Ecoartists: Engaging Communities in a New Metaphor

Patricia Watts


For humans to survive on this planet over the next century and beyond — with limited resources and no population control mechanisms in place — we need a radical shift in the understanding of our intricate interdependence with nature. As an art curator interested in artists who address the natural world, I am committed to understanding how they can participate within existing social and political structures, in communities, helping to invent a conceptual language that is essential for understanding ecological principles.

Recently, I have worked as a watershed education coordinator, developing workshops and festivals in a small mountain community outside Los Angeles. Through this work it has become clear to me that art, metaphor and visual experiences, when engaged in our daily environments, can offer a framework for our very own survival. Who is better equipped than artists — thinking outside the box, employing their creativity and resourcefulness and a love of beauty — to envision a more sustainable world? It is my vision that environmental restoration could become the essential art of our time.

Since the 1960s, artists have pioneered diverse strategies for working outside the “white cube,” in both urban spaces and sites in nature. What began as an experimental exploration of aesthetic and spatial boundaries, exposing the creative process in the public sphere at happenings and environments outside the confines of traditional art establishments, has dramatically redefined what is art forevermore. It is in this blurring of art and life where artist Allan Kaprow identified the potential for art to have a broader, deeper, interdisciplinary and participatory purpose.

Environmental art or ecological art (a.k.a. ecoart) has evolved from the earth-art and land-art movements of the 1960s and early 1970s, and has been greatly influenced by the work of Joseph Beuys and his environmental actions “in defense of nature,” defined by him as social sculpture. Ecological art now provides a context for environmental education, and is achieved hand-in-hand with communities. Ecoartists seek to gain access to and become advocates for communities, working as both co-learners and co-creators. Their work is collaborative and supports both natural and social ecosystems. Ecoartists can be thought of as midwives for the earth, facilitators of environmental education, consultants for environmental restoration and visionaries for transforming ecological communities.

There have been several successful immersive ecoart projects that offer inspiration and practical examples for engaging communities in environmental issues through art. The following are a few of these projects.

Collaborator: Metaphors for Survival

In the summer of 2002, Tennessee artist Gregg Schlanger was commissioned by the Providence, Rhode Island, Office of Cultural Affairs to work in the city's low-income Smith Hill neighborhood on a community-based public art project entitled “Smith Hill Visions, Concrete Dreams.” Schlanger, who has created several environmental education projects involving children nationwide, set up shop across the street from a crack house in a run-down five-car garage. He then offered to pay kids off the street (14 years and older) minimum wage to assist him in casting concrete lawn statues of various threatened and endangered animal species that are listed on the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management endangered species list.

Ten kids signed onto the payroll, and together, in one month, they made approximately 200 endangered-species lawn sculptures. Schlanger put notices around the neighborhood letting area residents know that the sculptures were being offered for free, and he asked recipients of these uncommon concrete lawn statues to place them in their front yards. Local residents were a bit suspicious that Schlanger was offering them anything free — after all, what was the catch? Many recipients were hesitant to have them in their front yards, suspecting that they would be stolen in the night.

A tag was attached to each sculpture with the name of and information about the endangered species. Many of these species were not native to Providence, yet Schlanger felt that there was an underlying link with the endangered status of the neighborhood itself. He felt that because people in poor communities engage in a constant struggle to survive, those who participated in this project might identify with the animals as metaphors for their own survival in the game or habitat of life.

Schlanger believes that this project was a huge success, even though he was an outsider bringing the subject of endangered species to a neighborhood where nature is not a priority. One young girl who worked alongside Schlanger every single day was found at the Smith Hill Library down the street talking up the project to the head librarian, who later told Schlanger that this girl rarely ever speaks to anyone. On the final day, as Schlanger was packing up his tools, looking around to make sure he did not leave anything behind, a boy came up to him on his bike to thank him and told Schlanger, “You made the neighborhood different.”

Collaborators in successful public art projects always include funders and organizational partners. "Smith Hill Visions, Concrete Dreams" was a collaboration among the artist, the City of Providence Parks Department, the Office of Cultural Affairs, CapitolArts and the Smith Hill Community Development Corporation; the project was included in the Convergence 2002 International Arts Festival. Digital images of the actual endangered species were displayed as an art installation at the Smith Hill Library, down the street from Schlanger's temporary garage, and the concrete sculptures were placed in the library as well as outdoors in the library garden. A map of each residence that received a sculpture was created. A grant from Youth RAP (Resident Activities Program) of Rhode Island paid the kids in the neighborhood an hourly wage for assisting Schlanger in casting the pieces.

