King County Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture
EARTHWORKS: LAND RECLAMATION AS SCULPTURE
Symposium sponsored by the King County Arts Commission
July 31 – August 18, 1979
an exhibit from the King County Archives (2013)
Please contact the King County Archives for permission to use images in this exhibit or to comment.
- Selection of Johnson Pit as Symposium Phase I site
The artist: Robert Morris
The artist's design: Untitled Earthwork (Johnson Pit #30)
Construction of Untitled Earthwork (Johnson Pit #30)
Early response and reaction
Erosion, repair and restoration: 1980
Maintaining an earthwork: 1981-2003
The Morris earthwork: King County and the world
- Symposium events
Symposium artists and their sites
- Iain Baxter
IntroductionIn 1979, the King County Arts Commission sponsored a project entitled Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture. It proposed a new tool for the rehabilitation of technologically abused land: earthworks.
“Earthworks” has been defined as any large-scale sculpture which uses the earth itself as its medium of expression. Rocks, dirt, water, or whatever else is available is bulldozed, channeled, piled, cut, or otherwise worked, to shape the earth into sculpted forms. The site and the art object are one and the same.
The King County Arts Commission thought that artist-created earthworks might be used to reclaim environmentally damaged sites such as abandoned gravel pits, surface mines, and landfills. Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture brought to Seattle a group of artists, internationally recognized for their work in this type of environmental art, to discuss and to demonstrate how this might be done, and for a cost less than traditional reclamation methods.
In involving contemporary artists in land reclamation, the King County Arts Commission entered a field that no governmental agency had yet attempted on any significant scale.
The project had several components.
Phase 1 was a demonstration project: the actual rehabilitation of a surplus county gravel pit in south King County. The design was created by internationally renowned artist Robert Morris.
Phase II was a design symposium. Six other artists of national reputation were assigned a variety of damaged sites, ranging from two to four hundred acres, for which they proposed reclamation projects in the form of artworks.
Also showcased at the symposium was an earthwork design undertaken independently by the city of Kent, Washington: Herbert Bayer’s proposal for a park landscape of basins and man-made mounds to serve as a water retention area in Mill Creek Canyon, Kent.
A traveling exhibition of the artists’ drawings and models toured museums across the country for two years.
Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture was the largest project ever undertaken by the King County Arts Commission. In less than a year, staff raised about $200,000 in non-county funds from a variety of sources: the National Endowment for the Arts; the United States Bureau of Mines; the Buckeye Trust; the Jewish Federation; state and local arts commissions; local Phase II sponsors (the Port of Seattle, the University of Washington, and Lakeside Sand and Gravel of Issaquah); and private contributions. The project also required unprecedented collaboration among the Arts Commission and other county agencies, notably the Department of Public Works.
Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture attracted national and international attention and gained King County a reputation as a leader in the support of public environmental art. The symposium received a large amount of critical acclaim in the general press, particularly in art and architectural journals. Local reaction in King County was more restrained.
This exhibit seeks to reconstruct, through photographs, recordings, videos, and text records in the King County Archives, the events and activities of the design symposium. It also tells of the earthworks that grew out of it.
(Above: Cover of Earthworks Symposium brochure, 1979. King County Archives Series 278.)
Selection of Johnson Pit as Symposium Phase I Site
Formed in 1967, the King County Arts Commission provided support to art and artists in King County, including the commissioning and purchasing of artworks. Through its first decade it enjoyed robust growth, evolving into a major autonomous county agency answering directly to the King County Executive and through the executive, to the King County Council.
In 1977, a five-person professional staff supported eighteen appointed Commission members.
Prompted by a commissioner and a staff member who were themselves sculptors, in early 1978 the Arts Commission agreed to present a symposium on the theme of, "Earthworks as land reclamation." The two-part symposium, scheduled for August 1979, would include a public dialogue with earthworks design artists, and a demonstration of earthwork art on a King County site that needed reclamation.
For a demonstration site, the Commission turned to the King County Department of Public Works, which oversaw the county’s more than one hundred gravel pits. Many were disused and most of the sites needed reclamation. A gravel pit therefore would be suitable for a pilot project examining whether art might be used successfully to rehabilitate an industrially abused site. The Department of Public Works also contributed to King County’s "One Percent for Art" program by setting aside one percent of certain capital improvement project costs for artwork at project sites that were publicly accessible and visible, or in need of mitigation. So the Public Works monies were available to be applied to the demonstration earthwork.
Site selection criteria were (1) a size large enough to have a strong visual impact, yet small enough to meet project budget limitations; (2) a site accessible to the general public near population centers; and (3) a site that was attractive in its own right and that would be an appropriate setting for a work of art. The Commission reviewed eight gravel pits and selected Johnson Pit #30 as the project site. The Department of Public Works officially donated use of the site to the county for the project. By 1977-1978, the pit had largely reforested itself with scrub alder, scotch broom and blackberries. Below the site to the southeast, the farms and pastures of the Kent Valley stretched uninterruptedly toward the Cascade foothills and Mount Rainier. Despite the attractiveness of the hillside setting, the pit had a somewhat troubled history. It was used as a dumping ground for abandoned household goods and automobiles. Traffic signs near the pit were vandalized.
