Thirteen years ago, Paul Harfleet experienced three distinct acts of homophobia. “A car drove by and someone called me a ‘fucking faggot,'” he recalls. “Then, some workmen said, ‘It’s about time we went gay-bashing again, isn’t it?’ when I passed by. Later, I was walking with my then-boyfriend, and we had stones thrown at us.” Harfleet was particularly distressed that the incidents occurred in his hometown of Manchester, regarded as one of the most gay friendly cities in the U.K.
An artist and designer by trade, Harfleet decided to fight back by creating artwork that would “raise awareness.” He used roadside memorials as his inspiration. “When you see flowers at the side of the street tied to a lamp post, you know that an accident has happened there,” he says. “It made me think if I put a flower in a place, it would do something similar. But I wanted it to be one flower. And it was important to me that the flower was living, because I continued to live through my experiences.”
Harfleet opted for the pansy — “because of the derogatory term [and] because the flower also appears to bow its face as if in deep thought” — which he would then photograph and post on his website, assigning a simple caption that called out whatever act of homophobia was being represented.
For his Pansy Project, as it’s internationally known, Harfleet has created more than 300 separate installations, including one in which he planted 3,000 of the delicate, colorful flowers to honor a gay man beaten to death on the south bank in London. “I planted pansies all the way along the bottom of the trees that were encompassing his last walk from one location to another — an installation that marked his last steps. It was a really sad planting.”
During his first Washington visit, as guest of local horticulturalist Justin Kondrat, Harfleet has so far planted pansies in Logan and Dupont Circles, and at the White House, “to mark Donald Trump’s comment about Mike Pence where he said, ‘Don’t talk to him. He wants to hang them all.'” The 44-year-old is also releasing an illustrated children’s book, written in verse, about a youngster who responds to being bullied by planting pansies. Pansy Boy ($24.90, Barbican Press) will be available for purchase on April 1 at Amazon.
Harfleet hasn’t encountered much resistance when planting. “Occasionally I am stopped,” he says, “but I’m very careful to do it in places that are publicly owned. I don’t do it in private gardens, or anything. And it’s just one unmarked pansy. They usually are picked, actually, quite soon, so they’re not very visible for very long. It’s guerrilla gardening, but in a very gentle way.”
Paul Harfleet will read from and sign copies of Pansy Boy at Busboys & Poets, 235 Carroll St. NW, on Tuesday, April 3, from 6-8 p.m. If you’re interested in having Paul plant a pansy to mark an act of homophobia before he leaves, please contact him at thepansyproject.com.
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