State of the Environmental Art

While the natural world has always served as inspiration for art, there is now a growing movement of artists using nature not only as inspiration, but as the materials for the art itself. Ecological or environmental art uses branches, stones, and other materials local to the area to create sculptures that aim to improve the viewer’s understanding of the natural world. Not only are these pieces interesting to look at, but an important aspect of many ecological art installations is that they actually help restore their natural surroundings.

Restorative environmental art installations require an understanding of the area and the issues that need to be addressed. In fact, artists often team up with scientists to develop ecological art projects. One such project was recently unveiled along the Carson River at River Fork Ranch. The River Fork Ranch watershed sculpture is part of the Nature of Art series, a collaborative project between the Nature Conservancy, the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art, and artists Daniel McCormick and Mary O’Brien. The project involves building outdoor sculptures that support restoration efforts at two Conservancy preserves in Nevada.

The watershed sculpture at the River Fork Ranch consists of a 350-foot serpentine wall constructed of woven branches and willow saplings, running along the Carson River. Historical activities intended to prevent flooding, including dredging and straightening of the river, dried out the area along the river and caused damage to the surrounding wetland habitat. The sculpture will help efforts to restore the wetlands by slowing waters that flow through the area and allowing them to replenish the dried-out water table.1

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the sculpture is that it will become a living part of its environment over time. The willow saplings will grow and serve to prevent erosion and filter out pollutants in the watershed before they reach the river. The woven branches will create a thicket that will provide habitat for animals and allow plants to grow in and around it. As McCormick explains, the sculptures are "intended to give advantage to the natural system, and after a period of time, as the restoration process is established, the artist’s presence shall no longer be felt." 2

Not only can ecological art benefit its natural surroundings, but it is also a great way to get visitors engaged in environmental efforts. Prominently placed art can bring a level of awareness to issues that signage might not be able to accomplish on its own. As NPS landscape architect Charles Tracy was quoted as saying, "I am continually discovering how environmental art can capture public attention and animate the goals of community projects." 3

If you’re interested in learning more about ecological art, check the links below for some inspiration. Keep in mind you are required to speak with your concessions specialist before incorporating any ecological art concepts into your operation’s initiatives.