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.

19.Hagan (51)

What’s the bbuzzz?

By LandLab Resident Artists Maggie Mills, B.H. Mills, and Marguerita Hagan

Colony Collapse Disorder
The LandLab installation by Marguerita Hagan, B.H. Mills, and Maggie Mills addresses colony collapse disorder and the devastating global loss of honeybees.  At present in the United States alone, 1/3 of the honeybee population has been lost to this disorder. These mini, mighty pollinators make every third bite of food we take possible.  Ironically, it is human behavior that is responsible for the honeybees’ catastrophic disappearance. Our installation provides a chemical free, native pollinator garden for the bee population on the grounds of the Schuylkill Center. We will be spreading the word about ways that we all can contribute to positive, sustainable, and mutually beneficial outcomes through education and community partnering in the coming months. Continue reading

Trail

First Day as a LandLab Resident

By LandLab Resident Artist Leslie Birch

MeLesI’m Leslie Birch, and I’m very curious about Philadelphia’s water. Last Thursday, I felt a bit nervous as I headed my car down the long driveway towards the Schuylkill Center. Having looked at records online for water quality in this watershed, I’ve seen mixed reports. We are located downstream from some heavy-duty coal and energy industries and also share our waters with many manufacturing industries. What hope can there be? Well, after meeting Sean Duffy, Director of Land and Facilities, I was assured there actually is a shining star – apparently the Center has some of the best water quality around because it is spring fed. Originally the land was made up of farms, and in those days you had to have a well to get your water, so this makes a lot of sense. Now, most people are connected to a community source of water through pipes, so the fact that the Center still has its original clean water source is good news.

WindDancePondThe tricky news is the issue of storm water runoff. Sean said that in the last six years, he’s never seen it so bad, and certainly this is a result of what’s going on with the climate. I don’t want to argue about what to call this global warming, but I do want to understand the resulting chaotic weather and natural disasters that are occurring.  Storm water runoff is one of those disasters. I’m sure some of you have seen this damage first hand at the shore with hurricane Sandy or even here in Philadelphia with the recent flooding. This year I had a friend who was preparing to evacuate as her garage became flooded. Many people’s cars were considered “totaled” after this recent storm, along with furniture and sentimental items. I’ve also assisted in flood preparation and clean-up at the historic Canoe Club on the Schuylkill. I’ve seen first-hand the marks left by the water level on the first floor ceiling of the building, as well as the inches of thick silt left behind by the storm. I’ve even seen injured birds and a displaced baby heron desperately looking for its mother. Recently I was reminded that even people’s pets are later found as victims of these storms. So, this rushing water is something we need to face.

PortRoyalSo, how does storm water run-off translate here at the Center? Sean was able to pinpoint the main areas of runoff on a map for me, and one of the major culprits is Port Royal Avenue.  Often, roads have stormdrains that funnel rainwater away underground to be discharged into a larger waterbody during a storm – you’ve probably seen them around cities or even your neighborhood.  But on Port Royal, there are no storm drains, and when it rains, the water still needs somewhere to go.

TrailInstead, where Port Royal borders the Schuylkill Center property, there is a curb cut – the lower burm is removed to allow the water to leave the road surface.  That moves the water straight off the road, leading it to travel above the ground’s surface down the hill towards Wind Dance Pond, causing erosion of the soils. You can see evidence of this in the picture.  The pond soon overflows and causes water to divert towards the stream. Before you know it, you’ve got damage to the stream bed and possible trail damage and downed trees. This is cause for concern and really where my journey as an artist begins.

As a LandLab Resident, my goal was first to question the quality of the water, but that has now changed to question the movement of the water, specifically what happens before and after it enters Wind Dance Pond. Some things to consider may be the change in the height of water in the pond, the speed of the flow of water, and even the path the water takes as it exits the pond.

To gather information, I’ll need to do more scouts with Sean to see other forms of damage on the trails. I’ll also have to start researching equipment used to monitor these changes in water and figure out a way to keep it tethered under tough conditions. Finally, I’ll need to determine a way to make this information visual in a way people can understand, especially children.

So, what can I do about the trickle that I see leading to the pond, knowing it has the potential to become a torrent or flood with each major rainstorm? I’m not sure yet, but I know my answer will include community. Water is a powerful agent, and it will take more than one to tame it.

 

About the Author:

Leslie Birch is a tech artist with a love of Arduino microcontrollers. She lives near the Schuylkill River in the Art Museum area and loves birding.   She also blogs at Geisha Teku.  She can be found on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.

We the weeds_detail

Meet the LandLab Resident Artists

By Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art

We are thrilled to announce the four resident artist projects for our new LandLab residency program.  Launching this spring, LandLab projects will create innovative, art-based installations that prevent or remediate environmental damage while raising public awareness about our local ecology.

LandLab is a unique artist residency program that operates on multiple platforms: artistic creation, ecological restoration, and education.  Our residency offers resources and space on the Schuylkill Center’s property for visual artists to engage audiences in the processes of ecological stewardship through scientific investigation and artistic creation.  We’re excited at SCEE to offer this opportunity for artists to work in this way in collaboration with the Center for Emerging Visual Artists.

