Nine years ago, Ken Greene was the children’s librarian in an archetypal small town in the Hudson Valley.
He still lives in the vicinity of Accord, N.Y., but in recent years Greene’s life has taken twists and turns that even this onetime acrobat could not have imagined. His day job these days is as a farmer of heirloom vegetable and flower seed but along the way, and almost by accident, he has become a patron of modern American botanical art. So far, he has commissioned more than 80 artists to create paintings to illustrate his seed packets.
More than 20 are on view in a show called Art of the Heirloom, through June 30 at the Corcoran Community Gallery at the Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus in Southeast Washington.
The tradition of picturing plump tomatoes, glowing sunflowers or mouth-watering sweet corn has a long history in American farming and home gardening, but Greene has brought a unique contemporary twist to the genre.
His brief to his painters: reveal your assigned variety of flower, herb or vegetable in your own way.
“Botanical illustration was the last thing I was looking for,” said Greene, whose enterprise is called Hudson Valley Seed Library.
The resulting seed envelopes — “art packs” — are whimsical, surreal, unexpected, poignant and, taken together, a delightful survey of the rich diversity of contemporary art.
For a packet of beet seeds, the artist Bill Rybak presents the lowly root vegetable as a series of Faberge eggs, floating against a moody purple background.
For the Upstate Oxheart Tomato, David Gordon has painted a plucky bull in heroic pose, with a stout tomato heart.
Jane Bloodgood-Abrams’s painting of Early Summer Crookneck Squash shows the summer squash before a landscape redolent of the Hudson River School. The squash looks like a swan rising from its nest to survey the distant idyll of river and mountain range.
Each painting attaches to some sort of narrative, one of the most touching is Will Sweeney’s picture of a Soviet cosmonaut, Vladislav Volkov, one of three astronauts killed in the 1971Soyuz 11 accident. Space engineer Mikhailovich Maslov, also an avid gardener, named the tomato variety in his Russian garden in Volkov’s honor. Sweeney’s cartoonlike illustration, steeped in symbolic redness, shows a space-suited Volkov and the tomato weightless above his hand.
Most of the painters so far are from the Hudson Valley but the work of local artist Nicole Bourgea features on a pack of Genovese basil. Bourgea painted Keith Cook Sr., who works in the community garden at THEARC, 1901 Mississippi Ave. SE.
Greene’s commissions “are amazing,” said Bourgea, whose studio is in Chevy Chase. “You’re purchasing a little piece of artwork and in a way that interacts between a crop and the community,” she said.
Heirloom seeds are distinguished from modern hybrids by replicating themselves faithfully. Thus, if you save the seeds of an heirloom tomato or melon (or a radish or lettuce left to seed) one year, you can grow it the next. No one owns the seed, so it can be passed freely among gardeners. Such open access to a crop is the antithesis of the agribusiness biotech profit model, and heirloom seed saving is tied in to the local food movement and all its attendant aspects: environmental sustainability, food security and social justice.
The seeds themselves have their own stories to tell. Many represent stories of struggle and displacement — a single variety of bean, say, that has been passed down through the generations of one family. The genetic diversity it represents may hang by a thread.
When Greene, 40, was still working at the library, he started a seed-saving exchange that attracted about 60 gardeners and growers who would trade seeds.
At the time, he started collecting early 20th-century seed catalogues from New York state. “I was thinking about that in terms of research. What I didn’t expect was how beautiful the catalogues were,” he said. “It’s a completely different feeling going through catalogues of images created by artists. The catalogues with photographs felt very sterile to me.”
And so when he left the bricks-and-mortar library to become a seed farmer, he saw art as a way to convey the story of the seeds, “but make it contemporary.”
He likes to tell the story of Larry Fuscher in Stone Ridge, N.Y. who gave him the seed of a family heirloom, a luscious beefsteak tomato borne on a sprawling, vigorous vine. The fruit is round, lobed, red with yellow-green shoulders.
Greene asked Josephine Bloodgood — sister of the squash artist — to tackle the Stone Ridge Tomato, and the result is a swirling, sensuous depiction in acrylics of the grower squeezing out the seeds from a mammoth tomato.
“A lot of her work is from the perspective of looking down, like you’re looking at your own hand. That was a really good fit for this variety because it has been passed down hand to hand, generation to generation, and the reason it’s still alive is because of people saving seeds by hand,” he said.
Sometimes, Greene has to supply the narrative. When the Faberge beets arrived, he tried to find a connection between beets and the master jeweler and found it in a major grower of sugar beets in pre-revolutionary Russia named Pavel Kharitonenko. “The Sugar King” used some of his riches to collect jewelry by Carl Faberge.
Rybak, of Highland, N.Y., created the images digitally, and loved using the strong magenta hues as “a killer color.”
“I like the juxtaposition of the humble beet growing in the dirt and the ornateness of Faberge,” he said. "I like that clash.”
Greene commissions around 20 new art pack covers a year, from almost 300 submissions vetted by him and creative partner Michael Asbill, an artist and neighbor who furnished one of the art pack images (Speckled Trout Lettuce).
Rybak’s beets picture has proven very popular, as has an image for baby onions, named Evergreen Scallions, by April Warren. The painting renders the scallions as trees in a pondside forest, a red rowboat adds a splash of color. “It’s a bit surreal, it’s a bit haunting,” said Asbill, as he was installing the exhibition at THEARC.
At first, Greene would send tortuous e-mails to those who didn’t make the cut. Then he got e-mails back saying “it’s okay, we are used to it. Cut to the chase.”
The idea of a guy being a seed farmer, seed merchant and art patron may seem unlikely, but Greene feels that the enterprise neatly ties together the strands of his life.
“I love plants, I love art, I love education and I love thinking I’m making a difference,” he said. “So it’s kind of everything I’m passionate about wrapped up into one entity.”
He added, though, that “I had no idea I would end up with such an amazing art collection when I decided I would be a seed farmer.”
through June 30 at Corcoran Community Gallery, 1901 Mississippi Ave. SE. Monday-Friday,
11 a.m.-7 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.-2 p.m.