Thoughts on Art & Ecology
In the collaborative practices of ecological restoration, conservation planning and regenerative design, there are roles for many disciplines-engineer, biologist, landscape architect, geologist, planner, etc. But what about the artist? How can art enhance our efforts to restore the Earth and inspire ecological stewardship?
As we discover in this issue, the artist’s ability to evoke thought and feeling can tremendously enhance initiatives to protect and restore the health of Earth’s ecosystems. Thousands of artists worldwide devote their passion and talent toward exploring and improving human relationships with nature. We were thrilled to chat with and feature just a few of them in this issue.
Eco-art pioneers Helen Mayer and Newton Harrison have been collaborating with scientists, engineers, and design professionals to create art that “works” for the environment for more than 40 years. We had the chance to speak with them about the evolution of their art, and the ways in which their works “do work.”
We also chat with artist, naturalist, and best-selling author, James Prosek, dubbed the “Audubon of the fishing world” by the New York Times. His vivid watercolor paintings are coveted by billionaires and princes. Much more impressive is the power of Prosek’s work to inspire a new generation of conservationists and a deep appreciation for aquatic creatures ranging from oceans’ most majestic fishes to the oft-reviled freshwater eel.
Step into the studio of Jann Rosen-Queralt, and learn what life is like for environmental sculptor and public art collaborator.
It would be impossible to showcase all of the artists and different art forms that further ecological restoration, conservation, and regenerative design, but we provide glimpses into the works of some exciting, contemporary works.
In her article Environmental Art in Practice, Jennifer Dowdell describes her own academic and professional experience integrating art in her work as an ecological landscape designer.
What are your thoughts on the role of art in ecological restoration, conservation planning, and regenerative design? Share them on our Rhizome Blog.
Leaf Litter Talks with the Experts
Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison are widely regarded as pioneers of “eco art,” a form of environmental art in which the art-making and artwork has a function: often to engender in people an intrinsic connection to nature. Through metaphor, poetry, symbols, images and narrative, eco-artists inspire collaborative dialogue, educate people, and advocate for nature. They can even influence policy.
Since the 1970s, the Harrisons have collaborated, often with biologists, ecologists, architects, and planners, to create multi-media installation art that aims to uncover solutions to environmental degradation. Their work, which involves public discussion and extensive mapping, has focused on issues such as watershed restoration, urban renewal, agriculture and forestry. The Harrisons will only take on a work if there is a general agreement that their actual client is the environment itself.
Their most recent project, entitled “The Force Majeure Synthesis,” is a collection of works that explore ecologically available responses to climate change in the European Peninsula, Tibetan Plateau, and the Sierra Nevada.
While they define “Force Majeure” in their Manifesto for the 21st Century, Newton Harrison has described it frankly as “global warming in transaction with all the shit we’re doing in the world.”
After retiring from 30 years of teaching at University of California (UC) San Diego, the Harrisons moved to Santa Cruz and began teaching in the Digital Arts and New Media MFA Program at UC Santa Cruz. There, they also founded the Center for the Study of the Force Majeure, where they have already begun generating long-term research projects that address Earth’s stresses by combining art-making and the sciences.
You have been described as activists, environmental artists, researchers, educators, and even “Gods in the field.” When someone asks, “What do you do?” how do you respond?
Newton: That depends on the someone. If it’s a scientist who is intellectually curious, we’d make the argument that we are pan-disciplinary generalists who engage a problem. Our engagement is based on telling a story that leads to a transformation of place.
Since 1970, much of your work has been telling a story about global warming. How has the story changed since the 70s, and how has your artwork changed with it?
Newton: In 1974, Helen came back from the library with two books that made powerful arguments that we were in the middle of an interglacial period. One book spent about 150 pages telling us it was going to get colder. The other book spent about 200 pages telling us it was going to get warmer. We thought, in either event, we’re looking at problems for the next one to two hundred years, so let’s plan for both things to happen. Planning is cheap! That led to our first global warming piece, “San Diego is the Center of the World.” It was an equidistant projection map with San Diego as the center. There was an accompanying text that said, essentially, “Although we don’t know the answers, we have the capabilities of simultaneously planning for opposite conditions, so let’s do that.”
Helen: The piece was in an exhibition at the Ronald Feldman Gallery and it sold immediately. We could have sold it ten times over; everyone was fascinated with it.
Newton: Our work got written up, bought, and ended up on magazine covers! It was very odd. It was our first New York show, and there we were in the gallery [famous for having one of the largest Andy Warhol collections]. Although New York Times art critic, Hilton Cramer, thought we ought to get out of art, get out of science, and above all, get out of New York.
Newton: Because we were practical. We believe that the work of art has work to do in the world–work that is transformative in nature.
Helen: Since 1973, we have done all kinds of work related to global warming. A more recent work is Greenhouse Britain.
Newton: The [UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] was awarding large grants to educate the British public about climate change and we received one. We made a scale model of the island of Britain and above it, projected storm surge and sea level rise in two-meter increments. Everyone who saw the piece could see where they lived, understand what was happening, and become their own kind of planner. The piece also included a 10-minute, poetic text which began with “The news is not good, and it’s getting worse.”
Newton, you have said that what is needed is “empathy with the terrain…an informed, tough-minded empathy.” Can you talk about the power of art to inspire or evoke this kind of empathy?
Newton: If we’re looking at seven billion people, Helen and I are an abject failure. But if you’re looking at putting early warning signals on the ground and having other people all over the world look at them, then we’re probably moderately successful.
Helen: Empathy is the way we reach people. When we show our images and talk about the images, we make people understand what is happening by telling the stories of it in languages that people understand.
Newton: Embedded in the narrative is always a transformative concept. Here’s an example. In 1989, while in Berlin [on a DAAD fellowship], we were invited [by Dr. Hartmut Ern, of the Berlin Botanical Gardens] to help establish a nature reserve on the Sava River in the former Yugoslavia. This nature reserve was the last floodplain ecosystem in that part of Europe, and it included lots of endangered species. We went there, and it didn’t seem endangered at all. It was beautiful. However, it was surrounded by irrigated farming, and that was endangering it, although nobody saw that. After realizing this, we said, “We can’t help establish your nature reserve, but we’ll do a work that analyzes the Sava River. If you purify the river, your nature reserve will be protected.” The head of Croatia’s water department accepted the concept and our assistant, Martin Schneider-Jacoby, who was a graduate student and a very good ecologist, did the same analysis for the Drava River above the Sava. The Sava and the Drava collectively give the lower Danube over 50% of its water. So that had a salutary effect down into the Black Sea. We design for salutary, unintended consequences. We don’t keep control of everything.
Helen: The work “works” when the community with whom we’re working understands the work and takes it up, as happened in that case. It becomes the work of the community.
Newton: When the community takes up the work, and the work is big enough, then our name is lost.
Helen: That’s the way it should be.
Is that how you measure success with your work…the degree to which the community owns the work and your names fade to the back?
Newton: I’m going to take issue with the whole idea of measuring success. I think it’s stupid. Our most “successful” work, A Vision for the Green Heart of Holland, may have been a small project that addressed 12 people in the water department in a section of Holland.
Our most powerful work, Peninsula Europe, may be our least “successful” work. We tried to see if one could see the whole peninsula in dissipative structure. In my opinion, the failure was a worthy failure. We learned a lot. I refuse to measure success.
For more than 40 years, you have collaborated with biologists, ecologists, architects, and urban planners. What have been some of the more challenging aspects of these types of collaborations?
Newton: From our perspective, the only reason to work with such folk is that you have chosen to work with what we call an “ennobling problem.” An ennobling problem is one of such dimension that any work you do on it that helps on any measure ennobles two things: the environment and you. It feeds back into you and changes you. Working on complex problems means working in complex systems, and that requires working with many disciplines. Each discipline you work with tells you what you need to do. I may, for example, have to learn something about soil stability to hold water, but I don’t have to spend 20 years becoming an expert.
How has this type of collaboration influenced your art, and how has your art influenced the way scientists, designers, and engineers approach problems?
Newton: We set our own agenda to take on these advanced problems, and we fail all the time. But we fail usefully. This is such a different position than most scientists take. Our desire is, generally, to influence policy.
