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Kansas Artist Stan Herd Returns to Brazil to Fulfill Grand Vision Community Garden as Public Art

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Above image credit: Kansas artist Stan Herd working with area youth and others on one of his prior trips to Brazil's favelas. (Courtesy | Stan Herd)
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5 minute read

Second chances rarely come on the grand scale that Kansas artist Stan Herd is envisioning.

Later in September, he will depart for Brazil and revisit some of the infamous favelas, self-governed communities of impoverished people, tucked alongside some of Rio de Janeiro’s wealthier neighborhoods.

There, he’ll scout out a one-acre location as part of a massive project that is attempting to create the world’s largest food garden. 

Herd needs a permanent site for one of his earthworks, the massive installations of carefully arranged plants, trees, rocks, flowers and shrubs that have been his life’s work.

Earthworks are living art, places of gathering and an extension of his farming upbringing. Herd’s father and grandfather grew wheat and sorghum and raised cattle in Protection, Kansas.

This is Herd’s second attempt at creating the image that he calls “Young Woman of Brazil” near Rio. Like the other portraits that he’s done, including a four-acre image of a woman in the Yunnan Province of Southwestern China, it will best be seen from above.

Stan Herd's "Young Woman of Brazil" is a design he hopes to shape into a massive earthwork within a massive urban garden in Rio de Janeiro.
Stan Herd’s “Young Woman of Brazil” is a design he hopes to shape into a massive earthwork within a massive urban garden in Rio de Janeiro. (Courtesy | Stan Herd)

Birds have some of the most enduring and best vantage points for enjoying Herd’s more than 50 installations around the world. 

“I’m going back to an original Brazil woman,” he said. “It was the purest exercise in art for me as an artist, the way this design came about.”

By that, he means being in an almost guided state, inspired after awakening one day. He describes the process of drawing the original design of “Young Woman of Brazil” as being in a state of flow.

Like the favelas where he plans to place her, she’s complex. Intricate lines create the face and interlocking tattoo-like images are throughout the portrait.

She’s less Herd’s interpretation of an Indigenous woman, like so many of his previous works, and more a homage to the trials that women face globally. He wants her to appear strong, resilient and not idealized as “princess-like.” 

For this project, he’s relinking with an organization called Green My Favela, and Brazilian experts in the urban food gardens, who will help pave the way for Herd to work within Parque de Madureira. 

Favelas are complicated communities, guarded and controlled by gangs and militias. No outsider can simply expect to step in and start work amongst the tightly packed shacks, often made of cinder block.

Creating earthworks anywhere is hard physical labor. Stone and soil must be hauled for many installations, often employing farm landscaping equipment. The China project included marble and granite and saw the hiring of 200 workers including engineers, heavy equipment operators, artists and students.

But at 72, Herd’s experiencing an invigoration inspired by his recent struggle with cancer. He’s had three clear scans since being diagnosed with throat cancer. It never spread to lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and two surgeries didn’t completely stop it, but immunotherapy infusions did.

“I’m going to take the best advantage of it,” Herd said of his reclaimed vibrancy. “It’s so uplifting spiritually and emotionally every single day now is just a gift.”

To return to Brazil … to finally begin the creation of this monumental work … would be the most important achievement in my life … and if  successful … might become a blueprint for other populations of humanity living on the fringes of our fragile planet. … The gardens, as an activity, are beyond reproach … the art, as a catalyst … is an experiment.” 

Stan Herd’s Concept Statement

He’s back to walking about 15 miles a week. He’s restored his frame after a significant weight loss. He’s learning salsa and making time to attend football games at Kansas State University.

But there also is a slew of other projects – some still conceptual, others in the planning process. A conversation with Herd is a swirl of details about many of his pursuits and passions – music, creating gathering spots for artists, political activism and always, all things Kansas.

But Brazil, where he first worked amid the favelas nearly a decade ago, is up first. 

“I want to breathe life into these artworks that I started, but that I didn’t finish.”

‘A Strange Reality’

Others from that past venture also have been tapped.

Lea Rekow is the founding director of Green My Favela and has significant ties to others in Brazil who will be integral to the completion of “Young Woman of Brazil.”

A decade ago, Herd contacted Rekow after learning of her urban garden work in the favelas. She’s credited with helping to create the largest urban organic food garden in Latin America, a feat that was recognized by the United Nations for sustainable development in 2012, as an answer to food insecurity. The basis of the garden was long concrete beds that the local people then tended.

Rekow lived in Brazil for six years, mostly working in the Manguinhos favela.

She lives in Florida now, north of Miami with her husband and their teenage daughter. But she’ll travel with Herd this month to scout locations.

“This time, I think it will actually get done,” Rekow said of Herd’s earthwork plans. “Something is different with this now. This reiteration of trying to renew this project has evolved in a way that has more energy and focus.”

Her work has taken her around the world, far from her native Australia. She’s worked researching the legacy of coal and uranium mining on Navajo lands and documenting the civil war of Burma (now known as Myanmar) in oral histories.

Rekow was drawn to the sites for some of the same reasons as Herd – a deep appreciation for building community, a revulsion to how poverty is criminalized, and a respect for the people of the favelas finding their own solutions.

She points out that Brazilians aren’t lacking ingenuity. After all, favelas develop and function by the sheer will of their inhabitants.

But they do lack resources. And the favelas are often beneath transmission lines or tightly packed structures where what land that isn’t housing is used for large sewage pits.

“It’s a strange reality, a different reality,” she said. “You just don’t imagine people living next to some of the most affluent in the country, right over the mountain.”

She recalls the high rates of tuberculosis and black mold. She cites the difficulty of navigating the narrow roads, and the lack of sewage systems.

“We didn’t have the right space before and were always pushing against things to make it happen,” she said of Herd’s original concept. 

But Rekow is also adamant about the vibrancy of the gardens and the people that tended them, especially in Manguinhos garden, where she worked.

Brazil has aided the creation of the latest projects. In part, this is due to past offenses, the fallout of shoving a reported 700 to 900 families out of their homes to make way for a massive park leading up to the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Part of that land is now being used for the urban garden, Parque de Madureira. Eventually, by 2024, it should encompass 27 acres and feed 50,000 local families annually, according to a recent BBC report.

“I’m so excited to get back down there,” Rekow said. “Now, everything is converging to allow it to happen.”

Mary Sanchez is senior reporter for Kansas City PBS.

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