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Dirt that dazzles: Sara Worden’s urban horticultural adventures.

Photo: Leif Zurmuhlen

Masters of the Soil

Sara Worden brings “worm artistry” to Discard Avant Garb

Atop the balcony railing are beautiful glass candy jars in various shapes and sizes. The jars are filled, but not with anything you would want to eat. Inside them, unseen within the blackish mulch and paper strips are . . . worms. Red wigglers, to be exact. And in this lovely display of vintage glassware, it’s the worms that do the eating. According to gardener-artist Sara Worden, red wigglers are super-efficient eaters. And unlike the more common earthworm, wigglers are surface dwellers, which makes them ideal for home composting. Devouring kitchen scraps and other domestic detritus, the worms manufacture high-quality manure for enriching backyard gardens and window-sill planters. Most home composters keep their worms in plastic bins, but these worms—however oblivious they are to their painstakingly salvaged containers—are the stars of an art installation Worden calls Soil Alchemy.

Incorporating the worm jars, used fabric, roadside weeds, video, and words made out of old sewing pins, Soil Alchemy will be displayed at Discard Avant Garb on Oct. 17 at the Grand Street Community Arts Center in Albany (formerly St. Anthony’s Church).

“These are things that really excite me because I’m studying permaculture,” says Worden, who recently completed an artist-in-residency program in the discipline. “Permaculture is short for permanent urban agriculture,” she explains. “It’s a dialogue about soil health and growing nutrient-dense food in urban environments, and what kind of processes we can put to work for us to meet our food goals.”

“A lot of my attention goes to urban food and ecological designs that can fit different applications,” she continues. Such as community gardens and—for one evening only—Discard Avant Garb, the garbage-couture fashion show that promotes recycling, reusing and re-creating.

‘The reason for working with these mega composters,” Worden says of the red wigglers, “is because in many ways they are the ultimate recyclers. My initial idea, redirecting waste into organic soil, piggybacks onto Discard Avant Garb’s, which is turning trash into treasure, salvage into costumes.”

Worden, who has a degree in urban planning and geography from the University at Albany, says that her interests in art and ecology developed simultaneously. “For a while they felt really separate, then I got proactive about combining them,” she says. She studied fiber art in Savannah, Ga., and when she heard about DAG, she signed on, creating the first in a series of “performative, post-industrial mythological creature costumes.”

Her first outfit, a corseted frock, was made out of bicycle inner tubes. The second, a costume for two people in a dance, was created with mismatched socks retrieved from Laundromats. “That’s why I love DAG,” Worden says. “Because it gets artists to look differently at the waste stream and work with materials in different ways.”

Another aspect of permaculture represented in Soil Alchemy is biochar (biological charcoal). Worden takes tessel, a roadside weed that looks like smaller, spinier cattails, and heats it in a kiln, turning the nondescript plant an eerie, metallic shade of matte black. “Tessel is visually intriguing,” she says, but the transformation isn’t so much about aesthetics. Charred weeds and other waste plants (such as corn stalks) are beneficial to soil. “When tessel is turned into charcoal, it’s a fuel energy,” she explains. “It’s a soil amendment because soil is a living habitat of microorganisms.”

Worden was certified in horticultural and permaculture design at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. “It was like working in Eden,” she says of the apprenticeship. The course gave her a strong scientific understanding of organic gardening, but she is less interested in ornamental plants than plants as food sources. She continued her education with residencies in permaculture, including one in Mexico, where she studied agricultural water patterns, and through her membership in the Capital District Permaculture Guild.

“Working with waste materials as an artist supports my understanding of permaculture and vice versa,” she says. “I’m as interested in the dispersal of materials as I am in the acquisition—what can be composted, what can be given away, given as gifts—and how I collaborate with other people in my community.”

Worden received a grant from the New York Foundation on the Arts to facilitate Soil Alchemy. She summarizes the installation as an expression of how waste is both the problem and the solution. “It’s a paradigm shift to look at waste as nutrient.” The installation includes a video of worm composting, artistically shot and edited, blown-up, and time-manipulated. “Worm bins reduce garbage appreciably,” Worden enthuses.

This year is Discard Avant Garb’s 10th anniversary. The Grand Street Arts Center is the event’s largest venue yet; in recent years, the show has sold out in advance. The extra space and tall ceilings, says fabric artist and DAG co-founder Roxanne Storms, is what inspired the inclusion of installations. “I was asked to do something off the body, and I like the challenge of working with materials,” says Worden. “I wanted to challenge myself by creating something that is more immersive for the viewer.”

“Sara has a wonderful creative process,” says Storms. “She always reaches deep on an intellectual level, her work is very meaningful.” Worden returns the compliment: “The energy and the support between all the artists is really positive.”

Soil Alchemy will encompass the church’s side altars, and an installation by multimedia artist Chris Harvey will occupy the high altar. Worden’s installation is done in black-and-white, she says, “to contrast with the textures and color palette of a decaying building.” Both Worden and Storms are excited about the church as a venue. “It’s appropriate for DAG because it’s all about reusing,” says Worden. “It’s a roving show, it started out in bars and pushing the potential of venues in the area, and now it’s reusing a vacant building as a community asset.”

“As artists, we wanted more control,” says Storms of the arts center. She is especially appreciative of having the church available to the show beforehand as a workspace. Worden had the balcony to herself to craft her installation, while volunteer craftsmen built a stage and runway specifically for the church. “We’ve had a week to set up,” says Storms, “to create the whole picture and have it be more of a happening.” Among the 26 artists who will be showing their trash-to-attire creations are Lillian Mulero, A. C. Everson, and Joleen Button. The event includes a silent auction, and all proceeds are to benefit the Tom Nattell Peace Poetry Prize, the Grand Street Arts Community, Albany Center Galleries, and the Christopher Ryan Art Scholarship. A dance party will follow the show.

For Worden, the biggest challenge is presenting the red wigglers, “the visual aspect of dealing with such small, intimate beings and objects, and how to translate that to the larger space.”

After the show, the worm bins will be donated. “People have a visceral reaction to worms,” she adds with smile. “But maybe they’ll want to get their hands dirty a bit.”

Discard Avant Garb, a recycled fashion show and art event, will be held on Saturday, Oct. 17, at the Grand Street Community Arts Center (Grand Street and Madison Avenue), Albany. Doors open at 6 PM, show at 7:30 PM. Tickets are $20. Parking is available. For more information, call 330-0356.

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