Artist Asha Canalos comes from a long line of Caucasian and Native American women artists with fierce natures. She and her partner, photographer Yorke Flynn, recently acquired land in upstate New York to begin an organic farm specializing in berries and medicinal herbs, only to find that a gas compression station was in the planning down the road, not only jeopardizing their dreams, but threatening that residential and agricultural area’s air quality, food and water supply; endangering the community’s health and safety. I recently visited Asha in Westtown, a hamlet of Minisink, in Orange County. We conversed one morning as the sun rose over distant mountains visible from her window.
Self-Portrait, Asha Canalos, 2011 (Photo by Asha Canalos)
Ernesto Pujol: Your paternal grandmother was an artist, your mother is an artist, and you are an artist. Were you always aware of this unique heritage?
Asha Canalos: When I was a kid, I thought that everyone was an artist of some kind, because everyone around me was. My father was a poet and musician, my uncle was a designer, and my aunt and maternal grandmother are performers. It was my underlying assumption that everyone possessed creative qualities. I actually still believe everyone does-we all hone our creativity to various ends.
EP: How about your relationship with gardening?
AC: My family was always inspired by the natural world as they moved around while I was growing up: from Florida to Arizona, from Saudi Arabia to New York, and rural Ohio. My first memories as a child in Florida are of avocado and lime trees in our backyard-layers of light through trees, green fruits hanging like ornaments, the pungent and spicy smells of leaves I crushed between my fingers. I loved the long flat horizon in Ohio, the openness of the corn and soy fields, and the woods and beaches along Lake Erie. But it was in New York, first as a kid in Spanish Harlem and later as an adult in Brooklyn, where I was confronted with the city’s alienation from the natural world. It was as if, other than at the grocery store, the natural world was behind glass. Maybe you saw it painted in a show at the Met. I missed plants, the hum of bugs, as if they were family.
EP: I too felt that loss when I moved to New York City for graduate work. I craved my parent’s garden.
AC: I have been gardening professionally for almost twenty years. In high school, I started working for a friend’s father who was doing water lily propagation, and during summers I worked in a nursery. I learned the names of plants, the conditions they require, and their personalities. Some are overbearing, others meek and vulnerable. But I was just moonlighting as a gardener. I thought that I would have to stop doing it in order to start my “real career.”
EP: Where did you study art?
AC: I first went to Antioch College in Southern Ohio for visual arts, but was also interested in performance, cultural history and writing. However, all these disciplines were very separate in my mind. I was an entirely a different person when I was gardening professionally.
EP: That is the current crisis in education, not facilitating connectivity between disciplines even though everything is interconnected. Even when some art programs try, they still expect the same old product. The only thing that has changed is the scope of the research. We need to change output expectations, let go of what art making, recording history and writing used to be. We need to change expectations about the identity of artists and the scope of their practice.
AC: I thought that I would have to choose from among those disciplines; that there was some kind of failure in being in conversation with all these disciplines, instead of pursuing one-it provoked incredible anguish. Our society is bent on specialization, on isolating disciplines. But when you think about it, we are collectively asking for everyone to be isolated when what we need is connectors who keep it all together. We need to come together as people, tighter and stronger. And that is what I want to be, a tough little connector piece.
[Asha suddenly stops herself and looks at me intensely.]
AC: Actually, that is not exactly true. I had no choice. I have always been a connector piece. For the longest time I wanted to shine in only one thing, but it turns out that I shine more between things. For years, what I thought was my weakness was, in fact, my truest strength. I can now say to the universe ‘All right, I will be your multi-tool for the greater good. Let’s do it.’
EP: How did it come together for you?
