Art and Design

From Gully to Gallery: Restoration Art in Berkeley

January 25, 2011

It’s all about the materials.

That was my impression after previewing a new exhibit featuring the work of ecological artist Daniel McCormick. Methods and Materials: Ecological Art in Practice opens January 27 at the Hazel Wolf Gallery in the David Brower Center in Berkeley.

The pieces are bold, textural, and definitely organic. Towering columns created from recycled coconut shells and bound with biodegradable netting march along one wall. Sheaves of maroon willow twigs cinched with twine grace another. A curving cane lattice filled with fibrous material swoops across a third. These are the materials that McCormick uses to create his “perma-sculptures,” structures he places on hillsides and creek banks to slow the rush of run-off from degraded agricultural lands and paved-over urban areas.

Photo by Juliet Grable.

The show is a first for both the artist and the curators. He designed each piece specifically for the exhibit, taking into consideration the challenges of hanging them on a wall rather than staking them into a stream bank.

The sketches and photographs that accompany the sculptures illuminate his methodology in the field. In one photograph, a structure resembling a prehistoric reptile spans a creek in Olema Valley. The “creature” is really a basket of woven sycamore canes filled with a fibrous material that acts as a silt dam. Nearly all of McCormick’s sculptures aim to trap fine sediments in the upper watershed, keeping them out of the streams where coho salmon and steelhead lay their eggs.

McCormick often stakes his structures with willow and dogwood canes that eventually take root. The resulting network of roots traps nutrients and reinforces the structure, which gradually loses shape and softens into the surrounding landscape. Similarly, he can stabilize an entire hillside with his coconut hull columns (and create an arresting design in the process), but, unlike the plastic netting often used in erosion control, after three or four years the material simply decomposes.

McCormick, who has worked all over the country, says he considers Marin County home base. He has installed many of his structures in remote streambeds in agricultural and ranchlands “from Point Reyes Station to Bolinas,” but lately his work has moved into the realm of true public art and can be found in highly accessible parks in dense urban areas.

For McCormick, who holds a degree in architecture from UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design, the convergence of art, architecture, environmental design, and ecological restoration came naturally.

“I’m not too interested in object-making,” he says, and admits that his work challenges the traditional art venue. Instead, his work is site-specific and community-oriented, and depends on fostering relationships. Ideally, people in the community should not just want the work but also help create it.

McCormick often recruits kids for his projects. He’s worked with the children of ranchers in the Olema Valley, high schoolers in Charlotte, North Carolina, and teenagers from the Conservation Corps North Bay.

Although his use of organic materials and the transitory nature of his work calls to mind Andy Goldsworthy, McCormick is drawn to the kind of art that goes beyond aesthetic appeal. And that goes beyond simply witnessing or documenting.

“I’m looking for artists and designers that are solving the problem.”

“I’m looking for artists and designers that are solving the problem,” he says.

Amy Tobin, the David Brower Center’s executive director, says she hopes people will leave the gallery pondering what they might do to effect change. McCormick’s work — with its relevance to agriculture, wildlife, urban development, citizen science, and public art — encourages that kind of deeper engagement.

Another goal of the rotating exhibits, which have included photographers Sebastiao Salgado and David Maisel, is to explore the intersection between art and activism. There’s an inherent tension between the artist and activist communities, says Tobin. “The activists say ‘what’s the point?’ The artists say, ‘it’s too explicit, or it’s not beautiful enough.’ I like that we’re pushing that kind of dialogue.”

McCormick willingly straddles that line. “What I’m doing is probably not going to make much of a physical difference in the environment. What will make a difference is the cultural change–the paradigm shift–that can occur by giving aesthetic weight to science.” And he sees that happening all over the country, from ranchlands in Marin to urban parks in North Carolina.

McCormick’s exhibit runs through May 11, 2011, and will kick off with an opening reception and artist’s talk on Thursday, January 27, from 6 to 8 p.m.

About the Author

Juliet Grable is a freelance writer with one foot in southern Oregon and another on a sailboat in Sausalito.

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