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.

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.

Meandering with Stacy Levy at Swarthmore

By Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art

Waterways (1)

I recently got to attend a lecture at Swarthmore College’s List Gallery given by Stacy Levy, one of the most exciting environmental artists working today.  Titled “Constructing Nature: What Art Reveals,” Levy’s talk (video here) touched on her approach to environmental art, some of her past pieces (including one we’re lucky to have onsite here at the Schuylkill Center), and two new pieces that were unveiled that night at Swarthmore. Continue reading

Beyond the Surface

On May 31, 2013 The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education presented Beyond the Surface: Environmental Art in Action – A conference of ideas and innovative thinking about the relationships between art and nature.

This unique, first time conference brought over 100 professionals from the region and beyond (as far as Maine and North Carolina) to hear from the Advisory Team about their own individual practices, and then to join them in conversations.  Below are each team members’ presentations, for those of you who wish to hear from them directly.

The afternoon sessions were  titled “Activate,” Integrate” and “Engage.” Undoubtedly, this one-day conference has sparked ideas and ways forward to attendees from the cultural and environmental communities. We look forward to continuing the conversations.

Below, are each advisory team member’s morning presentations. Each were asked to speak on the work they do, have done, and speak to the issues pertaining to ecological art.

Lillian Ball

on how she became an ecological artist, focusing on water.

http://www.lillianball.com/

Sam Bower

on things that changed his life: Andy Goldsworthy, Deborah Small, Art as part of a system.

Stacy Levy

on a new kind of art, her own work, and the importance of collaboration and approaches, how artists make nature more visible.

http://www.stacylevy.com/

Amy Lipton

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9lVQlC_14w

(we  are having technical issues here, but please click on link above to watch this video)

see more about Amy Lipton’s work with ecoartspace

Eve Mosher

on participation, interruption and interaction in her work. Watch her have the audience reflect on their first encounters with nature. See her nine concepts about her practice.

http://www.evemosher.com/

Frances Whitehead

on her work in sustainability, her practice: personal, pedagogical and professional.

 

This conference was made possible by the generous support of the Pew Center for Arts And Heritage Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative and The National Endowment for the Arts.

 

Land Lab Program

Stacy Levy, Kept Out, 2009

We are very excited to announce our new residency program, The LandLab Program.

As a collaboration between The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education (SCEE) and The Center for Emerging Visual Artists (CFEVA), The Landlab program invites professional artists to create projects which operate on the multiple platforms of artistic creation, ecological restoration and education. Specifically, four paid residencies of $3,000 each, taking place from April – October 2014, will grant selected artists resources and space on SCEE’s 340-acre property to engage audiences in the processes of ecological stewardship through scientific investigation and artistic creation. Our residency provides large outdoor spaces and limited indoor workspace, but does not provide living spaces. Artists will be expected to provide their own housing. Having a vehicle is recommended.

LandLab projects will result in innovative, art-based installations that prevent or remediate environmental damage conditions while raising public awareness about our local ecology.

LandLab seeks artists engaged in environmental exploration and discovery, who work well collaboratively across disciplines, have a working understanding and/or awareness of the ecology of Eastern Pennsylvania region, and are committed to deepening public awareness of environmental issues through their artistic practice. LandLab projects will prioritize time spent on site and a process of investigation.

The Schuylkill Center creates connections between people and nature by using our forests and fields as a living laboratory. The Center for Emerging Visual Artists provides career development services for professional visual artists, helps artists reach their audiences, and promotes interest in and understanding of the visual arts among citizens of the Philadelphia region. Together and through this first program of its kind in Philadelphia, we invite all professional visual artists who fit these criteria and are able to work on-site at SCEE for the summer of 2014 to apply before October 15, 2013.

For more information & to apply online, please visit www.CFEVA.slideroom.com

LandLab is supported by The Knight Foundation

 

Time Frames

by Sam Bower 2013


Standing in the woods near the pond at the Schuylkill Center, we can look out and see a range of time scales. The brown and golden leaves under our feet from the Fall- the leftovers of a year’s work by the trees above us. Perhaps there’s snow still on the ground from a recent storm, itself the result of the vast cycles of evaporation off the ground and from lakes and oceans into the atmosphere and clouds and back down again. Some of the trees around us are decades, maybe hundreds of years old. Frogs and fish and insects hidden underground or inside vegetation, birds in their nests chirping and flitting about, grasses, flowers each have their lifespans and carefully timed cycles to support, prey on or evade each other – evolved over thousands, even millions of years.


Changing urban land use patterns offer opportunities for shifts in paradigm, innovation and art: (http://www.takebackthetract.com/)

When we think of culture and public art, we have an opportunity to think along similar time scales. Humans also have their cycles of productivity, lifespans and fleeting passions. These interests also evolve over time to reflect our knowledge, context and the resources at hand.

Sometimes an artwork arrives with a bang and loud trumpets and just as quickly fades into the day or week or month only to live on in memory and documentation. Like sighting a rare Blue-winged Warbler in the forest, or waking up to an overnight dusting of snow that makes the line of every tree suddenly visible, or the miracle of a drop of dew on a leaf in the Summer that reflects a world upside down, these brief events delight and remind us of the preciousness of the present moment. Some things are simply best communicated ephemerally. A song. A performance. A rain shadow.