AC: I worked for a series of companies that created and maintained rooftop and brownstone gardens in Manhattan. I worked at the General Theological Seminary garden in Chelsea, which has the oldest lawn in the city. I took care of fantastical topiaries, like Edward Scissor-hands. But I also worked on my own as a freelance designer and gardener. However, I kept that aspect of my life very separate from the rest. When I spoke with artists about art, I did not say much about being a gardener. I feared not being taken seriously as an artist, a historian, a writer, or even a gardener if I were “split” in those ways. But I could not give up any of those practices.
EP: So, what was your catalyst?
AC: Honestly, I was tired of working for people who hardly spent any time in their gardens. It was not fulfilling to know that so few were enjoying them. Sometimes the building’s doormen ate lunch there, or a cleaning lady took a cell-phone call in the garden. Mostly they were backdrops, windows in Architectural Digest picture homes. It depressed me. Increasingly, I also hungered for a community of creative people who supported art in society, revolutionizing the meaning and purpose of art. So I decided to pursue graduate work in art history and studio art with the hope that they would naturally inform each other. I sought connections. It was not a career move, but a leap of faith toward deeper understanding.
EP: I love your artwork, its landscapes and figuration. Your images inhabit a space between painting and drawing, between book illustration and collage. They are dreamy, mixing history and fiction.
AC: I am very interested in the place between literature and history, anthropology and poetry. I like to think of history itself as collage-like: a pastiche of everything we have read, watched and absorbed about the distant or recent past, just re-assembled piecemeal in some artful way. My work follows that format, echoing that quality of history.
EP: What happened after you completed your MS and MFA degrees?
AC: A lot of confusion, because neither art program particularly informed me about my next steps. I had to find them on my own; they had to come from me. I increasingly wanted to find a way to be in both worlds, in Nature and New York City. There were many people I cared for in the city, but I longed for a natural, grounded life. I was in a stable relationship with a very kind creative man and we wanted to build a thoughtful life, not just repeat a life.
EP: I assume that by “repeating lives” you mean how artists’ lives were supposed to unfold in New York before the economic crisis, within the art world’s late twentieth-century unregulated economy of collectibles as stock. So, what did you decide?
AC: After many conversations, Yorke and I formulated a plan to look for a small parcel of land and start an organic farm. I felt a call to the Ramapo Mountains because of my background. My maternal grandmother is Native American, but because she grew up in an orphanage in Totowa, NJ, she does not know much about her family’s history. Deducing from my research, she descends from the Ramapo-Lenape people.
On the Banks of the Aquahung River, Dutch settlers Approach a Lenape Village, The Bronx, 1640, Asha Canalos, 2009 (Photo by Yorke Flynn)
EP: And that brought you to the border of New Jersey and New York.
AC: It sounds very strange when you say it out loud. I felt drawn to the border of New Jersey and New York. I felt a pull to its physical and cultural landscape. I read a lot of New York and New Jersey history. I would sit in Brooklyn and think of the Passaic River, of the American Revolution in the Palisades, of Redcoats in the forest (where the parkway is), of William Carlos Williams walking as a doctor along the corridors of the hospital where my mother was born in Paterson; of the Minisink Indians and their queen… Yorke and I started hiking the area in 2006. By 2008, we were considering moving here, casting a very wide net across five or six counties along the state border. Our search took a long time; it was grueling. We stretched ourselves very thin, scouting out the area many times. Eventually, we found the place we currently inhabit in Westtown, a ranch house on eleven acres in a former horse farm. This part of New York used to be New Jersey but was ceded to the New York-New Jersey Line War in the 1700s. The skirmishes went on for fifty years!
EP: You returned creatively, intellectually and spiritually to ancestral lands but suddenly the world fell apart…
AC: Yes, madness ensued. The same day we signed papers, plans were released to build a natural gas compression station very close to our new home. Initially, we had no idea what that meant. We knew about fracking in Pennsylvania, we knew of communities against it, and that New York also faced a threat. We had done research about fracking and were strongly opposed to it. But we did not know much about the danger of transporting the fracked gas from Pennsylvania through New York. That infrastructure is just beginning to emerge around us. They are pushing it through incredibly fast, before people know its true impact.