(Above: Aerial photograph of Johnson Pit July 5, 1978. King County Archives Series 278.)
Site HistoryIn 1905, Kent Valley landowner John Winston platted nine lots on the West Hill above the Green River valley. The plat, Van de Vanter’s Ten Acre Tracts, was named for the justice of the peace, and local landowner, who notarized the plat drawing. Lot 9 was at the northern edge of the plat. Its triangular shape was defined by an 1885 county road (now South 216th Street) that bounded it on its southwest and southeast sides.
(Map from William A. Johnson Road No. 1423 deed, March, 1913. King County Archives Series 1144.)
In 1907, John Winston sold Lot 9 to King County for five hundred dollars, for use as a gravel pit. William and Nannie Johnson lived north of the gravel pit, across present-day South 212th Street. In 1913 they were lead petitioners for a new county road that was built running north and south in front of their property. The southern part of William A. Johnson Road #1433 (now 42nd Avenue South) ended at the gravel pit. The road probably lent its name to the site: Johnson Pit. By the 1940s the pit had fallen into disuse. Its last use was as a dumping site for fill from the reconstruction of South 216th Street in 1971. This had the effect of partially reclaiming the site. By 1973, the Johnson Pit, number 30 on a master list of county gravel pits, had been designated as surplus. It was offered for sale but attracted no buyers.
(Aerial photographs of the Johnson Pit area in 1937 and 1974. King County Archives Series 488.)
The Artist: Robert Morris
Selection of Robert Morris as Site ArtistThe Arts Commission’s Visual Materials Committee determined that the artist selected to create an earthwork at Johnson Pit #30 should be an artist of international stature with a proven ability to work with the land. A three-member jury (composed of Betsy Baker, editor of the journal Art in America; Iain Baxter, artist from Vancouver, British Columbia; and Charles Cowles, curator of modern art at the Seattle Art Museum) invited twenty-two selected artists to express their interest in the project. Eleven responded. From these, Robert Morris of New York was chosen. The decision was based on: (1) stature of the artist; (2) the artist’s experience working with large landforms, and (3) potential of the artist to challenge the limits of the public notion of sculpture, and so stimulate real consideration of the possibility of land art as land reclamation.
This was the first time that the Arts Commission had gone outside the county to award a commission.
In awarding the commission through a jury composed of qualified professionals in the arts or allied professions, the Arts Commission followed its stated policies as well as what were considered best practices among arts organizations. No comments were sought from the dozen households that were then in the immediate vicinity of Johnson Pit #30, or from the general public. An environmental impact statement was not required, although a statement of environmental non-significance was prepared.
Who is Robert Morris?
Robert Morris (1931 - ) has, and also had at the time of the Earthworks Symposium, an international reputation as an influential sculptor, painter, experimental artist, and writer. By 1979, he had made important contributions to the development of performance art, land art, and installation art. His work emphasized concept over aesthetics, and he was not afraid of bringing challenges before his viewing audience. Morris's most characteristic sculptures consist of large-scale, hard-edged geometric forms. His work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Art Institute of Chicago; and the Tate Modern in London, among many other institutions.
Critic Roger Downey, writing in Seattle’s The Weekly newspaper (January 10-17, 1979) said of Morris: “[A] sculptor, conceptual-artist and theoretician, Robert Morris [is] one of the few artists in this jaded time whose work can legitimately be referred to as ‘avant-garde’, and which can still raise the hackles of the unprepared observer.” The Seattle Times’ art critic Deloris Tarzan agreed, saying, “Morris is one of a handful of artists in the world whose work is so consistently innovative as to elicit shock with each new concept….[His] creative thinking …has influenced the creations of other artists and forced tentative new definitions of what art means and could mean.” (January 14, 1979)
Robert Morris had already undertaken a land art project in Washington state. Steam Work for Bellingham (1971-1974) remains a part of the sculpture garden on the Western Washington University campus. Commissioned from Robert Morris after his participation in a symposium, it uses steam released from the university’s underground heating system to create a fountain-like effect.
By the time of King County’s Earthworks Symposium, Robert Morris had also created earthworks in the Netherlands (1971) and in Grand Rapids, Michigan (1974). The Grand Rapids Project used pathways to re-contour an eroded hill slope in a city park in a manner that combined civil engineering with landscape architecture. It was the first major earth artwork in the United States to be supported by public funds.
(Above: Robert Morris delivering keynote address at Earthworks Symposium at University of Washington, Kane Hall, July 31, 1979. King County Archives Series 278.)
Watch video of Robert Morris delivering keynote address
The Artist’s Design: Untitled Earthwork (Johnson Pit #30).
Robert Morris visited the Johnson Pit site in January 1979. His sculptural design was submitted to and approved by the King County Arts Commission in April.
The design proposed to clear the triangular site of vegetation, then build up the apex, in the angle of the two arms of South 216th Street, into a hill-form using 16,000 cubic yards of earth excavated farther up the site. The excavation then would be carved into a series of descending concentric slopes and terraces forming a shape which resembled a bowl, an open pit mine, or an amphitheater. The slopes were to be planted in rye grass. Along the upper northwest side of the form, below an eight-car parking lot, a row of truncated tree stumps (what the artist called the “Ghost Forest”) was retained to suggest the original state of the land.
