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Heirloom seed project grows with community input

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Students work on putting together a "communograph" that depicts the data collected while researching the practice of collecting and sharing heirloom seeds.

A University of North Georgia research project that started with just a simple idea of collecting heirloom seeds from the surrounding communities has grown far beyond the scope originally intended. The next phase moves into local schools, as art education majors teach high school students about the tradition of keeping seeds.

heirloomseeds4Heirloom seeds are those that have been passed down from one generation to another, usually because of some desirable trait in the plant such as taste, hardiness, production or uniqueness. Some heirloom seeds have been harvested and saved for 100 years or more.

Last semester, students pursuing the new minor in Appalachian studies collected heirloom seeds and the stories behind them from gardeners throughout Lumpkin County. The project, Heirloom Seed keepers & their Stories: Growing community and sustainability through arts-based research, aims to preserve Appalachian culture and heritage and connect students with the community.

Rather than present their findings in a typical research paper, UNG students created a "communograph" — a piece of artwork that serves as a collective memory bank, artistically representing the seeds, the stories, and the people who save them. It is a map of Lumpkin County, with photos of seeds, plants and community members transferred onto large pieces of fabric. The sections of the map are stitched together with red string depicting community boundaries and the areas where seed collectors share their produce and their seeds.

The communograph — its final size so large that displaying it and moving it created challenges a local hardware store helped students figure out — was presented in Washington, D.C., recently for the Appalachian Teaching Project. UNG was one of only 16 institutions in the Appalachian region invited to take part.

"Our students presented the most relevant, dynamic, community-engaged and professionally articulated research project of all 16 institutions," said Rosann Kent, director of the Georgia Center for Appalachian Studies, which is located in the Vickery House on the university's Dahlonega campus. "Our multidisciplinary team members included majors from art education, biology, criminal justice, history, nursing and political science. We could not be more proud of their success and representation of their programs and our university."

Chris Dockery, an assistant professor in UNG's Department of Visual Arts and the center's teaching fellow, said the scope of the project has expanded as community interest has increased.

"We realized after D.C. that what was so special about the whole project, all the art-making and the research, was that it wasn't the university doing some project for the community and educating the community. It was an opportunity for the community to educate our students. So the roles were completely reversed," Dockery said.

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The communograph will be on display in several locations throughout the community in February. Beginning Feb. 8, it will be on display at the Wagon Wheel restaurant, then at Lumpkin County High School beginning Feb. 18, and finally at the Lumpkin County Library beginning Feb. 25.

The next phase for the project involves art education majors, who will be working with Lumpkin County High School students on a series of art projects related to heirloom seeds. Over the next several weeks, UNG students will help high school students make seed packets, create a journal to record their own family's gardening traditions and weave baskets to use in the high school greenhouse.

Sydney Dye, an art education major from Elberton, is among those students who also helped facilitate the communograph.  Last semester, Dye and her fellow students wrote a curriculum unit to take into the high school. This semester, they're getting ready to teach the unit.

"Our job was to write a curriculum unit that could be implemented in the school system that would teach the practice of heirloom seed keeping and ways of preserving seeds," Dye said. "Ultimately, it's all about preserving the seeds, preserving the stories and preserving the traditions."

Dockery said her students aim to do more than just "make art."

"Our students are involving the high school students not just in making some art with them, but they are actually involving them in this community-based project. They are going to be doing part of the work with us," she said. "Hopefully, we're going to make some connections with the high school students and their families who have been saving seeds for generations."

© 2014 University of North Georgia