Tattfoo Tan arrived to his talk at the International Roundtable in what appears to be a Boy Scout uniform—a khaki vest with patches sewn on, simple khaki pants, hair pulled back. Upon looking closer, however, we can see that the homemade patches say things like “Citizen Pruner,” “Master Composter” and “Mobile Gardener.” Tattfoo Tan is what he calls a Green Scout.
“People call what I do ‘social sculpture’ or a ‘relational aesthetic,’ but it’s like, what does that mean?” said Tan. Tan is an artist by definition, but his work truly defies description. Rather than merely creating aesthetic objects, Tan uses his background in design to solve problems in completely unique and creative ways, specifically problems related to food and environmental stewardship. He focuses on the ideas behind art, and how they can build communities.
“Art is so inaccessible to people,” he explained. “You go to a museum, and you get yelled at for getting too close or trying to touch things—I know I get yelled at all the time for getting too close.” Tan smiled, because his work requires close interaction.
His project with Macalester College is called “Free Seed Libraries.” He and a group of drawing, printmaking and other art students collaborated to find an artistic solution to the problem of food deserts, particularly in the Frogtown region.
“We were looking at the lending libraries that you see around town,” said Erin Holt ‘13, who was involved in the project. She and other students re-purposed found containers (breadboxes, shoeboxes, buckets, pitchers) to create holding vessels for packets of seeds. Mac artists designed the seed packets. They created them using both printmaking and freehand drawing techniques. Members of the community visit the seed stations, take some, plant them, and then bring back the excess seeds—because once a gardener plants something, he or she produces more seeds than he or she needs. “As far as I know, no one’s ever done something like this before,” Holt remarked.
Tattfoo Tan is accustomed to doing things that no one has ever done before, though. His style does not really belong in a gallery, or any other conventional place to display art, although sometimes his work finds itself in these kinds of places. He intends for his work to spread, not to remain stagnant and contained in an exhibit somewhere. Referring to his projects, “I want people to take it and run with it. I want people to replicate my work,” said Tan. That’s how you empower people. And how you build communities without the elitist barriers that museum doors erect.
However, this kind of artistic process means that one has to be flexibile in where his/her art goes. Freshman Kelsey Larson, another artist involved in the Free Seed Libraries project, explained with a laugh how the seeds from the hand-made seed packets often escaped their intended packets. “We ended up making ‘mystery grab bags’ for the mixed up seeds—we labeled them with things like ‘Is it a plant? An animal? Who knows!’ ” This kind of flexibility kept the process organic and community-oriented. Tan worked alongside the Macalester art students, in full Green Scout regalia—a quiet, humble rebel of the art world.
“You could see me as a total loser,” said Tan, laughing at himself, in his talk at the International Roundtable. “My art has no market value—no gallery wants to take me. I don’t have a title on my business card, like a CEO. My business card has a picture of a chicken on it.”
But Tan touches everyone he meets in invaluable ways; sowing his seeds and giving people everywhere a fresh perspective. He discussed how his “Boy Scout persona” particularly appeals to children—he’s used this to his advantage, and taken his art projects (including the hens that he raises in his New York City apartment) into schools. He bridges the gap that has widened between kids and nature by helping them interact with the dirt and the seeds and the animals. And at the end of Tan’s lesson, the kids proudly recite a pledge to be sustainable organic stewards.
At the end of his talk at Macalester, Tattfoo Tan had all of us—students, parents, faculty members—recite the very same pledge: to always be mindful of the world around us, how we use its resources, and to spread this philosophy to everyone around us. By the end of his talk, we were just as inspired and beaming as the New York kids in the video clip Tan showed to us.
And that’s where Tattfoo Tan’s unique worth as an artist lies. He brings people together, to think about problems in new, creative ways, to bring an open mind and a new approach to the community at large. Holt is right when she says that no one else has done quite what Tattfoo Tan is doing right now, but surely through Tan’s warm nature, infectious energy, and undeniable artist’s spirit, his ideas will spread. He’s an artist, a designer, a doer—but more than anything, perhaps, a sower of seeds.