It's hard to put a name to what Eric Dean Spruth does for a living. His business card says "expressive therapist." His master's degree from the Art Institute of Chicago is in art therapy, and during his 11 years working with prisoners and detainees through Cermak Health Services (which serves Cook County Jail) he's initiated and coordinated dozens of therapeutic exercises in art, poetry, music, and story writing. But his latest project isn't art in the strictest sense--it's horticulture. He grows herbs with women on the Sheriff's Female Furlough program through the Department of Women's Justice Services.
He recently took three of his clients--Vicki Williams, Virginia Danieles, and Teri King--all serving their time at home with monitors, out to lunch at Pilsen's May Street Cafe to enjoy the fruits of their labor. "I wanted the participants to see this one all the way through," he says, "from weeding, tilling the soil, watering, growing herbs and flowers, to seeing the products put into use."
May Street's nuevo Latino cuisine is studded with the herbs Spruth and the women grew this summer. "It was such a great help for them to bring over the herbs," says chef Mario Santiago, who used the group's sage in his lemon-butter salmon with tequila cream sauce, their rosemary and oregano in his steak rub, and their thyme in his chiles rellenos.
"To be sitting here in a professional restaurant knowing the herbs we grew are cooked into the food we're eating today, well, that's what it's all about," says Spruth.
For over a decade Spruth worked at the Cook County Courthouse Administration Building at 26th and California. He walked by the 10-by-40-foot plot of overgrown weeds that grew outside the building every day. Where others might see a sign of hopeless decay, Spruth saw an opportunity. "I always thought this land would make for a great horticulture program, if we ever got to do it and got someone to pay for it," he says.
One day in June 2002, Spruth noticed a Clarence Davids & Company landscaping truck parked in front of the court building. He called the number on the side of the truck and persuaded the company to donate yards of topsoil and flats of plants and herbs for the therapeutic garden.
His next challenge was finding prisoners interested in helping plant the garden. "We needed to get program participants that would have the responsibility to actually make it work. I wanted the participants to understand that their efforts in the garden impact not only themselves but also the community at large," he says. "The word got out through the group therapy sessions the women are required to attend, and several women became interested." The group expanded quickly, hitting a peak of 52 participants this past summer. Most of them stay with the program for about four weeks (until they're moved out of furlough). The participants fill out evaluation forms while they're working with Spruth, describing what they've gotten out of his program. "I was given a lot of information that was useful, like that cloves can help with a toothache," wrote one. Another commented, "I learned that I can cure just about anything that ails me."
As the garden grew, Spruth started finding takers for the plants. "I was sitting at Lula Cafe when the owner Amalea Tshilds walked out onto Kedzie to pick herbs from a pot on the sidewalk," he says. "I thought, Why don't we share our herbs with these chefs?" Spruth's group gives large bags of herbs to the chefs at Lula, May Street, Inspiration Cafe, and the Enterprising Kitchen (which plans to make soap using the group's dried flowers and herbs)--for free. "I've dried a lot of the oregano, rosemary, and sage," says May Street chef Santiago. "I now have herbs to last me through the winter."
Spruth has thought about selling the stuff at a farmer's market and putting the profits back into the garden, but says he doesn't have the business know-how to make it happen. "Maybe next year," he says.
Right now he's trying to get the word out to other chefs who might appreciate the herbs. He's also in talks with the Department of Corrections and the Department of Public Health to plant additional gardens on now vacant lots. "I want to see acres of land," he says. "I want to turn a bunch of useless weeds into a garden. When people can work on something like this and involve themselves in something bigger than themselves, that's some cool shit."
May Street Cafe is at 1146 W. Cermak, 312-421-4442. To contact Eric Spruth, call his private practice, Associates for Life's Challenges, at 312-455-8904.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andre J. Jackson.