Helen: This goes back to empathy. The value of empathy is that you feel the other. You become in your mind, some way connected to the other, and that changes the way in which you deal with it and think about it. That happens because you change the way you feel. People don’t realize that this is caring. That is what people need in order to deal with the environment. We’re all part of one system.
Newton: This actually will affect change in their behavior. Then they act on the behalf of the environment.
Your work illustrates an alarming story in a way that is accessible and compelling, but it also presents an alternative vision for the future – one that is not post-apocalyptic. To what degree is your vision coming to life?
Newton: We don’t think despair is useful. Warnings are a bore, and boring people out of screwing up the environment is tedious. Where’s the excitement? The excitement is in transformative thinking. What would be transformative thinking? Adaptation at great scale.
An examination of this kind of adaptation is coming to life at the Center for the Study of the Force Majeure, which you founded at the University of California Santa Cruz. Tell us about it.
We have a $220,000 grant from the Metabolic Studio to do basic experimentation on the upward movement species. In the high grounds of Tibet and places like the Sagehen Creek watershed [California], temperature will rise and ice pack and snow melt go away. If we’re able to invent a rapidly expanding, succession ecosystem as glaciers withdraw, then water will be better held in the earth. We have just hired our first scientist, who is the head of the arboretum at the University of California Santa Cruz, and we are hiring our first manager.
That brings me to the subject of education, and the education of the artists and scientists of tomorrow. Newton, you have said of the work that needs to be done to heal the planet, “Art won’t hold it. Science won’t hold it. Regional planning won’t hold it.” Tell me more of your thoughts on the need to remove the silos that separate disciplines?
Newton: Helen and I both think that the future is not in the hands of the experts. The future has got to be in the hands of the inspired generalists who can become experts in damn near anything. I found this out in 1969 when I was doing an artificial aurora for Expo 70 [the World’s Fair in Osaka, Japan]. I had to learn plasma physics. I found out that it wasn’t hard to learn enough to do the work. It dawned on me that what we really need to be able to do is go to any discipline, engage in enough to learn what is going on, and synthesize them as we need. Each problem demands a different synthesis.
Newton: In Holland, [A Vision for the Green Heart of Holland] we actually moved a $220 billion engine [a planned development of 600,000 houses] out of the green heart of Holland. Why were we chosen? Because 10 books were written by 10 experts in 10 different fields, and they all failed. We were the last resort. We met with government officials and they asked, “What makes you think you can do this?” We said, “You failed in all cases. Einstein was right; you need an outsider. And anyway, we’re a cheap date, and we’ll sign a contract saying that we’ll save the green heart of Holland.” And we got the work. And we did it.
Are there other places like the Center for the Study of the Force Majeure?
Newton: From the very beginning, we were determined to always be working in new territory. When you work in new territory, you are making prototypes. Your success is going to be limited, but you are going to be coming up with new and original information. The Center for the Study of the Force Majeure basically says, “Green roofs, and all the green stuff we’re doing is insufficient for what’s coming down. We need to adjust at the trillion dollar scale.” So we plan at that level.
Netwon: Now, many artists are working with art and technology, art and science, art and ecology. Lots of them are starting with problem solving. There’s an artist named Betsy Damon, who did a project in China where she created a wetland to filter water in section of a river. Artists are starting to do that kind of thing. The difference between the artists and others is that artists, like Betsy Damon, see a problem, call up a bunch of people, and build enough interest so their ideas are supported. Most people are given the problem, whereas Helen and I define the problem.
Helen: They don’t tell us what to do. We will find out what to do when we are in the environment and learn the environment.
Newton: That’s not always true. Sometimes people tell us what to do—vigorously—and they’re always wrong. Sometimes they tell us a fantasy, and embedded in the fantasy is the work. Helen and I have to be open. Just plain open. You never can tell when the janitor is going to tell you why the forest died.
How much of the knowledge that you gather as you get to know a place, at any scale, comes from the land itself, and how much comes from people?
Newton: What happens is this: the land talks; people talk; literature talks; the net talks; and at a certain moment, we have a strategy. We actually believe what the cognitive scientists have finally figured out: that the psyche is way bigger than the conscious mind. What we’ll do is toss ourselves into information overload, and out of pure information stress, new ideas will pop.
Many of our readers are involved in stream and river restoration. For their benefit, can you tell us a bit about your Santa Fe Drain Basin project?
Newton: That was so interesting. We were invited to give a seminar after a lecture we presented [at the Santa Fe Art Institute]. Nobody showed up at the seminar except five permaculturists. We got into a discussion and they said, “What would you do for the Santa Fe River?” We said, “Why don’t we choose the largest form available and work backwards?” That happened to be the watershed.
Helen: We had been to Santa Fe [years] earlier, and we had seen the river as alive. Families were picnicking on the banks and children were playing in the shallow waters. It was lovely. Now, it is barren.
Newton: There was enormous pressure for water. They were developing endlessly there, and in every development, every four houses required something like 325,000 gallons of water. During discovery, we learned that they also had violated their topsoil to such an enormous degree that it wouldn’t hold water anymore. And the pinyon, which generally put a couple feet of good soil under itself, were dying. So we began to locate ways to return the earth.
Helen: Working together with different communities – Latinos, Native Americans and Anglos like ourselves–we took on the returning to life of the Santa Fe River. An Indian woman who was a professor at the local university shared with us the story of the river, as the Indians told it. In presenting our ideas, we showed that story in sculpture.
Newton: We presented [five proposals and six considerations to restore the ability of the soil to retain moisture.] We argued that it’d cost $1-2 million for every half mile. They had to do seven miles, but if they did it over a 10-15 year period, they could restore the river for less than a million a year. If you look at our piece, you’ll see an occasional cascade of the river. The restoration would involve building check dams to catch sand before it went down into the Rio Grande. The check dams would raise the river bed and the aquifers would refill. We were originally asked to work on water, but again and again, we were forced to think in terms of earth.
Helen: We also had to think in terms of the Indians’ approach to this. They had the stories to tell that their elders told them how things were long ago; about their relationship to the land, which is one of respect; one of working in collaboration with nature.
Maps are integral to much of your work. Can you describe the power of the map in your work?
Newton: Mapping is so much a part of what we do it’s almost impossible to talk about! Every map that you see is about controlling the environment. It’s about how you get from here to there. It’s basically a military instrument, or a development instrument. What we do is take that map, yank out development, yank the roads out, enhance the mountains, and put our own information there. We’re interested in remapping: pulling out information we think is environmentally destructive, and putting in information we think is environmentally regenerative.
What do you hope happens when someone and sees that redesigned map? What does it do that, say, a design plan cannot?
Newton: Well, if you look at the Sava River map, it’s a tiny, little Michelin road map on which we redrew the watershed and the nature reserve. Suddenly, people saw their watershed. Seeing their watershed, they suddenly could also see that the nearby industrial farming was endangering the nature reserve. The map became part of the story.
Newton: Another issue we should talk about is “scanning.” When we are invited to go someplace, one of the first things we’ll do is simply look. Another thing we’ll do is get up in an airplane and fly around, so we can see patterns, and see who is doing what to whom. It’s easy. You go tot the local airport where people learn how to fly, you get in a Cessna 172, and up you go for an hour! It’ll cost you $300-$400, and look what you get!
Your work often includes accompanying text. Why do you use the poetic form?
Helen: What happens with the poetic form is that you can say a great deal with few words. When you do this, you communicate not just the denotation of the words, but the connotation of other images that aren’t directly in the meaning. Therefore, you get a great deal more imaging.
In the Force Majeure work, there is some very memorable text from “The Seventh Lagoon,” which was part of an earlier work: The Lagoon Cycle. The text was in the form of a conversation, and it ended with a question…
Newton: Yes, this: “And in this new beginning…this continuous rebeginning…will you feed me when my lands can no longer produce…and will I house you when your land is covered in water…so that together we will recover as the waters rise?” That’s the core issue that we face–cooperation. It’s not about problem solving in the normal sense. At the moment, the answer to that question looks unlikely: “No, I’m not going to help you that much; I’m going to help myself.” I think we need to do some changing as a culture.
Any final words for Leaf Litter readers?
The one thing I want your readers to come away with is this: It’s really important for people to feel free to set their own agendas and act on them. A lot gets done that way.
