Susan Leibovitz Steinman creates sculpture out of many different re-purposed materials: ladders, bicycles, shopping carts, and tires. Another material she uses that we consider renewable rather than re-purposed, is living plants. Between recycled material and growing plant life is the continuum of permaculture: an inspiration and method within Steinman’s work. I asked her a few questions about how she considers the balance of these themes.
Adam Rothstein: What sort of planning goes into forming a growing sculpture?
Susan Leibovitz Steinman: I am very careful to ensure that the eco science of the art is as correct as possible. I rely on the help of ecological scientists and organic garden experts; most have been very open to working with me, and even collaborating. Every project is carefully planned for the specific site: soil content and quality; amount of sun per day; water source; native habitats, etc. I adhere to the maxim: do no harm. I research from books, on the web, and of course, most importantly, by asking local people who are the given natural “experts.” Big questions I ask myself is whether it is needed, and by whom. Who will care for it? Is it an asset, and who benefits from it? The community stakeholders are my “clients” and I design to their requests/needs. It is my artwork, my creativity in service of pragmatic needs.
AR: I’m also interested in the relationship between permaculture and temporary installations here. Of course, that seems necessary due to the constraints of many art spaces. But I’m curious how this affects your artistic process and sense of aesthetics in the works. How do your works engage that sense of the long-term, slowness of growth, along with the cycles of dieback and renewal when working in temporary form?
SLS: The work is both an artwork and a model of ecological principles like permaculture. Permaculture is the perfect system embodying the philosophy I want to impart— how to do the best work with the least resources— little money, less land, and least expensive materials. Thinking you need a lot of money and/or land to create a living landscape/food source/habitat inhibits action, builds a wall blocking positive change. It takes creativity, resourcefulness, and often fearlessness to make the best use of what you get, the given. Most projects are temporary because they allow the most creativity, working outside the “box”, least amount of permissions and money, etc. I can do 5 temporary works with the time and budget of one so-called “permanent” installation. Stakeholders have the right to question permanent project input on their community, but with temporary work they become open to experimentation, to seeing what happens, knowing it will go away in a given time frame. I love doing temporary work—they are improvisational sketches that fuel my work and me.
All things living impart intuitive knowledge of death and renewal. That is innate to my artwork. I make work as transparent as possible… literally using windows as frames to view soil and plant roots, to see worms aerating the soil, etc.
AR: How does a longer-term work involving living plants, like Mandala Artscape or River Hopes & Dreams evolve?
SLS: The Mandela was up for over three years. It was always meant to be a harbinger of a more positive future landscape to improve the quality of life and environment for the neighborhood. The “River of Hopes and Dreams” is “permanent”…but has changed with time and the work of other artists and changing company managers. The plants have become lush; some died as others prospered and propagated themselves. Plant employees have “adopted” it and added new plants that they find discarded in debris. It is truly a living sculptural installation because it changes with time. There is no such thing as “permanent” to me…everything changes with time, with natural life cycles and with human interventions.