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Terranean drama

By LandLab Resident Artist Jake Beckman

DSCN0333Spring is just around the corner and with its arrival comes the fragrant, earthy smells of thawing soil.  As my residency investigating the myriad aspects of soil formation at the Schuylkill Center enters its final phases, I ‘m finding myself reflecting on the terranean dramas that will begin unfolding in earnest as the temperatures rise.

The rock cliffs on the southern border of the property will shed their icy tentacles, exposing to sun and rain new fissures pried apart during the winter months.  After a long winter of freezing and thawing, boulders will have transitioned one tiny step closer to becoming rocks, rocks to becoming pebbles, pebbles to sand, and so on as the mechanical and chemical processes of weathering slowly and gradually make the minerals of solid rock accessible to plant and animal alike.  The mechanical weathering of the relatively soft mica schist so prevalent in the area will be particularly in evidence as its glittery particles catch the light in the rivulets of spring snowmelt.

DSCN0328Likewise, spring is a time for the beginning of a much different drama- one that involves the long-awaited fruiting of vast underground networks of fungal organisms.  These decomposers have been hard at work throughout the year digesting all manner of otherwise hard-to-digest soil components (cellulose, lignin, even rock!).  In one of nature’s amazing instances of cooperation, the fungi and nearby plant roots exchange their metabolic by-products in specialized structures call mycorrhizae.  This exchange provides fungi with sugars they need to continue growing and enter the next phase of their life-cycle: fruiting.  If we’re observant and in the right place at the right time, we can often witness this step in the cycle through the emergence of mushrooms, toadstools, bracket fungi, and the like.  Spring is the beginning of this phase for these organisms and is such an exciting time to bear witness to life re-emerging into view!

If you’ve never given much thought to soil (or even if you have and love all of its complexity!), please join us at the Schuylkill Center for a fun evening of soil related speakers, vendors, wine and dessert.  I’ll be speaking more about my residency project and the various sources of inspiration (artistic and otherwise) that have influenced my process.  Others speakers will flesh out the science of soil, fungal interaction and the role soil plays in food production.  It would be great to see you there.  In the meantime, go give a big welcome to spring and hug some dirt!

What does a photo of nature in the city look like?

By Anna Lehr Mueser, Public Relations Manager

As submissions come rolling in for our  “Nature in the City Photography Contest” this month, we wanted to share a few examples of what nature in the city means to our community.  From images of the traffic through the trees to wildlife in an urban forest, the images show all sorts of things.

Want to share some of your own?  Send us up to three photos!  All the details are here.

Hilary Fuelleborn, 2014 photo contest

2015 photo contest looks at nature in the city

By Anna Lehr Mueser, Public Relations Manager

This year we’re thinking about what the idea of “nature in the city” means.  We’ll be exploring what it means to find nature in urban environments, in human environments.  It could be a strip of weeds teeming with insect life, an urban geology nature walk, or a nature center located in the city; the concept of nature in the city means many things to many people.

In honor of this cold season, when snow drifts down on our city, bringing out beauty among trees and buildings alike, it’s time for our 2015 photography contest.

This winter take out your phones and cameras and show us what you think of nature in the city.

Update, March 3, 2015: In honor of the continuing cold winter weather, we’re extending the deadline until Friday, March 13.

Guidelines

The rules are simple:

  • The photo must have been taken this year
  • The photo must be taken in the Philadelphia area
  • The photo must be outdoors or feature the outdoors
  • The photo must be your own creation and its publication may not violate the rights of any third party
  • Photos must be submitted by 5pm on February 27.
  • Each person can submit up to 3 photos
  • Please tell us about your photos! You are welcome to include a statement of up to 30 words explaining your photos and how they relate to “nature in the city.”

Please note:

  • No explicit or offensive photos. The Schuylkill Center reserves the right to determine whether a photo is explicit or offensive.
  • By submitting a photo, you grant the Schuylkill Center non-exclusive rights to reproduce your image. You maintain copyright and you will be credited.
  • Winners will be chosen by a panel of Schuylkill Center staff.  Winners will receive a handmade stoneware 50th anniversary mug.

How to Submit a Photo:

  • Email your photo to me at anna@schuylkillcenter.org with the subject line “Photo Contest 2015”
  • Tweet your photo to @SchuylkillCtr, #natureinthecity
  • Post your photo on the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education Facebook page

We look forward to finding out what nature in the city means to you – submit a photo now!

