Paul Harfleet, founder of The Pansy Project, plants pansies at the site of homophobic abuse. He finds the nearest source of soil to where the incident occurred and plants one unmarked pansy. The flower is then photographed in its location and posted on his website. This simple action operates as a gesture of quiet resistance; some pansies flourish and others wilt in urban hedgerows. Paul began by planting pansies to mark his own experience of homophobia on the streets of Manchester, and now he plants pansies for others both on an individual basis and as part of various festivals and events. This year, Paul worked with the Hudson Valley Seed Company to design the artwork for the brand-new Pansy Mix Art Pack. Co-founders Ken and Doug sat down with him while he was visiting New York, planting and painting pansies around the city.
How did the Pansy Project start?
Three homophobic abuse incidents happening on one day was the catalyst for this project. The day began with two builders shouting; “it’s about time we went gay-bashing again isn’t it?”; continued with a gang of yobs throwing abuse and stones at my then boyfriend and me; and ended with a bizarre and unsettling confrontation with a man who called us ‘ladies’ under his breath. It was in this context that I began to ponder the nature of these verbal attacks and their influence on my life. I realised that I felt differently about these experiences depending on my mental state, so I decided to explore the way I was made to feel at the location where these incidents occur. It wasn’t long before I decided that I would plant a flower at the sites I’d experienced abuse. However, I did not feel it would be appropriate to equate my personal experience of verbal homophobic abuse with a death or fatal accident; I felt that planting a small unmarked living plant at the site would correspond with the nature of the abuse: a plant continues to grow as I do through my experience. Placing a live plant felt like a positive action, it was a comment on the abuse; a potential 'remedy'.
Why did you choose pansies?
The species of plant was vital. The pansy instantly seemed perfect. Not only does the word refer to an effeminate or gay man: the name of the flower originates from the french verb; penser (to think) as the bowing head of the flower was seen to visually echo a person in deep thought. The subtlety and elegiac quality of the flower was ideal. The action of planting reinforced these qualities, as kneeling in the street and digging in the hedgerows felt like a sorrowful act.
What kind of reactions does the project get from people who see the pansies on the street?
It’s interesting the way people react to me when I’m planting. They often don’t understand the significance; all they can see is that I’m planting a pansy. Generally people are pleased about what I’m doing. If they ask, I have to decide how much I tell them. I have to decide if it’s safe for me to come out to them, there and then. Most of the time when/if I tell them the details of the project, their reaction is lovely; it’s difficult to get angry about a single unmarked pansy being planted anywhere.
Tell me about the children's book you wrote and illustrated.
Pansy Boy is a children’s book about a boy who doesn’t want to go back to school as he fears being bullied. He loves birds and the natural world and is seen as unusual and ‘potentially gay’. He is bullied at school and then has to find a way to challenge this homophobia and decides to mark the locations around the school with pansies. It’s a fictionalised origin story of The Pansy Project, though it’s based on my own experiences at school. I’ve used the book to share my work with younger audiences and it’s been a great way to help children in schools who may be going through now, what I was at school.
Why did you want to work on this pack with the Hudson Valley Seed Company?
Designing this seed pack was such a conceptually neat idea. Over the almost fifteen years of the project I’ve explored lots of different ways of sharing my work. I was once asked if I was interested in breeding my own variety of pansy, though I’ve always wanted to keep the project as democratic as possible.
Creating some packaging was a great challenge for me, I wanted the design to share some of the complexities of the symbolism of the flower and also explore some of the other symbols associated with our community.
You put a lot of symbols in your art. What is the power and importance of symbols and these symbols in particular?
I’ve always been fascinated by the way symbols have been contextualized in art. Throughout history, symbols have been used to communicate ideas without the use of language, from religious paintings to royal portraits.
There’s an amazing example of this. In the Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, she’s portrayed holding a rainbow, and there are pansies (her favorite flower apparently) embroidered on her dress. A rainbow, pansies, and The Queen, quite possibly the gayest portrait ever. Though this reading is outrageous now, it’s a funny thought.
The Rainbow Pride flag is so locked in now as a symbol of the LGBTQ+ community, it’s fascinating to consider life before the rainbow was reclaimed, adopted and now heavily commercialized by ourselves and more suspiciously by large corporations hoping to cash in on the pink pound or dollar.
What do you hope the pansies help transform or change in the world?
I’ve been doing this a long time. What I know is that giving people space to talk about homophobia and transphobia is really important. I’ve been honored to help others find a space to talk about their own experiences. I can only really hope for that. When I started in 2005 I would never have thought that homophobia and transphobia would continue to be such an urgent issue around the world. We’ve made progress but there’s still so much to do.
I’m really grateful to the Hudson Valley Seed Company for allowing me to share The Pansy Project with their customers, I really hope my work is introduced to some new people, who may find some comfort in the work I’m doing.
A portion of proceeds from sales of this pack will be donated to the Trevor Project. Founded in 1998 by the creators of the Academy Award®-winning short film TREVOR, The Trevor Project is the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer & questioning (LGBTQ) young people under 25.
Want to know more about Pansy Mix became part of our Art Pack family? Read Ken's side of the story here.