s you drive north on Winton Road, passing by the picturesque tombs and trees that dot Spring Grove Cemetery, you come to the intersection at Gray Road. While this time of year it may live up to its name, during nature’s thriving months you’ll find sunlight sprinkled along its fields and greenhouses. The lines of farms you’ll pass are the remnants of Cincinnati’s former food-growth epicenter — farms filled the area from the late 1800s until the 1960s. Here you can find 4.7 acres that aren’t quite like the rest.
Despite Homeadow Song Farm’s name, Peter Huttinger — one of three co-owners — considers it to be more of a homestead. They produce a variety of goods for themselves, like carrots, corn and honey, but they also operate in the realms of commerce, community and creativity in ways that separate them from a traditional farm. Huttinger works with other farms and community gardens, and Karen Egan, another co-owner, operates an all-natural landscaping business. The land itself houses a pseudo family of 10 people, including “WWOOFers” (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms volunteers) and others who own or rent within the property’s three buildings.
But where the farm really diverts from your typical crop-and-livestock commune is in the work that Vicki Mansoor, the third co-owner, heads. Mansoor runs a Waldorf-inspired homeschool program based around experiential learning, often incorporating art as a learning tool.
“If children learn something through a creative process, they’ll enjoy it, and if you enjoy what you’re doing, you’ll learn from it,” Mansoor says. “We don’t do art so children will become artists; we use art because it builds capacities. We’re trying to develop a child’s will and desire to do. They learn skills, they build self-confidence, they learn about color which is kind of science; you learn the skills of observation; you learn how to look at things from many points of view; you learn that a mistake’s OK and, in fact, can enhance your work. Those are all important lessons for life.”
For example, the farm is home to two sheep that are raised for educational value rather than meat. Every spring they are sheared and the children learn how to clean and card the wool before they color it with natural dyes made of seeds, lichen and plants collected from around the farm. Then they make felting projects out of it, such as marionettes for their puppet shows. Through this process, children discover the full cycle that takes nature to artistic product.
Beyond the educational programs, Huttinger and Mansoor — who both hold M.F.A.s — relate artistic practice and mindset to the land itself.
“In one way a farm isn’t nature, it’s a human intervention,” Mansoor says, offering a basic perspective that Huttinger elaborates on.
“It’s not so much that nature is art, but it’s the interrelationship between humans, plants, the animal world and the earth as a kind of artistic practice,” he says. “That isn’t to say that that this bed of carrots, or these grafted apple trees, or the garlic that’s been planted is sculpture, although I take a sort of satisfaction out of constructing them, organizing them, mulching them, competing with the groundhogs digging them up.”
Huttinger sees observation and intentionality as being a central part of art and nature, and things that society is moving away from. As people become more isolated from the earth, as well as from each other in terms of personal communication, the spiritual connection that helps us take care of the land and each other slips away, and with that it becomes harder for the earth to in turn take care of us.
“That’s one of the key things for me, my basic artistic practice: How do you live consciously? How do you bring joy and artistic practice and creativity to growing fruits and vegetables, harvesting fruits and vegetables, cooking fruits and vegetables, eating fruits and vegetables and interacting with community and building community through these practices?” Huttinger says.
In coming from a professional life of galleries and exhibits, Mansoor and Huttinger try to balance their artistic perspective with the reality of a down-and-dirty farm life. Specifically, they reference the inevitable dump piles that blotch farms like blemishes, and how to accept them as part of the aesthetic.
“In his studio he would never hide that, and that’s the trick,” Mansoor says of Huttinger. “When you come onto the land, how do you remain as open minded as you would be in the studio? It’s like an opportunity to say, ‘Well, if I were in the studio that pile would be fine.’ ”
Denise Burge, a fine arts professor at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning, teaches a class that examines the relationship between nature and art. She often brings her students to the farm to see that perspective in action. Mansoor takes students through the experience of painting a tree with a manure-based “biodynamic tree paste,” which gives the tree nutrients through its bark and protects it from things like insects and sunburn. Mansoor typically does this activity with children in their orchard.
“I always love the way the trees look in the winter when they’re painted. I kind of feel like they were dancers with leotards, they have their own gesture,” she says. “I like to use the orchard as an installation piece.”
Burge is inspired by the artistic method of the human-nature relationship on the farm, although she still recognizes how much it mixes with utility.
“The farm is overtly practical and functional; but the aesthetic, in my mind, exists in the appreciation of and creative engagement with what is around them,” she says. “The plantings they choose are based on a creative dialogue with what the community, both human and environmental, needs.”
In the vein of a public park, the farm maintains a crucial civic space for recreation, education and even air purification. Because of the powerful natural relationship that it harbors, Huttinger feels a spiritual and metaphysical obligation to protect the land.
“It’s so fantastic to see a working farm so centrally located in the city,” Burge says. “As you walk back through their property, the air smells sweeter and sweeter, and eventually you forget you are in a city.” ©
Vicki Mansoor represents HOMEADOW SONG FARM at the Northside Farmers Market on Wednesdays. More info: homeadowsongfarm.com.