Robert Morris has spoken of “the prototypical act in shaping the earth – digging a hole and piling up the earth beside it.” His terracing methods had been used from antiquity to the present. He cited examples from Persian, Indian, Peruvian and Chinese cultures, as well as the modern example of strip mining. The earthwork at Johnson Pit might be seen as another example of “digging and piling carried out in an organized way and at an intensified scale.”
In his narrative material that accompanied his design proposal, Robert Morris acknowledged that the viewing public would want to know what his design “meant.” But he believed that by explaining his art, he was controlling how people would view it. He preferred people to have the freedom to experience his art as they would. “That [my art] offers the freedom to experience and question is not an opportunity that its audience always welcomes.”
(Robert Morris drawing from Earthworks brochure. King County Archives Series 278. Above: model for Johnson Pit proposal. King County Archives Series 1747.)
(King County Department of Public Works Proposal for Johnson Pit # 30 Temporary Erosion and Sediment Control. King County Archives Series 1747.)
Construction of Untitled Earthwork (Johnson Pit #30)
No new public funds were used in the original construction of the Morris earthwork. The site was donated by the Department of Public Works. Arts Commission staff raised the monies needed, which included artist fees and expenses, from a variety of grants and from monies already appropriated by the King Council for artworks.
The Commission’s actual receipt of grant funds determined the construction start date (August 7, 1979). Because of the late-season start the work, by the D. J. Hopkins Company of Redmond, was carried out swiftly under a tight time frame.
The first month of construction coincided with Phase II of the Earthworks Symposium. Videographers documenting the Phase II dialogue forums also filmed the work at Johnson Pit #30.
Arts Commission staff administered the project, aided by a technical assistant hired as site representative. King County’s Architecture Division provided professional construction management services. The King County Parks and Public Works departments addressed technical issues arising during construction. Artist Robert Morris was also onsite for the construction. He kept detailed technical notes and participated closely in construction meetings.
Inter-agency collaboration between county arts and engineering personnel was unprecedented in 1979. Coordination was sometimes difficult, and was not helped by the tight budget and foreshortened construction season. Miscommunications and misunderstandings occurred between arts administrators directing the project, and engineers and construction contractors carrying it out. For example, problems of security and drainage along a neighbor’s fence line were seemingly not anticipated, and were addressed only after they arose.
It was also soon found that the earthwork slopes were being sculpted at a gradient too steep for the site. This was traced to outdated site surveys originally given the artist as a cost-cutting measure. County surveyors helped prepare accurate surveys, Robert Morris adjusted his calculations, and the sitework was changed. County personnel from the Hydraulics Division also created a drainage plan for the project and nearby areas. It differed in certain respects from the Morris design specifications.
Nonetheless, Arts Commission representatives deemed the Morris earthwork to be completed “essentially” as designed. Robert Morris, accompanied by King County representatives and the press, made his formal inspection of the project on November 2, 1979.
Photographs by project photographer Colleen Chartier show the clean-sculpted lines of the Morris earthwork at the time of its completion. Photographer Robert Brittain of the Department of Public Works also captured the look of the site on a clear morning in November, 1979.
(Morris earthwork construction completed, 1979, photograph by Robert Brittain. King County Archives Series 400.)
(Morris earthwork during construction, 1979, photograph by Colleen Chartier. King County Archives Series 1747.)
(Morris earthwork after construction, photograph by Colleen Chartier. King County Archives Series 1747.)
(Above: Clipping from the Seattle Post-Intelligencier, August 12, 1979. King County Archives Series 1747.)
Early Response and Reaction
Art commentators at Phase II of the Earthworks Symposium, looking at models of Robert Morris’s design, had thought it “beautifully devoid of interruption,” “gracefully undulating,” and “a work of awesome, elegant simplicity.”
Some county councilmembers reviewed initial site work with skeptical puzzlement. What could the earthwork be used for? Was it a park? With only eight parking spaces, it didn’t seem to be a park. Wouldn’t native vegetation eventually take over the site, as it had once taken over the old gravel pit?
At first, West Hill residents seemed unaware of what was happening in their neighborhood. The understaffed and over-extended Arts Commission personnel held only two meetings in south King County, with Kent public officials and arts personnel. No informational meetings or mailings for the general public were undertaken. A sign at the site was slow in appearing, and then said little about the artwork and why it was being developed. And while the project had been well- featured in newspaper stories in both Seattle and south King County newspapers in 1978 and 1979, the stories were usually in the Arts or editorial sections, and not on the front page. What publicity there was had not been well linked with what was happening on the ground at the Johnson Pit.
King County was no stranger to public process. In the 1970s citizens participated in a major effort to develop new zoning mapsthrough community planning. By 1979 the first of King County’s efforts at farmland preservation was being debated, in the Kent valley and elsewhere. But no kind of outreach or public process was undertaken with regard to the “big hole” at the Johnson Pit.
