London-based artist Paul Harfleet will be planting pansies at the site of homophobic and transphobic hate crimes across Ottawa for the next couple weeks, and he wants you to reach out if you would like him to plant a pansy for you.
“I always describe myself as an artist who takes photographs, not as a photographer because photographers will say, ‘That’s not a very good photo,’” he laughs.
Harfleet will be exhibiting some of his local photographs at the School of Photographic Arts: Ottawa, at 77 Pamilla Street, from May 10 through July 1, during SPAO Gallery’s Summer Camp exhibit in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality in Canada.
“I wanted something more instant.”
Harfleet says he was drawn to Ottawa by the story of Alain Brosseau, who was murdered in 1989; being pushed off the Alexandra Bridge, near Major’s Hill Park, a once popular gay cruising site.
Up until recently, Harfleet had been working two jobs, doing graphic design during the day and #ThePansyProject at night. He is now a full-time, self-employed artist. He attended art school when he was 27, after a successful career as a drag queen. Harfleet completed a foundation degree—in other words, an exploration of artistic mediums and practices—a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Arts at Manchester Metropolitan University.
He studied painting. When he did his Master’s Degree, he says he “deconstructed painting,” trying to work out what he was going to do with it. “I realized that painting was quite slow, and I wanted something more instant, so I wanted to do something that was conceptual.”
In 2005, after completing his Master’s Degree, Harfleet experienced three separate incidents of homophobia on the streets of Manchester, in the same day. This led to the creation of #ThePansyProject: “I had this idea that I was going to make something about homophobia, and I started researching what happens at those places, psychologically, when you walk past them.”
“Speaking from my own experience, if I get attacked on that street, then every time I’m going to walk past that place, I’m going to remember that attack.”
“Speaking from my own experience, if I get attacked on that street, then every time I’m going to walk past that place, I’m going to remember that attack.” says Harfleet. “I wanted to change that experience for people—myself, initially.”
Harfleet says he decided to plant flowers because they are associated with the sites of accidents, such as deadly collisions. He consulted his friends to find an appropriate flower. “The pansy was the first [flower] I thought of, but I didn’t like how feeble it seemed.” To which his friend responded, “They’re actually tougher than they look.”
“They’re actually tougher than they look.”
He went back to one of the places he had experienced a homophobic hate crime, planted a pansy and took a picture. He started by doing this for every homophobic encounter he had experienced, and the project snowballed from thereon out.
In 2010, Harfleet showcased his work at the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, where he oppressed pansies, both literally and figuratively, beneath geometric blocks of cement. He was also the subject of a 2015 documentary, Les pensées de Paul, which was commissioned by France’s Canal+.
Harfleet has even written a children’s book about homophobia. Pansy Boy follows the story of a young boy who spends his summer days exploring the outdoors, captivated by the plants and animals around him. Upon returning to school, he is incessantly bullied and devises a plan to better his school environment.
During his stay in Ottawa, Harfleet will be speaking at schools throughout the city.
Do you have a personal moment or incident of homophobia or transphobia you would like to share? Paul will kindly plant a pansy at that location. You’re encouraged to submit personal experiences at thepansyproject.com/contact. Follow @paulharfleet on Instagram. Like The Pansy Project on Facebook.