Over the next year, the four artists will engage with ecological issues on our property and, in collaboration with scientists, develop creative solutions to these issues.  I, for one, can’t wait to see how their projects evolve. Continue reading

Collaboration As a Means, Not an End

By Amy Lipton, Curator and SCEE advisory panel member, 2012-2013

In my work with ecoartspace over the past 12 years focusing on ecological artists and their projects, the term collaboration has been frequently evoked. The intention behind much of this work is to restore, remediate or transform damaged landscapes and also to educate the public about specific environmental problems or challenges. Artists taking on this imperative seek to inspire modification of human behaviors that have negatively impacted the earth’s ecological systems. Their work embodies what German artist Joseph Beuys coined as “social sculpture” over 50 years ago to illustrate art’s potential to shape society and the environment.

Joseph Beuys planting 7,000 Oaks for Documenta 7 (1982)

Ecological art demands forms of collaboration that are still rare in studio art practice in 2013. Collaboration in visual art (as opposed to design and architecture as well as performance-based art) is antithetical and contradictory to the position of the lone, iconoclastic artist of modernist/20th century ideals. Art schools continue to train artists to work independently as solo agents, emphasizing preparation for the entrenched market system of gallery and museum exhibitions and the art fair circuit to produce name brands. Ecological artists work from a different mindset, one which mirrors natural systems. Collaboration is not only a worthy goal or desire, but also a necessity in order to further community-based/public/infrastructure projects and to learn from needed specialists in other disciplines including science and engineering. Often the goal of these projects is to function (this word confronts all notions of art as useless) as components in ecological systems, operating outside of art spheres altogether. In order to succeed with their projects ecological artists must take into account the needs of specific communities with all constituents of these communities – human and non-human. Collaboration (and by implication participation) is a current art world buzzword. Used in terms of relational aesthetics, social practice art, and community based art projects, the word risks losing all meaning as just another trend for the art world to absorb. However collaboration is difficult and not for all artists – nor should it be.

The collaborative process itself is intrinsic to the art making and the results of art interventions in ecological systems usually improve over time. Time itself is a key component. Meaningful dialogue and discussion towards a shared goal takes a long time. Ecological art projects can take several years of planning before implementation. Aside from the vision of the initial collaborative team and the work that went into achieving consensus, projects often require a lengthy permission process from bureaucratic government officials and agencies, business and private interests as well as community support, involvement and at best citizen participation. In recent years emerging artists have been addressing environmental issues and sustainability on a smaller, more immediate scale. This comes from a desire to create work in less time by doing more temporal public art works and bypassing the need for permits. These artists have developed ways of working that are performative and include direct engagement by the artist with the public.

A recently completed curatorial project of mine titled TRANSported has been exemplary in demonstrating this collaborative participatory process. Habitat for Artists, an evolving collective of eighteen artists (they were included in my 2009 Schuylkill Arts Center project Down to Earth: Artists Create Edible Landscapes) created a self-sustaining artists studio and shared space for discussion and engagement held for one month by the Hudson River in Battery Park City, NY. Changing on a daily basis, artists and partnering organizations worked both inside and outside of a shipping container – converted into art studio space. The container was powered by the use of solar roof panels and included a square foot roof garden. Exterior sides included a vertical green wall, rain barrel collection for water, attached hoop greenhouse for growing seedlings and a blackboard for drawing and changing communications. Over the course of 30 days the container became a hub for workshops, an ecological information and education center, after-school art space, artist in residence program – one huge interactive social sculpture.

Artists working inside the habitat
photo credit: Mario Mohan

Artists working inside the habitat (Pictured: Marion Wilson, Michael Asbill and Michele Hersh)
photo credit: Mario Mohan

The elements that went into making this collaborative project successful included:

1. The artists having a shared purpose over and beyond their individual expression.
2. A non-hierarchical decision making process with no specific leader.
3. Process over product- viewer engagement was the goal.
4. An interest in crossing disciplines and working with partners to learn.
5. A willingness to accept unpredictability and flexibility including limitations of weather and last minute changes in personnel.
6. Understanding that evolving daily changes to the space over time were a key component of the overall project.

The Habitat for Artists participants each contributed a different component, working within their unique methods and styles for the benefit of a larger shared art/ecosystem and demonstrating that collaboration is a means and not an end.

The collaborative approach to art-making that is inherent in ecological art calls into question some of the most basic premises of the contemporary art world and artists.  However, both the pressing ecological issues and the need for broad social co-operation in global society necessitate the shift to a collaborative sensibility.  Following on Beuys’ idea of social sculpture, art can point society in meaningful directions.

Amy Lipton, Curator and SCEE advisory panel member, 2012-2013

StacyLevy_SCEE_9

Making Room for Rain – Stacy Levy

The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education is working to investigate the intersection of nature and the city. The role of rain in the landscape is being actively explored in programs and planning around its buildings. As a nature center, SCEE is at the forefront of solving site issues through art based intervention. On May 31, 2013 a conference on New Environmental Art will be held at SCEE to look at ways that art and science can collaborate to solve ecological problems in urban nature, and enlighten citizens to find new solutions in their own lives.

