An inteview with Nance Klehm

Nance Klehm has many different projects going on at any given time, so I won’t even attempt to list them all here. Instead, I’ll simply describe her as an urban forager and gardener. Klehm shares her knowledge of plants and natural processes by offering workshops usually held in her kitchen, and lecturing in more conventional spaces such as universities. Her informal offerings have included cheese and bread making classes, wild pickling workshops and urban foraging walks during which she identifies the edible and medicinal plants growing in Chicago’s open spaces. This spring, I sat down in my back yard to talk with Klehm about her myriad activities and what drives her to teach.

What are the things you’re consciously attempting to do in a workshop? And what are some pitfalls that you’re looking out for?
I teach informally on walks, in workshop format, and in a very formal institutional lecture format. Each one has different kinds of obstacles because they have different audiences that are attracted by those things. In the institutional format, I’m looking at ways to de-school and debunk certain ideas around what it means to perform or how you conceptualize a creative practice. So I have a great deal of assumptions about what people are buying into by taking a class at a college. And I’m going to be facing that next winter because I have a gig at UCLA. When I’m in a workshop situation, it’s usually pretty intimate, and it’s at my home and informal. So I find that most obstacles are taken care of in that situation, because people have three or four hours together. They get to know everybody, and we’re in the kitchen together… If they have a question, or if they’re intimidated by a process, we can get over it pretty quickly. We can discuss it, because it’s conversational. Going back to the institutional, I think the biggest obstacle there is debunking. Debunking institutionalized learning, careerist art making… I have to debunk the market a lot, or talk about learning and making and doing does not have to be about the marketplace or about getting funded, etc. During the walks, the biggest obstacle would be the fact that I don’t know anybody, so I have absolutely no idea what their background is, and I don’t have time to find out. There’s not a lot of time for discussion and finding out, it’s like “let’s go,” and the walk starts and it’s not as conversational as it is in a workshop. In those informal foraging walks, the biggest obstacle is feeling comfortable outside with a bunch of strangers walking and learning together, which is also a bit of a struggle in the workshops. And then, actually eating something they see off of a tree or off of the ground, people have a lot of fear, or they have a barrier of being able to do that. They don’t think they can. I’m dealing with maybe psychological issues or, again, a schooling issue. I usually get over it by being outrageous and doing something beyond their comfort level, or I joke a little bit so they can get through the situation.

You mentioned big group sizes and people not knowing each other, so it sounds like maybe people are scared of saying something stupid in front of a group. Is there any trick or technique you use to deal with that?
Well, I’m blown away by some questions that aren’t stupid, but show a real lack of knowledge. [On one] of the foraging walks I did this spring, someone asked me what bees did. And I had to explain pollination, and someone followed that up with not knowing what a flower was for. Again, these are not stupid questions, but I was so blown away by people in their thirties not knowing these things. And it wasn’t just one person—it was just one person brave enough to ask. Because there were a bunch of people who really didn’t know. Didn’t know that the flower was the sex parts of the plant. I was really knocked back into this deep space about it so I [reacted] with a joke, because I was just trying to diffuse the heaviness of the situation. There were other people who did know and were probably floored by these questions too. I try to be compassionate, and use humor, and to answer the questions. As to obstacles in those situations, I don’t even know what level of knowledge they have and if they’re starting with [a low level of knowledge] then I don’t even know how I can begin to talk about other connections. So we just begin at that most basic point.

What about a situation where, early on in a walk/talk or a workshop, you realize there are some people who know a lot and some beginners. How do you deal with people who are looking for very different things out of a workshop?
There’s usually a preamble stating the fact that there’s a wide range of levels of knowledge or skills present. And I say that I would like the people with a lot of knowledge to chime in, and this talk isn’t only about me sharing what I know, and how it would be great if they could help talk about plants or if they had any questions… realize you’re in company, because there’s a lot of people here who know a fair amount.
I usually point out the people who know a fair amount, so people can tug on their sleeve if they feel comfortable with that. And then we go through some basic stuff, but I shoot high. I shoot high because I’m hoping some stuff will soak in on some level and that maybe people will be curious enough to go back and look at those things. But I want them to make some other connections and maybe even just enjoy the walk in the first place, because if they don’t understand some basic things then they probably haven’t spent enough time walking around and observing what’s outdoors. So maybe they’re going to get enough from just walking around and having that experience, and maybe there will be some piece of information they will recognize, and maybe they’ll be brave enough to ask a question. If there’s that wide of a range I shoot middle high, ‘cause I want to keep people’s interest and I want to see people reach to something. I usually do a follow up with people, via email, and sometimes the questions [they didn’t want to ask] come through the—and then we can have that kind of private conversation.