Artist, writer, and naturalist James Prosek made his authorial debut at the age of nineteen with Trout: an Illustrated History (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996). The book featured seventy of his watercolor paintings of the trout of North America. Prosek continued to paint trout, and in 2003, produced Trout of the World, which featured original watercolors of species ranging from the Oxus trout of eastern Afghanistan to the small golden brown trout of British chalk streams. (An updated edition of this book was just published this year.)
An obvious connection between Prosek’s art and the field of conservation is the World Trout Initiative, which he launched with Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard in 2004. The initiative raises money for coldwater habitat conservation through the sale of t-shirts featuring Prosek’s trout paintings.
Prosek has written for The New York Times and National Geographic Magazine. He won a Peabody Award in 2003 for his documentary about traveling through England in the footsteps of Izaak Walton, the seventeenth-century author of The Compleat Angler.
Trout are not the only creatures to be painted in vivid detail and dazzling color by this impassioned artist. Prosek’s recent works include a collection of life size paintings of 35 Atlantic fishes. To create these paintings, Prosek traveled the Atlantic from Nova Scotia to the Cape Verde Islands to personally witness and capture the brilliant, dynamic colors of each fish just before they fade with death. This personal tribute to marine beauty and fragility, the subject of his 2012 book Ocean Fishes (Rizzoli, 2012), earned Prosek the Gold Medal for Distinction in Natural History Art from the Academy of Natural Science, an award recognizing a person or group of people whose artistic endeavors and life’s work have contributed to mankind’s better understanding and appreciation of living things.
Prosek has also applied his artistry to the freshwater eel. His book Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World’s Most Amazing and Mysterious Fish, published in September 2010 was a New York Times Book Review editor’s choice, and was the subject of a PBS documentary. He is currently working on a book about how we name and order the natural world.
How did the World Trout Initiative program come together?
My first book, Trout: An Illustrated History, received a good deal of attention. Part of the appeal, I think, was that I was a 19-year-old publishing a book on a personal passion, and that’s a good story. Because the trout is the favored fish of fly fishermen, and because there weren’t a lot of young fly-fishing voices at the time, I also was embraced as a kind of poster child for the industry. Although I loved fly-fishing, I was primarily an artist and writer focused on documenting the diversity of trout in watercolors. But through the exposure of that first book I also came to meet some people with financial means who loved fly-fishing, who were advocates for conservation of fresh and saltwater ecosystems, and on the boards of international conservation NGOs. Without even realizing it, I was developing a network of people who really influenced me in terms of ideas about conservation.
I was asked by people who were buying my work to donate work to help raise money for some of these conservation groups. Among them was the Yellowstone Park Foundation. A former director of the foundation brought me out to the park to join trips with potential donors, working to raise money for much-needed restoration work on streams and habitat. Through some of those trips, I met others who were helping the foundation, and developed a friendship with Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia clothing company. We cooked up an idea to raise money for trout conservation by selling t-shirts with my paintings on them. To date we have raised over $600,000 that has been given away to grassroots conservation groups around the world.
Yeah! Some of the projects we’ve funded have turned into great things. One that I have been most excited about is the Balkan Trout Restoration Group. Eight years ago we gave $20,000 to Aleš Snoj at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia. He built a web site, got people involved, and it grew into something bigger and bigger. A young American, John Zablocki, went over to work with the Balkan Trout Restoration Group. Today, John works with Trout Unlimited in the U.S., and now both organizations are working together. This started a global conversation–about saving trout diversity and clean water. Trout can only live in pristine, cold water environments. We have continued to fund the Balkan Trout Restoration Group over the years, and have funded other efforts in Armenia, Turkey, Japan, Italy and around North America.
The Balkan Restoration Group was initially trying to identify native populations of fish, some of which were thought to have been extinct. There was a fish in the Zeta River in Serbia-Montenegro. I traveled there with an Austrian friend to look for fish and we couldn’t find any. We heard they were extinct. [The Balkan Trout Restoration Group] went on subsequent trips with electroshocking equipment and they rediscovered this fish in a tributary of the river. They then began a restoration program. They try to catch individuals, spawn them out in hatcheries, raise juveniles, and reintroduce them to the rivers.
Yvon’s grassroots conservation philosophy – giving small amounts of money to a lot of people — has been very effective.
You can do pretty amazing things with relatively little money. On a recent trip to Micronesia, I spent time with a guy named Bill Raynor, who moved to the island of Pohnpei 35 years ago as a Jesuit volunteer. He intended to teach local people western ways of agriculture, but he got quickly converted to their ways of growing things: a farm that is seamless with the forest (agroforestry) and sympathetic to the ecosystem. Bill ended up staying in Pohnpei and developed The Nature Conservancy’s Micronesia branch, which grew to become a regional office. Bill told me that his strategy, rather than raising money to buy large tracts of land, is to invest in the local people and help them become conservation leaders. He believes that it is the only way to save the planet. He has mentored so many young people in Micronesia who have become powerful, international leaders, ministers and senators who are working to save forests and estuaries and create marine protected areas.
I always liked the Patagonia ethic, and Yvon is an amazing innovator. He has raised millions of dollars for land conservation. He recently funded a documentary about dams, DamNation, which should be released soon. He’s a real advocate for dam removal—a very expensive but very effective way to restore the circulatory system of our land.
Have more conservation organizations sought your collaboration?
Yes. I’m working with Riverkeeper and their Canadian affiliate, Waterkeeper Alliance to put together a whole symposium on freshwater eel restoration in the St. Lawrence this fall. [Coral reef ecologist] Jeremy Jackson, who is putting together a campaign to raise awareness of coral reef restoration, just asked me if I might be able to paint some parrot fish as the campaign develops. Requests come in almost weekly now. I probably can’t execute all of them but it’s nice. I feel like there has been a really positive response to some of the stuff I’ve been doing and the messages I’ve been trying to put out there. The fact that this group in Canada wants to do a whole symposium about eels is a really good sign! I never set out to become a conservationist, but because I love the resource so much and want to see diversity protected, I have inevitably become one.
What made you decide to paint and write a book about eels? Was it the knowledge that overfishing, dams, degraded habitat, and climate change are bringing eel populations to all time lows?
I was first exposed to eels while fishing as a kid. When I’d catch one, it would pull so hard I’d think it was a huge trout or bass. Then, when I’d see it, I’d think, “What the hell is that alien thing on my line?” They were just so bizarre looking. My next exposure came when I got caught fishing illegally in one of the local reservoirs [in Easton, CT] by a game warden named Joe Haines. Joe then became my mentor. His parents were of Italian and German descent, and his family ate eels. Through Joe, I started learning a little about eels and their life history. I learned that the eels in the streams around my home were born in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and that was totally incomprehensible to me.
In the process of producing Trout: An Illustrated History and Trout of the World, I spent a lot of time in freshwater ecosystems. The eel was this “other” creature that lived in these ecosystems. When I started to express an interest in eels, many of my early supporters in the trout fishing community said, “Why are you so interested in eels? You’re going from painting the most beautiful fish in the river to embracing the ugliest fish in the river!” I almost wanted to write about eels to spite them. They were a fascinating fish and totally ignored.
Eels are really beautiful, and the way they move is amazing. They really are the embodiment of the water itself. They are so fluid. There have been studies where people put adult eels in tubes with flowing water to see how much energy they expend as they swim from the rivers to their spawning grounds in the ocean. They use very little energy covering several thousand miles. They are so efficient, and that’s why they haven’t changed much in 200 million years.
I had this amazing editor at Harper Collins, Larry Ashmead; he was one of the most inquisitive people I knew. Larry had published my third book [The Complete Angler] and we had become good friends. One day I he told me this idea he had for me to travel a latitude line around the world fishing and write a book about it. I was 22 years old; how could I say no? I decided it made most sense if I traveled the latitude line of my home: the 41st parallel. Larry and his partner had a house in Tuscany. Since I was passing through that part of the world around Christmas time on my 41st parallel travels, I spent Christmas Eve with them. While in Tuscany, we drove down to Lago Trasimeno and there were these stakes sticking out of the water. Larry asked me what I thought they were. I said I thought they were eel traps and I said, “You know, the eels in this lake are born in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.” Larry didn’t believe me. But when he got home he sent me this essay he’d found of Rachel Carson’s from her book Under the Sea Wind about the journey of a female eel from a small east coast pond to the sea to spawn. He added a note saying he thought that the subject of eels might make a good book. He had enough authors who actually made money from their books that he could push anything through the sales department. One of the other editors at Harper Collins told me that Larry brought a rubber eel into the sales meeting when he was pitching the book. “Okay Larry,” they said, “go ahead.” He didn’t even have to say anything. I’ve been very lucky over the years to have supporters like Larry.