Facilitator: What is a Watershed?

In 2003 in Mendocino County, California, artist Erica Fielder, a naturalist and environmental educator who has for many years created interpretive artworks out in natural public spaces, created an interactive community experience in her own watershed. Fielder presented “The Birdfeeder Hat: Seeding Watershed Awareness” at the local Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens and the Mendocino Art Center. At each location, for six consecutive weekend engagements, Fielder sat quietly demonstrating to visitors how to interface with wild birds, and then she invited others to share in the experience by offering an array of various birdfeeder hats to wear on their own heads.

This experience offered the opportunity to “begin experiencing a deeper kinship with a wild creature up close,” says Fielder. Although on the surface Fielder is engaging people in the beauty and curiosity of birds, she is really offering a much larger vision. After setting visitors up with a hat and asking them to sit still for at least a half hour, she then begins her educational “bird song”" on the interdependence of all species within all watersheds. Talk about a captive audience! Several of the visitors were from out of town and even from other continents. Fielder felt that the project was a success, since she was able to engage people in a personal conversation about linking watersheds throughout the world.

The Birdfeeder Hat project and Web site were funded entirely by the San Francisco–based Threshold Foundation, from its Visionary Social Change funds for which Fielder wrote a grant proposal. Other support was given by the Friends of the Ten Mile, a chapter of the Redwood Coast Watershed Alliance, a group of people who live in the Ten Mile River watershed. A total of 500 people were estimated to have engaged in either watching or participating in the Birdfeeder Hat experience. Fielder says she hopes to continue the project in the future and is planning to develop a lesson plan with instructions on hat construction for teachers and parents. She also provided a topographical map of the Americas and the world and asked participants to put a red dot on the watershed in which they live. They then added their name to a list of watershed-aware citizens collected during the project.

Interventionist: Scientific Survey as Public Information

New York environmental artist Brandon Ballengée's “The Ever Changing Tide” is a community artistic investigation inspired by the work of Mark Dion, who in 1992 created “The Report of the Department of Marine Animal Inventory of the City of New York China Town Division.” Like Dion, Ballengée performed his art as a traditional scientific survey, photographically documenting — or, in Ballengée's case, processing — scans of the fishes he found for sale at several Chinatown markets in Flushing, Queens. Ballengée then bottled fish samples given to him by the fish-market owners — some 400 species — of which many were endangered or in severe decline, conditions that Dion also noted in his work.

After several months of research, working with translators and biologists to identify the fish, Ballengée invited 20 fish markets to post bilingual panels with information on and images of the endangered fish available at the markets. The Queens Museum worked with Ballengée to coordinate tours from the museum, where he installed stacks of bottled fish specimens and scanned images. These tours were taken by students and seniors from the museum site. Local elementary schools and high schools, as well as the local Queens College Environmental Club, which also organized trips to visit the fish markets.

Ballengée sees this work as “a scientific survey that became a community performance art project.” When he began his research he was initially feared by the workers in the fish markets, who thought he might be a health inspector. For months he returned to talk with them about the wide variety of fish that is flown in from all over the world. He found that over time they became more and more receptive to his environmental concerns. The Hong Kong Market, one of the largest fish markets in Flushing, still has his panel up for customers to read.

Funding for this project came from the Queens Museum and the Queens Council for the Arts. Workshops on conservation of marine species emerged from the project, and to this day Ballengée refers to his preserved specimens and photo scans for ongoing education programs with conservation students.

Visionaries: Art and Community Landscapes

In 2002, the National Park Service awarded environmental artists Jackie Brookner and Susan Leibovitz Steinman a one-year arts residency through the Art & Community Landscapes program to address the environmental concerns of three communities in the Pacific Northwest. This program was a unique collaboration that included the National Endowment for the Arts. the New England Foundation for the Arts and the NPS Rivers and Trails Conservation Assistance (RTCA). For this residency, Brookner and Steinman acted as visionaries, aiding conceptual planning process for trail and stream projects, designing and facilitiating community meetings, festivals, and participatory public art projects that forged new coalitions among local groups.

