Digging Up the Lawnument
,
by Dawn Holder
volume 5

“It has been suggested that if ever a plant deserved a monument for its service to mankind, it was bermudagrass for what it has done to prevent soil erosion, to stabilize ditch banks, roadsides and airfields, to beautify landscapes and to provide a smooth, resilient playing surface for sports fields and playgrounds.”1

*

I navigate my browser to Google Maps and click on satellite view. Zoom out, click and drag the landscape around. Zoom in with three clicks. Stark shadows highlight rooflines. I am simultaneously in and above the landscape. Framed by their tidy lawns, the houses, sidewalks, and driveways form an orderly and predictable pattern along the street. Informed by this omniscient aerial perspective, I start sketching. 

*

Dawn Holder, Suburban Lawn Iteration IV, 2016. Porcelain, 10 ft. x 21 ft. x 2.5 in. Courtesy of the artist.

My short fingernails cake with dirt as I probe the ground with my trowel, making holes for the surprise lilies that I am relocating. How long ago were these bulbs planted? Was it the same person who scattered the daffodils around the yard? Or was it the one who left behind the rusty nails and bottle caps, the bits of Coca-Cola bottles, and shards of china that I keep unearthing? Or, perhaps it was the person who pressed plastic torpedoes of mole poison into the yard? (The moles are still here.) All reminders that this space has been lived in and cultivated. Or should I say colonized and settled? 

A thousand years ago, Caddo people cultivated crops in the Arkansas River Valley and built large earthworks across Arkansas and Louisiana. Two hundred years ago, the Osage lost their tribal lands in Arkansas via treaties with the United States government and were forcibly removed to Oklahoma via the Trail of Tears. Clarksville, Arkansas, was established 184 years ago, eight years after Cherokee settlers in the area gave up their land. Eighty years later, Thompson Street subdivision was gridded out on this land. One hundred years later, I dig. 

*

Mow

1. to cut down (grass, grain, etc.) with a scythe or a machine.

2. to cut grass, grain, etc., from: to mow the lawn. 

*

“Admit it. You want them. Those beautiful stripes on your lawn that’ll make your grass look like ballpark grass.”2

“To create a vivid pattern, mow high. Mowing at the highest setting creates softer grass that bends over easily. A shorter grass blade will not bend over as far, and the pattern will not be as noticeable. Raising the mowing height even a half-inch can make a difference. Don’t forget to feed your lawn every 6-8 weeks with Scotts® Turf Builder® Lawn Food!”3

*

Dawn Holder, Grass Variation (Diagonal Mound), 2015 (detail). Porcelain, 5 ft. x 5 ft. x 5.5 in. Courtesy of the artist.

*

When I first moved to Arkansas, I rented a house with a few acres of land just outside of town. The yard was so large it took a whole day to mow with the push mower I borrowed from my new colleague. 

I had considered letting it go wild, but that was before I look down to see patchy, brown spots slowly making their way up my leg. Upon closer inspection, I see that this is not dirt, but a battalion of tiny ticks. I panic, run to the hose, shoot them off my legs with jets of water. The tiny ticks are on my dogs. Impossible to remove. I panic. Shave random patches of the dogs’ fur. The ticks are everywhere. 

At the farmers’ co-op, I buy a sprayer and insecticide. I spray the whole yard. Just carpet bomb the whole thing. Everything dies. Butterflies flail listlessly, grasshoppers flounder awkwardly. I am instantly flooded with regret.

That was nine years ago. I still feel guilty. (It turns out you can simply use a lint roller or a wad of duct tape to collect the seed ticks from your legs. Flea and tick shampoo for the dogs.)

*

In the studio, I roll out delicate sheets of porcelain, thinner than pie crust, and press them into corrugated molds. I pull out the rippled sheets of clay and cut them into thin creased strips. When these porcelain blades firm up, I plant them into soft squares of clay. The porcelain grass begins to grow into a series of square modules that will eventually become a perfect green lawn.

Dawn Holder, Monoculture, 2013 (detail). Porcelain, 8 ft. x 15 ft. x 2.5 in. Courtesy of the artist.

I keep a tally of blades per day to acknowledge the accumulation of my time and effort. In 2014, American adults collectively spent more than 2.3 billion minutes on lawn care and gardening.4 Between 2012 and 2016, I spent approximately 70,000 minutes in the studio making over 125,000 blades of grass. If labor is a metric for assigning value, how precious are lawns? 

