On a hot Monday outside the Grove Hall branch of the Boston Public Library, Roxbury artist Ekua Holmes watered a dry garden bed. Inside the planter were seedlings sown in early June. Barely visible, tiny green petals were the beginnings of her public art project.
Her vision is to plant 10,000 sunflowers all over Roxbury, spreading beauty through seeds.
“Artists deal in the currency of hope,” Holmes said. “We deal in the currency of beauty, and our job is to reflect back to society what we see.”
To reach her goal of a massive sunflower harvest in September means daily care, especially on very dry days. It also means helping others in the community imagine the possibilities.
“You’re watering weeds,” a man said with a laugh.
“Some of those are weeds,” Holmes said. “And some of those are beautiful sunflowers and beautiful wildflowers. I say, water everything. It isn’t up to us to decide who is worthy. How many people thought we were weeds?”
A grant from the Now+There six-month public art accelerator program in Boston helped Holmes and five other artists cultivate their ideas. The program provided her with $21,000 in funding for what has became known as the Roxbury Sunflower Project.
So far, Holmes has handed out 15,000 seeds to local businesses, community advocates, and nonprofits since the beginning of June and planted between 500 and 700 sunflowers herself.
Holmes has focused on the attributes of the sunflower: its radiance, its strength, and the way it can grow nearly anywhere. Even in the driest landscapes, its roots dig deep for water.
“Once it’s planted and it germinates, sunflowers will move heaven and earth to survive,” Holmes said. “I see that in our society right now, the resilience of our community.”
Known for mixed-media collages with themes of family, childhood, and remembering, Holmes said she found a wellspring of inspiration in her Roxbury upbringing.
“It’s always more than your parents that bring you up,” Holmes said. “It’s the neighbors, it’s your pastor, it’s the one who does your hair, and the police officer that helps you cross the street in the morning. I feel like when I grew up, Roxbury was just such a magical place.”
Today, Holmes is an award-winning artist who graduated from Massachusetts College of Art and Design and serves as the assistant director of MassArt’s Center for Art and Community Partnerships. She’s devoted her life to contemporary black art traditions and to curating gallery exhibitions that introduce emerging black artists. She was commissioned to create a Google Doodle commemorating Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and recognized for her illustrations in the book “Voice of Freedom, Fannie Lou Hamer: Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement.”
Kate Gilbert, executive director at Now+There, called the effort a project of hope. Holmes has also called it a project of self-determination.
“It’s both generous and ephemeral,” Gilbert said. “It creates a sense of urgency in that you really need to be part of it in early June, you need to grab your seeds and get in the ground. It’s asking every one of us to nurture those tiny little seeds.”
Holmes carries sunflower seeds in the back of her car, just in case she needs to give them out. On social media and via e-mail, she gets daily updates on how the flowers are faring.
An estimated 120 individuals have planted seeds across the community, including aspiring farmers with the Urban Farming Institute.
“It gave our students a firsthand look at how they can help beautify an area,” said Patricia Spence, executive director of the Urban Farming Institute in Mattapan. “Our farmer training program started in June and it was one of their first major planting projects.”
The goal is to hold a mass harvest in September and share sunflowers with community centers and homeless shelters. Holmes plans to create six collages inspired by sunflowers that will be displayed in the windows of the Freedom House, a nonprofit in Roxbury whose mission is to mentor local teens through high school and into college.
“It’s beauty at its finest that grows in our community,” said Lisa Martin, administrative coordinator with the Freedom House. “I think sunflowers bring light, and that’s what to me Freedom House brings to the community, so, anything that draws attention from chaos to beauty.”