Congratulations to Herbert Bayer and the City of Kent for creating this beautiful park and visionary artwork! Earthworks at Mill Creek Canyon will surely continue to inspire generations of artists, engineers and citizens, and help us discover the value of integrating disparate elements into a reconnected world.
As an artist who has spent almost forty years trying to unify art and infrastructure with ecological nature and the public landscape, it is thrilling to find models that succeed beautifully. Over the years I have been drawn more and more to the idea of ecological aesthetics. Like Bayer’s Earthworks, a plant’s infrastructure (designed for reaching sunlight, obtaining water, and reproducing) does not make it any less “beautiful” simply because it is “functional.”
The challenge for all of us is to recreate nature’s ecological balance and harmony in the man-made world. By looking at how nature “functions” rather than simply how it “looks”, we seek design solutions that are as creative, functional and biologically productive as nature itself.
For over forty years Patricia Johanson has patiently insisted that art can help to heal the earth. For more than twenty years she has been creating large-scale projects that posit a radical, yet utterly practical vision. She works with engineers, city planners, scientists and citizens' groups to create her art as functioning infrastructure for modern cities.
Johanson's designs for sewers, parks, and other functional projects not only speak to deep human needs for beauty, culture, and historical memory. She also answers to the needs of birds, insects, fish, animals, and microorganisms. Her art reclaims degraded ecologies and creates conditions that permit endangered species to thrive in the middle of urban centers.... Using the structures of nature as a way of thinking, she reconciles delicacy with strength, generosity with power, and creativity with consequence.
- Caffyn Kelley, Preface to Art & Survival:
Patricia Johanson’s Environmental Projects
Patricia Johanson was born in 1940 in New York City. She grew up in Olmsted parks, and spent summers in the Catskill Mountains. At Bennington College in 1960, she began writing about designing the world as a work of art, and creating paintings where color and form was reduced to its simplest essence. Johanson's first exhibit, 8 Young Artists is considered the first exhibition of "Minimal Art.” During this time period she developed friendships with artists Helen Frankenthaler, Barnett Newman and Georgia O'Keeffe. Her work William Clark, which placed color and form in physical space, was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Kunsthalle, Zurich, Grand Palais, Paris, and Tate Gallery, London in 1967.
In 1968, Johanson created Stephen Long. Extending 1600 feet beyond the field of vision, its colors were transformed by natural light. At sunset the yellow stripe changed to orange, and blue became violet.
In 1969, she was commissioned to design "artist's gardens" for HOUSE AND GARDEN magazine. Johanson responded with 150 drawings that proposed sculptural solutions to environmental problems such as erosion, sedimentation, water conservation, flooding, sewage treatment, landfills, and habitat loss. These drawings contained the seeds for "functional," "public,” and "ecological" art, and she considers them to be among her most significant work.
Among Johanson’s best-known projects are Fair Park Lagoon, a Dallas flood basin, where sculpture encourages contact with ecological communities; Endangered Garden, San Francisco, a California State Park coinciding with the roof of a sewer; Ulsan Park, Korea, a 912-acre oasis within a dense industrial city that preserves both biological and cultural diversity; and Petaluma, California’s Water Recycling Facility, a wetlands park that transforms sewage into drinkable water.
Upon receiving the 2003 Arts and Healing Network Award, Johanson talked with AHN, about her project in Petaluma. “As a designer I have always been interested in creating a sense of the journey, as well as providing maximum opportunities for personal sensory experience. More than three miles of public trails (that trace the patterns of an endangered mouse) reveal the intricacies of the tidal cycle, ever-changing patterns of land and water, and the complex relationships between ecosystems. The most exciting part of this project is that the processing of human waste has stimulated so many opportunities for public and ecological benefit, from wildlife habitat restorations and school educational programs to tourism, recreation, and art."
When AHN asked, “What inspired you to make art in harmony with the earth? Johanson replied, “I think artists have always been inspired by the natural world – colors, forms, sunlight and shadows, intricate relationships, and ultimately the mystery – because so much of what we see is beyond our ability to comprehend. We seem to internalize our vision of nature in childhood, and for me a key image is the forest, with shafts of sunlight filtering down through the trees, and the overlapping patterns of the forest floor, with its profusion of miniature dwellings and lives. Another childhood image is the living communities that flourish in the cracks of sidewalks. When I began to make art, I found myself selecting, formalizing, and diminishing my experiences of nature in order to produce cultural artifacts. I also realized the aspects of nature that resonated so powerfully with me might not be the parts someone else would select. It was also clear that most monumental sculpture of the 1960's and 1970's, especially the "earthworks" projects, were extremely destructive of the earth. I finally thought, why interpret living nature if you can incorporate it intact? Why bulldoze living communities on the assumption you can create something more significant than what is already there? Why not allow the earth to live, and let different people fulfill their own needs within works of art that are as open-ended and complex as nature itself?”
The interview with AHN continued: “Can you say a little about your first environmental art project. When was it created? What did it involve? And what inspired it?”
“Cyrus Field, which runs for miles through the forest near my home, was built in 1970. It has always looked effortless and pastoral, but in fact the process of hand placing many tons of marble, redwood, and cement block in specific configurations without removing trees or damaging the environment was painstaking and arduous. The goal was to totally preserve the forest ecologies, while at the same time providing human access within an aesthetic framework. As the linear sculpture unfolds, it traverses a multitude of living communities, revealing patterns of art and nature that are interwoven and mutually enhancing. Cyrus Field and the forest have co-evolved for more than thirty years, and this has served as the model for most of my later public work, such as Fair Park Lagoon in Dallas, which also celebrates the commingling of art and life.”
When asked about advice for other artists seeking to use their creativity as a catalyst for positive change in the world, Patricia replied: "Doing significant work is its own reward. Keep your goals high, your personal needs at a minimum, and never compromise your ideals. There are many paths to the same place, most of them circuitous and arduous, so it is important to keep moving and not get discouraged. Should you meet a rattlesnake, don't think you can change it into a bunny rabbit. You need to learn to love it and work with it. Never believe that money is the solution. It is your ability as a creative person to envision positive change that will make a difference. Even if nobody is interested in your ideas you can still write and draw. I consider the small drawings I made in the 1960's linking art and ecology to waterways, highways, and cities my most important work. You'll also need luck and blessings, which seem to come with doing good work.”
1. Sculpted Flood Plain, 8 1/2" x 11", pencil and colored pencil on paper, 1969
2. Stephen Long, 1968
3. Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility, Petaluma, California: facility under construction, August 2006
4. Morning Glory Pools, 2004. Acrylic, ink and colored pencil, 8-3/4" x 11.” Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility, Petaluma, California
5. Johanson at Cyrus Field, 1970