Paul Harfleet: “The Pansy Project” is Evergreen in New York

This week the US Supreme Court is hearing arguments about the legality of job discrimination against LGBT people and Paul Harfleet is on the ground planting pansies to draw attention to a different kind of discrimination that some LGBT people meet on the street nearly every day.


Banner Image. Detail. “Nice-Shoes-Faggot!” For Alain Brosseau. Alexandra Bridge. Ottawa, Canada. (photo © Paul Harfleet)


A unique private/public protest/memorial to raise awareness since 2005, the founder of The Pansy Project has planted the namesake flower, in some circles a pejorative term against gay boys and men, in thousands of locations around the world to commemorate a place where violence or intimidation toward LGBT people took place.  Where it is difficult to find a good place to plant or to buy live pansies the gifted illustrationist simply paints one.

Paul Harfleet. “Marsha P. Johnson”. The Pansy Project. Greenwich Village, NYC. 2019. (photo © Paul Harfleet)

Understated and symbolic, the political and personal Street Art act bears witness to the brothers and sisters and others who society fucks with because they don’t fit traditional expectations of gender conformity. After nearly a decade and half, Paul says he will keep doing this work until it’s not necessary. You’ll probably need to help.

Recently we spent time with him on his visit to New York, watching him plant pansies and asking him questions about his practice.

Paul Harfleet. The Pansy Project. Central Park, NYC. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

Brooklyn Street Art: When we think of monuments to historical events we often place them in locations that correlate with things that happened there. Can you talk about the similarities that this act of planting an ephemeral flower has to huge hulking brass statues in recalling our feeling and our memories?

Paul Harfleet: When I began to think about how to respond to my experiences of homophobia on the streets, I became interested in the particular nature of my memories of these attacks, they were rapid and fleeting and therefore I felt my response should be temporary and non-permanent. It felt archaic and overly municipal to begin making ‘permanent’ memorials to my own relatively minor attacks. A small unmarked living plant would add to the conversation, the flower could live and grow as I do through my experience. A tiny pop of color, unsanctioned by the city would reflect my own apparently illicit position in the urban environment.

Paul Harfleet. “We Kill a Faggot!”. The Pansy Project. Central Park, NYC. 2019. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

I’m interested in how ‘permanent’ memorials became invisible over time*, their meanings sink into the fabric of the city, they become street furniture, their significance evaporates over time, unless they’re re-activated by an occasion or anniversary. Particularly when flowers are placed at war memorials, this and floral road-side memorials are echoed in The Pansy Project.

The exact location was loaded for me, so it was essential that each place should be altered by my intervention, it’s this that transformed how I remembered the streets. The ritual of planting a pansy has become a performative reparation on the street.

Brooklyn Street Art: Do you know of someone else who was inspired by your project and began a new one of their own?

Paul Harfleet. The Pansy Project. Alphabet City, NYC. 2019. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

Paul Harfleet: It’s difficult to know if and how my work has inspired others. I know that people have planted pansies to mark their own experiences of homophobia and I’m aware of some students that have made very different work that has been informed by The Pansy Project which is humbling. 

I am aware of other actions that explore homophobia, I was touched by the work of Nando Messias, “Sissy’s Progress” is a performance where the artist revisited the location they were attacked with a marching band, though I don’t think they were informed by the project, I enjoy the absurdity of the response to homophobia, which in itself is an absurd reaction to difference. 

Brooklyn Street Art: In the US we have had a serious and fiery debate about historical memorials that glorify a period of racism, a sort of glorification of figures who championed racism. How does our perception change when we learn about the significance of location and events that took place there?

Paul Harfleet: This has been an fascinating debate, it challenges the idea of a memorial becoming invisible*, this is an example of the memorial being re-activated by context. I think it’s invaluable to have these discussions. It’s a shame that the debate seems to be so binary; keep or destroy. As an artist I would be interested in reinvigorating these memorials rather than removing them.

Paul Harfleet. “Pride Flag Spat On”. The Pansy Project.
The Albatross, NYC. 2019. (photo © Paul Harfleet)

The fact they celebrate the achievements of a racist society should not be forgotten, it should in my opinion be remembered and challenged through art and education, small additions or amendments to these memorials could re-contextualise their meaning, there is an opportunity here to allow these memorials to a racist culture to become something that acknowledges the behavior of previous generations and act as a warning to future ones. We only have to look at the fragility of human rights at the moment to know how important it is to retain knowledge of previous injustices. 

