Leave it to David McConnell: he doesn't do anything half-assed. The Raleigh-based artist's latest canvas may be his most ambitious to date. Instead of one large, encompassing frame, he employs several within Infinity Hundred, his backyard food forest. In each frame, he has painted broad strokes of wood sorrel. Swaths of chickweed. Daubs of blackberry and mustard greens. Horehound and miner's lettuce. Yarrow root.
"Last summer I filled this bed with okra," McConnell says. He maneuvers the garden like a proud papa. Or a mad scientist. "This year it will be squash."
For one unfamiliar with the mind of McConnell, there may not appear to be a method to Infinity Hundred, which stems from varied creative sources. In the music business, they call this sampling. However, much like his music and art careers, McConnell's agrarian philosophies are self-taught.
He rotates his crops three seasons in advance. Each plant "stacks functions." He grows vegetables from rotting tree trunks and lets nary an ounce of carbon go to waste. His entire farm has been cut from a wooded lot in his Forest Hills neighborhood, just outside of downtown Raleigh.
"My son and I chopped it out with a machete," he says. He points skyward and explains how he took down the fifty-foot-tall pines by hand.
His six-year-old son, Fox, has his fingerprints all over Infinity Hundred, too. Fox named it after the largest number in the world—infinity—plus one hundred. The property's ethnopharmacological value can directly be attributed to the younger McConnell.
"I consider this garden a large part of why my son is still alive," he says. "I use mullein to control his asthma. That, combined with a mushroom, have reduced my son's attacks from over twenty per year to two." Mullein, also known as the velvet plant, has a long history as an herbal remedy, tracing back to Native Americans who used the flowers to make tea that cured respiratory ailments. McConnell then immediately launches into a discussion of how comfrey can be used to treat sprains, indicative of a conversational style that sidewinds around mysterious herbs and microgreens.
McConnell's journey began in Los Angeles, where he gigged as a guitarist and singer at the ripe age of fourteen.
"I was so young," he says of his days of guitar and vocals, "I had to be escorted before and after shows."
By eighteen, he'd produced his first record, partnering with Daniel Presley (who was an engineer on The Breeders' Last Splash) to helm 430 N. Harper Ave. by singer/songwriter Jude. Soon after, he designed his own studio, Satellite Park. But after the stress of producing Elliott Smith's tragically posthumous album, From a Basement on the Hill, drove him to a near depression, he left music, and L.A., far behind.
"I left my apartment, my girlfriend, my entire life," he says, "and ended up in Asheville, North Carolina. I literally walked into an art supply store and bought a canvas and some oil paint."
Thus began McConnell's foray into visual art. That first canvas still hangs in Raleigh's Lump gallery. Other works have exhibited at the Nasher, in Miami, and across the country. He won the N.C. Arts Council Fellowship Award in 2012–2013.
But McConnell says his success has been informed by two separate events. First, his disenchantment with a public art commission he received for Raleigh's Market and Exchange Plaza's renovations.
"People don't realize," McConnell says, "public art is not as cool as anyone thinks."
While that experience may have burned him out, it was the birth of his son that called McConnell away from visual art.
"The term starving artist is pretty literal," he says.
In order to afford to feed Fox and himself, he supplemented his artist's income by foraging for food. This led him to seek noncorporate, sustainably farmed foods, but his interest in permaculture amped up immeasurably after an automobile accident left him bedridden and impelled him to study ecosystemic theories employed by civilizations both ancient and extant. He obsessed over systems like hugelkultur and regrarianism—land-management movements designed to preserve and enrich the soil—then utilized those concepts in his own backyard. Someday, he hopes to deliver them to deforested communities in other parts of the world, with the aim of assisting them in agricultural efforts after industrial logging has damaged their ecosystems.
McConnell's attitude reads like your typical Southern California vibe: peaceful, easy, at home in the outdoors. On the other hand, if he were to throw a cross word in anyone's direction, it would probably be aimed at Big Agriculture.
"The practice of using vast acres of land for one crop has changed our economy," he says. "Instead, I prefer to use one acre to develop three hundred plant species."
These systems are among those he studied during his convalescence. And he works hard to foster such a relationship in his own community. Oftentimes, he places his surplus on a handmade table in his front yard, free to any passersby. He sells herbs and microgreens at Raleigh's Standard Foods, where he maintains the kitchen/grocery's garden. He has big plans for the garden.
- photo by Ben McKeown
- David McConnell
"I've got ancient grains, some that almost went extinct," he says. A glimmer appears in his eye. "Emmer is a Middle Eastern wheat so nutritious it can be eaten raw. Flint corn was thought to be extinct after early settlers in New England ate all their seed, but they'd rediscovered it in Italy a few years ago. Have you ever had polenta cakes with Otto File corn?"
Next, McConnell hopes to spread his gospel of permaculture through the South and beyond. He studies anthropology at N.C. State, with an eye toward teaching, and plans to educate as many as will listen about the natural bounty at their feet. As he wanders the rows of the garden at Standard Foods, you have to marvel that his latest canvas may be his most ambitious, but you can be certain it won't be his last.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Starving Artist."