Dawn Holder, Grass Variation (Mown Path), 2015. Porcelain, 5 ft. x 5 ft. x 2.5 in. Courtesy of the artist.

This work is repetitive and labor-intensive, a mirror reflecting the suburban obsession with creating the perfect lawn. My fragile lawns cannot be touched or walked on. How many lawns are maintained but not enjoyed, and at what cost? 

Why do we desire to tame and control the landscape around us with lawns? Is Bermuda grass a monument to the American Dream?

*

Mow down

1. to destroy or kill indiscriminately or in great numbers, as troops in battle.

2. to defeat, overwhelm, or overcome: The team mowed down its first four opponents.

3. to knock down.

*

The violence in the language we use to describe the maintenance of our lawns makes it clear that as a society we are ready to remove obstacles to a perfectly ordered outdoor experience by any means necessary. By obstacles I mean those things we deem out of place: weeds, too-tall grass, insects, burrowing animals, humans of the wrong color. 

*

I grew up in the very suburban city of Atlanta. When I was a teenager, a sign appeared in our front lawn one day: YARD OF THE MONTH, in a scrawl of angry writing. Apparently the various construction projects my family had recently undertaken so disturbed the fabricated unity created by the monument of green rolling down the street. 

*

The first time I show one of my porcelain lawns in a museum, a small child takes a running jump and lands on it. Everyone is mortified. When I arrive to replace the broken pieces, I am secretly excited by the swoosh of footprints on the pristine surface. How long would it have taken me to try this myself?

Signage is installed so everyone knows to
KEEP OFF THE GRASS.

*

Footprints left by an unsuspecting child who jumped onto a porcelain lawn (Suburban Lawn Iteration III, 2014). Courtesy of the artist.

*

“When smiling lawns and tasteful cottages begin to embellish a country, we know that order and culture are established.”5

*

The above quotation from Andrew Jackson Downing, the founder of American landscape architecture, is often cited in articles that examine the American lawn. His sentence encapsulates the ideal suburban street—a safe, predictable, pretty place.

In the original text, the sentence is preceded by: “With the perception of proportion, symmetry, order, and beauty, awakens the desire for possession, and with them comes the refinement of manners which distinguishes a civilized from a coarse and brutal people. So long as men are forced to dwell in log huts and follow an hunter’s life, we must not be surprised by lynch law and the use of the bowie knife,” and is followed not long after by: “It is the solitude and freedom of the family home in the country which constantly preserves the purity of the nation…”6 This text was published in 1850, but the violence and capitalism embedded in the text rings true today. 

The implication is that without the interventions of proper architecture and landscaping, humans exist in a primitive state of coarse lawlessness. Instead, the owning and taming of the natural world yields the desired status of refinement and purity. The irony is that this colonialist point of view ignores the environmental and cultural violence necessary to enact this conformity.

Who has access to homeownership and lawns? What measures (forms of lynch law) have been taken (are still being taken) to maintain the monoculture of these spaces? Why have we designed our neighborhoods as monuments to this ideal? How can we shift this paradigm and start digging up this lawnument—in both its physical and symbolic capacity?

*

Dawn Holder, Suburban Lawn Iteration V, 2016. Porcelain, 10 ft. x 19 ft. 4 in. x 2.5 in. Courtesy of the artist.

*

“Free yourself from weeding. …

As with all garden products it’s important to read and follow the directions on the label. 

Following a simple weed prevention routine makes it possible to minimize many weed problems before they ever happen.”7

*

My spouse and I agree to avoid the lawnmower all spring. It’s broken anyway. The weeds bloom shades of purple all spring. For a moment, the lawn recalls its former life as a meadow, releasing us from the monotonous violence of its upkeep.

Instead, I learn about spotted burclover, henbit, chickweed, purple deadnettle, violet, speedwell, sorrel, and cleavers. What is the plant with the tiny star-shaped purple flowers? I am slowly learning their names and uses, picking some for salad and pesto.

*

“The only difference between a weed and a flower is judgment.”8

*

I point the shovel’s tip into my Bermuda grass, placing one foot and then the other on its top edge with a forceful hop. I leverage the handle backwards to a satisfying tearing sound. And then repeat, chunking the lawn into sections. Point, jump, tear. 

Grabbing the clods, I shake the dirt free, easing out the worms and burying them in the newly exposed soil. The grubs, sleeping in white curls, are hurled to a pair of waiting bluebirds who ferry them back to a nest high in the neighbor’s oak tree.

