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Healing Sculpture

Art installations that help restore damaged watersheds

by Daniel McCormick

Published in the January/February 2008 issue of Orion magazine



Willow weaving in Sleepy Hollow Creek, San Anselmo, California, 2002.
Watershed sculpture in Corte Madera Creek watershed at low water, Fairfax, California, summer 2004.
Watershed sculpture in Corte Madera Creek watershed one year later, during the winter floods, 2005.
Willow basket sculpture in Olema Creek watershed, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Point Reyes, California 2006.

MY APPROACH to creating art relies on the interplay of restoration science and the creative process. As an artist interested in our cultural conditions, I want to do more than witness and document the changes in our urban and rural landscapes. I want my sculptures to have a part in restoring the ecological balance of compromised environments. With the watershed as venue, open spaces, urban waterways, wilderness areas, and rural and agricultural lands become the unlikely sites for my work.

I build my sculptures by weaving together branches and cuttings from riparian plants taken directly from the watershed. Shown initially in art galleries, the sculptures suggest nature not only through the materials used, but also in construction, form, and gesture—they are sized to fit the curves of eroded stream banks and gullies. Later, I install them in the watershed by staking them to the land with cuttings from rapidly growing native plants, most often willow and cottonwood saplings that re-establish quickly.

Once placed in damaged gullies and stream banks, the sculptures act as silt traps that collect eroded soil and runoff. The traps allow cleaner flows downstream by filtering silt that would suffocate the eggs of spawning salmon and steelhead if left to flow into the stream during the winter rains.

Most of my installations also include elements of community education and participation that serve to inform people about the natural systems at work in the lands surrounding their communities. The sculptures are my response to mixed cultural relationships with the land, such as ranching, agriculture, tourism, and increasing development—all of which have adverse impacts on riparian ecosystems.

As the restoration process begins, the sculptures start to break down, leaving behind thriving groves of willow and other riparian plants. Eventually they disappear completely, and a succession of erosion-controlling growth takes hold and stabilizes the stream bank. In time, the artist’s presence, absorbed by the recovering watershed, is no longer apparent.

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Daniel McCormick’s sculptures have been installed in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the lower Arroyo Seco in Pasadena, and other watersheds throughout the country.

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