The 2014 UIC Heritage Garden invited local artist Alfonso “Piloto” Nieves Ruiz to work with the Heritage Garden interns on an installation for the satellite gardens that embodies the ideals of environmental and cultural sustainability through art. Art is a tool in the conversation of sustainability, as the ability to engage in creative thinking and to employ inventive and innovative solutions for the current issues of the environment is necessary to bring a shift in the awareness of the world’s inhabitants, to one that is mindful of the interconnectedness of humans, the earth, and all of life and the implications of our actions on the environment. Art is as necessary as technology in the genesis of a new environmentally sustainable age, as a shift in consciousness is required, from one that is dominated by consumerism, to one that is mindful of the full environmental, cultural and social implications of one’s choices. Consciousness of thoughts and actions and respect for the unity that connects all living things is at the center of Piloto’s philosophy. The project provides an artistic depiction of the Heritage Garden’s overall philosophy, which is to connect cultural diversity with environmental sustainability and social justice. Piloto’s guiding philosophy gracefully aligns with the mission of the Heritage Garden, which emphasizes the environmentally friendly practices inherent in cultural folkways and heritage.

Piloto, a native of Mexico, arrived in the U.S. after an early life of American Dreaming. He was raised in a small town in Mexico that was split socioeconomically between rich and poor, with the rich having control of the town’s water supply and transnational corporations dumping waste from their factories into the same water. He saw early on the injustices that occur to both nature and people of lower income, and how excessive abundance and consumerism drive degradation of the earth and its inhabitants. Growing up next to a dump, Piloto developed a close relationship with garbage; one that taught him how to conserve and repurpose what has been tossed away as dead. He also played with mud when it rained, which infused him with a lifelong love of working with soil. 

Upon arriving in the U.S., the reality of Piloto’s American Dream was stripped of its grandeur when he realized the amount of waste generated by Americans, compared with the culture of Mexico, where “If you have a TV, you use it until it dies, and even if it dies you resuscitate it somehow…you make it work.” According to Piloto, “I saw all these necessities that were being created, and how we throw away everything. I was like “Man, I remember how I used to be happy without anything.” So I started creating art, and finding that when I reconnect with clay, with mud, I just fall in love. I started using clay as my primary material, and garbage as a complement because I believe that everything we see comes from the earth, and garbage is the thing that WE create.” Piloto connects the garbage generated by consumerist society with the mental garbage that disconnects people from the earth and each other. Therefore, by using garbage, the artist transforms waste materials by giving it a purpose. “If garbage can be changed, we can change,” he shares.

The art project uses roots, branches, and plastic waste materials, which together represent the freedom of birds and connection to the earth. The birds have been installed into the Heritage Garden satellite sites, and, like the Monarch butterfly, are a symbol of movement, migration, and ultimate transformation, as the magnificent works of art have been conceived from discarded plastic and roots. Just as birds exist as a symbol of physical migration and the freedom to cross borders, they too stand for the freedom to think freely. 

Piloto’s original bird sculptures, which inspired the project, provide the philosophical basis for the installation: “I was giving the birds the roots as wings, and I was thinking that if you go back to your roots and you tie yourself to your roots, you can fly, because you start getting more freedom and knowledge.” Each intern constructed a bird out of discarded plastic piping, plastic bags, roots, and branches. Then, painted the birds. The roots are a symbol of both literal grounding to the earth as well as connection to personal past. The juxtaposition of the soaring of the birds and grounding action of the roots links directly to the Heritage Garden’s emphasis of cultural heritage, and getting to our source of identity.  Roots symbolize the source, which is crucial in the conversation of sustainability. 

Four of the larger bird sculptures have been placed in separate planters across the quad, representing the four directions, with each direction having distinct spiritual symbolism. Each direction represents phases of life with their associated virtues. Furthermore, at the center of each bird’s chest is a heart, identical to the large corazon in the Latino Cultural Center’s mural by Hector Duarte. The heart, which represents the Spanish saying “con el corazon en mano,” or “with heart in hand,” implies being welcomed with honest and peaceful intentions. Each heart is painted in a different color that corresponds with the planter direction it inhabits. The Eagle heart to the north is painted black, and represents the place of the elders, those qualities being wisdom, reflection and introspection. The heart of the Condor to the south is painted blue, and represents youth, childhood and life, with the blue signifying will power, or the power of will. The heart of the Quetzalcoatl to the east is painted yellow, and represents consciousness, as well as the creative energy of the man. To the west is the Osprey, with heart painted red. The Osprey represents the energy of the woman, who is the warrior of love.

Working with Piloto brought heavy awareness to patterns of disposal, and when rethinking this behavior, it is necessary to start at the source, and to be more conscious of the entire life cycle of what we purchase: where the item was made, who it was made by, and where it goes after we no longer desire to own it. Just as this internship emphasizes heritage and coming back to the self-empowering ways of growing our own food and knowing where we came from, it is equally as important to know the source of our thoughts. If we don’t know the source of what we think, then how can we know that what we are thinking is useful? By collecting personal stories, we are passing on truths, and getting to the source of knowledge.

In this age of mass media and facts and figures streaming in through every screen, collecting stories is a key way of filling our consciousness with empowered knowledge - knowing the source of what influences our beliefs, thoughts and actions. The birds, which symbolize movement and migration, are residing in the satellite planters. The planters serve as microcosmic representations of the world, where plants of different roots and heritages all reside together. In the words of Piloto, “The world is one big planter. We all want to be free, we all want to fly, we all want to be strong, we all want to coexist together in peace.”