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Wetlands and WetLand in the city

By Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art

Often, when I fly into Philadelphia International Airport, I imagine what a bird’s eye view of the area must have looked like back before Philadelphia became the bustling metropolis it is today.  If I squint just the right way, I can almost see how the flat expanse of skyscrapers and rowhomes transforms to green, how South Philly and even the airport itself melt into the freshwater tidal wetlands that were once in their place (the last remnant of which is still visible at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge). Continue reading

Leah Stein Dance Company – Of Grass and Gravel
Saturday, July 18th, 2009

Fifteen Years of Environmental Art at the Schuylkill Center

By Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art

In 2000, Mary Salvante had an idea that the Schuylkill Center could be the perfect place to showcase environmental art. Nearly 15 years later, I’ve been reflecting on the past decade-and-a-half of environmental art at the Schuylkill Center: 20 outdoor exhibitions, 11 artist residencies, and dozens of shows in our gallery. Over the years, artists have grappled with issues and wonders in our ecosystem and shared their responses in diverse media. This post shows just a smattering of highlights of the art program going back to our very first gallery show and first artist-in-residence.

This January, we are kicking off the Schuylkill Center’s 50th anniversary celebration and celebrating fifteen years of environmental art at the Schuylkill Center with our fourth Annual Richard L. James Lecture by artist Mary Mattingly. Along with an interdisciplinary panel, Mattingly will reflect on the role of environmental art in a changing environment. With ecological challenges growing in complexity and scope, 2015 presents the perfect opportunity to consider the relationship of art and environment, and what it might look like in the next 15 years, 50 years, and beyond.

LandLab Residency (2014-2015), Artists: Jake Beckman; Leslie Birch; WE THE WEEDS (a collaboration of artist Kaitlin Pomerantz and botanist Zya Levy); Marguerita Hagan, B.H. Mills, and Maggie Mills

LandLab is a unique artist residency program that integrates art, ecological restoration, and education. A joint project of the Schuylkill Center and the Center for Emerging Visual Artists (CFEVA), LandLab residencies will make innovative installations that prevent or remediate environmental damage while raising public awareness about ecology. LandLab artist Jake Beckman created this mind-map to depict his early conceptualizing of his work on the cycles of soil formation and decay in the forest. Continue reading

Leslie making StormSnake

#StormSnakes Update – Wriggling Through Change

By LandLab Resident Artist Leslie Birch

Water flowRight now I’ve been experiencing some interesting emotional connection to my LandLab project. This may seem odd, as my project is probably the most tech oriented of the bunch! I can only describe it as this feeling of letting go of attached ideas and really just observing and listening, both to nature and the people that know it well. That is different for me, because most of the time my projects are conceived ahead of time so they can be “pitched” to the people that may green-light them. The process for LandLab is very different because the Schuylkill Center is trusting from past work that I have the ability to produce something interesting. They are looking for ideas, but they are not holding you to them. In fact if anything, they are excited by process and evolution, and the show in the gallery really speaks to that idea. The staff at the Center has been really great in encouraging my work, and allowing it to unfold. It is no different from allowing seasons to change, and I’m really experiencing that in my whole body. That’s it for the fuzzy stuff — let’s get back to the science!

You may remember that I wanted to get a glimpse of Port Royale Ave. and the Center’s property in the rain. It has been difficult to do this because this fall the rain storms have been coming at night, which would not be the best time for video. However, there was a morning when it was raining, and I rushed out of the house to record. Check out the video.

Steve in the woodsAlthough this was not a heavy storm, at least I saw the puddling on Port Royal Ave., and I can imagine in a larger storm what the situation might be. In fact, seeing how difficult it is to actually record a storm makes the idea of a stream monitor even more valuable. So, I made a visit to Stroud to check out their monitoring equipment, as well as Steve’s workspace.  The property has nets for insects, buckets for leaves and other organic matter, and monitors for the stream — it’s a Disney World for scientists.

Steve's officeThe tech space is full of controllers, sensors, cables, cases, batteries and canisters of water. It was encouraging that I was able to identify some of the parts in the bins, and Steve and I probably could have spent even more hours than we did just talking shop.

