A path for art in restoration

An art committee working to plan the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER)’s 25th anniversary world conference met in May 2013. A thoughtful discussion ensued. Can art be a partner in the unfolding process of an ecological restoration? Collaborating in the science? Collecting data? A restoration participant?  We wondered if there are yet unexplored opportunities, for art and ecological restoration entangled… particularly in art that assists our work – that documents, learns, and does.

The arts have long engaged ecologists and other scientists and disciplines in collaborative work meant to explore intersections, relationships and complex ideas. In the broad realm of Land Art, projects have often used landscape as material, and explore ideas as diverse as the human experience of place; earth in the context of climate change; the processes of ecological succession and human intervention; toxins and bioremediation. In Maya Lin’s constructed Storm King Wavefield, done in consultation with landscape architect Darrel Morrison, one of my favorite details is the self-sorting of seeded native grasses over time, so that Bouteloua curtipendula has become a clear “fringe” on the warmest, driest ridge lines.

Maya Lin, Wavefield (photo N. Aten)

Lin has said about her work, “maybe I am just asking you to pay closer attention to the land”, and that might serve well to categorize this kind of collaborative art.

Some projects have been called “eco-revelatory”. This was the subject of a landmark special exhibit and issue of Landscape Journal in 1998, Eco-Revelatory Design: Nature Constructed / Nature Revealed (contents list). Eco-revelatory design is the idea of work that draws attention to ecological function and process, while at the same time improving ecological function and process. These are projects that both explain and do. They are often in places of dense human inhabitants – with a large audience for the work. Green infrastructure tends to incorporate these ideas, because they have inspired advocacy and empowered follow-on work. For example, the wide popularity of rain gardens followed after numerous eco-revelatory public projects managing rainfall in urban areas. (See Stacy Levy and Biohabitat’s Dendritic Decay Garden and other projects). Art can be a conduit for understanding something – for understanding how ecology works.

An alternative conduit for understanding does not mean the subject is simplified or reduced; just that other pathways of experiencing and learning are offered. Quoting the eco-revelatory artist Patricia Johanson writing about her project Endangered Garden: “This fusion of form, function, and ecological system that I want the visitor to discover, and its pervasiveness from microcosm to macrocosm, often lies along a mucky path.  I believe such unfolding relationships require individual wanderings, the considered pause, and knowledge acquired over time…”.

Yes, that sounds like one of us, learning a place we study and restore. We know the importance of paying close attention over time. Out in the field measuring, logging, assessing, intervening… we still catch our breath at the way the afternoon sun lights the wetland. And while light colors the wetland, we also see the patterning of sedge hummocks, the interspersed Salix candida, and we assess health of the restoration. We learn the ecosystem not entirely with our selves of reason; sometimes we are led to understanding through other conduits.

Those conduits can be available in a perhaps more familiar art form. A recent exhibit showed 36 (of 140-and-ongoing) paintings of one remnant patch of woods in urban Milwaukee known as Seminary Woods, a place where it is possible to imagine the Milwaukee of the early 1800s. The artist, Michael Kutzer, an amateur botanist, walks in the woods daily, and his observational skills translate into paintings that reveal the dynamics of ecosystem processes at work. He is six years into this study; an artist documenting ecology.

 Michael Kutzer and Seminary Woods series (photo: N. Aten)

We know that scientific repeat photography at a restoration site is a useful tool for us; consider that an artist has the additional opportunity of applying human powers of observation to repeat visits. His work reminds me of ecologists engaged in a long-term field study. This exhibit, at an environmental education center, enables teachers there to give students an alternate conduit for understanding the ecology of a place.

Observational skills were important when we first learned science and remain important in our restoration work today. The process of art-making can strengthen those skills and perhaps engage a broader range of people (including students) with natural sciences. Recently, a high school biology teacher in Milwaukee gave students an alternative conduit to understanding plant physiology through art, in a process explained here.

Last year, I saw sketches in an exhibit that included cave insects, leeches in a wetland, and meadow pollinators. The artist, Kristin Gjerdset, had participated in the long-standing National Park Service artist-in-residence program. During her residencies, she asked to join ecologists and biologists in their field work, documenting what she saw and learned. She became a valued team member. Recently she illustrated, literally and figuratively, her value on a multi-disciplinary team in a field class about dragonfly ecology. This is an avenue for restorationists and educators to consider: artists to visually explain and document, perhaps in a collaborative survey/assessment effort.

One of the ways ecologists have already engaged artists is in bringing people to the landscapes where we work – seeking to strengthen and expand these conduits of understanding in the field. Ecological restorationists might think of our clients as the salamanders and the soil, but the Society for Ecological Restoration Primer and Guidelines also emphasize humans as the audience for our work. And so, we invite installation and performance arts, with people, into our landscapes undergoing restoration and management. For example, a dance at the river. An ephemeral or self-decaying art installation. Or, Shakespeare performed winding through patches of light and mystery in the forest restoration at Nichols Arboretum. Installation and performance arts that can, beyond just appreciation, add ways of seeing and understanding the ecosystem and the whys and hows of ecological restoration. Such projects can be helpful in advocacy for the human audience of our work, and in deepening our own connection to our work. A concern of such works is “[that they not] draw attention away from the real art, that of life” (Ken Leinbach, Urban Ecology Center). What do people see, the art or the ecosystem? Can art draw you into the ecosystem, toward deeper understanding… be the guide, rather than a distraction?