On the medium scale, we have most plants and animals and planted crops and, alas, most human projects. We tend to think in terms of months or years or at best decades. A hundred years without regular maintenance is long for a built structure, long for most outdoor sculptures, too, even those meant to be “permanent”. It’s the lifespan of an exhibition, a person, a raven, a grove of Sassafrass (albidum) and it serves to ground us in the familiar. We can see it and know it because it’s us. Within a century, with the strategic accumulation of such medium scale projects, we can make major improvements or changes to a place and set things in motion that can last a lot longer.

It’s the larger time frame that gets the least attention and is often more difficult to wrap our heads around. The scope of generations. Climate change. Geological time. Too often, these big shifts elude us. We claim not to know. A sudden revolution or a storm or an accident can thwart the best laid plans. Ultimately, we know that a focus on the specific is often too limiting a scale for something long lived and significant.

At the Schuylkill Center, the increasing flow of voracious and unmanaged deer over and across the land, and the invasive Asian earthworms (Amythas hilgendorfi and agrestis) under it, are regional and even continental challenges. To encourage specific changes here, we would need to plan and coordinate with those working within much larger areas to be effective. To set in motion a resilient set of processes that truly begin to nudge us and the natural areas under our trust towards a future that can address a world in flux is an enormous challenge. At a time of massive species extinction and global changes in climate, we need a flexible and directed multi-timescale approach to culture and ecological stewardship.

The environmental art advisory team at the Schuylkill Center in 2012.

This is the challenge ahead for the Schuylkill Center. Most art, even ecological art is a flash in the pan, a tasty snack. They generate attractive catalogs and press releases and perhaps valuable discussion, but will the worms and watersheds really notice? We have large institutions for pickling great paintings and sculptures, but outdoor work designed to heal the earth and support our communities is a different animal. While a project can have representative images and installations at these museums (usually as part of a temporary exhibition), the real work gets done on the ground and in context.

Like in an ecosystem, we need the dew drops and temporary projects to delight and attract. We also require specific medium term artful initiatives to control erosion, channel rainwater, educate people longer term and connect current and future generations to the land. It falls to the long term, multi-generational projects, however, to provide a long term vision that considers the implications and resilience needed to cope with, say, a 2-6 degree rise in global temperatures over the next few hundred years. It seems we’d want to look at rising water levels – how would this affect the Schuylkill River? What local conditions will we need to ensure maximum biodiversity and habitat support for migrating species seeking more favorable habitats?

In nature, we can see the extraordinary interplay of finely tuned life cycles working together to support the system as a whole. As these delicately synchronized dances grow increasingly out of synch with pollution, temperature and weather changes, what we know and have studied over the past hundreds of years will require new interpretation. It will become less about restoration of past conditions and more about our capacity to surf these changes. Our notion of what art is will also need to change.

For ecological art to be effective, we will need to think along multiple time scales and beyond the individual artwork, towards a future-oriented cultural system as a whole. How can the brief delightful moments support the larger arc of history? Can we begin to layer and combine artworks to support each other, much like the shift from unicellular to multi-cellular life? I’m looking forward to the role the Schuylkill Center can play in this civilizational shift. It is a precious opportunity to contribute to our times and help develop new cultural patterns for generations to come.

©Sam Bower 2013

 

Making Room for Rain

By 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

©2012 Stacy Levy

Effective Art

By Lillian Ball

There is an innovative category of artist that confirms the many ways art can do more than mirror the state of our culture, or current events. These artists are committed to working in ways that actually change how the world works in addition to the ways we might perceive the world.

The diverse art projects I am fascinated with cover a wide range of disciplines. Social practice or public interaction is often a vital component. These international artists are doing more than merely talking about “relational aesthetics”. Ecological systems are inherently relational with great potential for embedded aesthetics. Financial and economic crises, sustainability and green infrastructure, bioremediation and native habitat restoration: all can be subjects of this reflective approach.

Some projects are activist in form, but others may just be creatively subversive – employing whatever tactics go beyond getting the point across, all the way to actually making a difference. Artistic personalities can be resourceful in unique ways because artists are taught to think outside the box. Adversity trains them to be capable of negotiating transformative paths. This work is not necessarily political, but often involves alternative structures, cross-disciplinary methods, and the applied sciences. Public officials may be supportive, or in opposition, but the work certainly provokes a response.

Several international artists present solutions to environmental and land use challenges in a variety of formats. Project manifestations range from studio art, to performance, to depictions of permanent public installations. The artwork itself is visual, poetic, and ambiguous, not didactic in nature. We can be inspired, and intelligently seduced into action, without being bombarded by post-apocalyptic visions.

Links below are examples of projects that hinge on the artist’s individual commitment to public interaction:

Fernando Garcia Dory organizes Shepherds events that maintain farming culture and prevent development in the mountains of his native Spain.

 

 

Reverend Billy/Church of Stop Shopping deposited “murdered mountain mud” at 20 Chase Manhattan branches informing customers about the bank’s mountaintop removal financing.

 

 

 

Betsy Damon creates interventions with Tibetan communities to save sacred water sources.

Mathias Kessler & scientist Dr. Wendelin Weingartner, use software interfaces to verbally announce plant stress symptoms.

Certainly not “art for art’s sake”, Effective Art derives inspiration from outside the art discourse. This work stretches what art is capable of doing, beyond green-washing contemporary culture or complaints about art’s marginalization. As Gustave Speth, a founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council and former Dean at Yale School of Environmental Studies says “we need all the help we can get”. This work of these artists examines successful tactics that use art as a critical weapon in the fight against environmental destruction.

©Lillian Ball 2013