On October 23, 1979 a protest of about a dozen local residents was held near the site. They objected to the perceived public funding of the project, to the general appearance of the earthwork, and to the perceived lack of any public environmental review. They also criticized a perceived lack of openness by King County government.
Arts Commission representatives met with the protestors and maintained that, although communication about the project was lacking, the process followed to design and build the Morris earthwork was sound. A news account quoted the representatives as claiming that this was the first objection that they had heard about the project.
“This has national publicity!” Arts Commission staff had said proudly to local residents. By late 1979 and early 1980, the story of the Earthwork Symposium and the Morris earthwork was featured in prominent national journals including Art Forum, Art in America, Landscape Design, Vanguard, and newsletters and newspapers from Vancouver, British Columbia to Columbia, Missouri.
(Above: Construction sign at Morris earthwork. King County Archives Series 1747.)
Erosion, repair and restoration – 1980
In December 1979, shortly after its completion, bad luck struck the Morris earthwork. The sculpted tiers of earth were stabilized through grass seeding. But this work was done too late in the year and before the grass could establish itself, the area received unusually heavy rains. The rain, combined with design changes undertaken during construction, caused the soil to saturate, and eroded the southeast slope abutting South 216th Street. A large amount of rock and mud fell onto the roadway. It blocked traffic and provided a focal point for public concern about earthworks projects. Could artwork really coexist with environmental engineering?
As no county funds had been earmarked for maintenance of the Morris earthwork, Arts Commission personnel stepped in. They raised $3,000 among themselves and from private donations to purchase stabilization materials which they personally applied at the site. Later in 1980, the Arts Commission was able to realize $25,000 in restoration funds taken from other parts of the Commission’s budget. This was only about 40 percent of the amount needed to fully restore the earthwork, so the southeast side was, with Robert Morris’s approval, made slightly lower than originally constructed.
(Above left: 1980 erosion. Above right: "Earthworks," composed by Council administrative staff. King County Archives Series 2682.)
“Probably the willingness of [local governments] to provide maintenance will depend on the popularity of the piece created.” (Deloris Tarzan, art critic writing in the Seattle Times, October 17, 1978.)
The Earthworks Symposium was over and the Morris Earthwork was repaired and stabilized. But as the 1980s progressed, it became clear that its care and keeping would present ongoing challenges.
Robert Morris’s original proposal stated that, once seeded with grass, the Earthwork would need no maintenance other than periodic mowing. But this proved otherwise in practice.
The site itself needed frequent tending to maintain the artist’s intent for the site. As predicted, invasive plants -- alder, fir, blackberries, scotch broom, red moss, and cattails-- required periodic removal. Too, the tree stumps left on the site as sculptural elements put out new root shoots and finally rotted. Sturdier replacements crafted from telephone poles had to be installed.
A larger and continuing challenge was damage from inappropriate human activity. The site, on an isolated, rural county road, drew frequent complaints about littering, noise, fire-setting, and general vandalism.
Arts Commission staff responded to these concerns, working creatively without a maintenance budget to take care of the Morris Earthwork, considered the showpiece of the county’s art collection. When county departments could not undertake ongoing maintenance responsibilities due to budget constraints, the Arts Commission held a volunteer yearly cleanup day at the Earthwork. An offender assigned to community service also performed litter control at the site. Later, school groups did the same as part of Earth Day activities.
1984 saw King County’s first real effort to address ongoing care of the Morris Earthwork. The County Council passed legislation regulating inappropriate activity at the site (Ordinance 6908). In August 1984 Arts Commission staff held the county’s first outreach meeting specifically for neighbors of the Morris Earthwork. Staff also successfully lobbied the King County Council for a small repair and maintenance budget, and for the first time, arranged for regular, if basic, maintenance through the South King County Activity Center.
But a 1989 site report still found numerous areas of concern at the Morris Earthwork: general deterioration, a too-low level of maintenance, and poor presentation of the site as an artwork. The report recommended a $50,000 rehabilitation of the structure. For several years, efforts to realize the funds met with resistance in the King County Council. In 1992, a strongly-worded Council proviso instructed the King County Arts Commission to thoroughly assess the future of the Morris Earthwork, including the possibility of removing it from the county art collection, destroying the earthwork and auctioning the site as surplus property. This drew international protest.
- Read a letter protesting demolition of the earthwork.
In response, the Robert Morris Earthwork Study Group convened in April 1993. Members included King County agency officials; representatives from local arts agencies; veterans of the 1979 Earthworks Symposium; and representatives from the City of Kent and the City of SeaTac, in whose jurisdiction the Morris Earthwork was now located. The group studied the history and current condition of the site, conducted a community survey, and took citizen testimony. It recommended that the Morris Earthwork should be preserved into the future as a work of art; immediately stabilized; enhanced for better public access; and made a part of interconnected open spaces, parks, trails and similar sites in the Kent Valley.
The work of the study group resulted in funds for a restoration (1995-1996) of the Morris Earthwork. In May 1995 artist Robert Morris revisited the Johnson Pit site and approved several enhancements: a perimeter trail, stairs leading down into the basin, a restored “Ghost Forest” along the northwest side with hardier wooden stumps, and a rustic bench designed by Morris.
