From the earliest days of the American park movement, sculpture, performances and exhibitions have proliferated. Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of landscape architecture, bemoaned the funerary appearance of park landscapes from the profusion of monuments. He wrote that the park itself “is a work of art, designed to produce certain effects upon the mind of men.” Olmsted designed his parks to immerse people within the experience of scenery. Now, this principle of connecting people and nature is more important than ever.
Today, public artists are asked to create works that engage people meaningfully to stimulate discovery, dialogue and even action. The art provides reasons for people to linger and interact. Whether the work is ephemeral or permanent, the viewer is invited to step inside a world of fresh perspectives on nature and culture. Much of the best work solves problems, too, creatively tackling challenges as simple as a need for shade and as complicated as climate change.
The Pittsburgh Case Study
One example is Pittsburgh’s park system, which boasts an artistic legacy of sculptural entrances and monuments meant to be passively admired from a distance. However, In the 21st century, artists are inviting active viewing. They are advocates of conservation, both environmental and cultural, and often involve the community in generating the artwork. Others are members of collaborative design teams, helping to shape the entire project and finding opportunities for art within it.
The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, a nonprofit partner of the city since 1996, works frequently with artists to achieve marvelous art installations. Some artists are commissioned to create a permanent addition to the city’s art collection, while others contribute an integrated component of a larger project. Whatever the commission, the artist is expected to engage people during the creative process.
Conservation Through Art
In 2009, residents rallied to preserve and reimagine a deteriorated hillside park. The Parks Conservancy and the city of Pittsburgh worked with residents to renovate the neighborhood park into a place that conveys and reinforces the community’s hopes and dreams. The renamed August Wilson Park, opened to the public in 2016, marries new play equipment and natural features with historic and contemporary artworks that incorporate traces of the Hill District’s rich cultural legacy.
For the art installation We Came from the Stars, artist Alisha Wormsley worked with neighborhood children to create drawings and collages that explored themes of time and place. Wormsley’s imagery of children turning into stars is printed on windscreen fabric and mounted on a pathway fence. Two telescopes allow visitors to see far across the city and up to the sky. At the park entrance, a viewfinder with a Steel City-inspired welder’s mask contains both vintage and current photographs of people and places in the neighborhood. All three viewing fixtures, painted with figures from the children’s artwork, allow people to experience different aspects of the neighborhood, including historic images of the community at play. Wormsley says, “The project recognizes the past, present and future happening simultaneously.”
In 2009, the Parks Conservancy restored Mellon Park’s Walled Garden in honor of Ann Katharine Seamans, a young artist who had frequented the park to stargaze with friends. When her family offered to donate a commemorative artwork in the Walled Garden, the Parks Conservancy requested a fully integrated work rather than a standalone piece. The garden, designed by Vitale and Geiffert, is a work of art in its own right, so it was imperative for the new installation not to conflict with the garden experience. Artist Janet Zweig placed 150 fiber-optic points of light into the garden lawn. The lights represent the stars and planets above Pittsburgh when Annie was born. That date and the star coordinates give the work its title: 7:11 AM, 11.20.1979, 80° W, 26°, 40’ N.
By day, visitors may discover some of the 150 granite discs that surround the lights, each engraved with astronomical coordinates and a short phrase that expresses the most interesting thing about that sky object. After dark, visitors see the night sky twinkling from the lawn. The artist’s careful consideration of material, environment and audience, in addition to Annie’s spirit, resulted in a holistic work that can be understood not only as a commemoration, but also as a sublime counterpart to an already beautiful and tranquil natural environment.
In 2016, the Parks Conservancy opened the Frick Environmental Center, the world’s first municipally owned “Living Building” that is free and open to the public. The center is situated in the Nine Mile Run Watershed, home of the city’s largest free-flowing stream. The entire design project used an ecological approach to net zero water management on the site, including the capture and infiltration or reuse of all rainwater. From the point of conceptual design, the team included water artist Stacy Levy as a collaborator to explore and identify ways to tell the rain story in a playful and engaging way.
Levy’s artwork offers space for water interactions while capturing rainwater from the center’s roof and conveying it to a wetland treatment area. A veil of rain sheets off the long eave, just beyond the glass gallery wall, onto a gravel bed, to be piped under a stair tower and dropped down into a channel through the amphitheater. Rain Ravine presents layers of stone slabs as a three-dimensional topographic map that reflects the park’s geology and stream valley. According to Levy, “The artwork gives a place-based experience to the visitor, and a sense of the patterns of ‘water at work’ in the park.” The shallow stone layers allow for easy access to explore and play, encouraging use in all weather — especially in the rain!
Artists who draw people into the story of a place help to conserve that place. They create a channel for people to tune in to nature and culture. By aligning project goals with artistic intent, such works offer powerful experiences that can lead to new awareness and a heightened sense of the value of parks.