I know from reading your book EELS: An Exploration, From New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World’s Most Mysterious Fish and from watching the associated PBS documentary The Mystery of Eels, that you worked with scientists. That collaboration undoubtedly informed your work as an artist and writer. Do you think you informed their work, or the work of conservationists?
I hope so. I certainly interacted with the five or so eel biologists that exist in the world. Like me, they’ve become completely amazed by and obsessed with this fish. Because they study a fish that is so mysterious, they already have a built in way of talking about their subject that is open to other ways of seeing. Although they are scientists, and in doing their work they have to stick to recordable, tractable data, they all have a built-in appreciation for local mythology, eel lore, and the otherness that eels represent. In our discussions, and through the book, I may have helped them communicate stuff that they had been thinking but hadn’t articulated, or aren’t allowed to articulate because those thoughts don’t fit into the framework of being a scientist.
You just can’t quantify something like the migration of the freshwater eel. You’ll never be able to pick apart how they do it. I mean, how do the orphaned offspring, born as tiny larvae in the middle of the Atlantic know to leave the Gulf Stream and start heading towards the coast of North America? If they didn’t leave that predominant current, they’d continue up the highway to Murmansk. And then when the adults return to spawn in the sea after spending 15-30 years in freshwater, how do they find their way back to a place that isn’t even a place? It’s an amorphous blob in the ocean that’s different every year!
If there’s anything I’d like to have gotten across that I didn’t in the documentary it is that science really does, in its way of inquiry, expose new mysteries, and the mysteries will never stop coming.
In his review of Eels, the New York Times’ Paul Greenberg wrote of you, “both his art and writing draw their inspiration from a similar challenge: to express the ineffable, fading aspect of the natural world in the industrialized era, the feeling of bright colors slipping through your fingers.” Is this what you’re going for?
That’s true of my work in general. With eels, that’s a big part of it. Because my work comes out of a deep love of nature, and because we live in a time when we are losing species as fast as we are discovering them, as somebody who paints natural history and tries to make commentaries on the human relationship to nature, the effort is inevitably different than what Audubon was trying to do, which was to catalog diversity that was seemingly endless and could not be extinguished.
We are losing so much, and have potential to lose so much more. I am trying to document the fading aspect of living things on an individual level yes, but also on a global level, and reflect on what that means. Life is ephemeral in both senses, all living organisms die, but all species eventually seem to die off too—unfortunately we’re just accelerating that process. As a fish dies, and its life is flickering out, its dynamic colors shift, and then they are gone. I’m trying to capture that moment in painting, but, again, I’m also trying to document certain aspects of the natural world as a whole that are fading and dying out.
Originally, what drew me to the eel wasn’t that it was declining; I hadn’t even known that until I was years into the project. The real data on eel decline hadn’t started to come out until the mid-2000s. John Casselman was doing surveys of young eels coming up the St. Lawrence River and he realized that the populations had literally crashed. But once I fell in love with this creature, I certainly became interested in trying to get the word out that they are declining, and that they need more help than something like the Atlantic Salmon, because there are no millionaires fishing for eels and there is no Atlantic Eel Federation (like there is for salmon).
Your latest work (and book) is a collection of 35 life-size paintings of the most pursued ocean fish. I read in an article in Nature Conservancy magazine that this project began with your desire to see a live bluefin tuna. Tell me about that and how it led to this project?
While visiting my mom in Chatham, Massachusetts on Cape Cod, I was filling up at a gas station one day, and at the station, there was a beautiful red, 1954 Chevy pickup truck parked outside. I went into the little office to ask about the truck, and I got to talking with the owner of the station, Norman St. Pierre. In his office, there were aerial pictures of schools of bluefin tuna, and some pictures of a massive bluefin tuna on the deck of a boat. I had no idea that bluefin tuna could be much bigger than grown men. As it turns out, Norm also had a little Cesna airplane, and in the summertime, he was a tuna spotter for a commercial harpoon boat run by a father/son team. Harpooning is a very old way of hunting fish. I thought, “There’s a person on a platform off the bow of a boat throwing a spear at a giant tuna moving through the water? I’ve got to see this.”
At the same time, I was also interested in doing larger scale water colors. I wanted to make works that would not be mistaken for book illustrations. One way of doing that, I felt, was to just paint them really big. I thought it’d be so cool to paint one of these big fish life-size. I knew from painting trout that the colors fade so quickly, that I couldn’t just see this fish dead on the shore and paint it. I’d have to be on the boat so I could see the fish free swimming in the water, and then on the deck of the boat when it was still alive.
So in 2004, I went back to Cape Cod and was able to go up in the plane with Norman for a couple of days, and then in the boat for two days. On the last hour of the last day, Norman spotted a school of giant bluefin. (The size cutoff for giant bluefin is something like 350-400 pounds.) There’s a 42-foot platform (called the “pulpit” in New England) off the bow of the boat that is a long as the boat itself. The harpooner runs out to the end of the pulpit, and grabs the harpoon. From his plane, Norman directs the driver of the boat. He’ll say “They’re eight boat lengths ahead…five boat lengths…two…okay, you should see the fish now.” The boat is moving pretty fast, and the guy throws the harpoon at the fish, and they get one that is about 750 lbs. That was the first large fish I painted, and it kind of started the whole body of work.
A couple of years later, I decided to paint more Atlantic fish, life-sized. But I didn’t want to paint them to represent a species in a field guide. I wanted to paint individual fish that I had a personal experience with.
Your paintings are described as being absolutely scientifically accurate, yet they are so much more. As Christopher Riopelle writes in the book, with these paintings you “ask us to enter into a direct relationship with that subject, however big, however menacing it might seem…” When I interviewed eco-art pioneers Helen Mayer & Newton Harrison, the word ‘empathy’ came up quite a bit. To paint these fish, you become pretty intimate with them. Is empathy something you hope people experience when they see your paintings?
There is an intimacy I develop with each particular fish in the process of making these paintings. Seeing it die is amazing. I’m removed enough as a fisherman who eats fish that I’m not crying, but it is still emotional. Watching the life come out of something is very powerful—and not just the colors fade, but a kind of aura, a visible glow. Not long ago, I watched someone fairly close to me actually, physically die. I was shocked to realize that the same thing happens in humans.
Spending time with the fish in terms of sitting on the floor and painting it, is also a very intimate, emotional experience. I hope some of that is conveyed through the paintings when they are exhibited. I want people to know how big these things fish are, and I want people to know the brilliance and beauty of their colors and patterns that you can only really witness if you’re on the boat when a living fish first comes out of the water. Sure, someone could say that you can get that sense of scale and presence from a taxidermied specimen of a marlin on the wall, but to me, it’s not the same. I thought people would feel more invested in protecting these fish they ate as sushi if they knew what the fish actually looked like.
Are you able to watch people reacting to your work? Are you getting a sense of whether or not that is happening?
We’ve exhibited the paintings in art museums and natural history spaces like the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. The tuna and swordfish paintings were in a show in Monaco, and the Prince of Monaco and his sister came. That is significant only because the Prince is a big advocate for bluefin tuna preservation, and Monaco is the only place in the world where it is illegal to eat bluefin tuna. In the coming months we’ll be exhibiting some of the large ocean fishes paintings at the Addison Gallery of American Art, The New Britain Museum of American Art, the North Carolina Museum of Art, The Cape Cod Museum of Natural History and some other places.
I have had the chance to see people’s reactions, and they have reinforced my hopes. Some people have told me that the paintings provoked some kind of dialogue about the fish, and about the effort I went through to be on the deck of the boat and see the fish. I think when you put a lot of work into a piece, people can feel that accumulated time and space.
Speaking of you being on the deck of the boat…your book Ocean Fishes features a detail of the eye from your 12-foot, 8-inch blue martin painting. In the eye, the reflection of you taking the fish’s picture can be seen. Why did you include that detail in the painting?
