Update: this is a post from 2010, and most if not all of the links are now dead. The publication I wrote for is no longer in business, and the podcast I had is retired. For more information about The Pansy Project, visit http://www.thepansyproject.com/home
This is a cross post of my column out today in Just Out. You can also listen to an interview I did with the founder of The Pansy Project, Paul Harfleet, over here on Lelo Homemade.
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One late winter day, a few years back, I bought a pansy for a little cheer and to coax myself into lasting through those short, cold, grey days. It was a dramatically colored pansy, deep blue and purple, large and velvety. I potted it up and it flowered through spring and summer, not stopping one bit of the way. In the coming spring, while I was cleaning out the pots with the carcasses of last summer, there was my pansy, blooming its little head off. It had gone dormant for just a little bit of time, but was ready to go. Today, that pansy has been transplanted somewhere in the garden, but not far from where it lived, in a crack in the cement and between pavers, a familiar deep blue purple pansy bloomed early this summer, its flower often larger than the green plant itself. It had seeded and was determined to live on.
Many people think pansies are fleeting and fragile, but in my garden, they are tenuous bodybuilders who often come back year after year and power through springs and summers, often blooming the whole while through.
Pansies are at the center of The Pansy Project, an ongoing art exploration by UK artist, Paul Harfleet. Harfleet plants pansies in soil near sites of homophobic violence or abuse, bringing attention to often unreported gay experiences, and those we in Portland know all too well. He then photographs the pansy in its planted location and posts it to his website, entitling the image after the abuse. “Fucking dykes!” is the title of a lovely pink pansy, planted in Manchester at Cross Street while “Die Queer! Die Queer! Die Queer!” glows red and orange at Wyatt Close in Birmingham. Searching The Pansy Project’s photos for a pansy similar to my own, I discover pansies planted in corners and crevices all titled for the horrible slurs thrown at queers. I find a pansy in shades similar to my own—blues and purples—and it’s titled “Fucking faggot.” The combination of simple beauty and ugly words is powerful and reminds me of being taunted late at night in a parking lot, with the slurs of “fucking dyke.”
I recently chatted with Harfleet about this wonderful combination of art and guerilla gardening. The Pansy Project began in 2005 when Harfleet and his boyfriend were harassed through a series of events on a warm summer’s day on the streets of London. He realized he had become accustomed to this abuse, being a gay man, but that his experiences were shocking to many outside of the gay community. He began to question how the attacks influenced his life, and the role of flowers at sites of crimes or accidents. The Pansy Project began when he planted a living plant as a form of positive action to bring light to the abuse that occurred at the site. Harfleet says, “I’m interested in the narrative element of The Pansy Project because it began by telling my own story of abuse and in sharing, I quickly became aware of others personal experiences.”
In the five years since its inception, The Pansy Project has opened a dialogue and recognition of homophobic violence that has inspired and touched thousands of lives. Harfleet himself has found through “Pansy Give-Away” events, where he distributes pansies to people, and gives him the opportunity to talk to the general public. “I’m most interested in telling everyone about this to encourage debate about how we exist together.” When asked about The Pansy Project as a form of empowerment, Harfleet says, “I am angry that this continues to happen and that I am forced to have some kind of public reaction to idiotic abuse. In a way, The Pansy Project has given me a stock reaction to this abuse. Instead of internalizing my feelings, I’m drawn to the nature of the location and consider where my horticultural reaction will take place. In a way, it acts as a conceptual shield to the abuse.”
The Pansy Project has grown to include art exhibitions and community events, and most recently, Harfleet joined with his brother for a conceptual garden installation at the prestigious RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show. “Working with my brother on a conceptual garden was an ideal opportunity to subvert the traditional world of the flower show with a politically motivated garden.” Awarded a gold medal, The Pansy Project brought homophobic violence, and the beauty of the pansy, to a whole new audience.
At first when I read of The Pansy Project, I imagined these vulnerable little pansies in public spaces as fleeting. But then I remember my strong pansy and its ability to keep showing up even after miserable winters and an army of slugs. Pansies are tenacious, and so, my queer friends, are we.
Photo by Paul Harfleet, The Pansy Project