WE THE WEEDS LandLab sculpture

Weaving Good and Bad

IMG_1982-925x1387By Liz Jelsomine, Environmental Art & PR Intern

When you think of weeds, you probably think of unwanted, unsightly plants invading and stealing vital nutrients from your lawn or garden. While this may be true for some species, further thought about weeds brings up interesting questions. What is it about a plant that categorizes it as being invasive, and could these pesky plants be of any benefit?

Artists Kaitlin Pomerantz and Zya S. Levy explored ideas such as this at the Schuylkill Center as part of their LandLab Residency, an environmental art residency program that integrates art, ecological restoration, and public engagement in conjunction with a joint project with the Center for Emerging Visual Artists (CFEVA).

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Pomerantz, an artist, and Levy, a botanist, work together in their botanical arts initiative WE THE WEEDS, which aims to expand knowledge of wild plants in Philadelphia. Their installation at the Schuylkill Center, titled Interwoven, is a sculpture made from invasive vines that explores the interwoven histories of humans and plants, and their mutual global migrations.

The duo began this project by investigating the flora on Schuylkill Center property. Botanical surveys in the spring and early summer resulted in a list of common plants, including natives like the Mayapple and Black Cohosh, and non-natives like Wineberry and Oriental Bittersweet.

Observation of these plants provided an interesting historical snapshot. While the re-establishment of many native species spoke of a renewed interest in being responsible stewards of the land, the presence the invasive species told of habitat fragmentation, pollution, and the material desires of humankind.

While they learned a lot during their exploration, more questions were raised. How long had the plants been there? Where did they come from? How and with whom did they travel? What ecological roles do they play on this land, and what did the flora of the property look like in other times?

Interwoven was originally woven on two large hand-built looms, using dead, invasive vines harvested from the Schuylkill Center to create the base. During the growing season, the piece is overwhelmed and covered by newly growing invasive vines, constantly changing in appearance depending on the time of year, weather, and hardiness of live, invasive vines in the surrounding area. Interwoven provided a function of removing some invasive material at the Schuylkill Center, and also served as a platform to involve visitors with hands on experiences, opening up dialogue and raising questions in the debate over invasive plants.

In conjunction with this installation, a number of coordinating programs were created, including a vine identification and harvesting workshop, facilitated weaving sessions, summer camp and afterschool programs, and even a botanical cocktail hour. Visitors at the Schuylkill Center were also welcomed to participate in the weaving of Interwoven at stations along the trails. Continue reading

Rain Yard by Stacy Levy at The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education

Maintenance as Art

By Anna Lehr Mueser, Manager of Communications & Digital Strategy

SCEE6891Every week or so one of us (usually our Director of Environmental Art or one of our art interns) heads out to Rain Yard, an interactive environmental art installation by Stacy Levy, for a regular check up. Rain Yard is designed to be education, art, and intervention. The steel sculpture, painted a rich blue-purple, collects stormwater runoff from our Visitor Center roof, slowing the movement of nearly 100,000 gallons of water a year. Some of the water flows through a rain garden, over which visitors walk, and some goes into a cistern from which it is pumped through the sculpture by visors of all ages.  

That’s where these regular cleaning visits come in. The sculpture allows water to pool and drain through various hoses. The little openings for the drainage hoses seem to invite children to fill them – with sticks, pebbles, and other treasures found around Rain Yard. When it’s not curious visitors, the wind is carrying leaves and grasses into these openings. The result is that we regularly have to go out and clean them, making sure that water will continue to flow through the artwork. In the three and a half years since Rain Yard was installed we’ve also had to repaint the yellow strip thin the basin representing asphalt; a lesson in maintenance indeed.

Continue reading

Making in Place work by Oki Fukunaga

Making in Place: Art in the Open exhibition

By Anna Lehr Mueser, Manager of Communications & Digital Strategy and Liz Jelsomine, Environmental Art & PR Intern

This summer 14 artists will extend the Schuylkill Center’s art gallery onto our trails, with art that explores concepts in placemaking, reused materials, and natural-unnatural sound. These works were forged as part of Art in the Open, a public art event which brings art-making into public, along Schuylkill Banks in May. Dozens of artists participate in the biannual Art in the Open event and afterward, each brings their work to a gallery or art site around the City of Philadelphia, reinventing their artwork in a new context and drawing on their experience in Art in the Open.

This summer, the we are pleased to be hosting 14 of the Art in the Open 2016 artists, offering them the opportunity to bring their work into a natural context and adapt their work to our spaces. We’ll be featuring Aaron Asis, Jane Carver, Oki Fukunaga, Mary Olin Geiger, Elizabeth Hoy, Cayla Lockwood, C. Pazia Mannella, Heather McMordie, Angela McQuillan, Sarah Peoples, Leah Reynolds, Marian (Stasiorowski) Howard, and Katie VanVlient and Samuel Cusumano. An opening reception for Making in Place will be held on May 24th at 6 pm.

