Designing Living Sculpture: an interview with environmental artists Daniel McCormick and Mary O’Brien

Daniel McCormick and Mary O’Brien Sculpture

Mississippi River Delta installation. Photo by Mary O’Brien, Watershed Sculpture. Image courtesy of the artists.

Daniel McCormick and Mary O’Brien create living sculptures, responding to complex environmental systems like watersheds and riparian lands, their work is produced from natural materials that not only match the aesthetics, but the ecological patterns of the location. While the beauty of their works are readily apparent— simultaneously standing out and fitting within the aesthetics of their site in a literal weave of saplings, grasses, and wood— the process by which the art is designed for the space is only visible in the natural harmony of the installation. So I interviewed McCormick and O’Brien over email, in order to gain a better understanding of their process over time, both prior and after installation.

(The interview has been edited for length.)

How have the Truckee River sculptures evolved, now a year on from installation?

The 4 works on the Truckee and Carson Rivers are evolving as we expected.  We designed them to withstand at least another year of drought as most of us in the West anticipated.  We were pleased that this year turned out to be a “light” El Nino year, which has brought water to the deserts (and many of our other West Coast installation sites). The two partners that engaged us on these projects— The Nature Conservancy and the Nevada Museum of Art— are planning a one year celebration of the work honoring the volunteers that helped build them.  They have commissioned us for an additional work that will be presented during that celebration, so in many ways the work continues to grow knitting together parts of the ecosystem and the community.

Daniel McCormick and Mary O’Brien Sculpture

Truckee River installation. Photo by Mary O’Brien, Watershed Sculpture. Image courtesy of the artists.

How did the functionality of the work affect your sense of aesthetics in the piece?

The work relies on the joining of science and art. As artists who work on the land, we make a distinction between optimistic thinking and successful creative planning. We do a great amount of research before we start any project. Of course this involves walking the land both alone and with individuals that can tell us about the site. This could be a site steward, conservationist, fluvial geomorphologist, ornithologist, biologist, and the landowner. Our research involves both physical and social geography and history. We consider the community and their relationship to the site. We consider the site in terms of social and political aspects of the site and its surrounds. We study maps and historic and contemporary literature about the site. All these considerations come into play as we approach a project. From this research comes the kernels of the aesthetics, the functionality, and the process of how we will approach and build the work. All three of these factors—aesthetic, functionality and process—are brought together into our design scheme. The aesthetics and functionality have to both balance and support each other through the entire creation of the piece. But the process is just as important to getting the piece built.

Daniel McCormick and Mary O’Brien Sculpture

Truckee River installation. Photo by Mary O’Brien, Watershed Sculpture. Image courtesy of the artists.

All our works share a common element as vehicles for physical transformation. We are not concerned that our works “last” as recognizable iterations of the initial installation. The decomposition of the work is part of the art and we don’t consider our work complete until that happens, usually in a few years. In some projects it takes a decade or so. The works lose their identities as hand-made objects, and that is part of our aesthetics, because simultaneously they reinforce the recovery action. There is an aesthetic in something that is providing the foundation for ecological change. We consider the action of our projects as positive actions. We believe they contribute to a larger human effort of balancing the ecological loss we have inherited and the loss we inevitably are passing on to the next generation.

How do different ecosystems affect your artistic approach?

Each of the ecosystems we work presents its own unique benefits and challenges, however we approach each from the viewpoint of the larger environmental picture. Our designs are based on science and engineering principles. We work closely with fluvial geomorphologists, ornithologists and the like and rely on their data.

Daniel McCormick and Mary O’Brien Sculpture

Truckee River installation. Photo by Mary O’Brien, Watershed Sculpture. Image courtesy of the artists.

For the work in the Gulf Coast we used the approach we use with all of our installations—research (before and after visiting the site), meeting with representatives of the conservation community, as well as the residents of the area. Due to political and logistical factors unique to New Orleans, our design concepts went through several iterations, but that is not uncommon with our projects. We use the same approach in each of the different ecosystems we work in…research, consulting with the experts about that site or issue, site visits, design sessions to develop more than one approach, and then a proof-of-concept stage where we weigh several factors—installation logistics, volunteers available, time needed for completion, seasonal weather conditions during installation, climate factors (such as flooding or desert conditions), pollution and other human-caused factors, monetary constraints, and litigious limitations.

Daniel McCormick and Mary O’Brien Sculpture

Truckee River installation. Photo by Mary O’Brien, Watershed Sculpture. Image courtesy of the artists.

For the project in the Gulf we had completed this process for two different concepts only to have both of them eliminated just before we had to travel from California to Louisiana (one due to involvement of the Army Corps of Engineers and the other due to the resources we had chosen were no longer available to us).  Our third concept was developed and refined right up to the time of installation. We are very pleased with how it turned out and believe it was the best approach of all three we considered.  But, in this case, we would not have come to this idea had not our first two concepts fallen through.

Empirical evidence often shows us how to approach working on a site. A deeply informed artist has the freedom to follow these prescriptions. For instance, in one case, this approach not only brought us success, but also unintended positive consequences. In Charlotte, NC we concentrated on mitigating urban run-off near a creek that was surrounded by urban infill. Using the principle of “spread & sink” we were able to capture the urban run-off before it eroded the creek bank. In doing so we activated an unknown seed-bank for a native sedge grass.  That native sedge helped attract a pair of mating barred owls that had been missing from the area for years, by providing the right kind of fauna for their hunting grounds.

Do you have any new work in progress?

Yes, we are in the design and proof-of-concept stages for two projects as well as proposing an expansion of our project in New Orleans. We are working on two urban ecology sculptures that will be created in urban watersheds.  These projects have the obvious challenges of working within densely-built environments and scarce natural resources to harvest and incorporate into our sculptures. But since these are projects of our own initiative and  we have chosen to install them in urban environments, we perceive the challenges the build-environment poses as an asset.  We are working to incorporate the attributes of urban life into the process of developing these two works.

By Adam Rothstein

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