An Interview with Patricia Johanson
"It is your ability as a creative
Congratulations to Patricia Johanson, recipient of the 2003 Arts and Healing Network award! Since 1968, Patricia has been creating works that honor nature and the earth, applying her skills as an artist toward solving environmental issues such as sewage treatment and balancing ecosystems. Patricia is a master of weaving together art with science, people with the environment, and practical solutions with visual beauty. The Arts and Healing Network applauds the impressive scale of her work, her innovative solutions, and her immense vision.
Earlier this year, Patricia Johanson was interviewed by Danny Hobson, Director of the Arts and Healing Network.
What inspired you to make art in harmony with the earth?
I think artists have always been inspired by the natural world — colors, forms, sunlight and shadows, intricate relationships, and ultimately the mystery — because so much of what we see is beyond our ability to comprehend. We seem to internalize our vision of nature in childhood, and for me a key image is the forest, with shafts of sunlight filtering down through the trees, and the overlapping patterns of the forest floor, with its profusion of miniature dwellings and lives. Another childhood image is the living communities that flourish in the cracks of sidewalks. When I began to make art, I found myself selecting, formalizing, and diminishing my experiences of nature in order to produce cultural artifacts.I also realized the aspects of nature that resonated so powerfully with me might not be the parts someone else would select. It was also clear that most monumental sculpture of the 1960's and 1970's, especially the "earthworks" projects, were extremely destructive of the earth. I finally thought,why interpret living nature if you can incorporate it intact? Why bulldoze living communities on the assumption you can create something more significant than what is already there? Why not allow the earth to live, and let different people fulfill their own needs within works of art that are as open-ended and complex as nature itself?
Can you say a little about your first environmental art project. When was it created? What did it involve? And what inspired it?
Cyrus Field, which runs for miles through the forest near my home, was built in 1970. It has always looked effortless and pastoral, but in fact the process of hand placing many tons of marble, redwood, and cement block in specific configurations without removing trees or damaging the environment was painstaking and arduous. The goal was to totally preserve the forest ecologies, while at the same time providing human access within an aesthetic framework. As the linear sculpture unfolds, it traverses a multitude of living communities, revealing patterns of art and nature that are interwoven and mutually enhancing. Cyrus Field and the forest have co- evolved for more than thirty years, and this has served as the model for most of my later public work, such as Fair Park Lagoon in Dallas, which also celebrates the commingling of art and life.
Can you tell me a little about the process of getting access to work on such large scale projects as the 912-acre park in South Korea? And how you mange a project of such enormous scope?
The Koreans knew about my park projects in Dallas and San Francisco, which combined sculpture, infrastructure (such as bridges and sewers), and functioning ecological communities within an urban context. In 1996 I was invited to Korea, along with major urban designers from Australia, Canada, Sweden, Germany, and The Netherlands, to participate in a visioning process for Ulsan Park. We had been given a great deal of site information, technical research, and the park program and goals prior to arrival, so we were well prepared to formulate our approach to the project. The sponsors were clearly ambitious, desiring to make Ulsan Park the most major ecological park of the 21st century, but what they had at this point was a tepid version of an Olmsted design.
Initially each person presented past work, we were given an extensive tour of the site, and we met the corporate donors, Yukong, Ltd. Then we were each asked to create a schematic plan for the park. I knew it was important to use the pattern of mountains and valleys to frame the public spaces, and reconnect the flow of disrupted water, the life force of the site. But the psychological key to my design was to restore living ecological communities that would sustain the beloved plant and animal guardians of Korean mythology, thus establishing resonance between local visible landscape and inner beliefs. My initial plan for Ulsan Park scattered manifestations of the dragon throughout the site, unifying trails with waterways, microhabitats, and park infrastructure.
After the presentation I was asked to remain in Korea to work on the design for the park. I was then able to detail ecological playgrounds teaching children about water, forests, and agriculture; native habitat interwoven with public facilities; and a Dragon Trail of linked gardens along the crest of the mountains. While it is true that this is an enormous project, the grand, unifying vision of the dragon is composed of numerous smaller parts. Like all my previous designs, human needs are coordinated with those of the living world, and then formulated as art.