 

After seeing what was needed, Steve helped me to order some parts. So, now I have a datalogger and an ultrasonic rangefinder at my house. The datalogger is the main board in the circuit which will give instructions and allow for data to be collected. The ultrasonic sensor will measure the water depth throughout the day. So far this is a cost-effective set-up and there may be some room for another sensor. Right now I’m favoring conductivity, which looks at metals in the water. However, the sensor has to be able to withstand freezing temperatures, and Steve is currently testing a new one to see if it will be accurate. So, we will see which sensor wins. Steve has been testing equipment like this for years and is an expert on sensors and conditions.

One of the frustrating things about the field is that a good part may be discontinued, which leads to more testing of new products. Also, just because the paperwork says a part will operate in a certain way under certain conditions does not always mean this is true. So, the process is never-ending.

Leslie and Brenna sewing StormSnakeThe next step in the process was to work on building a snake from burlap, and luckily I found someone interested in assisting me — Brenna Leary. Brenna recently graduated with a degree in environmental education and also has a love of plants. So, we’ve been having a lot of fun bouncing ideas back and forth. We spent an afternoon at the Center stuffing a casing of burlap with stones, wood chips, and coir. Then, we stitched the fabric shut and created the features of a tail, head and tongue with some tucks and scraps. It was a lot of fun and the resulting piece reminds me of the corn husk dolls I used to make as a child in Girl Scouts. They were featureless, but they had a beauty none-the-less, and so it is the same with the snake.Leslie making StormSnake

I started this post with this idea of change, and it may be apparent with electrical parts, but it is even more so with art. I first imagined my burlap StormSnakes to be painted with environmentally safe paint. However, someone reminded me that even natural things can react badly when put in touch with chemicals in stormwater run-off. So, you never know what kind of brew you are going to get running into the stream. I know there are all sorts of compromises we make daily, however, I didn’t want any risk in this, no matter how small. So, one day I was having lunch with another artist friend and we got into talking about the cool plant holders made of felt and other natural ways people deal with urban plantings. I suddenly remembered those crazy Chia Pets with the bad commercials. They were ceramic objects with a seed goop smeared onto them which would eventually sprout into odd topiaries. What an interesting idea to make snakes that had growing material on them. So, I talked to Melissa at the Center about the possibility of incorporating seeds or plugs onto my stuffed burlap snacks. She definitely had some recommendations and was excited since plants are her expertise. So, I hope to now perform a test in the greenhouse to see what emerges. Can I do stripes? Would I work with different plants and textures? I don’t know and I like that answer.

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Weaving Art into Nature

By Ezra Tischler, Public Relations and Environmental Art Intern

LandLab resident artists Kaitlin Pomerantz and Zya Levy, of WE THE WEEDS, have been busy collecting invasive plants like oriental bittersweet, mile-a-minute, wisteria, Japanese stiltgrass, and bush honeysuckle at the Schuylkill Center. These gathered vines are then woven together using hand-built looms, creating beautiful tapestries of varying color and texture. Be sure to check out their guest blog post detailing the process and progress of their botanical weaving project.

Zya, taking full advantage of her resident artist title, recently spent some time exploring the Schuylkill Center’s property. Her exploration resulted in some impromptu land art capturing the transitory nature of autumn. Dried grasses and fallen vines clumped together in mounds may not catch the eye of most meadow visitors. Zya, however, saw the mounds as an opportunity to create temporary nests. Here is a gallery of some of the nests, but they won’t last long and are certainly worth seeing in person:

Zya also met with visiting groups from Nature Preschool, inviting the children to try their hand at botanical weaving:

 

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Botanical Weaving with WE THE WEEDS

Weaving detailsBy LandLab Resident Artists Zya Levy and Kaitlin Pomerantz, WE THE WEEDS

For our Landlab Residency project, the process of its creation is of great importance. As we work towards the installation of a large-scale sculpture created from woven plant material in Spring 2015, we invite Schuylkill Center visitors to participate right now in creating the tapestry panels which will comprise it. In this way, the exploration of global plant migration, and the ecological and cultural roles of non-native plants, becomes a hands-on, engaging experience, with a cumulative, archival result. The following photos show some moments in the process– from the building and stringing of the looms, to their on-site installation, to actual weaving. The looms will be up all fall– we hope these photos encourage you to come up and try your hand at weaving with invasive vines!

Loom construction

With the help of Philadelphia Woodworks we built two large, free standing, cedar tapestry looms.