At the opening, artists will talk about their property and Director of Environmental Art Christina Catanese will lead a guided walk to explore the outdoor installations, ending with a performance developed by experimental accordion and vocal performer Jane Carver.

The show’s title, Making in Place, elegantly evokes one of the central components of Art in the Open: art that responds to and is part of the place where it is made. In this case, artists adapt their work and create new works to respond to the unique feel of the place where it is both created and installed. Poet Cayla Lockwood writes her poetry in reused scrap fabric woven into structures – both natural and built – to embed her words with the landscape. Sound and sculpture artists Katie VanVlient and Samuel Cusumano, of DataGarden, bring their “biodata sonification” device, which collects real-time data from plants and translates it into sound and graphic printouts as the plants respond to external stimuli. Continue reading

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Hollow Perspective

By Liz Jelsomine, Environmental Art & Public Relations Intern

Katie Murken Debtors Inheritance imagesPerched on tree stumps, floating on water, hidden in the reeds – artist Katie Murken’s painted gourds were scattered across the  land at the Schuylkill Center in 2007. Debtor’s Inheritance was created as part of Green Machine, a multi-media exhibition on our grounds. The project was formed in collaboration with P’unk Ave, a Philadelphia based design studio with a focus on non-profit organizations, that helped Murken create her site specific and interactive work at the Schuylkill Center.

Murken described the Schuylkill Center as a place that exemplifies habitat that was once native to this region, but as a space that is still infringed upon by surrounding roadways, urban dwellings, and commercial and industrial spaces of the city. “The air, even, that pervades its empty spaces and is consumed by its organisms is manufactured by the city. In symbiosis, the fumes that we exhale are drawn in by this land.” Murken goes on to say the Schuylkill Center is visited by city dwellers as a familiar, but distant friend.

Debtor’s Inheritance aimed to visualize our conflicting relationship to the natural world. It invited viewers to consider the inverse of this scenario— a vast, wild and uninhabited landscape. Murken described Wind Dance Pond at the Schuylkill Center as being hugged by the hillsides, appearing as a bowl of water within a bowl of land. Murken took inspiration from these configurations and extrapolated and rescaled the form of the bowl. The artist used dried and hollowed gourds to convey this idea; the gourds were cut, shaped, painted, and piled together to create an installation to float on the surface of Wind Dance Pond.

Gourds also were scattered around the pond and placed throughout the Schuylkill Center, such as lining paths, set between tree limbs, and dispersed in streams. During the exhibition, visitors exploring the grounds of the Center encountered a series of stations demarcated by site-specific arrangements of the gourds. At each station, the gourds prompted participants to use their cellphones to initiate a series of narrative text-messages, a system setup with the help of P’unk Ave. The messages layered local history and ecology with residual dialogue from project collaborators.

Debtor’s Inheritance created a portrait of the Schuylkill Center as a living site that embodied the struggle between progress and preservation. As opposed to seeing the natural world as it stands today, Debtor’s Inheritance invited visitors at the Schuylkill Center to reverse that perspective, and imagine the landscape as it was centuries ago – vast and uninhabited.

Gary Miller

Growing from the Past

By Liz Jelsomine, Environmental Art & Public Relations Intern

Artist Gary Miller began his visual arts career by studying the traditional farming techniques of isolated southern farming homesteads, and his early work reflected the simple, unadorned functionality of their commonly used materials and homemade tools.

Similar to the farms Miller studied, Brolo Hill Farm also used the same techniques to create thriving crops. Over time, however, small farms experienced crop yield reductions brought on by inefficient planting and catastrophic flooding from indiscriminate clear cutting. Recognizing that their actions were depleting vital natural resources, farmers began responsible use of the land by applying advances in animal husbandry, seed varieties, crop rotation, timber management, and innovations in tools and equipment.

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However, as technology progressed, many hand-crafted tools became obsolete, and the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides were introduced. While this resulted in greater crop yields and profits, it also caused the near extinction of small family farms, as well as the loss of many indigenous plant and animal species. Continue reading

Abby Williams

2017 Winter Photo Contest Winners

We loved your submissions for the 2017 Winter Photo Contest– many lovely photos of happy critters, icy plants, and dreamy landscapes came in, but we’ve managed to narrow the dozens we received down to a few winners. Thank you to everyone who submitted a photo!

