September 26, 2012
Guerrilla gardener and SEED actor
Renee Gunter is a fully fledged artistic spirit, a landscape designer, ardent environmentalist, motorcycle aficionada, and these days, a community actor, playing Ms. Robins in Cornerstone Theater Company’s SEED: A Weird Act of Faith.
Renee auditioned for the play on a whim, not suspecting that she would be cast in the play, and knowing very little about Cornerstone’s mission. But serendipitously, Renee and Cornerstone turned out to be incredibly well aligned.
Renee, like the real Ms. Robinson who informs the character of Ms. Robins, is a proponent of slow living, a movement of environmentally conscious life style and a return to classic, simple methods of growing and preparing food. Renee’s interests in sustainability, gardening, and food are the reasons why she is especially happy to be part of this production of Cornerstone’s Hunger Cycle.
Renee lives in a beautiful house with an exquisite garden that has even been declared a wild life habitat in Jefferson Park in South L.A., only four blocks north from the house where she grew up. She moved her two children to Jefferson Park from the Valley in 2004 to provide them with a more diverse environment. She is pleased to have seen her neighborhood change from a group of people wary of each other, to a community that shares the fruit that grows in the back yard, sends food next door as a neighborly gesture, and comes together to celebrate.
Renee describes her work as a landscape designer as “telling the story of the community through the topography of a garden” and has designed the front yards of many of her neighbors. Marina Moevs and Steve Peckman, who live a few blocks from her home, boast a beautifully unconventional garden in their front yard with plants that don’t require much watering. The ensemble of magical-looking plants, a true work of art, look like an underwater scene, a Gaudí in the world of landscape design.
Renee describes herself as a “guerilla gardener,” ready and willing to beautify a neglected space for the benefit of the community. She is also engaged in civic issues, always looking to improve the neighborhood. Among the most fruitful of her efforts was the revitalization of a neglected, unsightly space on 27th street in Jefferson Park that had been littered with mountains of trash, old couches, broken toilets, and that hosted a lot of illicit activity, polluting not only the whole neighborhood’s view, but also lowering its morale. The site turned out to be part of an oil company’s property, but with the help of the United Neighborhoods Neighborhood Council and other concerned community members, the oil company agreed to fund the clean up and landscaping of this neglected space.
That space turned into a pocket park, which although closed to the public because it is private property, radiates beauty in every direction past the iron fence enclosing it. “All the residences that face this space, even ones a few blocks away that are high enough to catch a glimpse, seem very happy with this change. Some of them have come to personally thank me.”
The Community Health Council, aware of Renee’s work at the 27th Street site, invited her to participate in a special tour of pocket parks in LA as part of their Re-imagining Empty Spaces program. Renee got to tell the story of the transformation of that space to a bus full of community members. And who should be on that bus, listening to the triumphant story? None other than the real Ms. Robinson. At that time, the significance of their brief encounter was unbeknownst to them both.
Clearly, Renee is committed to her community. She is also committed to the environment. “One of the things that I’m most passionate about is sustainability. Conservation of our natural resources is very important to me.” In fact, she has been able to conserve enough water in her home so as to only pay an average of fifteen dollars a month for her water bill. And that is even with having a wild life habitat as her front yard! Recently, she has also decided to do without a refrigerator. In its stead, she has an icebox where she keeps the bare essentials.
Renee’s talent, involvement, and admirable commitment have been recognized by the city, by the local news, by her neighbors, and most recently, by the very Ms. Robinson on which Renee’s character, Ms. Robins, is based. Always striving for excellence, Renee, looking to better understand her character, contacted the real Ms. Robinson.
“I’m thinking, if I’m going to be Ms. Robinson, I’m going to be all I can be. But I didn’t know what I was going to do with the character. I didn’t have any roots. So one day I call Ms. Robinson.”
When Ms. Robinson heard Renee’s name, she immediately recognized it, and told her that she was a passenger on the tour bus for the pocket parks. “She said of all the parks that she saw that day, mine was the most impressive. And she never forgot me.”
You can see Renee in ‘SEED: A Weird Act of Faith’, from October 15- November 18, 2012. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.
Written by Maria Guerra, Cornerstone’s Administrative & Development Assistant.