Setting up looms

For the warp, we are using colorful braided mason line. For the weft we are using invasive plants such as oriental bittersweet, mile-a-minute, Japanese honeysuckle, wisteria, Japanese stiltgrass and bush honeysuckle harvested from the Schuylkill Center.

5.1 - collecting materials

A group volunteers help remove invasives and collect materials.

5.3 - collecting materials

We process the material by cutting it into workable lengths and stripping off the leaves revealing the colors and textures of the plant material, the silvery-grey of the oriental bittersweet and the rusty brown of the mile-a-minute.

Weaving on loomsWeaving on looms 2

With the looms strung up and material collected we are ready to weave. Friends, volunteers and students pitch in!

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IMG_5634We contributed some process weavings, photos, and a vine installation to a beautiful show at  the Schuylkill Center called Progress & Process, and also included an indoor loom for this show. The show is up through December 13.

9.0 - invitation to join us!

The outdoor looms will be installed at  the Schuylkill Center through the end of November. Please come join us!

 

Do you think you can weave as fast as Zya?

Soil-Making in the forest_October 2014

Talking with Jake Beckman about LandLab

 By Guest Contributor Angel R. Graham

I had the pleasure of speaking with LandLab artist Jake Beckman over the telephone recently.  Jake explained that he is enjoying being a LandLab artist.  His LandLab experience allows him to engage himself more with the outdoors, he says, conning him more deeply to the land.

Science and art are really similar in a lot of ways.  You have to imagine the unknown.

A.G: What inspires your indoor/outdoor art pieces?
J.B: I think the thread that ties most of them together is an interest in how things work.  What are the processes that cause things to come into existence – things that we use, or part of our built environment, or things that we depend and rely on in society?  A lot of [my art] looks at materials and industrial ingredients.

A.G: Who inspires you artistically?
J.B: That’s a tough question.  I read a lot.  I am really interested in a wide range of things, popular science to scientific journals to sociological studies…I like work that engages in kind of a dialogue that is accessible.  [I like] public work that is playful but also has some sort of critical sense to it.  I like work that reaches beyond art and engages with people.

A.G: How did you connect with LandLab?
Jake explained that he received a fellowship through the Center for Emerging and Visual Artists (CFEVA).  Since they were aware of his science background, CFEVA let him know about the opportunity to work with LandLab.

J.B: I had been to the Center a couple of times before I ever even heard about LandLab.  I just enjoyed the grounds.  My wife and I had a garden plot [at the Center].

A.G: What does it mean to you to be a LandLab artist?

J.B: It’s wonderful to be outside, to be thinking about making work in an outdoor environment.  You know, I’m really hoping to honor this kind of spirit of engagement with the outdoors that I think the Center is trying to foster by making art that feels like it’s part of that dialogue and part of a process.  It is part of this ecosystem, bringing it to life in a different way.  I think it’s really been a wonderful change of perspective for me in thinking about my work and I’m really grateful for that.  When you make work that lives in this white box of a gallery, things sometimes feel a little claustrophobic.  This has been a nice experience to help to balance that and be engaged a little bit more.

A.G: What inspired your LandLab piece?
J.B: The whole overview of the project that I am working on and that I proposed is really based on my investigation into research about soil formation: the way that soils are so important for the ecology of any natural system.  They are really unique in a lot of ways.  They are not like normal ecosystems that we think of … because everything is happening at such a different scale and a different time period.  So you think of geological processes.  The project encompasses a lot of those ideas.  Two or three pieces that I am thinking of installing over the course of the fall, the winter, and into next spring really look at soil formation through these lenses of time-periods, if you will.  One of them is really going to look at the way stone dissolves over time and that is obviously going to be on a different time scale than the one I am making out of wood which will happen over the course of decades or less than that.

A.G: What is your definition of art?  What is art to you?
J.B: In some way, it is sort of philosophy made material…and you know art is many things to many different people.  What it means to me?  [laughs]  I don’t know; I think it’s play, it’s serious play.  I think some of it is convention and some of it people understand when you call something art, you are giving them license to think beyond what is it, what does it do, how does it work.  I think when you call something art, even though it is this nebulous term, it allows for some loosening of boundaries.  …It’s kind of frustrating but also freeing, and really fun, how many different disciplines I can borrow from… and then incorporate into [my art].

