In Conversation: Steve Wheen

Steve Wheen is a London-based enterepreneur who is known for his work as The Pothole Gardener, a project that transforms ‘crappy to happy’. Steve is also the founder and Managing Director of The Distillery London, a social video agency, and he has spoken at various events such as TEDx Hackney and Praque, talking about everything from creativity, new ways for brands to promote themselves online, to happiness. His first book, The Little Book of Little Gardens was published in 2012 by Dokument Press and has since been translated into German and Norwegian. 

All images courtesy of The Pothole Gardener.

Thanks for joining us, Steve. I was given your Little Book of Little Gardens book as a gift, and was immediately struck by the way you’ve managed to build and portray not just tiny replicas of objects among nature, but rather entire ‘storyworlds’ within a micro space. Tell us about the origins of the Little Gardens project: How did the idea first come to you, and was it always a project you envisioned at scale?

The ‘Pothole Gardener’ is a project I worked on originally as part of my Master’s at Central Saint Martins. I was looking at designing happiness and this was one of my iterations. I wanted to take something crappy and make it happier.

I didn’t really imagine I’d still be doing it years later, but it has taken on a life of its own— the book happened, and people have sent me pictures of gardens from all around the world—and it’s just grown and grown of its own accord … I think it has resonated with people as potholes piss everyone off!

London bridge with miniature red phonebox

Image courtesy The Pothole Gardener

An appreciation of nature seems to be a strong thread in the project, and yet there’s a very clear appreciation of London and its various cultural pastimes. Was this something you set out to explore? 

I definitely didn’t set out to explore themes around nature/the environment—it was originally all about happiness. I guess it was the means that I was using that brought in themes and discussions around nature, and it’s been really interesting to see where they have taken the project.

I see the little gardens as storytelling vehicles. There’s something about working at such small scale that gives people the ‘permission’ to imagine. The miniatures seem to unlock the childlike imagination inside people—they start discussions/debates/conversations, which I love. I often overhear people discussing who might sit in the tiny chair, or the miniature swing …

There are so many ways to get work out there in the world these days. Why did you choose to put out Little Gardens as a print book?

Well, it was a bit of an accident. I was just doing my gardening thing and publishing away on my blog, and then we thought that all the content would make a fab book … and then bam! I think the journey the audience takes is so different when they read the book, compared to my work online. I like that juxtaposition.

Tell us a bit about the community and collaborations that have grown around the Little Gardens idea.

That’s been one of the most awesome things about the projects—I’ve met some wonderful people and been challenged in ways I never really imagined.

I’ve taken groups of adults with learning difficulties gardening, run mini-gardening workshops with kids and even taken Camilla (Duchess of Cornwall) gardening. Collaborating and creating with such a diverse mix of people has made me appreciate how gardening can bring people together.

tiny gym rings on a tree stump

Image courtesy The Pothole Gardener

As someone who has a lively sprawl of creative endeavours—most of which seem to involve producing stories—what would you say is the most engaging thing about your line of work? And is it the same thing that got you into it in the first place?

I love telling stories—whether in a film, a blog post or a pothole! My company, The Distillery London, is a creative agency that uses social video to tell stories, so I guess I am really passionate about the endless different ways to tell stories and the emerging platforms to tell them on.

I love the instantaneous feedback you get online from an audience. As soon as I post a garden, I know very quickly how my audience has responded to it!

In what ways (if any) do you think being an ‘expat’ (not from the UK) has affected your work and the stories you tell?

I’ve lived in the UK for almost 13 years now—I think being an expat gives you a unique perspective on a place. When I first moved to London, one of the things I found hardest was how cold people were on the street. No one made eye contact, and God forbid you talk to a stranger. That’s one of the things that has kept me gardening—seeing strangers come together and chat over a pothole garden is one of my favourite things!

street with daisy miniature garden

Image courtesy The Pothole Gardener

Technology and the online context keep changing. What’s the most challenging thing you’re up against at the moment, in terms of how you get your stories out into the world?

In general, I think it’s such an exciting time to be telling stories for a living. New platforms are changing the game and anyone can become a publisher in a really short space of time.

For me the challenge is choosing the time to tell the right stories—and giving them context.

And, finally, the Woolf special question: What is one of your favourite works of fiction, and why?

One of my favourite works of fiction is The Girl on The Train. I recently read it and loved the characters. I think it’s one of my favourites because I think about it every time I get on a train!

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You can find Steve’s book and read more about Steve at: www.thepotholegardener.com

Author: Libby O'Loghlin

Novelist and poet, social entrepreneur and content coach. Co-Founder + Co-Creative Director of The Woolf Quarterly; Co-Founder of WriteCon and The Powerhouse Zurich.

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