Anna, Jenny and Liz weigh in on our finalists below:

Winners

Abby Williams

Abby WilliamsI gasped when 18-year-old Abby Williams submitted this stunning portrait. Black and white perfectly captures the texture of the fallen snowflakes against dark hair. The ice around her chin is so visceral I can almost feel the familiar sting of an icy scarf brushing against soft winter skin. What a fierce look—we might as well declare this model a contest winner, too. – Jenny

Walking in Winter, Caileigh Mahan

Caileigh Mahan, Walking in Winter

Even in a big city, one can find a quiet, still moment by stepping into newly fallen snow and seeing familiar surroundings as if they were brand new. – Liz

Georgia Young

Georgia Young

Georgia Young’s photo of a conifer in the snow captures the luminosity and stillness of new snow. A shallow depth of field draws the viewer in, creating an intimate view of the delicate dusting of snow in the foreground. – Anna

Runners-Up

Estelle Atkinson

Estelle Atkinson

Love the way the splintering light showcases these lively winter thorns.

Richele Dillard

Hover Fly, Witch Hazel, Richele DillardBrilliant macro of this resilient winter pollinator(that’s a Hoverfly!) on witch hazel by Richele Dillard.

Rebecca Dhondt

Cresheim Creek, Rebecca DhondtFun at Cresheim Creek!

Staci Vernick

Staci VernickHappy to see this little critter doing what they need to do to survive!

Bill Botzow

Combating a Natural Enemy

By Liz Jelsomine, Environmental Art & Public Relations Intern

P1020138Restoring, protecting, and preserving nature is no small task, and when that land is comprised of worn-out farmland overwhelmed with invasive species, the job becomes even more of a challenge. Artist Bill Botzow realized this when he visited the Schuylkill Center in 2002, stating, “The Center’s commitment to restoring the land while educating the public is impressive and I would like to contribute to support that effort by highlighting some of the Center’s environmental restoration practices and strategies.”

Botzow observed and quickly learned about the main challenge the Center faces; invasive species. He decided to create three wooden structures, titled En, In, Ex-Closure.  Comprised of natural and native materials, each served different ecosystems and addressed this large problem. Continue reading

Investigate & Create: My Experience at the Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education’s Annual Conference

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By Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art

I recently had the opportunity to attend a great conference, the annual gathering of the Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education (MAEOE), which this year focused on the theme of integrating the arts into environmental education.

Miss Martha Shaum’s handmade knit jellyfish at the auction

The conference occurred on February 4th, but the beginning of this story actually goes back to January 2015.  At the time, the idea of an arts-flavored conference for environmental educators was just a glimmer in the eye of John Sandkuhler, a MAEOE board member who had long been involved in organizing the MAEOE conference.  John reached out to me early in their process of proposing this idea, to talk about how we at the Schuylkill Center had integrated environmental art into our programming and to pick my brain about potential artists and organizations that could be involved in the effort. Continue reading

Crochet mushroom

Foraging for Art

By Liz Jelsomine, Environmental Art & Public Relations Intern

Editor’s note: The Schuylkill Center produced a wall calendar for 2017 in celebration of the environmental art program. Throughout the year, we’ll run a monthly post on our blog highlighting the art works featured in that month of the calendar. Calendars are still available, now 50% off – only $10 each!

What started out as an amateur attempt to forage for mushrooms led to 20 years of exploration, mycology enthusiasm, and art for Philadelphia artist Melissa Maddonni Haims and her husband, Josh Haims.

Josh’s curiosity was initially peaked after noticing mushroom foragers during his early morning bike rides along the Wissahickon when visiting Melissa’s parents in Norristown, while Melissa’s curiosity was sparked after inquiring about a morel mushroom dish at a Manhattan restaurant. Their curiosity grew, and Josh presented the idea of foraging to Melissa. Soon, the two were in Fairmount Park stumbling over rocks and deep into the woods in search of fungi.

Josh began stopping on his bike rides to photograph the mushrooms, and developed quite a collection of fungi photos over time. Blending her creative crocheting with an interest in biomimicry, Melissa was inspired to crochet made-to-scale mushrooms mimicking Josh’s photographs, which were then attached to found wood.

Melissa Maddonni Haims Cold Comfort 1Melissa had previously exhibited at the Schuylkill Center in 2012. Her work, Cold Comfort, involved crocheted yarn-bombed trees along the Widener Trail and main driveway, enlivening the brown and grey winter landscape.  At a visit to the Schuylkill Center in 2015 to discuss a possible biomimicry show, discussions with Director of Environmental Art, Christina Catanese wandered to the morel mushroom and her husband’s collection of mushroom photography, and the concept for The Foragers was born.

Melissa and Josh brought fungi life into the Schuylkill Center in the form of crocheted mushrooms and photographs in their joint exhibition in early 2016. Melissa’s crocheted tableaus were given a setting by Josh’s photographs, creating an overall feel of being immersed in a forest.

The artists chose to focus on local fungi for the show. “These are mushrooms that you could go outside here [at the Schuylkill Center] and anywhere in this area. Something that is amazing about mushrooms is just the sheer diversity of them,” Catanese said in a conversation. “I think what’s great about Melissa’s work is that it’s like these little windows into the forest floor that celebrate this diversity.”

