so how we internalize the climate of a particular place we’re born in or live in for a long time. I was born in Michigan, and I feel like that landscape and climate that I grew up with is still part of me internally. I’m trying to approach people with this question about that.

I decided after some time the west coast of Latvia, in Liepāja, that I wanted to choose to focus on the Baltic Sea. I realized that it is the thing that is really central to this town, and really important to the country. If you look at the country it’s mostly a huge coastline that’s all the Baltic Sea.

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I asked people to talk about the roll of the sea in their lives. I’d just ask them a few questions, and then I took a portrait of them in front of the sea. So the final result is this portrait of them standing on the beach, and then their responses in three languages: Latvian, Russian, and English. Latvian and Russian are the main languages of Latvia and then English is for me and all the other tourists that might go there, because in the summer months they do have a lot of German tourists because the beaches are beautiful and not developed.

Being that this was another complicated project, I worked with a student I was teaching at the university there, and she spoke English, Russian, and Latvian so she did all of the translating. We approached people and we also asked other people to connect us to people, so it ended up being maybe 60 interviews I did. It will probably become around 40 portraits, but I’m still going through them and she is working on transcribing and translating them on the side right now. We finished ten, because I had the opportunity to show them in these public trams Again, in the public realm, in the bus stops and transit stops there were ten of these big posters.

I focused on people who lived in Liepāja, not tourists. This was done in May so it was still pretty cold there. I left at the beginning of july and the high was still in the 70s. People told me it was still unusually cold but July and August is their summer, so it’s much cooler than here and very windy. So it was cold, but some people would still go into the sea and swim when it was 30 or 40 degrees. So they talk about the roll the sea plays in their lives and the quote is just a little snippet of the interview.

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This project is relatively new and is still developing. What are your plans for it in the future?

I hope to do a bigger body of work about the Baltic Sea. The other half of it is has to do with the Sea and the Military operations that have happened there over time. Actually, they dumped chemical ammunitions into the sea after WWII. Germany, Great Britain, and Russia all dumped chemical weapons and they’re still there. They don’t just go away! The project will have these portraits as well as this focus on the sea that’s still in development.

How has the ecology of the sea been effected by that? Has there been enough research into the issue?

Locally there are scientists who have been doing research on it and yes, they’ve definitely been able to see that the degradation of these munitions have caused certain growth to happen in a particular spot. That’s on one level; on another, since the 70s the beach of Liepāja has recorded incidents of people picking up white phosphorus, which is not a chemical munition but it’s actually from a conventional munition.

These beaches are known for amber, so people pick come from all over to pick up amber. White phosphorus looks like amber but will burn your skin. There are several incidents in Liepāja, the very town I was living in, of people picking it up by accident and burning their skin. So yes, the remnants are still there. We dump it and think, “OK, it’s in a container so it will be safe.” Actually, the US just dumped a whole bunch in the Atlantic Ocean. They don’t just stay inert. The containers decay, rust, whatever. It happens over time. The problem is obviously yes, the disposal of these things, but the bigger question is why the hell do we make them. Why the hell do we do this?

There is actually a woman I know here in the Washington area whose job had to do with that: analyzing the chemical munitions disposal and containment. She said that, well, dumping them in the Baltic Sea sucked but at the same time that was probably the best thing they could have done at that time. But it sucks! That’s the question I ask. Yeah, we have to put it somewhere but why do we continue to do this to each other, to ourselves. We don’t have to. It’s a choice.

Another really important aspect to your work is the delivery through posters and billboards. It’s subversive to advertising and brings a lot of attention to forgotten or uncanny things. What do you see this mass communication bringing to your work?

What you said – the sort of subversion is what I’m interested in. Other artists in the 80s have done this, like Barbara Kruger. But yeah, I still think it’s ripe territory to be able to insert something in that venue that’s unexpected. Maybe advertising has gotten so clever now they can appropriate anything, but I’m playing in that realm of subverting and doing the opposite of what advertising does – trying to get you to buy something – and instead I’m just trying to get you to think and look at your surroundings. It plays also into the use of the phone and QR codes. QR codes are often used to sell things, you can scan them at the grocery store or wherever.

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I like the idea of the ones that I did in the posters on North Avenue for Uncultivated. That when you’re waiting for the bus you might see an advertisement normally, but when you’re here you can scan it and while you’re waiting you can find out about the plants that are right there. These were all taken within 20 feet of the bus stop, so you can really recognize the street. I scaled it for a pedestrian walk, so that the picture was taken within walking distance of the shelter and you could see the similarity. And people reported to me that they could tell where the image was taken, like, “oh, that one was right over there!”

When I’ve done bigger things, like billboards, I scale it up for the car. When you’re looking at the billboards, the pictures are usually taken a half or tenth of a mile away from the billboard. They’re usually on the side of highways and are expensive advertising space. Some of them are digital, so they play a sequence of 20 images. When you’re driving, the plants on the side of the highway are different from the ones you would see in the center of the city because the highway has a lot of certain things – like the salt they use during the winter – so different species thrive there. In this case, you could see the sides of the highway and those pictures of the plants that you’d be speeding by in your car. So the distance would be a bit bigger, then, because I was thinking about the car traversing that space so the plants that I sampled were from a large area.

The project is a larger project called “uncultivated” that’s archived on my website. It actually has taken place in a number of different cities. If you go on the website you can see these different places where I’ve created a set of photographs.

Check out more of Lynn’s work here: http://www.lynncazabon.com.

Author Nicole Ringel was raised in Frederick, Maryland and is currently pursuing a BFA in Studio Art and Art History at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. She is an artist and reader, and is especially interested in community and socially engaged art.