As I slowly obliterate the roots, stolons, and rhizomes, I am struck by their vigor and tenacity. How their white nodes (hands) grip the ground with unexpected strength, marking time, connecting past and present as they reach, grow, replenish, invade. I am happy to hear the popping crack as the shovel disengages their iron grasp.

*

Dawn Holder, Untitled Grass Gesture, artifact remaining from performance study where the artist walked across blocks of porcelain grass. Courtesy of the artist.

*

I take a midmorning break to check on the garden. An exuberance and variety exists where once was only flat green—not only plants but also birds and bugs and little toads. Chickweed and sorrel and dandelions still find spots to grow. The birdseed sprouts sunflowers. The compost volunteers unexpected squash and tomato and watermelon plants. 

The daily rituals of the garden create space for attentiveness to the present and a connection to the past. Here, I am motivated to better care for this place, for myself, and for my community, while still acknowledging the complicated history that binds us.

As I tend to the plants, I notice the tender leaves of the tomato plants are covered with little flecks of white. I crouch low on the ground, looking upward. The leaves are framed by a bright blue sky, and rendered translucent by the searing Arkansas sun. Clusters of soft, green-bodied aphids darken the underside of the leaves. I carefully rinse them off with a jet of water from the hose, leaving a few for the ladybugs.

  1. Richard L. Duble, “Bermudagrass: The Sports Turf of the South,” Aggie Horticulture, Texas A & M University, aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/plantanswers/turf/publications/Bermuda.html.[]
  2. “How to Stripe Your Lawn for a Big League Look,” Scotts, Scotts, June 11, 2020, www.scotts.com/en-us/library/lawn-care-basics/how-stripe-your-lawn-big-league-look.[]
  3. Ibid.[]
  4. John Egan, “How Much Time Do Americans Spend on Yardwork?” [Infographic], Lawnstarter, March 1, 2016, www.lawnstarter.com/blog/lawn-care-2/time-spent-on-yardwork-infographic/.[]
  5. Andrew Jackson Downing, The Architecture of Country Houses: Including Designs for Cottages, Farm Houses, and Villas, with Remarks on Interiors, Furniture, and the Best Modes of Warming and Ventilating (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1852), p.v.[]
  6. Ibid. []
  7. “Steps to Minimize Garden Weeding,” Preen.com, Lebanon Seaboard Corporation, www.preen.com/articles/steps-to-minimize-garden-weeding.[]
  8. Organic Nettle Leaf Tea, tag on teabag, Traditional Medicinals, Inc., USA.[]
Dawn Holder is a sculptor and installation artist who investigates various elements of landscape and their socio-cultural significance through ceramics, photography, and mixed media sculpture. Her work combines diverse influences, such as Minimalism, Eco-Feminism, the Necropastoral, and aerial photography, to create densely detailed work that is both visually striking and physically vulnerable.

An Associate Professor of Art, Holder teaches ceramics, sculpture, and art history at the University of the Ozarks, in Clarksville, AR. She is the recipient of numerous awards and grants, including the Arkansas Arts Council 2015 Individual Artist Fellowship Grant for Sculpture and Installation, the Bagwell Outstanding Faculty Award in 2016, the Grand Prize at the 59th Delta Exhibition at the Arkansas Arts Center in 2017, and the Grand Prize at the 4x4 2018 Midwest Invitational Exhibition at the Springfield Art Museum. In 2019, she was awarded grants from the Lighton International Artist Exchange Program and the Arkansas Arts Council Sally A. Williams Fund for artist residencies in Rome, Italy and Skaelskor, Denmark.

She has shown her work in galleries and museums throughout the country, including the National Museum for Women in the Arts (Washington, DC); Disjecta Contemporary Art Center (Portland, OR); the Zuckerman Museum of Art (Kennesaw, GA); the Zanesville Museum of Art (Zanesville, OH); and the Historic Arkansas Museum (Little Rock, AR). Her work is included in the collections of the Historic Arkansas Museum and Brightwater: A Center for the Study of Food. From 2013-2017, Holder served as the Coordinator of Projects Space, a performative and installation-based exhibition of experimental ceramics at the annual National Council on Education for the Ceramics Arts (NCECA) conference. As active member of the feminist art collective Culture Shock since its inception in 2013, Holder regularly works with the group to organize and participate in panels, lectures, and exhibitions. She earned an MFA in Ceramics from the Rhode Island School of Design and a BFA in Ceramics from the University of Georgia.