- Read a transcript of the Morris site visit.
King County for its part installed a parking lot gate, updated use regulations posted at the site, improved drainage, and hand-packed and re-seeded the eroded edges of the tiers. New signage eliminating the name “Earthworks Park” was installed and local sculptor John Hoge designed a new identifying marker for the site.
In 1997, the Morris Earthwork earned an Honorable Mention Award from Save Outdoor Sculpture!, a preservation organization based in Washington DC. This recognition was given for King County’s two-year restoration effort. It included a publication award, matched by the King County Public Art Program, which was used to create the Robert Morris Earthwork Brochure. The brochure text is also used in the interpretive signage now at the site.
King County’s public art collection and arts programs were transferred in 2003 to the new Cultural Development Authority of King County, a tax-exempt public development authority better known as 4Culture. You can see and hear more about the Morris Earthwork at 4Culture’s Web site.
(Above: 1994 Cleanup Day at Morris earthwork site. King County Archives Series 1747.)
The Morris Earthwork: King County and the World
“So what if people in the next century can see [the Morris Earthwork] and say, ‘Look what they did in the ‘70s’!” (President of the Highline Recreation Council, 1979)
The 1979 symposium Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture brought King County a national and international reputation as a perceived leader and innovator in the use of artist-designed earthworks to solve environmental problems.
The Arts Commission and later, King County’s Office of Cultural Resources responded to many requests for information about the Morris and Bayer sites. They received requests to use photographs of the Morris Earthwork, especially Colleen Chartier’s moody, evocative 1979 image, in books and journal articles. The Symposium was cited extensively in the literature of environmental art and landscape design. People have come from all over the world to view the Morris Earthwork. Students from the United States and abroad have used the resources of the King County Archives to research the Earthwork and the design symposium.
The King County arts community valued the Morris Earthwork, and response to the Cultural Resources 1993 citizen survey indicated it had local popular support as well.
However, local public reaction to the Morris Earthwork was tempered by a number of factors:
- Initial outreach was directed to people and organizations in the arts world, but not to neighbors of the site. They were not able to claim an early sense of ownership of the project.
- What outreach was done was belated and not well targeted. Lack of good information about the Morris Earthwork led to public mystification about the project. This in turn bred outright dislike among some people.
- The 1979-1980 reconstruction effort got the Morris Earthwork off to a poor start.
- Perception remained that county tax revenues had funded the Earthwork.
- Maintenance of the Morris Earthwork was not adequately foreseen or provided for, and so cost King County more money than anticipated.
- Some Arts Commissioners and some County Councilmembers were not supportive of the Earthwork. In the absence of strong support from high levels of county government, hostile or skeptical voices were more readily heard.
Most of all, public perception of the Morris Earthwork suffered in comparison with the Bayer earthwork in Kent. The Mill Creek site was built specifically as a park (with all the expectations and functions of a park) that also happened to solve an environmental problem. Robert Morris built an artwork that was his personal statement about a former industrial site. Citizens of King County were well acquainted with their county’s robust parks development effort. Not long before, citizens had voted for additional parks and recreation facilities through the Forward Thrust bond initiative. It was by no means evident to many people how they were intended to interact with the Morris Earthwork. It was similar to a park but it was not supposed to be a park.
The King County Arts Commission admitted that it might have done more outreach beyond the local arts community. It might have selected a site that looked more damaged, one that had less vegetation on in and that had a less “scenic” view. It might also have better compared and contrasted the Morris and Beyer sites, emphasizing that the former was most suitably a contemplation site for individuals and small groups.
Nevertheless, by 2013 the Morris Earthwork remained one of the very few structures from its time period still in existence. Its survival may add historical significance to its value as an artwork.
It is not quite the same place seen in the elegant, black-and-white photographs from 1979. Contours have softened. The Ghost Forest stumps approximate the original ones. Invasive vegetation is still a problem. Graffiti has not gone away.
But people do make use of the site, as Robert Morris intended. There is an impromptu (and illegal) firepit in the center of the basin. The perimeter trail appears well-worn. It is a good place to go sledding in winter, exercise dogs, watch hawks and thunderstorms and falling stars, harvest the blackberries, perhaps (for teenagers) a place to get away from parents. “I go here to organize myself,” said one Auburn resident in 1993. On a sunny summer weekend in 2013, a golfer practiced his drives from the parking lot overview, his dog retrieving the golf balls.
The site also became part of a bicycle/driving tour of Kent Valley earthworks. Mount Rainier is still there, but the vista of pumpkin-dotted fields below the site has long given way to a sea of uniform roofs of a large residential development. Housing encroaches on all sides of the Untitled Earthwork at Johnson Pit #30. It may be that the future of the Morris Earthwork is that of an open green space, increasingly cherished by those living around it. Said one respondent to the 1993 Earthworks user survey: “My son and I come here to eat lunch or dinner –read books—play ‘adventure’ out on the rims and sometimes just to scream as loud as we can (after being cooped up in a tight residential area where we have to be quiet)!”
Insofar as the Morris Earthwork ever had a “purpose,” it was as a reflection site. It remains a good place to reflect on some of the questions posed by participants in the 1979 Earthworks Symposium
- What constitutes art?
