Q&A with Carmela Aliffi

Gene Downs: What was your process for illustrating I Grew It My Way? Assuming you already had some of the images, such as photos from past Plant Swaps, how did you go about filling out the selection?

Carmela Aliffi: I’ve been building collaborative installations with Jane and photographing in Jane’s garden for 15 or so years. When Jane asked for images for her new book I simply gathered favorite garden images for consideration, transferred them into black and white and began to match possible images with chapter titles. There were some new projects, like Jane’s “tree tops” with colorful bottle tops glued right on the bark of a mulberry tree, and the latest compost happenings with rusty rims and Barbie dolls, that needed to be photographed, but most images were already taken. Tom Greensfielder, Jane’s designer, made many artistic decisions as he laid out the entire book.


GD: What was the biggest technical challenge you encountered? How did you overcome it?

CA: Vertical images work best in the format for Grew. Some of the images on hand were horizontal so I was challenged to find images that fit the format best. It’s not like you can run out and re-shoot garlic, or bananas or Jamaican sorrel any time at all as gardens have their seasons.


GD: Jane’s gardens have been described as “folk art.” How did the artistry of her gardens influence your approach?

CA: I love photographing in Jane’s garden because I totally “get” her urban folk garden aesthetic with a combination of recycled wheels, animal skulls, glass beads and bottles…there are some plants there too! It is the best place I know to find all of the elements of art to photograph. Sometimes I bring my art students to photograph line, shape, color, space in the garden. It blows their minds!


GD: The gardens are as much about people (not only Jane but also the many visitors) as about plants. How did you select which people to feature? How did you go about capturing their personalities?

CA: Jane wrote about some of her favorite gardeners and it seemed perfect to include pictures of some of those characters like plant swap activist and clogging queen, Claudia Collier, who brings seeds, books, plants and identification charts to many a plant swap. Jane thinks that I included too many shots of her, but who could leave out that great shot of Jane holding up her awesome crop of garlic or chasing the chickens in her 38th street garden? Not I!

GD: On what images or approaches did you and Jane most notably agree, and disagree?

CA: We both liked the mannequin legs and poppies cover shot. We didn’t always know it would be the cover but we knew it would go somewhere. I kept an image or two that she especially wanted. She went along with my favorites. Mostly we edited down until we were both happy.


Q&A with Jane Fishman

Gene Downs: Gardening is such a central part of your life. Why did it take until now for you to devote an entire book to the topic?

Jane Fishman: Experts annoy me. I have as many gardening books as I do books about cooking. But do I ever look at them? No. But does that mean I can’t garden? No. Or cook? No. I’m not into perfect; somehow it works: things grow, food tastes good. Maybe you have to be a certain age to learn to cut your losses (very important in gardening), to know what fun is (getting your hands in dirt). I guess I’m at that age.

GD: Your approach to gardening is casual and spontaneous. And yet writing a book requires organization, focus and discipline. From your perspective, how do those two creative processes, gardening and writing, run both parallel and perpendicular to each other?

JF: It’s good to have an arc when you start writing something and a plan when you go out and broadcast seeds but you’re not always that lucky so you just start. If I knew the arc at the get-go – or the exact germination rate of seeds (swiss chard are the worst, probably around 15 percent) – I might be able to plan better (then again I’m not such a good planner; I don’t color within the lines). But I know a good idea when I see one. I throw a bunch of words on the paper along some general albeit vague theme, wait to see what appears and then I keep writing until I have a thread I can work with. Then I extract. Same with gardening. I can only organize so much. You get some tatsoi seedlings going and then a flash flood rushes through and destroys them. So much for organization. A garden may look casual or spontaneous but really the gardener is out there every day looking for some interloper or meddler trying to mess with your plan.


GD: Every book with illustrations comes together differently. How did the collaborative process work between you and Carmela?

JF: I let her decide (ha! We’ll see what she says). We both know it’s the really good image that works the best, whether it pertains to the chapter or not. She has a better eye than I do.


GD: Your previous book, The Woman Who Saved an Island: Sandy West and Ossabaw Island, also featured photography, including original and historical images. What was different about the use of photography for I Grew It My Way?

JF: Since this wasn’t a how-to book (more an experiential, memoir-driven narrative about me and gardening) I didn’t feel the need for the typical garden photography. Plus, I had just read Alice Walker’s “The Chicken Chronicles: Sitting with the Angels Who Have Returned with My Memories: Glorious, Rufus, Gertrude Stein, Splendor, Hortensia, Agnes of God, The Gladyses, & Babe: A Memoir,” which did not include any photos, not one, so I thought what the heck. I won’t have any photos at all. But Carmela and my book designer, Tom Greensfelder, overruled that. I felt the words were more important but when I watch people open the book I notice they flip through until they see a photo so I guess that particular design element is important.


GD: Much of the photography in your Ossabaw Island book was in color. Why did you and Carmela choose black and white photography for the new book?

JF: One word: money. Color is so expensive. It’s also intoxicating. But once the levels are straightened out I think black and white is just as good.


BIO: Carmela Aliffi is a visual artist living in her hometown of Savannah, Georgia. She has received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from University of Georgia and  Master of Visual Arts in Drawing and Painting from Georgia State University. She has been an Artist in Residence in Cortona, Italy, Ossabaw Island, Georgia, and several cities throughout Argentina.  She was a 2009 recipient of a Fulbright-Hayes Scholarship in Hungary and the Czech Republic. She has been a part of the adjunct faculty of Armstrong Atlantic State University  and currently teaches art at St. Vincent’s Academy.








photo credit: Susan Dennis