Illustrator turns cross-country gardening adventure into works of art

Jul. 07, 2013 @ 06:24 PM

Ellen Duda spent the past six months in a faded red school bus, traveling from Philly to Los Angeles with a thriving greenhouse.

Not only did she and three of her closest friends grow tomatoes, cucumbers and kale on the back of the bus, but they also slept in bunk beds and held office hours in the retrofitted behemoth. They visited 11 major cities and a sprinkling of smaller ones, making pitstops at community gardens and talking to neighborhoods about sustainable agriculture.

Duda, a 24-year-old Durham artist who specializes in illustrations, transformed the ups and downs of her green road trip into “Snap Shots from America,” an exhibit on display through July 13 at The Carrack Modern Art gallery. She recently graduated from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

Duda and three friends, whom she knew from Durham School of the Arts, talked one night at the Green Room downtown, in between playing pool, about their big idea.

Their vision was to travel the country and educate others about sustainable agriculture, a concept deeply rooted in community gardening rather than large-scale monocropping. Duda herself had grown up in a family of gardeners, and she spent one summer renting a Durham tenant farmhouse that had no plumbing and learned to work the land. She collected rainwater for her plants and tried to keep the groundhogs away.

“It’s pretty simple living,” Duda said. “You realize how many things you simply don’t need. That’s like how the bus was, too.”

A big supporter of their new nonprofit, Sol Food Mobile Farm, stepped up and invested in a bus for the team. The bus runs on waste vegetable oil, and they retrofitted the bus with solar panels, a living green roof and rainwater collection tanks.

“A lot of the trip, pretty much we all agree, felt serendipitous,” Duda said. “It was an idea that shouldn’t have happened or worked.”

But it did. Children would stare as the bus coasted through their towns. Others would even knock on the front door of the bus, hoping for a tour, while the four were still in pajamas, eating their breakfast.

They met with community leaders to raise awareness about sustainable living and helped others work on their community gardens. They taught children how to identify plant sprouts or that ketchup comes from tomatoes.

In Philly, Duda said they helped a neighborhood build a garden from the ground up in a vacant lot. They planted vegetables in raised beds, made from wood recycled from an old theater set, and neighborhood children would stop by to pitch in. Duda said she checks in with the organizers, and they say that children still play soccer by the garden and check in on how fast the plants are growing.

“It started out with people looking at us pretty suspiciously,” she said. “We were in this big bus in a vacant lot. In the end we had neighbors who knew us by name and brought us food. They were there until we drove away.”

Duda said she and her friends were used to staying in one place for only five days, and then they would move on to the next town. They became gardening nomads, moving from upstate New York to the Midwest to the California coast.

She began to draw snippets of what she’d see while hopping state to state. When she returned home in December, Duda realized she had a different narrative to tell, one that illustrated the people she met and the challenges of living on a bus for six months.

One of her illustrations depicts a cowboy they met in Phoenix. He asked them for bus fare, and he ended up playing Johnny Cash songs for them on his guitar. She shows the variety of their six-month harvest, in which they slaughtered chickens for the first time and milked goats. She drew the whirling windmills she spotted across western Texas, which pumped wells for water, and the Texas grackles that filled the trees until the limbs were black with movement.

“These are just little snapshots of the day-to-day,” she said.

Four of her illustrations represent herself and her friends during their journey. She gave each person a label on the bus: The Gardener is surrounded by heirloom seed packets. The Mechanic needs a wrench. The Planner has a calendar and watch. The Promoter keeps rolls of camera film close by. Each person she drew is faceless.

“I created these without faces because it wasn’t about who we were anymore,” Duda said. “It’s about what we did.”

“Snap Shots from America” will be on display through July 13 at The Carrack Modern Art, 111 W. Parrish St., in Durham. For more information, visit Duda also will participate in a Q&A at the Carrack Thursday, starting at 6 p.m.

Learn more about Durham’s Sol Food Mobile Farm at