- Who decides?
- The “public” never really asks for “public art” so is there really such a thing?
- Who is the public in the public art?
- What makes public land a “park”?
- Is art in itself acceptable as a publicly owned space, or must it perform a specific function to be useful?
- Can public art be proclaimed aesthetic by consensus, or will the artist retain the traditional right to make a personal statement?
- Should government buy art, or just support the arts?
Robert Morris concluded his keynote address at the 1979 symposium by asking still more questions:
But a few things have not been discussed, to my knowledge, about art as land reclamation.
The first thing seems rather bizarre to me. That is, that the selling point was, is that the art was going to cost less than restoring the site to its “natural condition.” What are the implications of that kind of thinking… that art should be cheaper than nature? OR that site works can be supported and seen as relevant by a community only if they fulfill a kind of sanitation service?
The most significant implication of art as land reclamation is that art can and should be used to wipe away technological guilt. Do those sites scarred by mining or poisoned by chemicals now seem less like the entropic liabilities of ravenous and short-sighted industry and more like long-awaited aesthetic possibilities? Will it be a little easier in the future to rip up the landscape for one last shovelful of non-renewable energy source if an artist can be found (cheap, mind you) to transform the devastation into an inspiring and modern work of art? Or anyway, into a fun place to be? Well, at the very least, into a tidy, mugger-free park.
It would seem that artists participating in art as land reclamation will be forced to make moral as well as aesthetic choices. There may be more choices available than either a cooperative or critical stance for those who participate. But it would perhaps be a misguided assumption to suppose that artists hired to work in industrially blasted landscapes would necessarily and invariably choose to convert such sites into idyllic and reassuring places, thereby socially redeeming those who wasted the landscape in the first place.
Phase II: The Design Symposium, July 31 – August 18, 1979
In addition to preparing designs, the artists were involved in a series of forums, panel discussions, slide lectures, a university summer school studio course, community meetings and social events that were intended to acquaint the public with the aesthetic and public policy issues involved in art as land reclamation.
The King County Arts Commission intended to prepare a documentary film about the symposium, to be shown on public television. To this end a videographer filmed symposium events, artist interviews, and early construction at the Robert Morris Earthworks site. But King County did not receive the grant monies it needed for the project, and the symposium videotapes were eventually transferred to the King County Archives.
Watch a video of the Morris keynote address University of Washington, July 31, 1979<Tape 5>
- Text of the Morris keynote address (edited for publication)
The Artists and Their Sites
The artists held meetings with citizens of the communities where the design sites were located, presenting their proposed designs for review. All of the designs specifically addressed issues of public access and use. They were either sited in a park (Oppenheim), intended for various user groups (Miss, Pepper), or they incorporated recreational structures (Baxter, Fleischner), or they could become part of a park (Hanson).
Interviews, with independent curator Nancy Rosen of New with the artists at their design sites were filmed as a part of the Arts Commission's video documentation effort. You can see the videos, and read more about the artists and their designs, by clicking on a name below.
Tolt River Steppes, 1979
Carnation Pit No. 60, N.E. 32nd Street and 328th Avenue SE
King County, sponsor
British-born Iain Baxter (1936 - ) is a Canadian conceptual artist with a wide-ranging career. He turned to art after early studies in biology and ecology. At the time of the 1979 Earthworks Symposium he had held academic teaching positions at British Columbia universities, and had founded the N.E. Thing Company (1967-1978) through which he and his wife produced a wide range of art forms and projects. He has taught art at universities in Calgary and Windsor, Ontario since the early 1980s. In 2005 he legally changed his surname to Baxterand, or Baxter&. His own work has been informed by the ideas of Marshall McLuhan and communications theory. Other conceptual influences are Zen Buddhism and his studies in the natural sciences. He has explored a broad range of media and genres, including environmental art and multimedia installations. His work is included in the collections of major Canadian and international galleries.
Iain Baxter’s 1979 Earthworks Symposium design site was a King County gravel pit, Carnation Pit no. 60, in the Snoqualmie Valley. The steep site presented serious erosion problems. For the site, Baxter proposed a steeply graded 134-acre semicircular amphitheater-like pit that descended to a platform where two mounds were placed to form the infinity symbol. The tiers, or “steppes,” of the amphitheater, were to be paved as asphalt jogging tracks, interspersed with exercise stations. Another track around the infinity mounds was designed for wheelchair users, and included ten wheelchair fitness stations.“I would like to create a great sculptural place,” said the artist. “A sort of park, a whole family experience.”
Critics of the Baxter design thought in 1979 that the site, near present-day Remlinger Farms and the Country Fair Fun Park, was too far removed from population centers to be effective as a fitness facility.
(Design drawings for the Tolt River Steppes earthwork by Iain Baxter. Above: Aerial photos of site. King County Archives Series 1747.)
Proposal for Lakeside Sand and Gravel Pit, 1979
6600 – 230th Avenue SE, Issaquah, Washington
Lakeside Sand and Gravel, sponsor
For the 1979 Earthworks Symposium, Fleischner was partnered with the only private company sponsoring an Earthworks artist, Lakeside Sand and Gravel. The company was interested in exploring non-traditional remediation for its large (340 acres) and very visible gravel mining operation one quarter-mile north of Interstate 90 below the Issaquah Highlands. Fleischner worked closely and extensively with Lakeside’s owners and developed two designs for the steep cliff face.
