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Arts / Entertainment

Earthworks changing landscapes

July 20, 2009

Some artists aren't satisfied working on canvas or watercolor pads - nothing less than the earth itself will do as a medium of expression.

Art shows fragility of the planet

Such art, known as land art or earthworks, began appearing in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the United States. Artwork, intended to be permanent or temporary, isn’t merely placed in the landscape but created out of an intimate knowledge of that landscape. The movement worked in part as a counterpoint to notions of the artificiality and commercial control of art – and more recently, as a way to show the fragility of the planet.

“This engagement with the land is helping to increase awareness of the environment and to return us to more of a caretaking role of the landscape,” says Ellie Moseman, assistant professor of art history. Many land-art strategies used early in the movement now are being reconceived and re-formed by contemporary artists who are concerned about issues such as climate change, she adds.

(Photo above:  Student artwork that was designed to respond to natural or manipulated outside environments that was placed in an outdoor alcove at the Visual Arts Building.)

Raise awareness of climate change through art

“Climate change is not something that just a few people are thinking about. It has become a central question not only for scientists, historians, economists, and ecologists but also artists who are trying to raise awareness of climate change through art,” Moseman says. Art forms that speak to a wide range of important ecological issues include installations, photography, performance work, and traditional painting.

At a two-day campus symposium on climate change in February, Fort Collins environmental artist Lynne Hull discussed the work of more than two dozen artists such as Mel Chin, whose “Revival Field” (photo at right) used plants to absorb toxic metals from a 60-square-foot section at the Pig’s Eye Landfill in Minnesota.

Chin, who was the art department’s Visiting Artist-in-Residence at CSU this spring, collaborated with USDA research scientist Rufus Chaney to research and install the ecological restoration project in the early 1990s. The project helped launch the nation’s phytoremediation industry, a method that seeks natural ways to clean up toxic waste.

Largescale art parks around the globe

Another environmental art pioneer, Betsy Damon, is known for creating largescale art parks that feature water sculptures and public art events to help clean urban waterways and raise water awareness around the globe. She launched a nonprofit organization, Keepers of the Waters, in 1990 to provide information and technical support for others working with similar design principles and processes.

“I want to see thousands of people working with communities to reclaim their waters, the essential sustaining element of life,” Damon said in Art Journal.

“Land art has become an important way to call attention to the ways people use or abuse the land and to highlight our dysfunctional relationship with nature,” Moseman says. “It’s an art form that’s helping society return to a heightened awareness of what surrounds us.”

by Paul Miller and Kimberly Sorensen

Originally published in Colorado State Magazine, Spring 2009.