To me, the paintings were not just about the fish, but about me being there, looking at the fish. I didn’t want to erase my participation in that experience. The paintings are my personal interpretations of the fish. I wasn’t trying to paint some conglomerated fish to represent the ideal of a swordfish. I didn’t want my experience to be erased because it’s me there on that particular day. If I was wearing a particular shirt or jacket and its colors were reflected in the fish, I’d put that into the painting. If the fish had a scar on it, I’d paint that. When you see a blue marlin or tuna coming up out of the water, and it is first hit by the sun, it’s really amazing. They colors are so dynamic, shifting and changing. Once the fish is out of the water, it reflects our world back to us. Some of them are so silvery that they’re like mirrors. I was captivated by that idea in itself. So I consider the paintings to be, in a way, self-portraits of a personal experience in a place.
When I’d paint trout as a kid, I’d always start painting the head and then work back toward the tail, but I always left the eye as the last thing to paint. It was sort of the treat, the cherry on top. The last thing I’d do was put a little, white dot on the eyeball. That little dot made the whole painting become more dimensional and alive. It never occurred to me what that dot was until I was staring into the eye of a swordfish. A swordfish eye is so large that I could literally see my face and shoulders and the rigging of the boat above me and the clouds in the sky behind me in the reflection. And it occurred to me for the first time—and it was so obvious but something that had just never occurred to me—that that little white dot I painted on the eyeball is the sun. To our eye as humans, that sun is what gives us perspective in the world, it’s our position in the universe, our place on the planet. I was absolutely blown away. If you painted a swordfish 1000 feet underwater in its habitat, you wouldn’t put a highlight on the eyeball. The highlight on the eyeball is about that fish being out of its element and in our element.
To do this project, you depended on those who were pursuing these fish. What was it like to be a part of the killing of something you’re trying to save? How were you influenced by the fishermen, and them by you?
I grew to have a real respect for some of the fishermen, especially the swordfish guys. They’re just so skilled, and if you’re going to harvest swordfish, harpooning is the best, most sustainable way to do it other than rod and line. It’s the large-scale, industrial ways of fishing—long lining and purse seining, and bottom trauling—that are destroying our oceans. On a basic level, I don’t have a problem with people harvesting fish to eat. I had more of a problem being partly responsible for a 700-lb blue marlin being killed, because there aren’t that many out there anymore that get that big. That’s part of the reason why I didn’t go on a marlin fishing boat in the Caribbean. I went instead off the coast of West Africa around the Cape Verde islands, because I was told that the people eat them there. I went with that marlin to the market, where it was given to [a local merchant], dismembered, and sold to people for food.
There is definitely some conflict in the process of making the works, but my hope would be that fish populations would be healthy enough that individuals who wanted to catch a fish and eat it could do so. If people could only eat fish that they caught themselves, the oceans would be in much better shape.
“I am more comfortable in the water than I am on land,” says Jann Rosen-Queralt, a swimmer, scuba diver, and artist with environmental concerns. Upon entering her studio, this is immediately evident. Sitting atop an expansive work table is a maple cutout of the Chesapeake Bay which she will cast in ice and wax. Under the table is a box of horseshoe crabs coated in various patinas. Decals from a recent installation about water consumption are scattered atop another table. On the floor rests an algae-inspired boardwalk design prototype intended for a riverine island park. A steel and cast iron sculpture, reminiscent of a water-filled porthole, awaits final touches in the studio’s adjacent workshop.
As she tinkers with these works in the privacy of her studio, Rosen-Queralt refines and strengthens her voice…a voice that requires confident, compelling expression when her pieces become public art. Injected into collaborative problem solving with scientists, engineers, architects, and planners, it is a voice that has the power to catalyze partnership, discovery, and stewardship.
For Rosen-Queralt, the artistic problem-solving process begins with a question. While on a team designing the City of Arlington, Virginia’s Powhattan Springs Park, a project requiring a skateboard area, soccer field, and nature park, Rosen-Queralt asked “Where is the water?” This led her to recommend the use of a raingarden to manage stormwater and serve as an inviting, interactive, child-friendly, water-themed nature park.
In 2003, Rosen-Queralt helped develop an Art Master Plan for the Brightwater Wastewater Treatment Plant in Washington state. The site, not only a state-of-the-art, LEED ® Platinum, non-odorous facility, had become a popular recreation destination. When challenged by Brightwater to create artwork to expose the working processes of the system and engage the public in inquiry and discovery, Rosen-Queralt had two questions: “How do we celebrate this engineering, and how can I visually give people a sense of the 13 million gallons of water a day that pass through this plant?” She answered these questions by creating Confluence, a small-scale installation reminiscent of a tidal pool. Confluence uses the hydraulic action of a “breathing lung,” and the seeping and rushing of water that flows dramatically through a sunken pool and open pipe to reveal the engineering and capture the imagination of visitors to the plant’s community center. The work includes a grove of willows which, upon reaching ten feet in height, will represent the volume of less than .01 percent of the amount of water that flows through the plant on a daily basis.
When the Arts and Science Council of Charlotte-Mecklenberg, North Carolina sought Rosen-Queralt’s input on the creation of an outdoor space for a mental health facility, her work began, once again, with a question. A beautiful, wooded ravine, bisected the Billingsley campus. Knowing that nature was used in the Center’s rehabilitation programs, Rosen-Queralt asked, “How can this natural habitat be more available to patients?” Her solution was to create Awi-Spek, a refuge area in which “ear trumpet” sculptures amplify the sounds of the birds, rustling leaves, and creaking branches. Located on the north side of a newly constructed bridge connecting the campus, the space, she says, “allows people to revel in the sounds and patterns of movement.”
For Rosen-Queralt, the best and most difficult aspects of working with scientists, engineers, and design professionals are one and the same: the establishment of trust and communication. “I have had some of my most rewarding experiences when the collaboration has been one of reciprocated trust.”
“I’m not a scientist,” explains Rosen-Queralt. “I’m trying to poetically and didactically make people aware of things that are important. I can get people’s attention in a way that other professionals can’t. Engineers are inventive, creative people, but they are very focused on a problem, and if they move too far away from that problem, they’ll lose their focus. I have the luxury of being able to look at the problem and focus in a different manner. I can let the wonder of a situation, rather than the solution, be the leading quality.”
Though seeing her work on display is gratifying, knowing that it is generating awareness of water concerns is what Rosen-Queralt finds most rewarding.
It could be argued that any form of art that deepens human relationships with the natural world furthers ecological conservation, restoration, and regeneration. Whether in the form of an interpretive sign, a performance, an abstract sculpture, a documentary film, or a painting, art can play a powerful role in healing the planet. It would be impossible to present a comprehensive view of the thousands of artists around the globe who are devoting their talents toward the restoration of biodiversity and resilience, but we are delighted to offer these glimpses into the inspiring works of just a few.
National Geographic Explorer and conservation photographer Paul Colangelo has garnered grants and awards from the BBC, the Smithsonian, and numerous other prestigious institutions. Perhaps more rewarding, however, is the knowledge that his work contributed to the protection of a region of northern British Columbia known as the Sacred Headwaters, birthplace of three of the province’s greatest salmon-bearing rivers: the Skeena, Stikine and Nass. The subalpine basin has one of the largest intact predator-prey systems in North America, and is the traditional territory of the Tahltan First Nation.
In 2009, Colangelo traveled to the region to photograph swimmer Ali Howard’s 610-kilometer swim of the Skeena, from its headwaters to the Pacific Ocean. The swim was intended to raise awareness of the need to protect the Skeena watershed and the many First Nations communities who have called it home for thousands of years.
Struck by the beauty, significance, and vulnerability of the region in the face of encroaching oil and gas interests, Colangelo knew he needed to do something.
“Shell Canada was planning a coal-bed methane development that would cover nearly a million acres of the headwaters with wells, roads and pipelines,” he explained. “This would not only fracture wildlife habitat, but the water-intensive process of coal-bed methane extraction risked contaminating the three salmon rivers.”
“After standing in this incredible landscape and hearing local people describe just what the area means to them, “ said Colangelo, “I felt the need to tell this story and paint a picture of the Sacred Headwaters for those who might never see it themselves.” In the four-year effort that followed, he did just that.
Together with National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis and the International League of Conservation Photographers, Colangelo created Sacred Headwaters: The Fight to Save the Stikine, Skeena and Nass , a book that celebrates the land and culture and shines a light on the threats. His breathtaking photographs have not only raised awareness and dollars, they helped affect policy. On December 18, 2012, the B.C. government announced that Shell Canada would relinquish its tenure on the land, and that oil and gas development would be banned in the Sacred Headwaters.
