As you walk along Alki beach, in Seattle, breathing in the salty sea-scented air and taking in the skyline across the water, you come across two small, whimsical houses across the street from the beach, lushly covered in flowers of varying colors. You notice a wooden swing and a water fountain just outside, with an invitation to passersby to take a drink and rest their feet. Surrounded by modern condo buildings, this house is a colorful, friendly oasis, a breath of fresh air, and a cheerful surprise, even to those who pass it every day, as I once did. I was so taken by this house that I once wrote them a letter thanking them, and left it on their porch.
Something I didn’t know at the time was that this house, built in 1914, is officially registered as a wildlife habitat with the USA’s National Wildlife Federation. Birds, bees and butterflies find sanctuary here among the pink, purple, red, yellow and white flowers and green branches. It’s a welcome respite for our eyes and, especially, these animals’ lives, as the surrounding land has been taken over by modern construction. The “Alki Flower Houses”, owed by Randie Stone, are in themselves a work of art and an example of how we can cohabit with nature and give back.
It makes one reflect on the impact we as humans have on the environment with everything we do. In the case of Alki beach, the area is tempting, it’s easy to dream of enjoying life in a modern apartment with a view of the Puget Sound. However, at what cost? And who lived on this land before? How did the original inhabitants of this land live alongside other species? How many more birds, bees, butterflies and other animals such as toads and lizards lived there then, as opposed to now? What has happened since all this urban development began? How can we, too, live alongside nature, and how can we give back?
One shining example of giving back is British sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor, who uses sculpture as a conservation method. A recent project of his was the Coralariumin the Maldives, a semi-submerged art gallery filled with 30 sculptures destined to become a habitat for coral and other marine species.
In 2016, he designed the Museo Atlántico, the first underwater art museum in Europe and the Atlantic Ocean. It is meant to last for hundreds of years and consists of over 300 sculptures placed on a previously barren seabed. According to his site, “the pH neutral concrete structures become living sculptures…The formations are all configured so that they aggregate fish on a large scale and the casts become anchors for new coral growth, attracting local fish species and creating new eco-systems. The sculptures are frequented by rare angel sharks, schools of barracudas and sardines, octopus, marine sponges and the occasional butterfly ray.”
Daniel McCormick and Mary O’Brien are California-based artists dedicated to repairing and protecting the ecosystem, using organic materials that will blend into their surroundings over time. They teamed up with The Nature Conservancy to work on the Carson and Truckee rivers in Nevada, which have been through many years of human intervention, including unrestricted livestock grazing, diversions for irrigation, straightening of the river channels, events that have undoubtedly changed their ecosystems, and not for the better.
Here, McCormick and O’Brien used branches from plants taken directly from the watershed and wove them into winding, snaking sculptures, installing them using cuttings of quickly growing native plants. These sculptures anchor soil and trap runoff, improve water quality, and eventually the cuttings will outgrow the sculptures, which will blend in with the landscape. The sculptures also provide habitat for wildlife in the area.
Sculptures can also be used to send a clear message and educate. In 2013, Jim Swain and Paul Quirk started the initiative Environmental Sculptures to raise awareness of the negative impacts of environmental pollution through art that inspires change. Their large sculptures are designed with hollow bodies so as to hold litter. In organized community cleanups, people pick up garbage they find and put it inside. The result is almost overwhelming as these sculptures quickly fill up, reminding us of the 8 million tons of plastic waste that makes it into the oceans every year.
As we mentioned in an earlier article about the Arts and Ethics, artists can have a huge impact as role models. Artists can also have a huge impact as environmental stewards. All of us can, in our everyday lives.
Our presence on this planet has an impact, no matter what we do. What we leave behind could become part of its surroundings, as nature has her way of growing around things and taking her space back. What would we like to that be?