In Caldwell, Idaho, Brookner and Steinman met with civic, federal, and local organizations strategizing to daylight and restore a 900 foot stretch of Indian creek as a downtown revitalization project. Although they were invited, they were strangers in a small town looking for ways to collaborate with the locals. Presenting their ideas to as many groups as possible, they created a network among people who had never worked together before. First, they brokered a new partnership between Caldwell Fine Arts (the established town arts group) and the underrecognized Hispanic Cultural Center of Idaho (HCCI), resulting in an Idaho Arts Council grant for local professional Hispanic artists to work with youth groups to create Caldwell's first public artwork. A creekside ceramic mural by Ignacio Ramos and college art students, and sculptural arches on a walking bridge by Juan Martinez and at-risk high-school students brought renewed visibility to Indian Creek, which flows through and under the downtown business district. The artworks have become a source of local pride. At the same time, Brookner and Steinman encouraged the local Albertson College of Idaho's environmental studies program to produce a book of student essays and art on the natural and cultural history of Indian Creek. And, they initiated a plan for two creekside restoration parks that were further developed in a charette of state landscape architects.

Finally, the artists initiated the first-ever Indian Creek Festival, supported by a diverse spectrum of groups to spur economic vitality and to create a more environmentally conscious community.

In Tillamook, Oregon, Brookner and Steinman collaborated with the Tillamook Bay Estuary Commission, a consortium of local civic and environmental groups working toward constructing a four-mile trail along the banks of the Hoquarten Slough. The trail would connect the city with the bay and provide pedestrian and bike paths and economic opportunities for the town. With a nascent Tillamook Art Committee, Brookner and Steinman envisioned plans to restore a derelict historic house sited between the slough and civic center as a trailhead meeting place for ecoart exhibitions and "bulletin space" (to be named the Hoquarten Interpretive Center), and they helped design the conceptual plans for the trail. Armed with Brookner and Steinman’s concepts, local teachers and the art committee published postcards and banners of children's artworks for fundraising opportunities. For Tillamook's first Annual Trail Festival, local volunteers pulled out invasive plants to carve a temporary trail system, allowing the entire community to come together to celebrate their hard work and to envision a future trail system.

In Puyallup, Washington, working with the local watershed council and district schoolteachers, Brookner and Steinman designed and facilitated an art/science book project with fourth- and fifth grade schoolchildren who live on or near Clark's Creek entitled "I Am the Creek." This creek guide combined student stories written from the perspective of the creek with creek-friendly tips on lawn, garden and car care. The information was collected by the students from direct creekside observations and published by the Washington State Department of Ecology. At the Puyallup State Fair, 3,500 booklets were distributed to creekside residents and hundreds of visitors. Brookner and Steinman also proposed plans for a greenway corridor to provide public access to the creek for water-quality and flood-control education opportunities.

These locations were selected by NPS through applications that were submitted to its Rivers and Trails (RTCA) technical consultancy program. Brookner and Steinman made six to seven visits to each of the communities in approximately 15 months. In seeking local input and ideas, Brookner and Steinman stressed that it was essential for them to invite contact with as many people and organizations in each community as possible. Beyond the three towns' common goals of economically revitalized downtowns paired with environmentally revitalized waterways, Steinman and Brookner found each to have unique assets and liabilities with dramatically different levels of citizen participation, and beuracratic hurdles and/or support. This demanded that the artists conceptualize community specific strategies and designs based on locally stated desires. At the end of the residency, the artists felt that they were able to envision a new relationship with the environment for these communities that would develop a life of its own after they had gone. In essence, they provided the foundation and gave the communities the tools to develop their own ecoart programs.

These projects all offered the participating communities information about their environment that might otherwise have been filed away in a report and put on a bookshelf in a biologist's office or the local library. Such essential information packaged in engaging, interactive and aesthetic modalities allows ecoart to awaken our senses and offers rich inspiration for change. These artists care about all aspects of our ability to live sustainably on this planet, and feel it is their responsibility to create a dialogue about environmental issues in their art. They have affected how communities think and act and have sown the seeds for lifelong learning to understand the natural world of which we are a part.

Patricia Watts founded ecoartspace in 1997. Watts has been researching and working with artists who address environmental issues for over ten years. She curates exhibitions, writes curricula, speaks on panels, and advises on public art projects. Her current book project is “Ecoart: Environmental Education.” It is a guide for teachers, parents and communities, and will provide curriculum and resources for using art as a tool to address environmental issues.

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Photos, from top:

Gregg Schlanger’s Smith Hill Visions, Concrete Dreams in process in a neighborhood of Providence, Rhode Island.

Erica Fielder in her Birdfeeder Hat at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens in California.

Brandon Ballegee’s text and images installed at the Flushing Fish Market, Queens, NY, for The Ever Changing Tide.

Artists Brookner and Steinman and community members plan a four-mile trail along the banks of Hoquarten Slough that will connect Tillamook with the bay.

Indian Creek “daylighted” during the residency, celebrated with the first-ever Indian Creek Festival.