Brooklyn Street Art: When one considers the long period that this campaign has persisted, you may wonder how Paul Harfleet continues to have enthusiasm for it. Do you ever lose interest? What inspires you to get back to planting pansies after you discontinue for a while?

Paul Harfleet: I’ve been working with The Pansy Project for almost fifteen years, for me the repetition is vitally important for how the work is read. Everyday someone is experiencing homophobia or transphobia, whether it’s micro-agression, government sanctioned or the most violent of murders, it’s always happening, so I feel I have a responsibility to continue using my art to highlight this injustice.

Paul Harfleet. “Kevin”. The Pansy Project. Alphabet City, NYC. 2019. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

I’m not completely altruistic, I do have to maintain my own interest, through the project I’ve explored various ways of working from garden, jewellery and merchandise design to the writing and illustrating of a book; Pansy Boy that reveals The Pansy Project in a completely different way, most recently I’ve been exploring painting the pansies on walls where homophobia has happened.

All of these actions keep me interested. I am always trying to take the ‘perfect’ picture and document my work in new ways. I’m inspired by artists that work in very similar ways their whole careers, Sean Scully speaks about repetition; ‘I want to express that we live in a world with repetitive rhythms and that things are existing side by side that seem incongruous or difficult.’

Paul Harfleet. “Misbegotten Pansies”. The Pansy Project. Brooklyn Bridge, NYC. 2019. (photo © Paul Harfleet)

Brooklyn Street Art: New York has an incredible story in the modern LGBTQ rights movement. Can you tell us about one of the places in New York where you planted a pansy that was particularly meaningful to you?

Paul Harfleet: My visit to New York was incredibly important for me, unusually I funded this visit myself. I usually wait until I’m invited by a festival or for an exhibition, though I wanted to be in New York during the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall. I first came to New York in 2006 to plant pansies for the Conflux Festival.

These were the very early days of the project, some of the photos I took then were bad, since then I’ve gotten better at taking the pictures so I wanted to re-plant and document the pansy I planted at the Stonewall Inn to properly mark this historically significant location. Though I also planted new pansies, it was moving for me to plant one at Christopher Street Pier for Marsha P. Johnson, their life and death was complex and seeped in the injustices of time. This seems even more significant in America today when black trans women are so under threat.

Paul Harfleet. “Faggots. For Mark Carson”. The Pansy Project. Barrow St. NYC. 2019. (photo © Paul Harfleet)

As I write, we await the decision by the US Supreme Court on working rights for trans people, the fact that there’s even a discussion about this is an anathema to me. To quote the hashtags; Trans rights are human rights, we’re not equal until we’re all equal. In the US alone there has been 19 reported trans women murdered in 2019 alone – It’s staggering and heartbreaking.

I was also fascinated by the queer history of Brooklyn as described by Hugh Ryan in ‘When Brooklyn Was Queer’. I love the picture I took of the pansy I planted under the Brooklyn Bridge to mark the multiple stories of homophobia I heard about in his book, the quote comes from the complaints of local residents of how the Brooklyn Promenade was being used by men for cruising; “Misbegotten Pansies” was just such a perfect quote for this planting. 

Paul Harfleet. “Fucking Faggot!”. The Pansy Project. Queen Street. Blackpool, England. (photo © Paul Harfleet)

What I do more now is make a film about the places I visit, this has the ability to explore more of the story of each planting and helps share the project to new audiences, I’m working on a New York film now. Ultimatelty I adore each planting, they all mean so much to me as they all contribute to the entire body of my work. 

Paul Harfleet’s short film ‘The Pansy Project Canada’ will be shown at the Inside Out Film festival in Ottowa, Canada in October and his work will feature as part of the Homotopia Festival in Liverpool in November. For more information visit www.thepansyproject.com

*In a 1927 essay, acclaimed Austrian philosopher Robert Musil famously declared, “The remarkable thing about monuments is that one does not notice them. There is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument.”

Paul Harfleet. “Narrowed eyes. Focusing in and down. Bristling. Bigger. Dominant. Circling. Feeling. Their Fear”. The Pansy Project. Saint Brigids. Saint Patrick Street. Ottawa, Canada. (photo © Paul Harfleet)
Paul Harfleet. “Beaten!”. The Pansy Project. Domkirkeplassen. Stavanger, Norway. 2019. (photo © Paul Harfleet)
Paul Harfleet. “Don’t ask that guy he wants to hang them all!” President Trump comments on Vice President’s views on gay rights. The White House. Washington-DC
Paul Harfleet. Jaevla Homo!”. The Pansy Project. Vitsøygata. Stavanger, Norway. 2019. (photo © Paul Harfleet)
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