But there is work yet to do. “While this was a major victory for the Sacred Headwaters, this ban is limited to oil and gas exploration,” cautions Colangelo. “There are still a coal and copper-gold mines proposed for the Sacred Headwaters.”
That is why he is now at work on “Surviving Todagin, a project he hopes will help protect Todagin Mountain from threats posed by mining. The mountain, located within the Sacred Headwaters, is home to what is thought to be the world’s largest herd of Stone’s sheep. Having camped on the remote plateau for five months to take photographs and map out the movements of the herd, Colangelo has gone to great lengths to share this story with the world, and we can’t wait for it to be told.
Joyce Hwang, AIA
Architect Joyce Hwang has long been interested in urban wildlife. Hwang is a professor of architecture at the University of Buffalo, and principle at Ants of the Prairie, an architecture and research practice focused on creating approaches to confront the pleasures and horrors of our contemporary ecologies.
“In dealing with issues of sustainability in architecture, most of our conversations tend to focus more on the building envelope and less on how we accommodate wildlife and biodiversity, “ said Hwang. “But biodiversity is becoming increasingly important to architecture.”
Fascinated with what she viewed as one of the most underappreciated members of urban wildlife community-the bat-Hwang began developing design concepts for bat habitat in 2007. Awarded a grant from the New York State Council on the Art, she was able to implement one of the concepts. Bat Tower, a 12-foot, vertical cave made of plywood, raises awareness of bats as a critical component of our ecosystem.
Installed in Griffis Sculpture Park near Buffalo, New York, Bat Tower is the only art in the park specifically designed to create conditions for habitat.According to Hwang and the biologist with whom she worked on the project, bats are often spotted around the tower at dusk, but the structure is not warm enough for year-round habitat. It is, however, serving as an important summer stopover.
Hwang’s continued tinkering with bat habitat designs led her to create Bat Cloud, a concept she submitted for consideration as a public art project for the University at Buffalo Humanities Institute’s “Fluid Culture” program. When it was selected, Hwang worked with students to bring her vision – a floating structure comprised of individual “pods” that serve as bat sanctuaries – to life.
Installed in Buffalo’s Tiff Nature Reserve, Bat Cloud is constructed of steel wire mesh, the pods are insulated with layers of foam and plastic. The bottom of the pods holds soil in which Hwang’s team planted native violas, which receive fertilization from the bat guano.
Hwang recognizes the power of art installations to grab public attention and instigate curiosity. “People walking around the Tiff Nature Preserve see Bat Cloud and say, ‘What is that? Why are those things floating there?’ Then, they read the sign and they learn about bats,” said Hwang.
Hwang’s art installations not only influence the public, they influence her-as an architect and professor. Hwang and other University of Buffalo faculty initiated a competition for students to design habitat for relocating a bee hive. “These types of small-scale projects allow me to think about large-scale architecture in broader sense,” explained Hwang. “How can we think about buildings as participants in our ecology, rather than just structures that keep nature out?”
Whether she is sculpting, producing documentaries, composing photographs, or writing poetry, artist Basia Irland offers a creative understanding of water while examining how communities of people, plants, and animals rely on this vital element.
Working with scholars from diverse disciplines, she has traveled the world to build rainwater harvesting systems; connect communities and foster dialogue, collaborate in river restoration projects, and inform people about waterborne disease.
“Many of our rivers are suffering,” says Irland. “One of the things we can do is plant seeds along our riparian zones.” With her project, Ice Books, Irland creates artwork that not only raises awareness of the need to protect and restore rivers, but actually takes part in the restorative process.
Irland carves blocks of ice, some weighing as much 300 pounds, into the shape of books. Into the ice, she embeds riparian seeds that are native to a specific site. Her seed selection is based on both scientific and traditional ecosystem knowledge. Once formed, the ice books are placed into a stream, where they reflect the world around them and release seeds as they melt. In book form, the sculptures connote both academic and experiential learning.
“I think of these [ice books] as a kind of ecological text that people can read in their own personal and poetic way,“ said the artist. In witnessing the melting of these Ice Books, one likely senses both the wondrous beauty, and delicate fragility of our river systems.
A member of both the Sculptor’s Guild of New York City and the Explorer’s Club , artist Mara Haseltine combines her art practice with scientific experiments and environmental restoration. In 2011, she had the opportunity to board a schooner of the coast of Chile and participate in a portion of a global exhibition to collect plankton and assess ocean health. What Haseltine saw when she viewed these samples with a microscope, was both beautiful and alarming. The samples not only contained elegant forms of plankton but also fragments of plastic.
This inspired Haseltine to created “A Portrait of our Oceans in Peril,” a series of sculptures of the plankton and plastic, as well as a live performance from Puccini’s La Boheme [in which Rudolfo meets and falls in love with Mimi, with plankton in the role of Mimi]. A film about the project will premier this fall at the Imagine Science 2013 Film festival in New York.
The work does more than allow people to experience what they cannot see with the naked eye.
“I wanted to show how beautiful plankton is, and also create an awareness about how the microscopic world and our megascopic human world are linked,” said Haseltine. “I want people to know that the health of the microscopic world of our oceans, which produces up to half the planet’s oxygen and sequesters carbon dioxide, is intimately tied to human health. “
Hasseltine’s art is not just awareness-raising. She has crafted sustainable reef systems for coral and oyster reef restoration projects, and believes that “artwork offers a way for the public to engage in science, whether it be ecological restoration or just imagining it in three dimensions.” Once engaged, she believes, people can not only take pride in, but become caretakers of their local environment.
More examples of inspiring eco-art that works to deepen human understanding of and connection to the natural world can be found by peeking into Nature’s Toolbox, a traveling exhibit featuring contemporary artworks from around the world across a wide range of media.
The exhibit includes archival prints of Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut’s concept for self-sufficient, zero-emissions floating cities for refugees displaced by rising waters; a series of short films by Italian actress and filmmaker, Isabella Rossellini, highlighting the mating rituals and delicate futures of various species; a video and mixed media installation by UK artist Chris Drury, which celebrates the ecological significance of the mushroom spore; a series of photographs by Venezuelan photographer Antonio Briceño expressing the role of humans in safeguarding the ecology of Rwanda, and more.
Billed as “a celebration of both biodiversity and human ingenuity,” this exhibit uses the medium of art in correlation with science as a powerful catalyst for creating awareness; engaging communities; and encouraging individual and collective action.
Nature’s Toolbox: Biodiversity, Art and Invention, is produced by Art Works for Change, an organization that harnesses the transformative power of art to promote awareness, provoke dialogue and inspire action
by Jennifer Dowdell, Landscape Ecological Designer
Those of us in the profession of landscape architecture and ecological design draw on a rich history of envisioning the landscape as canvas, albeit one with a richly-hued plant palette and shapes and forms that reach beyond the traditional two-dimensional purview of the painter. In practice, we have the good fortune to work with both artists and engineers, often driven by a specific functional need associated with ecological restoration, conservation or regeneration. However there is an artistry and artistic theory that informs this work. My appreciation for the role of art in my work stems from both my graduate studies at the University of Michigan with landscape theorist, artist, and professor Beth Diamond, and my professional experiences collaborating with environmental artists.
In her research and teaching, Beth focused on the evolution of landscape design from the “pictorial” described by (noted landscape architect) Gina Crandell, where early landscape architecture took its cues from landscape painting, the flat representation of landscapes as scenic spaces confined to the frame, with a fixed viewpoint, to something much more vibrant and nuanced. Early on, according to Crandell, gardens were conceived as “repositories of images formulated by painters” (Crandell 1993). Beth argued that “principles of cubism, involving new concepts of form, space and time are relevant to the contemporary practice of landscape architecture” (Diamond 2011). In her classes, Beth stressed the role that landscape architecture and installation art have in providing diverse viewpoints and multiple experiences, and in challenging or altering perceptions. Rather than the picturesque landscapes of yore, today we are indeed designing and planning for spaces that exhibit those tenets of cubism: simultaneity, transparency and permeable boundaries, multiple perspectives and equality of spaces- designing for participants in a space, not just onlookers.