EP: How did people come together in Westtown?
AC: Many residents received a notice in the mail, but we didn’t. We were too new. We suddenly started seeing neighborhood signs sprouting up against the compression station and we finally got a flyer in our mailbox about the formation of a group. We were devastated when we read about the depth of the imminent threat, at a loss about what to do next. So we started researching about other cases and fights, and eventually approached the new group. Then, a friend of a friend sent me a list of national press contacts I offered to the group. And they accepted my help-they needed me, as I needed them.
EP: A very dramatic way to meet your new neighbors!
AC: Very! The group consists of extremely dedicated, active people who are wildly different from each other: liberal professionals who work in the city, a community of policemen and firemen who were 9/11 First Responders (most moved here because of respiratory and post-traumatic stress reasons), military families returning from active duty, conservatives of every creed, and farming families who have been in Minisink for several generations. There are about thirty main players. It is a social experiment in working together for a common cause. They are an example of how Americans could overcome their differences and rebuild the country. We share more values than you would think during this politically polarized time. Our case actually appears to be making history; several aspects of our story are completely unprecedented. So it will become case law in New York and other states, whatever happens, however they rule. And somehow, I found I had role in this small but active community-a thing I could have never predicted.
[We look at each other in silence and smile in wonder at the same time.]
AC: Living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I was surrounded by people who were pretty much like me in terms of interests and politics. At first, it was very uncomfortable and awkward to learn how to communicate through such differences of opinion. But eventually, I was entrusted to write the group’s press releases. I realized that every member of the group was necessary; compromise and respect were integral. At this point, it has been ten months and we have managed to stave off building the gas compression station by imploring the federal agency overseeing it (FERC) and other responsible agencies to listen to our proposal. We recently traveled to Washington, DC to meet with federal officials and politicians in person, moving through their offices as an incredible motley band of people. We also met with a DC-based lawyer who the community hired later. A smaller group of ten was elected to help this lawyer prepare an argument. The group was named the Minisink Residents for Environmental Preservation and Safety (MREPS). As one of its members, I began working with a local organic farmer whose family maintains one of the oldest farms in the state. We are now adding to the already voluminous legal argument from the agricultural perspective.
EP: What is your proposal to the federal agency?
AC: The group generated a community-backed alternative plan that is “a far lesser evil” than what the company keeps pushing. Our plan calls for the immediate replacement of a problematic, old and quite possibly dangerous section of gas pipeline that was due to be replaced in 2014. That would enable the Texas company, Millennium Pipeline, from Houston, to place a smaller compressor station in our area. Our plan would create less than half the pollution predicted by their proposal. The plant would be relocated over a mile from the nearest homes and farms in an already industrially zoned location, rather than in the midst of residential and agricultural land. We are not asking for anything radical.
EP: What are the threats to everyone’s health if the compressor station goes through in the wrong area?
AC: The compressor station would release an enormous amount of toxins into the air, many of them carcinogens: pollutants that would threaten people’s health, nearby agriculture, local wildlife and their habitats. This is particularly bad news for Bald eagles and endangered Indiana bats. Also, gas compression stations and the pipelines that feed them can be terribly unsafe. Over the last year alone, several exploded in the U.S. triggering fires acres wide. In Minisink, there are over 200 homes within half a mile of the proposed compressor. Yet, we do not have a fire station; we do not have a police station; we are not prepared for an emergency. Nevertheless, the natural gas industry keeps trying to infiltrate residential and agricultural zones. They have enormous amounts of money that give them enormous amounts of political influence right now. Centuries ago, there were battles raging throughout the Hudson Valley dividing people. Once again, communities are divided; families are split down the middle, as during all of America’s wars.
EP: What other dangers does natural gas infrastructure bring?
