CULLMAN, Ala. – An oasis is defined as something that provides refuge, relief or pleasant contrast. Local artist Ben Johnson South (Bendigo) is currently working on a new idea to bring an oasis to Cullman: the American Peace Garden. His vision is to create a calming space that encourages civility and understanding between people from all walks of life and especially for those who work to maintain peacefulness and the people they serve.
The main feature of the American Peace Garden is a 240-foot wide by 30-foot tall mural imagined by Bendigo.
“The concept and basic designs for the mural were created in 2010 and embraced by the Birmingham Regional Council for the Arts,” he said. ‘The signature look combines Post-Impressionism with the simplicity of Southern folk art. The painting represents a garden at the calming ‘Blue Hour’ across America, with iconic, regional plants from ‘sea-to-shining-sea.’”
The “blue hour” is what South describes as the period of time just before sunrise and after sunset, the time he feels the world is most calm.
“The 2020 renewed focus was inspired by the desire for greater civility following the tumultuous protests about police misconduct in the spring and summer of this year,” South said.
South frequently focuses on art and nature in his work in an effort to bring people together. With the American Peace Garden, South said he is looking to create, “a safe place for people who are disenfranchised; they can come and quietly try to find out their commonalities and ponder what it means to be civilized. ‘What does it mean to be civil?’ ‘What does it mean to be kind?’ ‘How can I tell you that selling drugs is illegal and wrong but be kind to you?’ ‘How do you put all that together?’ I think the garden sort of feels like a naive concept, but it might be a way to symbolically help get back to those lessons we learned as children about how to treat other people.”
The COVID-19 pandemic and Stay at Home and Safer at Home Orders were major contributors to South’s revisiting the American Peace Garden concept.
“The self-isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be the time of the most concentrated creative productivity in my life. I reflected over the almost seven decades of creativity and was able to take lapsed projects off the back burner like this big ‘peace garden’ mural and a show of new paintings for a museum in Puerto Rico,” he said. “One of my favorite projects during this period is creating a weekly cartoon for kids, ‘Chirp and Flit,’ a bird and a butterfly who are ‘friends in these times.’ The Cullman Tribune, Alabama’s oldest continuously published weekly newspaper, agreed to run the cartoon captions with both English and Spanish translations. Now, that’s cultural progress. I feel like a kid again and even went back to one of my favorite names of childhood- Bendigo.”
During South’s time at home, the protests over the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis Police custody began. This reminded him of the project he put on the back burner years ago. A project that could heal and bring law enforcement and community members together.
South said, “(Cullman Police Chief) Kenny Culpepper and (Cullman County Sheriff) Matt Gentry are both friends of mine. I think of them both as level-headed, compassionate and pleasant personalities- not bullying. So where does the irony happen? We want to build a place where people are comfortable to share different opinions and we try to find where we have things in common. Let’s just go be people. It’s hard- everything out here; life is hard. Everybody is walking around with something that is hard.”
South believes relationship building does not have to be solemn and heavy.
“I’m trying to make it playful- not childlike, but playful. Kind of ‘every man,’” he said. “Just take some of the stuffiness out of it and make it relaxed where people can enjoy it.”
The American Peace Garden could be created anywhere in the United States, and South is willing to offer his designs and drawings for free to any nonprofit group. He is also willing to adapt those designs for any location, but as a Cullman County native, he would love to see his vision become a reality here.
His concept includes:
- A surrounding mural wall- communicating peace and happiness while embracing and welcoming all
- Diverse cultural plants- those with distinctive, root origins which underscore an appreciation for native and immigrant heritage and are associated with peacefulness and pleasure; some examples are American: blueberries, pecans, sunflowers, popping corn, oakleaf hydrangea; European: German edelweiss, wine grapes, cabbage, turnips, hops; African: okra, melons, coffee; Asian: tea, camellias, rice, Mandarin oranges; Mediterranean: figs, peace olives, herbs; Middle Eastern/ Indian: peaches, dates, pomegranates, chickpeas; Australian: (to be explored)
- American regional plants- those pleasurably associated with each geographical section of America which would serve as a three-dimensional “art alive” element in concert with the “peace mural wall” and symbolizing a wish for a nation of unity and peace; some examples are Southern magnolias and Southwestern cacti.
- Civility touchstones and pathways- South imagines these to be less formal but still carrying all the agreed upon “teaching messages”: peace-loving, world-loving, others-loving- people embrace. Be Gentle, Respect All, Love Nature, Please Listen, Think Up, Love Yourself, Love Others, Be Curious, Be Grateful, Cooperate Often, Lift Spirits
- Garden rooms- planted wall hedges to encourage privacy for dialog. Here, South imagines a family in distress communicating in a relaxed, comforting setting with representatives from law enforcement.
- Central fountain- designed for soothing sound and oasis. For Cullman, South would like to create a fountain base of mosaic tiles to salute the inspiration of Brother Joseph Zoettl.
- Grass-carpeted “Communication Circle”- used as an outdoor classroom to teach lessons in civility; the Peace Garden can also be used for police recruitment/ community connection events and for peacekeeping training.
- A Dovecote- reminding visitors of human connection with other animals and as an enduring symbol of America where peace has a home. South added, “In Cullman, Wes Moore, the city clerk, is one woodworker who could build this ‘birdhouse-on-steroids.’”
- Free Peace Library of “take away” civility lessons- a small plexiglass cabinet with suggested ways to continue exploring
- American Peace Garden touring model- using an “architectural maquette” to share with other communities; also, the creation of this garden would be videotaped as a model of community cooperation.
Of course, all projects cost money, but South has already considered funding for the garden.
He said, “Peacekeeping should not be politicized so grant funding will be sought from both liberal and conservative sources including the Obama Foundation and Koch Brothers’ A Thousand Points of Light.”
He envisions the mural as a collaborative effort with volunteers supervised by experienced local muralist, Jake Tupper.
As for the location, South is hoping for a space to be donated that is currently not being utilized and would allow for parking access to garden visitors. South also plans on seeking input from local law enforcement leaders, city and town council member and mayors from throughout Cullman County, park directors, business and school leaders, artists, architects, nurseries and many others. He hopes to make it a collaborative effort that includes the entire Cullman community.
This year, the Alabama Press Association awarded “Best Human Interest Column” to South for a series of articles originally published in The Cullman Tribune. That writing comprehensively explored, county-by-county, throughout the state all the places that people and plants come together positively and pleasurably. During this exhaustive series, titled “The 67-County Alabama Garden Party” and supported by the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service, chambers of commerce, tourism offices and others, South found many types of gardens (butterfly gardens, military parks, prayer gardens, water gardens, sculpture gardens) but no garden that reflected his vision for art, nature and pondering civility.
“My first experience of art + garden + contemplation occurred when I was 5 years old and my mother would take me often to see the still glorious garden the Bavarian-American monk, Brother Joseph Zoettl, created at Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman, Alabama,” said South. “My father taught at St. Bernard College, which is the site of Brother Joseph’s 4.5 acres of creative and religious passion. I still go there regularly to enjoy the calm and decompress.”
You can find out more at www.BendigoArt.com.
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