Art in the Margins

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about land/environmental art, and how it could be a positive force in our world.  I’ve written a short outline to propose a possibility.  What do you think it would take to make it happen?
Art in the Margins: A program for the creation of visual art on marginal Vermont lands.
Since colonial times, Vermont’s rural landscape has been an incubator for innovation.  Wilderness homesteading, hydro-powered family industries, sheep raising and dairy farming, all shaped the landscape of their respective eras in significant ways.  Sediment-filled millponds and gnarled old apple trees are subtle reminders to us, today, of ourforbearer ’s ingenuity in partnering with the land. Artists will be commissioned to perform works in transitional spaces, areas between working landscapes and wilderness; fringe places.  The works will be viewable from primary roadways but will only be accessible, if at all, from secondary roads.  The works will be visually arresting curiosities; minor spectacles to focus attention on otherwise generally ignored spaces. The goal is to visually enliven and stimulate interest in the state’s unsung borderlands.  By bring attention to these areas, residents and visitors alike will be encouraged to leave the main roads and explore Vermont’s rich scenic and cultural diversity.
In keeping with rural traditions, materials to be used in “Art in the Margins” will be locally sourced and biodegradable. Stockpiles of raw materials are a ubiquitous feature of Vermont’s working landscape.  Among those commonly appearing are mulch hay, wood chips, quarry slag and pulpwood. Through the process of art making they will be uniquely redirected and re-purposed .  Other useful materials may include waste-stream recapture or agricultural and forest byproducts.  For instance, slab wood from a sawmill might be woven together into a large, blanket-like shape and draped over a hillside.  An artist may choose to use on-site, “found,” materials.  River flotsam such as scoured and bleached deadwood might be used to create a stream-side environment.  A graphic artist might take a disused gravel pit as his or her canvas and rearrange its loose stone into a large-scale relief panel.  Pruning or pollarding live vegetation may be an approach used to create a desired effect.   Some works may be ephemeral, touching very lightly on the land, a mass planting of wildflowers, for instance.
After completion, the works will begin to slowly decompose.  There will be no effort to maintain them in their original state.  Over time, the art works will be transformed by natural degradation.   In the process, new aspects to the works will emerge.  Propagate and volunteer vegetation will grow. They will foster habitat for wildlife such as birds, bats, reptiles and insects. 
It’s the intent of “Art in the Margins” to both honor and continue the partnership Vermonters have with their environs.  Through this wide ranging, art making endeavor, artists and local community members will make direct and positive connections. The works will stimulate dialogue about art’s place in the world and in our lives.

Pictured above is “Birch Palm” by students in one of my environmental art workshops. Finland 2006

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6 Responses to Art in the Margins

  1. Dan Snow July 4, 2010 at 11:50 pm #

    Good advice, Lewis. I’ve steered clear of public projects, intuitively, in the past, probably to avoid those very complications you cite. “Art in the Margins” could well be advanced as a private
    enterprise. Perhaps that’s the approach best taken.

  2. Lewis Wadsworth July 4, 2010 at 10:45 pm #

    I wasn’t aware of the Panopticon Project — thank you for the reference. (It’s an odd title for me, though, as Panopticon usually means something quite different in my field:

    I recall that there were conservative objections and some bitter controversy involving public funds that apparently went into the Sheepfolds project. That’s not covered in Goldsworthy’s book!

    But funding and its sources will be an issue for your Margins project, too. In this day and age (and I write this as an architect who also happens to have a fine arts degree), there is a serious stigma in certain quarters with regard to anything labeled “art” and there seem to be vociferous groups who on principal will always try to make sure that no public funds go to anything that has that label, no matter the project.

    The only way to avoid the controversy which (as I recall) dogged the Sheepfolds would be to secure resources for your project entirely from private sources, property owners, and volunteers.

  3. Dan Snow July 4, 2010 at 5:13 pm #

    Hi Lewis,

    “The Sheepfolds Project” is a great combination of historic and contemporary built-landscape. Stephen Harrison, one of the craftsmen involved in revitalizing the folds, took me on a tour of them in 2006.
    Worth a visit, fun to see!

    The Another fine example of team effort in the installation of landscape art is the “Panopticon” project in East Lancashire.



  4. Dan Snow July 4, 2010 at 4:02 pm #

    Hi Dean,

    Yes, it could, and should, be a trans- border phenomena!

    I enjoyed your article on the Grand Valley blackhouse in “Stonechat” (No. 21 Summer 2010)
    Thanks for writing that up.


  5. Dean McLellan July 4, 2010 at 12:24 pm #

    It is a terrific idea, but I wish it was open to further afield then Vermont. I would have been more than happy to have a chance to contribute up here in beautiful Holstein Ontario. We have some terrific marginal lands here as well!! Thanks Dean.

  6. Lewis Wadsworth July 1, 2010 at 2:30 pm #

    I think that is an excellent idea, and in fact there are precedents for that sort of project. For instance, Andy Goldsworthy proposed “The Sheepfolds Project” in 1993 for Cumbria in the UK, although the scope was limited to the rehabilitation and (sometimes slightly radical) re-interpretation of the abandoned dry-stone sheep folds (a sort of pen or enclosure for the animals) that dot so much of the countryside in that part of the world. I believe the project was wrapped up in 2006, and it was commemorated in a 2007 book by Goldsworthy entitled Enclosure (which, coincidentally, I received as a Christmas gift in 2008 along with both of your books, Mr. Snow).

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