Emily Nelson and Graham Evans set out to bring a little magic to people’s lives. But they weren’t prepared for the sense of wonder they inspired in one Midwestern woman.
Nelson (Col ’10) and Evans (Col ’09) left Charlottesville in late July on a month-long relational art project to express art by talking with people about food, how it’s grown and sustainable farming practices. Home was a 14-passenger bus powered by recycled vegetable oil and fitted with a propane stove, sink, bookshelves, bed and filing cabinet laden with seeds they planned to give away. Their project—Nourish(meant)—also was fueled by a UVA undergraduate arts award grant as well as donations from family, friends and supporters.
Their vehicle looked decidedly Woodstockian. Swirls of color, hand-painted by children, covered the sides, and the roof sported a garden in a custom-built planter box. The “magical mystery bus” feeling caught the attention of a middle-age woman working at a highway rest stop in Michigan. She asked about the project, and though Nelson and Evans were exhausted from traveling and pumping gallons of stinky recycled vegetable oil, they answered her questions.
“At the end, as she was leaving to go back to where she worked, she started crying because it meant so much to see something that to her was exciting and new but also familiar, and it was beautiful,” says Evans. “That blew us away.”
That moment was an emotional high point on a tour that looped through West Virginia, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana. The pair raised eyebrows and consciousness with their seed bank, the bus’s bio-fuel engine, the onboard water recycling system and the bounty of vegetables they grew in buckets, pots and, of course, on the roof.
The idea for the project sprouted from Nelson’s experience in Spain with street artists who transformed walls and building facades into lively murals. “That changed my whole perception of art, art in the world and in people’s lives,” Nelson says.
She loves cooking for people, so food became an objet d’art as well as an environmental issue. “I wanted to change the food system but in a really personal way.”
Their encounters ranged from chatting with individuals curious about the bus and their road-trip lifestyle to sharing food and discussing gardening, permaculture, alternative transportation and community building with throngs of people at a farmers’ market in Ohio. “The thing we did the most,” Evans says, “was bring something that was different and exciting and inspiring and adventuresome into people’s lives.”
Though Evans is now in Alaska helping relatives with a smoked salmon business, he plans to rejoin Nelson to drive the Nourish(meant) bus to Grand Rapids, Mich., for ArtPrize, an arts competition with a $250,000 first prize. Nelson, a distinguished major in the arts, also plans to use the project in her senior show, and the bus will tour Charlottesville-area neighborhoods.
Nelson is toning down the Sixties look, however.
“I don’t want to be cast as a hippie,” she says. “We’re beyond that.”