SCEE4813In addition to their work being displayed in the gallery, Melissa tapped back into yarn bombing and expanded her work onto trees along trails at the Schuylkill Center. Visitors could discover 9 crocheted mushrooms on their travels, staged as they might be found along the trail and on trees. In addition to the show, Melissa held a mushroom crocheting workshop, inviting participants to explore the creative and earthly processes.

A show shedding light and celebrating the forest ecosystem, Melissa explained that, like mushrooms, The Foragers exhibit represented just the fruit of something with roots stretching back 20 years.

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How to Be Like the Glaciers Melting

Guest contributor Leslie Birch, 2014-2015 LandLab Resident Artist

A few years ago I sat at my computer reading the latest on the demise of the glaciers in the Arctic. I was angry with the polluting corporations, fed up with the greed of the oil industry, disgusted by people’s consumption, and alienated by a government ruled by lobbyists. I felt frozen, as if calamity had already happened; some days I was even bleak about the future. My home thermostat was set to 69, two of my computers were on, I was surrounded by electronic parts for a project and I was getting ready to drive to Whole Foods in a Honda Element wearing a puffy NorthFace jacket picturing a tall Chai Latte. Feel free to laugh, as I’m certainly laughing now as I write this. How long did it take me to figure out that I was the problem?

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Luckily for me a a few years ago I also discovered the Schuylkill Center’s LandLab program and started an investigation of a gully that had formed from stormwater runoff on the southeastern side of the Center’s property near Port Royal Ave. This water finds its way down to Wind Dance Pond, where it eventually overflows into the stream. With the help of Stroud Water Research Center I was able to develop a monitoring system to measure the changing depths of the stream. While this was an interesting project, what is pertinent is the fact that I was forced to face climate change head on. Philly is getting hotter and wetter, and while the Center can’t stop mother nature’s waters it can encourage artists like me to communicate the problem and get involved.

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After the project was over, the Center asked me to collaborate on two other art/education projects dealing with water issues, thanks to a grant from CUSP (Climate & Urban Systems Partnership). CUSP is working on preparing Philadelphia for the future issues brought by climate change and they work locally getting neighborhoods on board using friendly techniques. I decided to join their efforts and have become part of a team of organizations and individuals starting conversations, offering education and demonstrating mitigation techniques.Thanks to their workshops I’ve learned how to discuss this topic without scaring people, have discovered what other partner cities are doing to face the same issues and have attended lectures by experts in the field. I should mention that I don’t have a science background, but I do consider myself a citizen scientist. CUSP’s strength is its ability to bring all types of people together, and later in the year I worked with another member artist to create the first climate change art festival under their umbrella in Fishtown. It was exciting to create my own art on the topic of corn and weather, and fascinating to see how people expressed their climate concerns using mixed media, including spoken word and music. The Schuylkill Center’s fall 2016 exhibition on climate change was part of the same grant and has brought together even more artists and enabled more people to join the conversation.

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As you can see, what started as a small project has snowballed, and I find myself looking for other ways to combine my interests to work on the problems of climate change. One of my strengths is working with electronics, so I recently joined Public Lab, a grassroots movement using DIY techniques to address environmental concerns. I attended their LeafFest gathering, which was a weekend camping trip where members demonstrated their latest environmental work including solar balloons, an Arduino modem style device and a trail cam. I learned about a project they are developing which uses a houseplant and aquarium pump to help reduce toxins in the air. They sent me home with those materials and soon I’ll be creating a tutorial for the project that can be shared around the world. It’s all part of the mission to offer open source methods to monitor and mitigate environmental issues.

So, having come from a state of being frozen like a glacier, I too am melting. There are many small changes that can help this planet,and I’m starting to make them part of my life. Nowadays I’m walking to the grocery store with my husband. It’s great exercise, less stressful and certainly kinder to the environment. I recently learned just how important it is to give feedback to our government officials about environmental matters. So, I’ve returned to my old ways of calling legislators and writing emails. Now I’m learning how to combine art and activism through free webinars from The Center for Artistic Activism. Someday I hope to engage other groups and artists in work that goes beyond education and actually encourages others to make changes.

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My story isn’t “yea, me” because there is probably a lot more I can do to serve this world. However, it is a huge thank you to the Schuylkill Center for helping me to realize that by working on one small problem I would gather the courage to do more. There is a reason for the Center’s commitment to the arts and it goes beyond appreciation for beauty; it’s another strategy for voice and change. We all have the ability to do more, whether it be to add water-loving plants to our yard, to make a roof reflective, to buy our food locally or to just have a conversation about the environment with our neighbor. Doing one small thing makes all the difference. What kind of strategy or skill can you offer to help Philadelphia prepare for the changes that are already beginning?