AC: Fracking for natural gas encourages earthquakes because it extracts gas through chemically laced water pumped under the bedrock. This ‘waste water’ is then injected back under the bedrock for “storage.” But it has now been proven that this tempts seismic activity. Therefore, it is not enough to fight fracking in New York, we now must add to the equation the pipelines, compressors and waste-fields that service gas transport through the region. We should be particularly concerned about those that are irresponsibly sited. The turbines that process gas emit low-frequency vibrations that have proven adverse health side effects on humans and animals. There is evidence that these vibrations also affect honeybees and could be a factor in Colony Collapse Disorder. The air pollution that the gas compression station generates will seep into our watershed, which is New York City’s water source. The industry has plans for hundreds of these projects north of the city.
EP: It sounds like scary science fiction becoming true.
AC: I couldn’t agree more. The reality is that New York and Pennsylvania sit on potentially lucrative shale regions, but shale gas is inherently laced with Radon. It is almost impossible to extract its Radon. If that gas is used domestically, Radon will enter people’s homes through their stoves and furnaces. So, most likely, it will be sold on the international market to China and other rapidly industrializing countries hungry for affordable fuel. This is not a leap in progress towards greater national security, in terms of not relying on foreign oil. It is about corporations making money at the expense of people everywhere.
EP: What happens if the gas compressor station moves?
AC: Our future is hinged on that. If we are given a chance, we want to grow a wide variety of plants through an intensive farming system. Right now, we are starting with berries and herbs. The soil is naturally acidic, so it is already suited for growing berries. But I am also interested in the herbal aspects of organic farming because of natural forms of healing. I am drawn to Native American, Chinese and Russian herbalism. I would like to propagate some of those organic medicinal herbs locally, so that we do not have to import them from other countries or even other regions of the U.S. I want to connect people with natural medicine. Plants heal and ground you, if you are receptive.
EP: It is quite a journey. There is no cutting corners. No details can be spared from this story. The disciplines mix, or take turns.
AC: Yes! I can’t wait to continue writing and making art. I have a lot of sketches and ideas milling around. All these events are intersecting with my work-there are less and less boundaries. I want to invite people to interact with our farm, to participate. For instance, I want to work with educators to bring inner-city kids for field trips, to see, touch and smell the plants, to learn how they grow and what their healing properties are. I would also like to start an artist residency that reconnects artists with medicinal plants and food production.
EP: The artists’ residencies of the future will be in ashrams, sanghas and farms, rather than in places disconnected from spirituality and agriculture. Environmentally conscious art training will radically change art making.
AC: We would be wise as humans to remember that plants are not all that different from us. As Michael Pollan points out, we have helped plants evolve and prosper as they have helped us evolve and prosper. Like us, they try to survive; they are creative and adaptable. I envision a plant’s roots as parallel to our hidden intellectual and spiritual selves, as what is not outwardly visible to the world. But we have to nourish those hidden roots, get them to branch out. They are what produce our viable acts, our flowers and fruits: our acts of creativity, compassion, productivity and purpose.
EP: So what is your current relationship to New York City?
AC: The city has an undeniable need for sustenance. Our plan is to become an “arm” that reaches out from a place that provides. Pragmatically, we know it is challenging to make farming profitable, so we hope it will succeed enough to sustain our new family. We plan to set up a farm stand in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where we lived for many years. We will provide produce to restaurants there. We are connecting with acupuncturists and healers. We are trying for distribution to be as direct as possible, without intermediaries. Our hope is that all these relationships will be mutually productive and, more importantly, meaningful.
Postcript: As of the publication of this interview, Asha Canalos, Yorke Flynn and the Westtown community were still waiting for the final word on their alternative proposal to the gas compression station in Westtown. Nevertheless, the two continue planting, and are getting married in a small ceremony at their farm in June. You can learn more about this community’s fight against dangerous gas plans at www.stopmcs.org. If you wish to help with organizational and lawyer’s fees, please contact the group at firstname.lastname@example.org.