A.G: What you want people to take away from your work?
J.B: I guess I’m interested in drawing connections between things that we don’t necessarily connect.  In my life, I’m not really connected to the land in a way that I feel like I want to be.  I live in a city, in a place that is humming with activity, but it is a lot of human activity and a lot of infrastructure and I feel somewhat disconnected [from the land].  I don’t know that my work actually reconnects people or anything like that but I am hoping at some one point it’ll get to that stage where it forms those connections for other people as well as me.

A.G: How does your artwork connect to science?
J.B: Not as much as I would like.  I think that science is the process of asking questions, posing questions, and imagining ways to answer to them.  It is dealing with … mystery or exploring unknowns.  I think frequently my work strives to some small degree, to pose interesting questions and elicit that sense mystery and wonder that I think science has.  But I don’t think I’ve gotten there [laughs].  But I think science and art are really similar in a lot of ways.  You have to imagine the unknown.  You have to be really creative and come up with possible ideas; in science you then go on and test and [in] art you go on and make.

 

Angel Graham headshotAbout Angel R. Graham
Angel is currently a student at Mitchell College in New London, CT majoring in Environmental Studies with a minor in Communications.  After completing her undergrad studies, she wants to continue on to grad school where she plans to complete a Master’s degree in Public Health.  Angel hopes to become a public policy writer for the EPA or FDA.

Introducing #StormSnakes – A LandLab Project

Leslie BirchBy LandLab Resident Artist Leslie Birch

For my LandLab residency, I’m working on the issue of storm water run-off here at the Center.  Part of being a LandLab artist means working to re-mediate a problem using art, which is harder than just creating an installation that provides education.  My hope is not only to have an artistic intervention, but also a scientific device to measure the amount of storm water run-off. In the past month, I’ve been in conversation with Sean Duffy, Director of Facilities, and Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art, about how the run-off  from surrounding roads and neighborhoods impacts Wind Dance Pond, on the eastern side of the Center’s property.  I’ve also been reading about the work of Stroud Water Research Center, because they’ve been constructing inexpensive water monitoring equipment that may be useful for my project. With art and science in mind, I came up with an idea – Storm Snakes.

stormsnakesStorm Snakes is inspired by the sandbags often seen in flooding relief or construction sites.  For the art intervention, burlap bags will be stitched together to create giant snakes that can be positioned in certain areas to divert water.  The bags can be filled with natural materials like stones, wood chips, and cocoa matting.  The exterior of the bags can be decorated to look like real snakes found in our region, through natural dye or cut out pieces of organic cotton.  For the science part, a water monitoring device will be built and then mounted near the stream. It will use a sensor to detect changes in water depth and then relay the data back to a computer at the Center.  This would help the Center learn more about how much runoff reaches their pond.  The monitor can also be decorated to resemble a snake, so it is friendly looking and camouflaged with the environment.

When I shared my idea with Sean and Christina, I wasn’t really sure what to expect.  Their reactions were partly surprise, as the solution was more fun than traditional ones used in the field, but there was also excitement.  Sean explained that Storm Snakes would actually improve the soil.  Their wood chips will break down, increasing the fungal community – it’s what they feed on.  I may not know much about soil chemistry, but this tidbit about fungus quickly made me a Storm Snake advocate! Plus, having data about storm water run-off could help the Center obtain funding for future remediation projects. It seemed like a win-win – Storm Snakes was official.

Recently I secured Stroud Water Research Center as a partner, which is awesome!  They’re very interested in adding data about the Center’s stream to their database and in tackling another water monitoring set-up.  In this case, I’m looking for the monitor to be as inexpensive as possible, while yielding science-worthy data. I hope to help Stroud by documenting my build of the water monitoring system—a tutorial will enable other citizen scientists around the world to create stream monitoring systems.

Exploring the runoffHowever, before I build anything, I first have to do more investigation of the storm water run-off. So, I went back to the Center this week for a hike with Sean and Christina. Although I already knew about one channel that had formed from the run-off on the hill, Sean took me to another area that showed an even larger channel.  I’ve nick-named it the “Schuylkill Grand Canyon” as it was large enough to hold multiple people. Christina, who has a background in hydrology, was astounded by its size. Is the run-off still moving down this large channel? Is the smaller channel formed from this larger one? Where exactly is water entering from the road? These are the questions I have now, and my next step is to film a rain storm. So, stay tuned as my rain mystery continues.

Until next time,

Leslie Birch