One design involved placing a mammoth, triangular 200-foot-high office and residential complex across the cliff face and cut into it. It would have also served as a retaining wall. Steep, formal terracing would descend at right angles to either side of the building. A drainage problem at the site would be resolved by a shallowly terraced, square collecting area, in the form of an inverted sod pyramid dug into the earth, above and behind the building. This pool would drain, via underground pipes, into a square reflecting pool in front of the building at the foot of the terraced side slopes. The pools could be used for many purposes and included seating areas nearby. The second design substituted more terracing for the building. The terraces could serve as walking paths, and the owner favored development of public park spaces in the design.
Critical response to the designs was favorable. Fleischner was credited with proposing to take an “almost impossible and exceptionally ugly site and [make] it into a work of art.”
(Top: Aerial photos of Lakeside Sand and Gravel site. Above right, model for earthwork by Richard Fleischner. Above: Drawing for Lakeside Sand and Gravel earthworkby Richard Fleischner. King County Archives Series 1747.)
Watch excerpts from interview with Richard Fleischner onsite at the Lakeside site, August 1979:
Watch more of interview with Richard Fleischner onsite at the Lakeside site, August 1979:
Stoned Reflector, 1979
Snoqualmie Pit, 372nd Place SE and SE 84th Street.
King County, sponsor
Born in 1936, Lawrence Hanson was a professor at Western Washington University and curator of that institution’s sculpture acquisition program at the time of the 1979 Earthworks Symposium. He had had one-man exhibitions of his art in the western United States, and had been a part of group exhibitions as well. He had received commissions and had been a part of multi-media performances.
Lawrence Hanson’s Symposium site was another King County gravel pit, this one near the city of Snoqualmie. The pit was in the shape of a gently curving bowl with grass slopes and a base of gravel. It was surrounded by a lip of trees and, in the distance, by the Cascade foothills.
Lawrence Hanson proposed shaping the pit into a five-acre dug-out oval bowl encircled by a walkway that spiraled into a ramp into the oval. The bowl would be lined with brilliant white gravel and stones of varying size that would reflect the natural light by day.
Large airport-obstruction lights inserted beneath the stones would switch on for a time at night and cause the work to radiate with a soft bluish light. (The artist considered the use of wind power to provide electricity to the lights.)
Viewers would have a different perception of the site depending on the time of day, position of lights, and the viewer’s position (along the path, from the top of the hill, or from the air. The site could double as a five-acre park.
(Site plan for Snoqualmie Pit earthwork by Lawrence Hanson. Above left: Aerial photo of site. Above right: Lawrence Hanson at work. King County Archives Series 1747.)
Enclosure for Viewing with Passages and Courts, 1979
Airport free zone at southwest edge of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, east of Twelfth Avenue South
Port of Seattle, sponsor
Mary Miss (1944 - ) is an American sculptor, draftsman, filmmaker and environmental artist. As a child with her family she visited many early forts, Indian sites, abandoned mines and, in Europe, demolished buildings, medieval towns and castle ruins. These structures strongly influenced her artwork. During her academic training as an artist she became aware of the work of contemporary Minimalist sculptors and land artists, including Robert Morris. Her early landscape works dealt primarily with the measurement of distances in relation to a specific location. Later works draw on the architecture, landscape design, gardens and history of worldwide cultures. She has received multiple awards and has been the subject of many exhibitions.
An untitled landscape sculpture by Mary Miss is located on the grounds of the University of Washington Medical Center, Seattle.
For the 1979 Earthworks Symposium, Mary Miss prepared a design for a long narrow strip of irregular terrain at the southwest corner of the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The land was part of an “airport free-zone,” an abandoned residential area abutting the airport that had been cleared of homes by the Port of Seattle for health and safety reasons. It contained remains of old roadways, house foundations and shrubbery, which the artist incorporated into her design for the site. The design consisted of a walkway through a sixteen interwoven structures (walls, platforms, corridors and rooms) in which and from which a strolling viewer might gain an appreciation of the site’s topography, explore scale relationships, and either observe the adjacent airport and its traffic, or find seclusion from it.
Critical response to the design was generally favorable, noting that there was “nothing ordinary” about it. Local residents of the Sea-Tac community wondered if the number of structures present on the site would invite vandalism.
(Site plans for Aiport Free Zone earthwork by Mary Miss. Above, model for earthwork. King County Archives Series 1747.)
A Waiting Room for the Mid-Night Special (A Thought Collision Factory for Ghost Ships), 1979.
