"The creation of this art moves away from an anthropocentric view of nature. That’s exciting to me because it represents a cultural paradigm shift."
Arts & Healing Network is delighted to present one of the 2012 AHN Awards to environmental artist Daniel McCormick. We are deeply impressed and inspired by his watershed sculptures – innovative works of beauty that grow and change and heal the earth. We applaud his immense talent and creative spirit.
You could learn more about Daniel McCormick’s work on his web site at www.watershedsculpture.com. We also highly recommend this video about Daniel’s work produced by KQED’s program, SPARK, which you could view by clicking here.
Below is an interview with Daniel McCormick from June 2012 with Arts & Healing Network’s Director, Mary Daniel Hobson.
Mary Daniel Hobson: Tell me a little about your background – how did you get started in the arts? And when did you begin to combine art making with environmental reparation work?
Daniel McCormick: I am an interdisciplinary artist/design professional with integrated skills in the fields of environmental design, sculptural installation and ecological restoration. I received my degree from the College of Environmental Design at the University of California, Berkeley in 1980. I was also educated at the College of Creative Studies at the University of California, in Santa Barbara where I studied with James Turrell, who influenced my belief that sculpture can be more than an object, and that art can go beyond attractiveness to direct attention to, and precipitate change.
Coming of age in the 1970’s influenced many of my life choices. I witnessed the changes made by legislation that helped clean our air and water and preserve endangered species. I became personally empowered by national political movements I didn’t completely understand until I began making art. Even though I have lived my entire life in an urbanized setting, I chose to make art in a way that reflected my affection for the land and natural systems. This affection eventually turned into an understanding of restoration, of watersheds, of habitats and of the importance and power an artist can have in interacting with these elements and bringing attention to restoration activities and science.
Mary Daniel: Could you share the story of a recent project, and its impact on the environment?
Daniel: Recently in Charlotte, North Carolina, I created a work designed to mitigate large amounts of surface soil erosion in an urban park. An increase in stormwater runoff created by expanded housing adjacent to this site had ripped the topsoil from the site for years and deposited it into a creek. The site had also experienced explosive growth of exotic flora and invasive woody plant species. Technically, this was an intact section of Piedmont Bottomland Forest, one of the rarest of natural communities in North Carolina, and my challenge was to help restore this rare habitat. The initial workcreating a series of sculptures to divert the erosion from the creek, raised the water table on the site enough to allow a native sedge grass to return. This was a welcomed surprise. Other sculptures were built to eradicate the invasive non-native plants. These projects worked together to bring this little forest closer to its original state. Now, the natural scientists involved were getting excited because the site was beginning to resemble the habitat most favored by Barred Owls, which is not common in urban areas anymore. When the project was finished, the erosion was under control and less sediment deposited in the creek, but there were signs of another mating pair of owls taking residence in the forest.
Mary Daniel: How do you approach an area where you are going to do your work – what is your creative process like?
Daniel: Much of the work I do is about remediation, but it is also about habitats. In the beginning of any project, I spend a short period of time thinking about a site in terms of what has been done to its habitat, and also what could be. The real work gets started though, after I talk to different people involved with a site, mostly natural scientists, but community informs me as well. I look for ecological opportunities and manageable problems that can be solved with the resource I have at hand.
Mary Daniel: I was particularly inspired by the KQED Spark program, and wondered how are those sculptures doing today and how are the salmon in that watershed?
Daniel: Over the last twelve years the watershed sculptures at Pt. Reyes National Seashore have lost their identity as handmade objects. What remains is a healthier habitat for spawning salmon in a tributary of Olema Creek. The sculptures contributed to a reduction in sediment loading and, at the same time, the robust vegetation needed near the creek to keep the spawning grounds viable. It has always been my intention that, as the restoration qualities of my installations are established, the artist presence becomes less and less apparent. As far as the salmon and how they are doing? Salmon have struggled for centuries and many factors are involved. Will we ever reach a balance between the effects of cultural activities and conservation efforts? I would like to think so. Like many of my contemporaries, I grew up knowing that Bay Area streams were healthy enough to support fish, and I hope that we can lay claim to that again someday.
Mary Daniel: I also loved in the KQED program seeing the collaborative connection between you and someone in the park service. How do you get permission to implement your sculptures there? Could you talk about the role of collaboration in creating your work?
Daniel: Doing this work I collaborate with many different people on a different levels - other artists, community members, supporting organizations and informed professionals that help me get my ideas into reality. I make sure that they see my involvement as bringing them something of value. Besides my main collaborator and partner, the artist Mary O’Brien, I collaborate with professionals in the fields of environmental design -hydrologists, field biologists, botanists, landscape architects and ecological conservationists. I design and manage the fabrication and installation of restorative art projects on public lands in urban and rural areas. This process is a challenge. Integration and cooperation of diverse stakeholders is essentialgovernment bodies, private landowners, concerned citizens, regulatory agencies and funding organizations, are all players in this watershed experience. Permissions and access to public lands such as the GGNRA take time. I am lucky that earlier projects were successful in many ways. That helps when you want to return to a site year after year.
Mary Daniel: Do you believe art making can be a catalyst for healing and positive change and if so, how?
Daniel: I think art making has always been a catalyst for healing and wellbeing. It can take us to another world, and if you can bring others along that’s good too. There is a certain amount of responsibility that goes into healing and certain risk-taking as well.
Mary Daniel: What excites you most about your work right now?
Daniel: The creation of this art moves away from an anthropocentric view of nature. That’s exciting to me because it represents a cultural paradigm shift. Acknowledging the anthropocene allows us to move toward more holistic thinking about our planet. Many thoughtful individuals from different fields of inquiry are exploring this point of view. In another context, the participation in this work by others in the community not only reveals, but it brings to the viewer's awareness the issues on which I focus, and makes them perceptible, visible and measurable.
Mary Daniel: What advice do you have for other artists who would like to use their creativity to help heal the environment?
Daniel: Intervene rather than observe and document. There’s so much environmental art occurring right now, and a lot of opportunities. But if you’re into healing, it seems to me one must take on the role of an interventionist.
Mary Daniel: And what advice would you offer another artist who was seeking to fund creative healing work?
Daniel: Put your creative talents to good use when it comes to funding sources. I don’t rely solely on art funding sources to get my projects completed. Some of my successful projects came together with a little bit of funding from a lot of different sources, including my own personal funds. Commit to your projects and others will come along.
Mary Daniel: Is there anything else you would like to share?
Daniel: I am honored, humbled and thrilled to receive this award. It is this kind of recognition that helps make it possible for this work to continue. I consider myself in wonderful company with other Arts & Healing Network award winners. Thank you for such a privilege.
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