Beth stressed to her students the importance of pushing boundaries and preconceptions while peeling back the many layers of history that define a landscape. Besides the requisite study of landscape design theory, a hallmark of Beth’s class was the landscape installation project. Broken down into teams of four or five students, we had to identify a theme, then consider the landscape context and space available, and then proposed the physical structure and organization of space. Our pieces were to be interactive and inviting, and they were to evoke a sense of place as well as some larger idea or question. Craftsmanship was of utmost importance, both in the modeling stage as well as the final product. As students in the School of Natural Resources and Environment we also needed to consider environmental health and stewardship, ideally challenging perceptions of the health of the environment and our role in its future sustainability.
My team explored the pressures exerted on native forests by globalization and climate change. We focused on the pests, disease, and invasive species that were wreaking havoc on the forest ecosystems of Michigan. Initially, we used only on natural materials, but with Beth’s guidance, we branched out –literally- supplementing the materials with paint and concrete to develop an arresting installation we called the “Shrine of the Once and Future Forest.” Using invasive buckthorn trees (Rhamnus cathartica) that had been cleared from the University’s Arboretum and stumps of ash trees felled by the emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis) (with their beautiful but fatal bore patterns on the interior of the bark) we devised an outdoor sanctuary space.
We painted the buckthorn using bright orange paint to heighten their visibility, and burned the names and dates of the various pests and diseases into the ash stumps as a temporal chronicle of their devastation. It was be a commentary on the effects of some of the most prominent and damaging species and diseases in our native forests, a call to action, and a eulogy to the ongoing loss of biodiversity. In the center, atop an altar of sorts, was a collection of native seeds, nuts and pine cones. Onlookers were invited to take these seeds home.
The installation project was, for many of us, our first built work, helping solidify the importance of scale, materiality, context, and aesthetics – creating a visual as well as physical experience for the onlooker. Other teams explored issues associated with wind energy, root systems of trees, and the chemical make-up of pesticides and herbicides. We each gained a much better sense of the power of the landscape as a space to explore and create functional, sensual, artistic and provocative experiences. Students and faculty alike visited the installation and chatted with us as we applied the finishing touches, although they were shy about taking the native seeds provided for broader dissemination. Local news coverage highlighted the “didactic edge” the installations brought to campus, describing students gathering to see the artwork and filling comment books left at some of the installation pieces.
At Biohabitats we occasionally have the opportunity to include artists on our design teams, which serves as a great reminder of the lessons Beth shared regarding the power of the landscape as canvas and work of art. Our work often integrates these same tenets of environmental art and design, in considering the user experience, creating spaces of wonder, play, function and interpretation of patterns. Like a writer whose best work stems from an indulgence in reading the great works, so too does the designer gain inspiration from the world of art, a dialogue between artistic interpretation and impressionism, and the functionality and sustainability of a living landscape. Whether it is integrating stormwater treatment design on a college campus or a primary school playground, or restoring native habitat as part of a novel ecosystem in an urban locale we are often using familiar forms to invite users into a space to experience it anew, and witness renewed function as part of an ecological or hydrologic system.
Rather than inviting Stacy to create a stand-alone sculptural art piece as part of the park design, we involved her in a series of design discussions and community meetings so that her contribution was more integrated into the design process, informing the park and the forms and patterns we explored in the creation of this new riverfront space.
Through a series of lively discussions on the flows and shapes of the water systems, the historic piping of streams that fed the Delaware, and the other effects of industry on shoreline ecology, the design team began to create forms and interventions in the space that would function as renewed habitat while also introducing new aesthetic experiences.
Stacy’s work with our landscape architects focused on a series of “dendritic decay gardens,” playing with the concept of the pocked paved landscape opening up in stream-like patterns to provide new areas for stormwater infiltration and habitat.
The dendritic plantings thus simultaneously told the story of the broader watershed relationships and the historic use of the river shoreline as industrial hub.The native meadow plants in these gardens would eventually root through the pavement, breaking it apart with the aid of the natural weathering processes.
As we sat in the studio diagramming and playing with patterns my colleague Adam and I began to see a renewed cycle of seeding and regeneration borne of out these patterns, which at once recognized the river’s industrial past and its future as a restored natural space for community members and resident wildlife. This tiny speck of a park along the vast industrial waterfront of southern Philadelphia had begun to build relationships at multiple spatial and temporal scales, a dialogue of expression and function.
In the years since the park was completed, Washington Avenue Green has proven to be a popular spot for neighborhood residents. We will continue to look for opportunities to work with environmental artists like Stacy and hopefully our work can continue to be inspired by the cubist landscapes that Beth Diamond described, inviting the visitor “into the complex and fragmented reality of the space as a participant” (Diamond 2011).
PostScript – Beth Diamond passed away quite suddenly in late April of this year but her teaching has left an indelible mark on those who she taught. She leaves behind an incredibly rich legacy exploring the power of the designed landscape in creating unique, participatory, and democratic spaces; building community and questioning the status quo.
Resources for this article:
- Crandell, Gina. 1993. Nature Pictorialized: the View in Landscape History. JohnsHopkinsUniversity Press, Baltimore and London.
- Diamond, Beth. 2011. Landscape Cubism: parks that break the pictorial frame. Journal of Landscape Architecture. Autumn 2011. pp. 20-33.
- Washington Avenue Green, Philadelphia, PA.
- Klein, Andrew. 2006. Creative Landscape Art Graces Diag, Michigan Daily. Accessed June 9, 2013.
- Design team for the “Shrine of the Once and FutureForest” – Dave LaClergue, Carrie Morris, Zhifang Wang, and Jennifer Dowdell. Spring 2006.
Art & Ecology is a resource for teachers and an online exhibition of contemporary ecological art.
Communicating Ecology Through Art: What Scientists Think (Curtis, D. J., N. Reid, and G. Ballard. 2012. Communicating ecology through art: what scientists think.Ecology and Society 17(2): 3.)
econrtnetwork: a network of professionals dedicated to the practices of ecological art.
Environmentalism through arts is a forum for the creative, imaginative, provocative articulation of environmental ideas through artistic expressions.
Imagine Science Films is a non-profit organization that promotes high-level dialogue between scientists and filmmakers.
THE LAND, an art site, is a non-profit organization founded in 1997, which offers residencies for artists and “maintains a twenty-acre exhibition and work site in central New Mexico devoted exclusively to site-specific, environmentally low-impact, land-based art. The site is located about eighty miles southeast of Albuquerque, in the foothills of the Manzano Mountains.”
The Land Art Generator Initiative is advancing the successful implementation of sustainable design solutions by integrating art and interdisciplinary creative processes into the conception of renewable energy infrastructure.
Nature Art Education – located in Finland’s Aalto University, School of Arts, Design and Architecture, this research group maintains a worldwide list of actively engaged in arts-based environmental education.
The Sitka Center for Art & Ecology has a mission to expand the relationships between art, nature and humanity.
Sustainability & Contemporary Art: a blog exploring the deepening relationship between contemporary art and notions of environmental sustainability.
To life: Eco art in pursuit of a sustainable planet by Linda Weintraub
Restoring Hydrology in Big Cypress National Preserve
The Big Cypress swamp has an enormous impact on the hydrology of southwest Florida and is essential to the health of the nearby Everglades. The National Preserve protects ¾ of a million acres of tropical and temperate plant communities, and is home to diverse wildlife, including the Florida panther. However, years of construction activity in the form of drainage ditches, infill, and canals have greatly compromised the hydrology of the area. Biohabitats is proud to be working to restore the natural marsh and ecosystem functions within the Preserve. Our most recent project involved the restoration of a 13-acre site along US 41. This site was first used as a source for materials for the construction of US 41, and was subsequently filled and converted into a campground. Over recent months, we have removed thousands of cubic yards of fill material in order to restore historic marsh hydrology. Careful excavation by the Biohabitats team has assured that the water depth is now ideal for supporting emergent wetland plants and the associated biota that depend upon them.
Urban Stream Restoration in Maryland
Towson Run Tributary Restoration
Towson Run Tributary at Cloisters is the latest in a series of successful stream restoration designs that Biohabitats has realized with Baltimore County (Maryland) Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability. This tributary network, which runs through the campuses of a university and a behavior health facility, receives drainage from predominantly developed areas. With so much stormwater runoff to the tributary system, it has become disconnected from its historical floodplain resulting in bank erosion, sediment yield and diminished water quality. Biohabitats is conducting a biological assessment of the tributary network, and completing of the design and permitting of the restoration plan. We will provide construction oversight for the. Restoring the Towson Run tributary will re-establish stable, long-term channel geometry, improve water quality and enhance aquatic and riparian habitat.
