One of the gifts a liberal arts school like Goshen College offers its students is the freedom to explore and connect multiple disciplines. Heather Gabel, a rising junior from Orange City, Iowa, has taken full advantage of this opportunity.
Heather is double majoring in art and sustainable food systems. While taking Merry Lea’s 2019 Agroecology Summer Intensive (ASI), she brought art onto the farm in a very concrete way. A sculpture that Heather made during the program now stands in the kitchen garden at the Merry Lea Sustainable Farm.
Heather described her process and revealed the sculpture’s name during student presentations on the final day of the ASI. She named the piece “Together, Hope.”
“If we’re going to work in regenerative agriculture, we need hope and we need to be together,” she said.
Heather doesn’t like to be heavy-handed about the interpretation of art, but she did describe the connections that were in her mind as she constructed the sculpture. Agroecology students talk a lot about cycles, participation and diversity in their classes, and these themes were playing in the background as she recycled old objects into something new.
Before Heather saw their possibilities, the materials she used were rusty scrap metal. Some came from a previous effort to clean up an old dump on Merry Lea’s property. Others came from a free pile at Goshen College’s sculpture lab. Most look like they came from a farm.
The sculpture is structured around two hoops arranged perpendicular to each other.
A closer look reveals a pitchfork, a shovel, a spigot, springs, gears and fence posts. These inorganic objects look strangely at home rising from the soil in a corner of the garden with the Kesling Wetland in the background. It may blend in even more with time.
“I’d like to see plants trellised on my sculpture. And how cool it would be if a bird made a nest here!” Heather says.
Not just for farmers or scientists
Heather hopes that the experience of seeing art at a field research station will help people connect different pieces of their lives, as the creation process did for her. She is convinced that the food system is not just for farmers or scientists. People from other disciplines, including the arts, have a role to play as well.
“Most fields that involve justice require creativity and new ways of thinking. When we are working to come up with solutions to problems like climate change or the farming crisis, we need everybody on board, thinking of different ideas,” Heather says.
As she wraps up her time at the Merry Lea Sustainable Farm, Heather has settled into both of her majors. The ASI has confirmed her choice of sustainable food systems.
“I care about these issues, I love working outside, I love working with animals, I love getting my hands dirty, I love the relationship issues involved and getting to be creative. This is a way I can find stimulating and meaningful work for my life. I can use my skills and passions,” she said.
Heather will continue to explore the relationship between art and science. She also wonders whether metal sculpture might become her medium; not just something she dabbled with as a student. “Together, Hope” is heavy. It weighs over 100 pounds. This had its challenges, but Heather likes the fact that she became physically stronger while creating it. Even though she has never met another female metal sculptor, she likes the idea of being one.
“I learned that I am capable! It is really empowering to be a woman and to be welding; to be creating work that is not traditionally feminine,” Heather says.