Beyond understanding, or perhaps more effective at it, is the participation inherent to restoration. Not only are humans our audience, they are our necessary actors. Bill Jordan has written often about why participation is essential – and for any individual project, perhaps the process of participation is more important than the outcome. And many restoration ecologists have embraced the arts of ritual in the acts of restoration – for example, work days that begin or end with a reading or poem, or with an expression of gratitude to the place and its life. Basia Irland’s Ice Books are part ritual, part civic engagement, part river restoration. Wisconsin restoration ecologist Steve Glass writes about the role of fire as both ecosystem process and restoration ritual, and annual winter solstice bonfires to celebrate a restoration work season.

Some artists explore what happens when they themselves engage in the practice of restoration. Creating in order to share their understanding, their work can provide collaborative fodder for us.  Artists who seek to further learn ecology might help us as powerful visual explainers and documenters.

Poised. SER Member: Kurt Ewing, Washington. Artist Tyler Green, Minnesota, writes: Back in his early days at the University of Washington, Kurt was asked to restore a landfill. He's become quite proud of it. “That landfill we started on in 1990, it looks pretty good.” The print illustrates spikelets of three main plants used to restore the landfill. They're rendered simply, and standing poised in the foreground like comic book superheroes, which in a way they are. They have made a terribly disturbed landscape healthy again. With help of course: Kurt, the wiseman, the teacher, is represented as a small silhouette on the horizon. His wife would describe him as someone who is, “Grumpy, but gets stuff done.” The restored prairie is an example of that. Ecological restoration is a story of a bad situation turned good. A story with perils and laughter. Worthy of a comic book. The story of nature restored.

One of the SER 2013 endeavors was the “Print Project”. This paired 11 artists with 11 restoration ecologists, who met, walked and talked restoration, and then the artist-printmaker created a visual story of the ecologist’s work based on their new-found understanding. This series, exhibited at the conference and other venues, is a kind of visual explanation of our work. Seen by the average person, they are an alternate way to understand ecological restoration. Seen by us, they reenforce our personal commitment to the field.

Brenda Baker’s Seed Pod was commissioned for SER 2013. The artist sought to create large pod-like structures; open pods of native willow and closed pods made of invasive buckthorn (inert, without viable seed).  Open pods would reference restorative ecological work, the casting of native seed to restore an ecosystem.  Closed pods reference the threat of pest plants and the way these invasives spread, one seed at a time. This thoughtful review was written by an arts historian and curator who once worked in the field for an ecological restoration firm.

Brenda Leigh Baker, Seed Pod proposal

Artists who pursue ecology more deeply have done work that supportively intercedes in ecological restoration. In this realm is the work of Daniel McCormick, described as specializing in “watershed restoration sculpture”. What I find most interesting is not just that the woven willow bio-engineering is beautiful and draws my attention in… but that I perceive his methods as more effective in situ than what one of us might do, perhaps because of his artist’s sensitivity to site as well as his ecological training.

And we have come back to the point where we began: can art and artists be actors in the restoration? Art and artists can explain science; can art do science? Can art do ecological restoration?  And to what benefit – can art advance our work beyond where we can take it ourselves?

As we think about working with artists, it might be a challenge to see the artist as needing the same freedom to be rigorous as our researchers need in science. Research without immediate applied purpose. In our field, practitioners and researchers desire good exchanges; using this model, perhaps we can begin to incorporate artists as both practitioners and researchers.

A Land Art project often cited in thinking along these lines is Mel Chin’s Revival Field (1991-ongoing). A collaboration with a research agronomist, this multi-year art installation tested heavy metal uptake by hyper-accumulator plants. In describing the bioremediation cycle, the artist says, “this renewed ecology is the completion of a work of art”.

Brenda Baker’s original idea for SER 2013 was very different. She proposed a large-scale solar powered floating installation on Lake Monona (at the heart of the city of Madison and highly visible), that could trap and collect invasive plants or fish. She discussed the ideas of such an ambitious project with local limnologists, ecologists, and agency staff, but more time and investigation would have been needed to implement it. “I would love for whatever I make to not only comment on these issues, but actively help solve them in some small way.  I have always done work that comments on ideas or issues, but hasn’t actually made a difference, except perhaps in getting people to see things a little differently. [I would like the] art to become a medium for restoration itself”.

It’s an idea worth exploring: artists who want to help address ecological restoration challenges, with art that participates in our work and advances our thinking.

- Nancy Aten


Beardsley, John. Earthworks and Beyond: Contemporary Art in the Landscape. New York: Abbeville Press, 2006, Fourth Edition. Print.

Brown, B., ed. Eco-revelatory design: Nature constructed / nature revealed. Spec. issue of Landscape Journal. 1998: 17 (2). Print.

Jordan, William R. The sunflower forest: ecological restoration and the new communion with nature. Univ of California Press, 2003.

Lin, Maya. Boundaries. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000. Print.

Kelley, Caffyn. Art and Survival: Patricia Johanson’s Environmental Projects. British Columbia: Gulf Islands Institute, 2006. Print.



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