Sunday, February 14, 2010

This guru of green has nurtured roots in the city

This guru of green has nurtured roots in the city

Ecological artist Jackson Porretta's been in many skins. These days he's happy wearing that of a teacher, empowering youth to design a beautiful city. Shilpa CB finds out that he's giving back much to Bangalore

Shilpa CB



Jackson Porretta's busy growing roots here. He's been at it for three months, he's already got a whole variety to show off on his roof-top garden. Zebra tomato, guava, banana, passion fruit, strawberries, brinjal, cocoa, sage, thyme, chillies, basil… Porretta tends to all kinds of plants growing out of giant pots in this little space where he spends hours everyday. There's more green dominance inside the mud-block house he shares with his wife. Exotic Shitaki mushrooms are all set to pop out of a wooden log he's suspended in one corner o f the living room, he reveals. Porretta admits he can't wait to make a meal out of them.
The roots of his passion for farming, however, lie in the suburbs of California, from where Porretta moved to Bangalore two years ago. These days, apart from other things, the American is busy adding some desi touches to another hobby — cooking. Next on his list of recipes to master is his favourite "ragi ball that goes well with a good sambar".
Since his arrival, Porretta's also become a fan of the lungi, the TATA baniyaan (much to his wife's annoyance), the many languages he wants to learn at the same time. "I have learned swalpa. I understand more than I can speak, but none understands when I speak," he says of his attempts at Kannada.
Making the choice to change cities and make a life here was a "no-brainer" for him. His wife, a Bangalorean who had been living in the United States for over 10 years, missed home; Porretta gladly initiated the move to try and make a life here. "I knew it would be good for me, there would be more opportunity to do the work I enjoy," says this ecological artist and natural builder. Work has taken him places, made him "wear many skins". "I was a pre-med student headed for medical school, then I studied anthropology. After I graduated, I became an organic farmer. When I couldn't make it as one, I applied to be a teacher," says Porretta. He's also been an activist, science teacher, teacher for social change, assistant principal of a school, director of a non-profit organisation he started. During the last year, Porretta's been an artist-in-residence - "enjoying a unique position" — at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology. "I teach apprentices how to build with the earth and natural local materials," he says of his work as a facilitator in an eco-apprenticeship programme for youth in slums, an initiative of Dwarkanath Reddy Ramanarpanam Trust (DRRT) and Sristhti School. His latest accomplishment is guiding his team of apprentices to build two compost toilets in Chikballapur. "We work every day. These days, we are working on setting up vertical gardens," he says.
By teaching the six 20-year-old youths, Porretta's indirectly giving back to a city that has "been able to give me so much more than I was able to return". In two years, his students will be ready to join the job market as green designers, "earn a living building and designing a beautiful, green city that they love." He's giving them the tools to create the design. Porretta hopes that these youngsters will have a big impact on the future of the city. "Bangalore is characterised as a silicon valley, an electronic city. But there's more to it, it's a rich catchment area, has a fascinating history, is ecologically rich. Hopefully, they will be able to connect with that and figure out how it can be part of today," he says.
For himself, the designer would like to build a "natural house with a garden, a studio…" probably 'back home'. "I'd like to go back, have some life there as well. I am not tossing that out," he says. But that would probably be too far "in the future". For now, "my life is here and I am counting my blessings."

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