I first became personally aware of Herbert Bayer in the mid-1980s when I had the good fortune to be invited to participate as a fellow in an Executive Seminar at the Aspen Institute in Colorado. I was the token artist among corporate executives and my “job” at the session was to, well, be me. As an artist, I was expected to bring a different point of view to the discussions. My role was to cross boundaries and participate fully.
I soon learned that Herbert Bayer had designed the Aspen Institute’s buildings and grounds. And while these were completed long before his Mill Creek Canyon Earthwork, they were created well into a varied and distinguished career as an artist, photographer, graphic designer, architect, and landscape designer. As a member of the Bauhaus along with Walter Gropius and others, he subscribed to the point of view that boundaries between art forms were to be crossed, that the conventional distinctions between “fine” and “applied” arts should be disregarded and, finally, that the values of simplicity in form and functionality should be embraced. There could not have been a better role model for my personal assignment that week.
Herbert Bayer’s designs of the Aspen Institute’s modernist buildings contrasted with the town’s Victorian architecture, and the sinuous landscape of manmade earth forms were subtle and sensuous relative to the dramatic Maroon Bells of the Rocky Mountains that loom large above the town. Nevertheless, Bayer’s designs complemented this complex environment and seemed just the right context in which to hold far reaching discussions at the Institute whose mission is "fostering enlightened leadership, the appreciation of timeless ideas and values, and open-minded dialogue on contemporary issues."
At that time, I understood that Bayer’s landscape designs were both beautiful and functional. Later, upon experiencing the Mill Creek Canyon Earthwork, I gained an even deeper appreciation for its formal design qualities and its remarkable function in environmental remediation and storm water management. Experiencing the power of landforms as sculpture illustrated well the idea that art could play a central role in our civic environment and could stimulate discourse about issues of social concern. Bayer demonstrated that art could both encourage conversation and address these very topics through “walking the talk.” This work stood as an example of art that demonstrates principles through its form.
A few years later, I had my first opportunity to create a land-based artwork, remarkably, in Kent, Washington, only a mile or so from Bayer’s. What became In the Grove at Morrill Meadows Park began as an overgrown grove of hazelnut trees in a former family fruit farm that was to become a city park. With Bayer’s work as inspiration, I contemplated what I could do to preserve this landscape. As I walked through the underbrush and saw these trees, my mission became to save them from demolition. I spent the better part of a year thinking about the grove and what I could do. Ultimately, I decided that the best approach was a minimal one that would draw attention to the trees themselves and the remarkably mysterious remnant of an earlier time when Kent was largely agricultural.
A few years later, I had another opportunity to create land-based work. This time, it was two traffic roundabouts in Olympia, Washington, as part of the Olympia Gateway Corridor. Again, I reflected on Bayer’s work. These pieces would become shaped earthworks, drawing upon mound forms, using native plants and indigenous materials, wherever possible. My intention was to contribute to storm water retention on-site through use of plant materials rather than hardscape, and to emphasize their context through using these earthworks to frame views.
Overtime, I have become increasingly focused on collaborating with designers of different disciplines as well as with engineers and scientists. It is through the crossing of boundaries that dialogue and discovery are encouraged. Consequently, the work benefits from a rich mix of ideas and points of view–often from sources least expected.
At the same time, as I approach each opportunity through the lens of its context, my work has become less and less rooted to a particular discipline, material, or expression. I believe this is the legacy of Bayer and others like him, such as Robert Irwin or Christo, who embrace these ideas of site-generated responses in making work. Bayer demonstrated fearlessness in terms of crossing disciplines and experimenting with materials. Like Noguchi, his expressions span the distance of intimacy to grandeur. Bayer went beyond these others, however, in creating work that is both responsive to the context and responsible to the environment. His practice and his product continue to inspire.
Ellen Sollod is an artist who expresses herself through diverse media, selected in response to the conceptual idea and the environment. She creates intimate works for an audience of one, and large-scale, site-specific public art. In the realm of public art, her interest is divining the essence of a place and its context. Sollod’s desire is that viewers experience the work differently with each encounter and that they are drawn into the work in an intimate way.
Ellen Sollod’s work is included in such collections as the Washington State Arts Commission, Harborview Medical Center, Seattle, WA, City of Portland, OR, Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, San Jose, CA City of Olympia, WA. New York Public Library, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Microsoft Corporation, University of Washington Suzzallo Library, MOMA Franklin Furnace Archive. She lives in Seattle, Washington.
1. In the Grove, 2000. Materials: granite, hazelnut trees, crushed granite. Commissioned by the City of Kent, in collaboration with Hough Beck and Baird Landscape Architects.
2. From the Laws of Man to the Laws of Nature, 2004. Materials: stone, plant material. Commissioned by the City of Olympia, Department of Parks, Arts and Recreation, Public Art Program, in collaboration with H2L2; TYLin; Robert Droll, Landscape Architect.