Anchorage's Arctic Food Forest

By Bree Kessler | May 27, 2016
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Arctic Food Forest at the Anchorage Museum
Image Courtesy of the Anchorage Museum

Brooklyn-based artist Mary Mattingly creates “living sculptures” that allow people to use spaces in order to look at them from a different perspective.  Her newest installation, Arctic Food Forest, attempts to build an experimental ecosystem in urban Alaska as a way for individuals to connect to one another and to re-think food security in a changing environment.

Mattingly always wanted to go north so that she could better understand how climate change is effecting places like the Arctic.  On her first trip to Alaska, as part of a group of artists selected as members of the Anchorage Museum’s Polar Lab, Mattingly became fascinated with how expensive food is outside of Anchorage.  She began to consider how the warming of our environment might oddly offer an opportunity for greater access to food and an updated definition for what is meant by “resilient communities.”

As a sculptor, Mattingly understands how as a result of climate change, communities “grieve for each other and the changes they see around them.” Yet, her approach to the sadness resulting from climate change is to confront it structurally through creating food forests for public use.  The Arctic Food Forest, built into repurposed BC totes traditionally used for shipping, was installed in early May on the front lawn of the Anchorage Museum (625 C St.).  The containers are filled with an unlikely variety of edibles and medicinals such as apples, blueberries, catnip, cabbage, and potatoes.  Even worms and ladybugs have been added delicately to each container to establish a more complete ecosystem.  Mattingly anticipates that visitors will wonder “if [they] can really take food or if the installation is just art.”  Signage next to the planters reminds visitors that every item is available to be taken and instructions for how to pick in a sustainable manner so that the project can continue indefinitely.  Mattingly further explains “as art, it’s fine if everyone takes everything the first day, but the project is really about stewardship” and that is why it’s important that individuals think about leaving something behind for the next person.  

The Arctic Food Forest is a sister project to the Swale food forest located on a barge off of New York City.  For Mattingly, it’s crucial that these projects occur in public spaces because of the conversations they generate around food policy and their potential to inspire others to replicate these types of projects.  It’s Mattingly’s hope that eventually, food forests will become part of city design since “more than making a lot of sense to have [food forests] as part of the urban landscape, they are pretty necessary.”  Moreover, she adds, “food forests do not need to be a burden on any city, they don’t require a lot of care.”

The Arctic Food Forest will continue outside the Anchorage Museum through the beginning of Fall when it will move indoors to the newly completed courtyard in the museum.  The move inside will give new meaning to the project given that although the courtyard is inside the museum, the space currently “is fair game for change” in terms of how it will or won’t be utilized as a public space.

The Arctic Food Forest is part of the “View from Up Here” exhibit on view May 6th through October 2nd at the Anchorage Museum.   

If you’re in Anchorage on Friday, June 3rd, come to the Anchorage Museum lawn at noon for a “permanent lunch” organized by the Secret Society of Public Space.  Bring an item to breakfast prepared with something from the food forest.


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