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Does Art Belong in Nature?

ChangesAn exhibit in one forested Seattle park says, “Heck yeah.”

Nature has always been a subject of art, from ancient cave drawings to Monet’s lily pads. But what about art placed in nature? Increasingly these two powerful forces are coming together with stunning and/or thought-provoking results. The current exhibit “Heaven and Earth” at Seattle’s Carkeek Park exemplifies this phenomenon.

This is the second year the Seattle arts group COCA has organized the event, which runs through Sept. 26. Forests, meadows, a salmon stream, and ocean and mountain views provide backdrops for 13 pieces spread across this large park, which features 6 miles of trails.

While some might argue that natural areas should be left alone, many of the pieces raise awareness of environmental issues, and the show requires that every piece either naturally erode over time (some are made with salvaged  branches, for example) or leave little to no trace when they are removed.

Rungs“Heaven & Earth” organizer David Francis of COCA says Oregon and Washington “are booming with this renewed interest in outdoor sculpture in a natural setting.” He says about the first “Heaven and Earth” show last year, “I'd like to think our work in 2009 with a reluctant parks supervisor helped soften up Seattle parks department. It took some serious arm twisting because Carkeek Park was considered an 'urban forest', a world of nature where the display of art was not appropriate. We helped change that mindset. I'm hoping to get art in a state park next, then a national park.”

While a few of the pieces are visible from the parking lot; searching for others along wooded trails is like a treasure hunt with ocular spoils. At one trailhead, a rope-style ladder with porcelain rungs hangs from tree limbs like garland, extending over a babbling brook. The living backdrop becomes part of the art; and the art (“Rungs," above left) becomes part of nature as the wind jiggles it, animals scurry over it and the large cedar tree it hangs from sheds on it.

Steps away, another trail winds up a hill among ferns and cedars to a meadow, where three more sculptures await. Among them, “Orchard,” a cluster of tree forms made from salvaged branches and wood pallets, rises from the earth.

PerseusTheir creator, Seattle artist Julie Lindell says, “It’s an environmental message having to do with how we use our natural resources.” The salvaged pallets came from China and were used to ship headstones to the U.S. By putting these pallets back in the form of a tree, Lindell says, “They’re having another life in that meadow, and birds can land on them … that would be heaven for them.”

She says the ultimate goal of her work is to inspire others to use salvaged, rather than new, wood.

“Why not use wood that’s already been cut for your fence or furniture?" says Lindell. "There’s so much salvaged wood out there. I put a call out and I get a response with in an hour.” To get the branches and pallets for “Orchard,” she put up an ad on Craigslist.

Among the influences and inspirations for the exhibit, organizer Francis lists “Horsehead,” a sculpture show at another Seattle park, Magnuson, that ran, he says, from about 1988 to 1998. “There were no labels either, just baffling works of art.” He also references artwork from Burning Man and land art from the 1970s.

“Above all," he notes, "It's just fun to think about aesthetics and ethics and how our feelings about nature are deeply held and difficult to tease apart or open up.”

For those not in the Seattle area, Francis offered these ideas for viewing art in natural settings:
Storm King (Mountainville, NY)
Nasher Center (Dallas, Tex.)
Kendall Gardens at PepsiCo (Purchase, NY)
North Carolina Museum of Art (Raleigh, NC)

SignsAlso in Washington state:
Overgrowth and Understory Outdoor Sculpture Exhibition at Cougar Mountain Regional Wildlands Park (Issaquah, Wash.): Also sponsored by COCA, on display through Oct. 1.
Webster’s Woods Art Park (Port Angeles, Wash.)
MadArt in the Park at Cal Anderson Park (Seattle): Through Sept. 12.
Olympic Sculpture Park (Seattle)

What do you think of art in natural settings like wooded parks? Do you know of any other places to see it?

Photos, from top:
"Changes," by Julie Fisco.
"Rungs," by Sylwia Tur.
"Perseus," by Miguel Edwards.
"Signs" (Note: The exhibit incorporates "QR codes" that link to artists' statements; if you have a smartphone but don't have a QR reader, download a free app so you can scan the code with your phone).

Summary photo, and below: "Orchard," by Julie Lindell.

Posted on at 9:36 PM

Tagged: art, coca, heaven and earth, nature and seattle

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The art is nature itself. there is no need to add to the masterpieces that we live amongst. Take a trip into Grand Teton National Park in the Early part of Fall, just as the Aspens leaves are turning. You will find yourself in the foreground of one of earth's magnificent paintings.

Art certainly is in the eye of the beholder, but why mess with the perfection that we have already.

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