Restoring the land through environmental art – Knight Foundation

Restoring the land through environmental art

Above: Native Pollinator Garden – Marguerita Hagan, B.H. Mills and Magie Mills. Photo credit: John Woodin.  

Putting the words “art” and “environment” together may conjure images of flower photography, landscape paintings, or Audubon’s famous illustrations.  But in the Schuylkill Center’s environmental art program (the only such program in Philadelphia and the most ambitious at a nature center nationwide), we widen our lens to work with the most cutting-edge indoor and outdoor contemporary visual artists who are engaging with the complex environmental issues and ecological topics of our time.

At the Schuylkill Center, managing our forests presents seemingly insurmountable obstacles: invasive species, deer that overgraze the forest, erosion from increasingly large storms and the myriad impacts of climate change.  But these challenges present an opportunity to develop creative approaches that produce novel outcomes.  LandLab, a new artist residency at the Schuylkill Center funded by Knight Foundation, represents a new frontier in environmental art and land stewardship, asking artists to explore creative ways to respond to these pressing problems, and involve people in the solutions.

For LandLab artists, the center’s fields and forests serve as both studio and laboratory to grapple with how art can address ecological issues.  The residencies unfolded over a full year, allowing artists to see the site over all seasons, try out ideas, collaborate with scientists and our staff, and see how natural processes respond to their work.    

Though their residencies technically ended in April, it will be months, even years, before we fully know the impact of these installations.  Already they have begun to transform their environments, and in turn be transformed by them. 

WE THE WEEDS harvested and wove with invasive vines, and installed them in a vine-infested meadow at the Schuylkill Center.  Already the living vines have begun to consume their tapestried counterparts, just as the artists imagined. 

Above: WE THE WEEDS, Interwoven, Photo credit: John Woodin 

Jake Beckman constructed a wooden sculpture containing the seeds of its own undoing. Inoculated with mushroom spores, it will give rise to fungal blooms and slowly will be reabsorbed back into the environment, enriching soil health.  So far, white turkey tails, iridescent mycorrhizal filaments and fuzzy green mold have begun to grow.

Above: Jake Beckman, Future Non-Object #1: Sol’s Reprise. Photo credit: Christina Catanese.

B. H. Mills, Maggie Mills and Marguerita Hagan constructed a native pollinator garden to provide food and habitat for native pollinators.  In its second growing season, the garden is incredibly lush – currently hyssop and bee balm stretch taller than me – and has proved popular with insects of many kinds, and even hummingbirds.

And Leslie Birch’s #StormSnakes, a playful take on water bars, have been doing their job stopping and slowing runoff in areas of our property that experience erosion, while the stream monitor she helped install collects data about the impact of storm water on streams.

These truly living installations will remain on site for the long term, allowing us to monitor and observe how time and nature act on them.  I invite you to explore these art works that are also systems, and keep coming back. I guarantee things will be different every time you visit.  And please share your photos and observations with us to help document the constant change.

Christina Catanese directs the Schuylkill Center’s environmental art program, and can be reached at [email protected].  The Center’s website is