Rain is usually given a long narrow space to inhabit: gutters, downspouts, underground pipes. People can walk practically anywhere in a building and on the surrounding landscape. What if this paradigm got turned on its head? Give people a more narrow path of movement around a site while rain gets plenty of space to spread out and linger? How would our built environments change? And how would it change our relationship to rain?As an eco-artist, I want art to be an advocate of rain. Art is good at giving meaning to the leftover or abandoned aspects of the world—and rain is one of those abandoned elements. Though a yardstick worth of rain falls every yearin this region, we hardly register rain’s presence. In urban settings, architecture and engineering have generally kept rain invisible to us. The relationship between rain and the built environment needs to be changed, and art is well positioned to alter that relationship.At SCEE, I am working with ecologists, engineers and educators to create an artwork that gives the rain room to spread out while keeping people in a defined space. But people do not lose out in this design— both rain and visitors get a dynamic space to co-exist.Rain Gardens create spaces that can get wet and stay wet while the water infiltrates into the soil.

Instead of becoming a muddy soup, the rain garden holds the rain within the permeable soil and the roots of a diverse community of native plants . These plants also make good habitat for other species like insects and food for birds and other small mammals.

This new artwork deals with two types of visitors to the site: rain and humans. A grated metal catwalk prevents the plants from being trampled while also keeping people’s feet dry. ‘Staying dry’ and ‘soaking in’ are two incongruent activities—one of the reasons that rain has no place to go in the built world is the hierarchy of the dry human foot!

We want to demonstrate ways to change rain’s journey in the built environment. We also want to give visitors a chance to test out the very materials of the city: the surfaces we spend our lives walking on like asphalt, concrete and grass. How do these materials work with or work against rain?

How this art works: Some of the rainwater will be diverted and stored in an above ground cistern. Then during dry days, our visitors can pump this contained water into 5 different troughs. Each trough contains a different familiar surface materials from the landscape: concrete, asphalt, gravel lawn and meadow. People can direct the rainwater onto these different surfaces to see how the water responds— by soaking in or running off.

At SCEE rainwater will be given both the time and the place to act the way rain should act. And people will be given a place to interact with the falling rain while staying out of its way as it soaks into the soil. The idea of rain needing a refuge is a new idea to most of us. We hope people learn about rain, and the surfaces it meets in our world. This piece gives people a new angle on rain and its relationship to our built environment.

The piece will be under construction over the early spring. Please come by and see it!

Want to know more about Rain Gardens?

The Philadelphia Water Department

The Rain Garden Network

The Groundwater Foundation

The Department of Environmental Conservation

Rain Garden Alliance

Want to see more of Stacy Levy’s work?

http://www.stacylevy.com/

‘Facts and Fables: Stories of the Natural World’ Art Exhibit Explores Our Experiences with Nature

Opening Reception: June 25th 4pm-7pm

“In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we have been taught. ” – Baba Dioum   

Stories normalize the strange and explain the confounding. Our relationship with the environment is in a state of constant flux, and as an environmental education center, we are always updating how and what we teach about the natural world.  As our ways of seeing the world develop, the stories we believe in evolve and expand. Our relationship to our stories is tenuous, however, since they can sometimes oversimplify the reality of nature’s complexities. Historically, we relied on scientific facts until they become obsolete, transforming themselves into fables. What was once believed without question now sounds laughable (the Earth as flat, the medicinal use of leeches, to name a few ). Regardless, we will always need stories because they help make sense of the world we inhabit.

This exhibition, “Facts and Fables: Stories of the Natural World,” asks important questions about the human experience of the environment: How do stories affect our understanding of nature? What is true nature and what is fabricated, and how can we tell the difference? Is our experience of nature limited by our ability to sense the world around us? 

“Mother Nature” by Chad Curtis

The seven artists in “Facts and Fables” use diverse methods to address such questions: memorials, guidebooks, faux landscapes, fairy tale crime scenes, live video feeds, visual perception tracking, distortion of scale, predictions and invitations. Some artists tell stories, while others examine the ways stories are created, or retell old stories to unearth new ideas. These artists combine out-dated methods with innovative technology, offering the viewer a range of experience and ways to interact with the natural world.

For example,  Chad Curtis incorporates green technology into his installation, “Mother Nature” (pictured), through the use of a solar-powered video camera that generates a 24/7 live stream, available online here: http://chaddcurtis.com/schuylkill/.

-Jenny Laden, Director of The Environmental Art Department at The Schuylkill Center

“Facts and Fables: Stories of the Natural World” (June 25- Oct. 29) is an environmentally-focused, large-scale outdoor installation exhibit featuring seven artists: Jeremy Beaudry, Brian Collier, Chad Curtis, Blane de St. Croix, David Dempewolf, Susan Hagen, and Jeanne Jaffe.
 
Please join us for the opening reception and an exclusive tour of the installations with the curator and artists on Saturday, June 25th 4pm-7pm.
215-482-7300 | scee@schuylkillcenter.org  | 8480 Hagy’s Mill Rd. Phila, PA 19128