In 1989 you were diagnosed with cancer. How did this effect your creative process as an artist?
I had to stop working and devote all my time to a medical regimen that wasn't offering much hope. Eventually I knew I was going to have to channel my creativity into trying to stay alive, and envision my own solution. My greatest concern was for my children, but I knew that the patterns and processes already established in their lives would determine their fate. I began to wonder if it would be possible to produce art that could also continue creatively along its own path.
My first project, as I began to recover, was a little monograph called Art and Survival: Creative Solutions to Environmental Problems (1992). It was a summation of my ideas and projects up to that point, because we weren't sure if there would be any more work. Later that year I was invited to design a project for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the "Earth Summit") and traveled to Brazil. By this time I felt fearless and invincible and ready to speak to global issues such as deforestation and water pollution. My subsequent designs, Park for the Amazon Rainforest and Nairobi River Park, offer not only sculptural structures whose primary purpose is to cleanse water and ensure the survival of species, but also related economic and social programs.
What are you at work on now? What excites you right now creatively?
I'm currently working with Carollo Engineers on a new water recycling facility for the city of Petaluma, California. The project has now expanded beyond the original oxidation ponds, treatment wetlands, and polishing ponds (landscapes that process sewage) to incorporate a 270-acre Petaluma Wetlands Park. Part of my role is to place the treatment plant within the larger context of the Petaluma River watershed. I've tried to model my design on earlier inhabitants of the site, the Coast Miwok, who seemed able to mesh human constructs with the larger patterns and purposes of nature. The park will contain a mosaic of life-supporting ecosystems: mudflats, tidal marsh restoration (for ducks and Clapper Rail), constructed and seasonal wetlands (for birds, pond turtles, and amphibians), a restored riparian corridor (Steelhead trout), standing agricultural crops and upland habitats (food and shelter for resident and migratory birds).
As a designer I have always been interested in creating a sense of the journey, as well as providing maximum opportunities for personal sensory experience. More than three miles of public trails (that trace the patterns of a native butterfly) will reveal the intricacies of the tidal cycle, ever-changing patterns of land and water, and the complex relationships between ecosystems. The most exciting part of this project is that the processing of human waste has stimulated so many opportunities for public and ecological benefit, from wildlife habitat restorations and school educational programs to tourism, recreation, and art.
You have been making such powerful work for so many years. What has sustained you in your practice as an artist....creatively, emotionally, financially?
As a child I grew up in urban parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, places filled with treasures such as insects, squirrels, and trees. My sense of wonder at the simplicity, complexity, elegance and significance of nature has never ceased, and it is clearly an inexhaustible textbook and source. At a certain point, I realized I could make a difference in people's lives (as Olmsted had made a difference in mine) and also support wildlife and biological diversity by creating urban ecological landscapes. I've also been driven by the idea that all art can be life supporting, and large infrastructure projects should be reconnected to ecological nature and the public landscape.
I don't think an artist's work should ever be linked to financial sustenance. You need to proceed with or without financial support. Nevertheless I am deeply grateful to both the Guggenheim and Gottlieb Foundations for grants that had a major impact on my life and career.
What advice would you offer other artists seeking to use their creativity as a catalyst for postive change in the world?
Doing significant work is its own reward. Keep your goals high, your personal needs at a minimum, and never compromise your ideals. There are many paths to the same place, most of them circuitous and arduous, so it is important to keep moving and not get discouraged. Should you meet a rattlesnake, don't think you can change it into a bunny rabbit. You need to learn to love it and work with it. Never believe that money is the solution. It is your ability as a creative person to envision positive change that will make a difference.Even if nobody is interested in your ideas you can still write and draw. I consider the small drawings I made in the 1960's linking art and ecology to waterways, highways, and cities my most important work. You'll also need luck and blessings, which seem to come with doing good work.
To learn more about Patricia and her work,
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