For years I had tried to put my ideas forward by building my own projects, exhibiting drawings in art galleries and museums, and lecturing at universities. Multi-million dollar commissions usually don't appear out of nowhere, yet Fair Park Lagoon illustrates both the complexity and the casual beginnings of many public art projects. In 1981, when I was first asked to redesign the lagoon, there was neither money nor community interest. Harry Parker, then Director of the Dallas Museum of Art, had seen my “Plant Drawings” in a New York art gallery. He reasoned that if I could produce a new design for the lagoon, the Dallas Museum could exhibit the drawings and raise the money. There was no program and no budget. He just said, “Do what you think needs to be done.”
On my first visit to Dallas it was clear that the lagoon was environmentally degraded. The shoreline was eroding, and the water was murky. The Parks Department had been fertilizing the lawn, and every time it rained fertilizer would wash into the lagoon, causing algal bloom. A green slime covered the water. There was no food chain; there were hardly any plants, animals, or fish. Basically the lagoon was dead.
People had no experience of the water, except that a number of children had fallen in and drowned. The lagoon had become a danger and an obstruction. A five-block body of water surrounded by museums, people had to walk all the way around it to get from one side to the other.
I began to develop my own list of concerns, which included creating a functioning ecosystem for a wide variety of plants and animals. I also wanted to control bank erosion, and create paths so that people could cut across the lagoon. I began to do research on what different animals eat, because I knew that the right plants would attract wildlife. The project evolved from many different perspectives at once. I knew that the structures had to not only solve a host of environmental problems, but also had to be acceptable to scientists, engineers and city planners.
Eventually I chose two native Texas plants as models for the sculpture. The Delta Duck-Potato (Sagittaria platyphylla) had a mass of twisted roots that I arranged to prevent water from eroding the shoreline, while spaces between the roots became microhabitats for plants, fish, turtles and birds. The roots were built as five-foot wide paths that people could walk out on, while thinner stems rose out of the water and became perches for birds. Leaves further out in the lagoon became islands where animals could rest. Other leaves along the shore became step-seating and overlooks.
The second sculpture at the opposite end of the lagoon was based on a Texas fern (Pteris multifida). The fern functions as a bridge — not a direct pathway over the water, but a network of crossovers, islands and stopping points. Individual leaflets are twisted to create the kinds of spaces I wanted, and the tip of the fern is a causeway surrounded by water lilies and irises. At one point I approached the staff of the Dallas Museum of Natural History with the idea of creating “living exhibits” in the lagoon itself, rather than having everything segregated in little glass cases. They were enthusiastic about the idea, and we began to work together.
A recent letter from Walter R. Davis, Assistant Director of the Dallas Museum of Natural History, describes the process. He writes, “The weeks following your arrival were exciting for the scientific staff of the museum. There were lengthy discussions of the water quality of the Lagoon and the missing links in its deteriorating food chain. The environmental needs of turtles, fish, birds, and a host of native aquatic plants were outlined. Years of field work in Texas now paid off, as lists were compiled of the localities where native aquatic plants could be collected and transplanted into the refurbished lagoon.”
The lagoon was planted with emergent vegetation that roots in shallow water and further out with floating plants. Along the shore we planted bulrushes and wild rice — tall grasses that provide shelter and food for small animals and birds. Just before the project was dedicated, flocks of wild birds arrived. Different species of fish were introduced into an environment that could nurture them.
Walter Davis continues, “Today the Lagoon teems with life. Those who understand the intricacies of a functioning ecosystem find particular satisfaction here. A kingfisher visiting for the first time in decades, signals that the water is clear enough for this master fisherman to spot minnows swimming beneath the surface. A pair of least bitterns, secretive inhabitants of the vegetative shoreline, moved in the first year and has built a nest and raised a family each of the past five years. Ducks and turtles sun themselves on emergent parts of the sculpture, safe from predatory dogs and cats and enthusiastic children. These plants and animals are not captives held for the enjoyment of human spectators. Most have chosen to live in the Lagoon because it provides food and shelter for themselves and their offspring.”
Creating a nurturing, living world doesn't mean it can't be a popular and entertaining place. People love Fair Park Lagoon. Children play alongside the insects, reptiles, birds and mammals that live there. Fair Park Lagoon is really a swamp — a raw functioning ecology that people are normally afraid of. The art project affords people access to this environment, so they find out how wonderful a swamp really is. It's popular, not because people are overwhelmed by my sculpture. They're discovering a marvelous new world.
© Patricia Johanson, ART AND SURVIVAL: CREATIVE SOLUTIONS TO ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS, Gallerie Publications, Vancouver, B.C., 1992