Fascinated by Isabella Stewart Gardner’s passion for plants and gardens, Joan Bankemper spent her 1999 residency studying Gardner’s travel journals in the archives and interviewing the Gardner Museum’s horticulture staff. Bankemper uses recycled sculptural objects and plant material to transform abandoned lots, urban rooftops, overlooked historic sites, derelict parks, and industrial sites into gardens that promote fellowship and learning. She spent hours drawing in the greenhouses and Courtyard, using the plant material in both places as a resource for a new suite of botanical gouaches. Bankemper also began designing a community herb garden for the Fenway Victory Gardens (about a ten minute walk from the Museum) that would bring neighborhood seniors and school children together to work and share experiences.
Fifth graders from the Farragut School, a participant in the Gardner School Partnership Program, along with seniors from the Peterborough Senior Center, worked with Bankemper to imagine what a garden focused on healing plants might contain. Following a discussion about the healing properties of herbs, Bankemper asked participants to do additional plant research and to record their findings in their own garden diaries. Over the fall and winter, the students and seniors made several visits to the Gardner where they toured the greenhouses with the Museum’s gardeners and learned about plant care. Students sketched in the Courtyard, embossed their sketches in foil, and mounted them to use as covers for their diaries. In the first weeks of March 2000, the class used their research to choose 13 herbs to start from seed in the classroom: anise, catnip, celery, chamomile, comfrey, daisy, echinacea, flax, hyssop, lavender, lemon balm, peppermint, and thyme.
Bankemper returned in April and May to install her exhibition, A Gardener’s Diary in the Museum’s Special Exhibition Gallery, and to work with the multigenerational group on the Healing Garden. They planted the herbs they had started from seed in a central body-shape and surrounding raised beds. During the Farragut Family night in June, the students’ garden diaries were displayed and students discussed their experiences working on the project with visitors. The public was then invited to use and enjoy the Healing Garden in the Fenway Victory Gardens as an extension of Bankemper’s exhibition at the Museum. As a regular unit in the Farragut curriculum, the Healing Garden was maintained by Pat Keyo’s fifth graders, seniors from the Peterborough Senior Center, and Museum staff volunteers until 2006.
In 2008, Bankemper founded the Black Meadow Barn on a 150-year-old farm located in the Hudson Valley, NY. The Barn is a place where "horticulture and culture meet." Sustainable farming is both practical and practiced. She continues to cultivate gardens, ceramics, and "conversations" at the Black Meadow Barn, often including visual artists, farmers, and culinary experts.
Joan Bankemper has received awards from the Sugarman Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and in 2010 was named the first recipient of the McColl Center of Visual Arts’ Gabi Award. She is represented by Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York. Bankemper has shown with Creative Time, the New Museum, White Columns, and the Hirshhorn Museum.