Environmental art: Nature, enhanced

Defining environmental art is nearly as difficult as defining art itself.  Each of us knows art when we see it, but that means it’s something different to each viewer. Tacking “environmental” onto “art” makes it even messier.

From our earliest human settlements, people have chosen to interact with the earth through works of art on many scales: the ancient pyramids of Egypt, whose asymmetrical alignment is precisely oriented to the cardinal points, Stonehenge’s stone circles of mystery and the prehistoric Great Serpent Mound landform atop a plateau in southern Ohio. 

A Photo Gallery

Take a look at environmental art from the Charlotte area and around the country.

“Environmental art,” is a catch-all term encompassing different types of art-environment fusion. It’s most associated with a movement in the 1960s and 1970s when a group of artists did what artists do, from the impressionists to the cubists to the modernists – they shook off the constraints of traditional art and birthed a new genre.

Land art

Early environmental artists didn’t want to represent the land, they wanted to use it as a medium. This group is widely known for its land art, as seen in earthwork sculptures or giant designs cut into crops.  Perhaps the most well-known work is Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty on the Great Salt Lake in Utah (watch a neat time-lapse video here). Smithson built the jetty to appear and disappear as the lake rises and falls.

Architect Maya Lin has also been influential with environmental art, including the well-known 2009 Storm King Wavefield in upstate New York.She has said visits to the Giant Serpent Mound in Ohio inspired her as a child. Topo, an early work of Lin’s, was built at the now-demolished Charlotte Coliseum on Tyvola Road, where spherical Burford holly trees were transplanted into a 1,600-foot median, creating an imaginary, giant-sized game. The work was demolished in 2008.

Environmental art

For most people, environmental art is how they’d characterize art in a natural, outdoor setting: artists creating forms from natural materials, often found on site. Many are ephemeral, changing with time and succumbing to the forces of nature that buffet all landscapes.

Chapel Hill-based Patrick Dougherty is a world-renowned artist who works extensively with sculptures made from saplings. He grew up in the woodlands of North Carolina, which deeply affected his choice of materials. The overgrown forests and small trees of his childhood were a tangle of intersecting natural lines. “Picking up a stick and bending it seems to give me big ideas,” Dougherty says. “I associate tree branches and saplings with childhood play and the shelters built by animals.”

In describing his art, Dougherty says, “I had to rediscover what birds already knew: Sticks have an infuriating tendency to entangle with each other. It is this simple tangle that holds my work together.”

Dougherty has received commissions all over the world, including several in the Carolinas. Constructed in front of the Performing Art Center in downtown Rock Hill, his Ain't Misbehavin’ features five oversized heads woven with a theatrical stare. “Shaun Cassidy's sculpture class from Winthrop College worked day-in and day-out to gather saplings and help with weaving,” Dougherty remembers. “Towards the end, a passing group of tuba players gave an impromptu serenade, and the folks from Rock Hill gave a wave and laughed.”

Ecological art

The term used most often today is “eco-art,” which stresses the ecological interdependence of living things and their environment. Contemporary eco-art often intends to use art to physically transform a local ecology, ultimately benefiting the Earth.

This has been the goal of environmental artists Daniel McCormick and collaborator Mary O’Brien, whose unconventional canvas has been the intersection of science, art, nature and function. McCormick and O’Brien are co-directors of the environmental artist-in-residence program at the McColl Center for Visual Art. The program uses art, science, education and community engagement to have a positive impact on the Charlotte region. Projects have included stormwater management, erosion control and the removal of invasive species in places in the lower Piedmont.

“We work with art in a biological way to repair and preserve the environment. This means leaning away from an anthropocentric view of nature,” said O’Brien. “We feel that it is important that our artwork works with the environment, and is not just resting on it.” (See video of McCormick and O’Brien at work in Charlotte here.)

Their work also emphasizes engaging the community. “We look at urban runoff as an opportunity to slow water using sculptural works that filter and spread it out, which then recharges underground aquifers,” said McCormick.  “Urban runoff, tree canopy and habitat restoration in urban conditions are things that cities need to operate.”

In 2009, they created Watershed Sculpture, a stormwater filtering device disguised as a long, snake-like work in Freedom Park.  It filters polluted runoff from upstream development as it passes through its “organic dam,” cleaning it before the water rushes into Little Sugar Creek. “The idea is that the object is linked with and becomes a part of the environment,” McCormick said. As the restoration happens, the artists’ work becomes less and less prominent, they say.

“What we had hoped, and what we found, is that this process put in play many other things,” O’Brien said. “Now we have a native sedge grass coming back that hasn’t been seen here in a while. We have a mating pair of bard owls.”

In conjunction with the McColl Center and consultant Emma Littlejohn, the duo helped develop a master plan for environmental art for Charlotte’s new Brightwalk community. Brightwalk is a redeveloped brownfield in the South Druid Hills neighborhood, rising where the old Double Oaks low-income apartments once stood.  (Read more about Brightwalk here.)

Environmental art can be a way for an increasingly urbanized society to reconnect with the natural world. “Most people no longer have grandparents to visit on the farm, and this loss of agrarian roots has left us with a sense of loss and a growing nostalgia for things natural,” artist Patrick Dougherty says.  “It seems the public has a more intense interest in environmental issues, and somehow this also translates into more intense feelings about things like sculptures made from sticks.”