What’s the biggest obstacle to conveying information?
For me, it’s that people have lost the connection to curiosity and a willingness to go into an uncertain space. I want people to experiment and I want people to just go for it and get out there, and say, “Oh I feel comfortable” or “Wow, this is something I want to understand more [about].” I want people to enter that space, [but there are] so many things that are saying, “Don’t ever enter that space of experiment, of unfettered curiosity.” A lot of people just want me to tell them what to do, to just give them a recipe. “Will this work? Will that work?” is what they ask me, and I say that if you understand the relationships between how elements or ingredients react to and interact with each other almost whatever you do will still taste good; it just won’t be in a form that you thought. There’s a certain idea of what something should look like and I’m saying, “Don’t worry about it, if milk inherently wants to become cheese (it really does) then we’re going to start making cheese right now. And these are all the different ways to make cheese, and that’s what I want to get loose about.” At my cheese workshop we’ll talk about 4 cheeses, but we’ll make about 7 because we’ll just modify a step a little bit and it’s a different kind of cheese. I want people to get out of this idea that they have to follow a recipe to get cheese. Or that they have to follow a recipe to make a salve. I’ll break down how to do it, and I’ll encourage you to experiment and build a couple different salves, and the one you like you can take home. That’s the biggest thing: having people get into the confidence of going with their innate creativity.

So it’s just breaking down the sitting-in-a-classroom model of learning?
Yeah, just breaking the model of “following a recipe to make a good dish.” You could do that, follow a recipe, and then when you feel comfortable enough with what’s going on in a recipe, then you can ask, “What’s reacting to what?” Not necessarily chemistry, but what does a sweetener do to a bread? What does salt do to a bread? When people have more ingredients than they’ve ever known, [when] they’ve never even heard of spelt flour, etc. and then they just start making stuff, it’s crazy messy, and then they’re impressed. Now that they know the basics, anything that they put together is going to taste good, but it might not look the way they thought it was going to. So it’s getting away from those expectations.
Another one is divorcing oneself from your own creativity. “I’m going to make this cake look like the one in the picture. It has to meet these expectations.” Who cares? People are just following these prescriptive paths, and it drives me nuts. People balk at the fact that I won’t give them a recipe. They’re like, “Tell me how to do it, tell me how to do it.” I’m like, “You’re forty-five years old, figure it out!” Entering the kind of joyful mad scientist role is just not something some people are comfortable doing.

I had this physics professor in high school who would riff about how many of the great chemistry/physics inventions had been accidents and that the inventors didn’t even know what they had created at the time.

Yes! I love that! I did this bread workshop as part of that Negotiated Localities show at the [Chicago] School of the Art Institute (curated by Cindy Coleman and Claire Pentecost) . A bunch of people were there, it was a wild sourdough class, and one guy was a trained woodworker in the Bauhaus tradition. The Bauhaus tradition is a really rigid “stepped” idea of how to learn: you need to do things in a certain sequence before you can get to such and such. I talked for hours about the processes involved in making bread – about flours and chemistry and history and how to make different starters. No one in this group had made bread before, except for this woodworker. People had all this [sourdough] starter, and they started working with it, interpreting what I had said into it. By the end of the night we had 14 loaves of bread, and we made fresh butter. Some of the breads were like a thick pita when they came out, and others were like mushroom clouds: I swear to God, like 18 inches tall. We talked about the bread, and unleashed it to all the foreign travelers, and it was this total madhouse of warm bread and butter eating.
This guy got very upset. He said, “You let them do that, you let them make the bread look like that, you know better than that, you could have taught them how to make it correctly.” And I said, “Where else could we get 14 examples of what people did to bread, and study the results they got?” We tried all the loaves, and I had each person talk about whatever they did to make these loaves. That variation of examples was much more interesting than 14 people coming up with identical loaves of bread. He didn’t buy that. We were going to have an argument about it, but it was too late. Everyone was enjoying themselves too much eating the delicious bread, no matter what it looked like.

What is your motivation for teaching?
I’m good at it. And I can inspire people, and make people laugh. If I have to, I can explain things in many, many ways. I understand kinetic learning, visual learning and auditory learning. I have worked teaching in different ways, and I’ve worked with kids, and kids who have behavior problems. And I’ve worked with people who have physical handicaps and I’ve worked with elderly people. [But] I’m interested in all that – in understanding humans – [so it’s] not just ‘cause I’m good at it. And I also want to make a space for kinesthetic learning, learning through the body. And I’m really interested in physical and sensorial learning: learning through the senses, because that’s been forgotten. Everything is pushed through the head. So I’m interested in observation and learning through the body, the tools we take wherever we go. And the tools that connect us to other people – I can travel, and not speak the language and still teach a bread workshop. I like being put in a position where I have to figure out a way to teach something in a different way. On a quixotic level, I’m interested in helping people have a relationship with themselves and each other and their environment, and an easy way to do that is through food. I want people to connect to their creativity and curiosity and problem solving that’s been shut down for a long time—I’m really interested in that. I want to unleash that and inspire that.

For further information you can visit www.salvationjane.net and www.spontaneousvegetation.net. Nance can be reached via email at nettlesting at yahoo.com.