100 Gardens founder leaves a lasting legacy
By Drea Atkins
December 12, 2015
Ron Morgan’s usually homespun living room is abuzz with anticipation about his upcoming art auction at The Elder Gallery on December 17th. The visionary and co-founder behind 100 Gardens is well-known for his career as an architect, you may have enjoyed an afternoon or an evening stroll around your city in the Carolina’s without ever realizing that Morgan’s artistic mind might have made those moments and memories possible. City planning, community practice and cultural preservation have been fierce passions of his for over 40 years.
Growing up in California, Morgan attended Berkeley for architecture and dabbled in visual art. He studied art but never thought of becoming a full-time artist. Worried about perceptions of narcissism and not being able to make a difference, he focused on helping people through creating buildings rather than paintings. On his honeymoon, he traveled to Mexico to see the ancient pre-Columbian ruins and was astonished. He recalls seeing stone elements, shapes and geometry previously unfamiliar to him as a younger man. After that experience, he was inspired to go home and start sculpting stone. This inspiration would last a good seven years and lead to his sculptures being shown and sold in renowned galleries in San Francisco and beyond.
A gorgeous Carolina day, unusually clear and warm for December, the world slowed down as Morgan placed his very first stone carving in my hands. He’s in his 70’s now. Years of battling cancer has left his once sturdy frame gaunt, his eyesight fuzzy and problematic as the cancer entered his spinal fluid, surrounding nerves that control his sight. Despite diminished eyesight and the devastating news that he has, at most, 21 weeks to live, his vision for his life and legacy has never been clearer.
“This is gonna be a blast!” Morgan said. “ I thought to myself well, this is different, knowing your time is ending. You can only cry so much. I’ve had cancer three times, been through chemo and radiation and that stuff feels like it will kill ya. When my doctor told me, ‘That’s it. You got 21 weeks.’ we came home and cried and remembered all of our old memories, good times, love and then I thought, I can’t just leave 100 Gardens. I needed to map out a plan and that’s what we’ve done.”
100 Gardens, an innovative benefit corporation that aims to build 100 interconnected aquaponic food growing systems or “gardens” between Charlotte and Port au Prince, Haiti was directly inspired after his trip to the earthquake-ravaged country. Known for his architectural expertise at revitalizing communities and historic sites, Morgan attempted to walk the crumbling streets of Port au Prince to envision a new city. He quickly realized that, with over 240,000 people dead and countless orphans and homeless citizens, the first problem to solve was feeding them all after the aid ran out. He wanted to design a weather-resistant, easily sustainable food production system that could run throughout the city so the people of Haiti would be empowered to feed and care for one another. He dreamed of building hydroponic gardens in shipping containers so they could easily be sent from Charlotte to Port au Prince, but had absolutely no idea of how to garden this way. After struggling with it on his own in his backyard, he turned to Google to find a hydroponics expert nearby to assist him.
“The odds of me finding Sam (Fleming, co-founder of 100 Gardens) on Google, it’s one in a million,” Morgan says through laughter. “That guy knows his stuff. Boy! I don’t take advice from many people but when Sam speaks, I listen. I met him at the store where he was working, he came by to take a look at what I was attempting and when I told him why I was wanting to build hydroponic gardens to ship to starving people in Haiti he immediately suggested aquaponics, because people need protein. Then he told me he wanted in and quit his job. Ha! Can you believe that?! I thought, well let’s get started!”
Recently having opened their 8th garden at Myers Park High School, the dream of connecting Haiti’s and Charlotte’s gardens is picking up steam and to proportions greater than they had initially imagined.
Morgan radiates warmth and confidence, filling the room like the Winter sunlight that streams through the windows. Spending time with someone who consciously knows that they are dying is not unfamiliar to me, but his excitement about every little thing is a testimony to never take anything for granted. His smile is comforting, though he should be the one comforted, and his energy level peaks and pops like firecrackers when he speaks of his latest 100 Gardens vision, the Aqueous 1 Learning Lab, for which the Elder Gallery show will be a fundraiser.
As for the paintings he has been cranking out for his art show, Morgan notes that “There is a five-step process to making these. I’m using a replacement to lithography with digital elements and manipulations as well as the hand-drawn sketches and then layers of wax and shaving off the wax. And can you imagine that all of these paintings, all of this artwork is going to benefit the Aqueous 1 Learning Lab? …Can you imagine people driving down West Boulevard and seeing this gorgeous glass facility all lit up and children inside learning to use the technology and the fish and plants become the art, the vibrant colors.”
He explained that he and Fleming have been working on this for years. “But now we have the system down, a team of the best people…Sam and I realized once we really got into this that the real story is about educating and empowering communities. These are entirely new systems of providing jobs, food production, and civil services. It’s not about changing society. It is about society welcoming the new economy.”
Morgan has thrown new excitement into 100 Gardens with this art show, directly inspired by his prognosis. I can’t help but point out the irony of his youthful fears about pursuing a career in art. As the paintings pour out of him and his eyes still twinkle with vibrancy, his spirit is visibly moved by listening to the callings of his heart. Feeding people’s bodies and nourishing their souls for meaningful human connection will be the direct result of his final masterpieces. And in the not so distant future, when you drive down West Boulevard and pass his shining cathedral to the science of humanity, remember that one person’s passion and voice is enough to spark a movement.
For more information on how to take aquaponics workshops, get a small aquaponics garden of your own, and stay in touch with all of the developments, you can like the 100 Gardens facebook page and sign up for the mailing list.
Update: Ron Morgan passed away on May 30, 2016.
Watch Ron Morgan’s inspiring Ignite Charlotte talk on September 16, 2014.