University Heights Arts Association promotes art through garden-focused projects

Growing a vibrant arts community bears many similarities to the work of a gardener.

Creativity must be tended like a seedling, nurtured and given an environment to thrive.

This is the work that Mary Ouimette-Kinney and Larry Kinney have been doing for decades in their community in Buffalo, N.Y. It’s the mission that led them to found the University Heights Arts Association in 2013.

UHAA is a nonprofit dedicated to providing free arts programming within its community. While the group started in the University Heights neighborhood of Buffalo, its programming now reaches a much larger geographical area, including much of western New York and communities closer to the central part of the state.

Injecting art into communities

The group seeks to physically place arts education in locations where people might not otherwise have access to it.

One vehicle for this mission is UHAA’s “ARTcovz,” innovative self-serve booths that invite visitors to take home pre-packaged, self-contained art lessons that include instructions and materials at no cost.

ARTboothz travel to events, offering free art activities to anyone who stops by.

A common theme in many of the group’s programs is gardening. Many of the projects UHAA places in the ARTcovz and ARTboothz are garden-related. The group also puts on several programs with direct ties to the garden.

Its Soil, Seeds and Secrets program brings together illustrators, writers, photographers and others to collect and distribute seeds with beautifully decorated and informative seed packets.

Last year, Ouimette-Kinney said, this program distributed 2,100 seed packets for free throughout the community. The program promotes the idea that gardening can start with something as simple as a packet of seeds, as a way to break down barriers that may stand in the way of someone starting to grow things.

“We think for some people, a few dollars for a seed packet is a lot,” Ouimette-Kinney said.

When they give away a pack of seeds, they ask the recipient to share the seeds from what they grow. This is part of a “pay it forward” philosophy that is fundamental to the organization.

“That just means we have more seeds to bring to more people the next year,” Ouimette-Kinney said.

Reusing materials is key

Larry Kinney, a sculptor for more than 30 years, said UHAA is able to offer so many programs at no cost in part because it relies almost entirely on materials—and even spaces—that are discarded or previously used.

He found this practice to be an essential cost-saving measure early in his sculpting career, and he has put it to work for UHAA. The group transformed a piece of land that the local St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church was not using into a public sculpture garden. That garden now serves as a venue for UHAA’s arts exhibits and art-focused events.

Within that garden, Kinney turned the remains of an old tree trunk that some had wanted to remove from the property into one of the garden’s centerpiece sculptures.

This concept of reusing old materials is central to many of the group’s gardening art projects. Something as simple as drilling holes in old cans, dipping them in paint and providing materials for someone to decorate their own planter can open a person’s eyes to the joy of watching something grow.

In areas where residents may lack access to gardening materials, the group has pre-packaged gardening soil in bags to give away with the projects.

“We find that people are more likely to garden if we take an artistic approach and give them what they need to garden,” Ouimette-Kinney said.

Art and gardening go hand in hand

Making the connection between artists and gardening has not been difficult.

UHAA’s annual “Beauty in our Backyard” garden art competition offers cash prizes and an exhibition for the best garden-themed entries. Ouimette-Kinney said even artists who don’t normally engage in gardening get excited about the contest.

The first-prize entry becomes the centerpiece for the official poster of the Samuel P. Capen Garden Walk, which takes place in July in the University Heights neighborhood.

“To us, it’s no wonder that artists are attracted to gardens,” Ouimette-Kinney said. “There’s a lot of artistry in gardening. There is so much art just in plants. It’s like nature’s artistry.”

As UHAA expands its programs to serve an ever-growing area, Plants Map is one tool leaders hope will help it raise awareness of the seeds it has available, and eventually of the plants growing in its sculpture garden and in other locations.

“We want to expand our seed program, and we want to be in touch with other gardeners,” Ouimette-Kinney said.

The Soil, Seeds and Secrets program has also evolved into a vehicle for preserving the stories of individuals within the community.

This year, UHAA plans to release a book bearing that title. It will provide information on the seeds in the program, and also feature stories that might not otherwise have been told.

One of those is the story of a local man who lived in his house until the age of 97. Neighbors had known him for growing tomato plants and sharing the seeds. But after his death, the discovery in his house of a trove of beautiful glass art he had created unveiled a talent many never knew he had.

Ouimette-Kinney said writers will interview individuals to document their stories, which will appear in the book.

“Gardening just seems to be a very grassroots way to identify with people,” she said.

To learn more, follow the University Heights Arts Association on Plants Map.