Crofton Stream Restoration
Fast flowing stormwater had degraded the Crofton tributary in the Little Patuxent watershed in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Biohabitats’ restoration design, which aimed to reduce erosion and improve habitat, was implemented through a two-stage construction process that unfolded over the last year. As construction neared completion, we were happy to join local middle schoolers in planting native plants along the newly restored channel and floodplain. The involvement of students in Anne Arundel County Department of Public Works’ restoration projects is facilitated by the Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center, which grew and supplied the native plants.
Creating a Vision for an Extraordinary Place
Biohabitats has been fortunate to work with the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, New York. With a mission to awaken the best in the human spirit through educational experiences, the institute considers sustainability as one of its core values. When they began a master planning process for their network of facilities, they asked Biohabitats to help.
Last month, we began the field portion of the planning work, assessing the existing natural resources on campus and beginning to develop restoration and management recommendations. This phase also includes an opportunity we do not always have with clients: developing a full ecological and social context. We are working with the Institute staff to create a vision for the property based on the way people are connected to the natural systems on site. This process brings in regional ecology and history to reveal the multifaceted context of the site. It also includes a desktop assessment of potential regional wildlife corridors, connections, and greenways. Such a conscientious approach to the broader context of a planning or restoration brings out the best in our staff. And their biggest smiles.
Regenerating Biodiversity in Portland, OR
Clean Water Services (CWS), an Oregon utility service, is working with Biohabitats to restore a rich mosaic of riparian wetlands within the Tualatin River floodplain associated with the Forest Grove Wastewater Treatment facility. The wetlands will primarily serve to regenerate the complex systems of life and nutrients that exist in healthy waters while simultaneously reducing the temperature of water flowing into the Tualatin River. These wetlands will further enhance the diversity of habitat for shorebirds, waterfowl and resident birds alike, making this a world class destination for birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts of all ages. Our work on designing and restoring the wetlands is just beginning, but together we are making a long-term investment in the health and resilience of the Tualatin River.
Not far away in downtown Portland, American Assets Trust, L.P. is redeveloping a mixed use super block in the Lloyd EcoDistrict. Biohabitats has been contracted to lead a pioneering wastewater system that will collect, treat, and reuse wastewater onsite. Ecologically based urban infrastructure adds resilience to the project while treating waste as valuable nutrients for reuse.
In Washington County, Oregon, where Nike Corporation is continuing to develop their corporate campus, Biohabitats has been asked to assist with designing wastewater infrastructure for two new office buildings.
Biohabitats is leading one of the three featured field trips at the Society of Conservation Biology’s biennial conference in Baltimore July 21-25. We’ll lead a group to learn about the floating wetlands in front of Baltimore’s World Trade Center in the Inner Harbor. The conference is the leading meeting of conservation professionals and students, attracting over 1500 conservation-minded attendees.
Biohabitats will be participating in the 5th National Conference on Ecosystem Restoration (NCER), which is being held just outside Chicago from July 29 to 31. NCER is an interdisciplinary conference on large scale ecosystem restoration, and is important for bringing together practitioners of actual restoration projects. The conference, which was originated by University of Florida, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, attracts over a thousand planners, engineers, and decision makers from across the country. Terry Doss will moderate a panel on Restoring Streams and Rivers in an Urban Environment, and Joe Berg will participate on a panel discussion on the concept of Novel Ecosystems.
At the annual Ecological Society of America’s Annual Meeting, Joe Berg will present on the values of using historic geomorphic condition as a natural analog for stream restoration. The meeting is in Minneapolis this year, from August 4-9. Joe’s role with ESA extends beyond participation in the annual conference: he is the secretary elect for the Mid-Atlantic Chapter.
StormCon, which competes with Game On (below) for the best conference name of the year, brings together active stormwater professionals from across the country, and is being held this year just up the coast from our Charleston office in Myrtle Beach, SC, from August 20-22. It includes several sessions on the work we do, such as BMPs, Green Infrastructure, and erosion Control. Keith Bowers is planning to attend.
At Game On: Green Sports Summit, sustainability specialists present to about 500 sports industry members about topics from reducing waste in college sports to providing better food at stadiums. Biohabitat’s Pete Munoz will be sharing his expertise on water management at stadiums such as the Omnilife in Mexico in a panel on innovative strategies in water conservation.
The Northeast Beaches Conference is the annual NE chapter meeting of the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association, and represents members from coastal states from Maine to New Jersey. The association brings together professionals to provide a technical basis for solving erosion problems and other coastal challenges. from which solutions to erosion can be found. Terry Doss will represent Biohabitats at the meeting in Galloway NJ, from September 9–11.
Our new team leader of the Great Lakes Bioregion brings a wealth of experience in the management of water resources to Biohabitats. He has worked extensively with some of the less pliable materials of our profession: community groups, elected officials, and state employees. In his previous position, he worked with Biohabitats enough to develop a respect for the passion and focus of our staff. When an opening was available, he eagerly took the opportunity to participate in our innovative approach, and especially looks forward to furthering his contributions to the conservation and restoration of the Lake Erie ecosystem. When not sailing Trystin, his recently restored 26′ Seafarer Meridian on Lake Erie, Tom, who went to college initially on a music theory scholarship, busies himself singing classical and liturgical choral pieces. His most recent performance was a joint concert of Haydn with the Case Concert Choir.
Though he’s relatively certain that the journey rather than the destination is what brings happiness, Brett is today realizing career goals that were firmly rooted in his childhood. Water resource engineering has allowed him to play a role in protecting the natural systems he has always enjoyed while hiking, hunting, and camping. This is not to say that his journey has been without perils. He has racked up an impressive 7 broken bones skateboarding and in other sports and outdoor activities, most recently on a fishing trip to the Smokies, where he broke his elbow while flyfishing alone (and learned to take a partner to remote areas). He is eager to join Biohabitats’ work on stream restoration and watershed planning, and also hopes to continue his recent progress at tying saltwater poppers, which are flies that imitate baitfish breaking the surface.
Chris joins Biohabitats most recently from Blountville, Tennessee, where he worked with Great Smoky Mountains National Park as a GIS technician. Originally from Salisbury, Maryland, he spent enough time in TN for his three dogs to get spoiled by constant trips to the mountains, but fortunately not long enough to compromise his diehard support for the Ravens. Though he never realized his childhood ambition of becoming a professional stormchaser, he is happy to bring his GIS and Geography skills to Biohabitats, where he has wanted to work for years. In his new position, he will be supporting various projects with spatial analysis and mapping tools.
Our newest landscape designer, working out of Denver, is eager to help create designs that heal the earth and involve people in the process. Andi grew up in a small town in SE Colorado, originally thinking to join the family trade of farming. She sees her current work as firmly in line with the farming tradition of planting and tending plants, along with caring for the earth. Even the apartments she has occupied in Denver tend to become greener over time due to her propensity to exit all greenhouse nurseries with at least one plant in hand. At Biohabitats, her ambitions focus on broadening her design experience and sneaking a living wall into the Denver office. Outside of the office, she spends as much time as she can outdoors, as well as volunteering with refugee children from Myanmar (Burma) and watching her nephew approach his first birthday.
Elver: juvenile eel (source: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)
Environmental Art: In a general sense, it is art that helps improve our relationship with the natural world. There is no definition set in stone. This living worldwide movement is growing and changing as you read this. (Source: greenmuseum.org)
Gyotaku: the Japanese art of fish painting. It was developed more than a century ago as a fisherman’s method of recording the size and species of his catch. Freshly caught fish were painted with a non-toxic ink, and covered with a piece of rice paper. The paper was then carefully smoothed down, and removed to make an exact size copy of the fish. Once the print was completed, the fish could be washed and prepared for a meal. By using this technique, Japanese fishermen were able to both record and eat their catch.(source: Oberlin College Allen Memorial Art Museum)
Installation: A form of art, developed in the late 1950s, which involves the creation of an enveloping aesthetic or sensory experience in a particular environment, often inviting active engagement or immersion by the spectator. (source: Museum of Modern Art)