The Artist Who Plants Pansies At The Sites Of Anti-LGBTQ Abuse

Paul Harfleet hoped the need for The Pansy Project would fade with time. He's still memorializing the hate 16 years on.

A series of three homophobic incidents in a single day inspired artist Paul Harfleet to start The Pansy Project in 2005.

Harfleet has since planted more than 300 pansies on patches of soil close to the sites of anti-LGBTQ+ attacks worldwide. He photographs each flower to memorialize the abuse and raise awareness about homophobia and transphobia. The images are collected on the project鈥檚 website.

鈥淲hen I began the project 16 years ago, I hoped the need for it would fade,鈥 Harfleet told HuffPost this week. 鈥淎las, cases continue and the LGBTQ+ experience is still a challenging one all over the world to varying degrees.鈥

Paul Harfleet has now planted pansies across the United Kingdom, Europe, Canada and the United States 鈥 including this one by the Brooklyn Bridge in 2019.
Paul Harfleet has now planted pansies across the United Kingdom, Europe, Canada and the United States 鈥 including this one by the Brooklyn Bridge in 2019.
Paul Harfleet

Harfleet chose to plant pansies because of their 鈥渙bvious connection with homophobia,鈥 he said. 鈥淏eing called a 鈥榖ig pansy鈥 was common for me as a child, and it references being weak, gay or 鈥榣ike a girl.鈥欌

He planted the first in his then-home city of Manchester, England, soon after being the victim of three homophobic incidents in quick succession.

Construction workers shouting at Harfleet and this then-boyfriend, 鈥淚t鈥檚 about time we went gay-bashing again isn鈥檛 it?鈥 was soon followed by stones being thrown at the couple by a mob. The third incident involved 鈥渁 bizarre and unsettling confrontation with a man who called us 鈥榣adies鈥 under his breath.鈥

鈥淧eople were shocked that this had happened to me. Alas, I was not,鈥 Harfleet remembered. 鈥淚 felt that this may be something that needed to be explored as an artwork.鈥

Paul Harfleet said the painstaking process of photographing the flowers once sparked a report of a dead body. "Of course the irony of this is not lost on me."
Paul Harfleet said the painstaking process of photographing the flowers once sparked a report of a dead body. "Of course the irony of this is not lost on me."
Wen-Chi Su

Harfleet has now planted pansies across the United Kingdom, Europe, the United States and in Canada, usually when visiting cities to talk about the project at art festivals and exhibitions.

He relies on online callouts for suggestions of what incidents to mark.

Sometimes he鈥檒l receive hundreds of ideas. 鈥淥ther times it鈥檚 just a few.鈥 He then selects the specific locations for planting based on the media coverage that the attack received, its potential cultural impact and the context of where it happened.

鈥淚 don鈥檛 feel it鈥檚 my job to mark every location of hate crime. That would be impossible,鈥 Harfleet said. They are 鈥渁ll upsetting鈥 but 鈥渢he way some experiences haunt people draw me to them, and I feel a sense of duty to mark their experiences. It鈥檚 a very intuitive process and one that differs in every town and country I visit.鈥

Paul Harfleet planted the first pansy in his then-home city of Manchester in northern England after being the victim of three homophobic incidents in one day.
Paul Harfleet planted the first pansy in his then-home city of Manchester in northern England after being the victim of three homophobic incidents in one day.
Paul Harfleet

The photographing of each pansy can be a process in and of itself.

鈥淚 lie on the ground to do this, so sometimes people think I鈥檓 drunk, or I鈥檝e fallen over,鈥 Harfleet said. 鈥淲hen I was in Kansas with the Spencer Museum of Art, I was lying on the side of the road photographing a pansy and several people reported a 鈥榙ead body鈥 on the side of the road as I was so still taking the pictures. The police arrived to check I wasn鈥檛 dead.鈥

鈥淥f course the irony of this is not lost on me,鈥 he continued. 鈥淪ometimes I鈥檓 planting pansies to mark a homophobically motivated murder. I can be lying exactly where they fell when they were attacked. This adds to the poignancy of the work.鈥

With COVID-19 lockdown rules in the U.K. effectively forcing Harfleet to pause the project for parts of the last year, he turned to drawing the birds that he saw from his window. It was an effort to provide 鈥an alternative to the growing horrors of the pandemic,鈥 he told the Spencer Museum of Art.

Now, as coronavirus restrictions are being eased, he is preparing to plant his pansies on patches of soil in Bristol, England, as part of the upcoming 鈥Vanguard鈥 street art exhibition.

Some will also be planted as part of a walking tour in October.

鈥淭his is always a lovely thing to do, as people can come together to talk about their experiences. My job is to give a purpose and occasionally nudge the conversation as I plant,鈥 he said. 鈥淚t鈥檚 a slightly absurd yet beautiful thing to do (and see) as people follow me planting random pansies on the street. Though ultimately standing against homophobia and transphobia as a community can be an empowering and moving experience for me and the participants.鈥

As for others who want to plant pansies on their own?

They are more than 鈥渨elcome to [and have] planted [pansies] to mark their own experiences of homophobia and transphobia,鈥 said Harfleet.

鈥淭his is part of the wonder of the idea. It鈥檚 democratic and open to everyone.鈥

鈥淰anguard presents 鈥楤ristol Street Art: The Evolution of a Global Movement鈥欌 opens at the M Shed museum in Bristol, England, on Jun. 26 until October.

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