Warren G. Magnuson Park
7400 Sand Point Way NE
City of Seattle, sponsor
Dennis Oppenheim (1938-2011) received international attention for a body of conceptual artwork that included performance, sculpture and photographs. He was an American pioneer of land art and body art, born in Mason City, Washington. After completing his academic training in California, he lived and worked in New York City until his death in 2011. His early work in the 1960s was concerned with large-scale earth-oriented projects. Over four decades Dennis Oppenheim’s practice employed all available methods: writing, action, performance, video, film, photography, and installation (with and without sound or monologue). He used mechanical and industrial elements, fireworks, common objects and traditional materials, materials of the earth, and his own or another’s body. He created works for interior, exterior and public spaces. Towards the end of his life his work became larger in scale and permanent, fusing sculpture and architecture. He was the subject of many group and solo exhibitions, and of a number of books discussing his work.
For the 1979 Earthworks Symposium, Dennis Oppenheim created a design to reclaim a distressed area at the City of Seattle’s new Warren G. Magnuson Park at the former Sand Point Naval Air Station: a deserted, torn airstrip that stood between the existing park and what would be government facilities for the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Oppenheim used humor, fantasy and contemporary artistic vocabulary to create what was intended to be a dream environment for channeling thoughts and ideas. His structure centered on a circular space (called by the artist a “waiting room”) around a sunken chamber holding a revolving 50-foot section of track. The track would interconnect with four “gates”: a V-shaped launching canal or trough oriented to a circular boat basin on Lake Washington (for “ghost ships”); boat shaped templates (“for incoming energy”); a long concrete-arched walkway partially covered in sheet metal (“for entry of forces and ideas”) and a structure resembling a furnace chamber (“for conceptual transformation from material to gas, power, communication”).
Critical response to this design ranged from the highly skeptical to enthusiastic praise for the artist’s vision and imagination.
(Drawings and model (above right) for earthwork, by Dennis Oppenheim. Top: Dennis Oppenheim in studio. King County Archives Series 1747.)
Watch more from interview with Dennis Oppenheim onsite at the Magnuson Park site, August 1979
Montlake Landfill Proposal, 1979
University of Washington East Campus on Union Bay
University of Washington, sponsor
Beverly Pepper (1922 - ) is a prominent American sculptor, known for her work in welded Cor-ten steel, including monumental, site specific and land art. Working independently of any specific movement, Beverly Pepper has since 1972 made her home in Todi, Italy. Major site-specific works by Pepper are located across the United States; her work has been installed in locations in the United States and abroad. In the 1970s, she developed the concept of “Earthbound Sculptures,” sculptures that seem to be born in and rise up from the earth. In the 1980s and 1990s, Pepper continued to combine nature with industrial materials, exploring themes of genesis and continuity. Her work reflects a tension between the cold forms of steel and a mysterious inner quality. Pepper has received many commissions for earthworks and environmental projects, in which the landforms as well as the usage of the land are taken into consideration.
Two sculptures by Beverly Pepper, “Normano Column” and “Normano Wedge,” are part of the outdoor sculpture collection at Western Washington University, Bellingham.
For the 1979 Earthworks Symposium, Beverly Pepper worked with the site sponsor, the University of Washington, to develop a design for a part of the Montlake Landfill, on the eastern edge of the university’s Seattle campus. This site, located between the University and Lake Washington’s Union Bay, was a garbage dump from the 1920s to the 1950s, and a landfill (mixed garbage and earth) from the 1960s. Pepper’s design proposed a viewing structure from which both the man-made environment and the natural order might be observed. The design consisted of two structures connected by a straight, gently terraced three-hundred-foot pathway. One structure was a 150-foot-long, 20-foot-high earth mound on a circle of bluegrass; it could be climbed in part to view both the landfill and the surrounding environment. The mound would be cut on one side and faced with a glass wall through which would be seen roots of wild flora, three generations of layered garbage deposits, and a layer of gravel to gauge shifts in the land. The other structure was a 100-foot circle of white-capped posts meant as a monitoring station to measure future shifts in land level. The installation sought to address the needs of its community: university students, wildlife preservationists, and future naturalists.
(Drawing and model for Montlake Landfill proposal, by Beverly Pepper. Above right: cross section of earth from Monlake Landfill showing refuse. Top: Montlake Landfill site. King County Archives Series 1747.)
Watch more from interview with Beverly Pepper onsite at the Montlake Fill site, August 1979
After the Symposium
Phase II was a design symposium only. None of the designs presented by the artists was ever completed by the site sponsors. Lakeside Sand and Gravel undertook an engineering and feasibility study of the Richard Fleischner design but did not proceed with the work.
In late summer of 1979, the Seattle Art Museum sponsored an exhibit of the artists’ models and drawings at its former Modern Art Pavilion at the Seattle. The exhibit was accompanied by a handsome catalog, featuring Colleen Chartier’s black-and-white photographs of sites, drawings and models. After the close of Seattle show, for the next two years the exhibit toured museums and government facilities around the United States. It received much favorable attention and drew many interested inquiries to King County and the Arts Commission.
The artifacts were returned to King County, who in 1996 donated them to the Seattle Art Museum. The Museum used the artifacts in a 1999 exhibition commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the Earthworks Symposium. More images of drawings and models of the symposium artists can be seen by searching the Museum’s collections database under artist names (external link).
Herbert Bayer’s Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks, Kent, Washington
During the 1960s, the City of Kent began acquiring land in the Mill Creek ravine. The city wished to keep the natural character of the ravine by preserving it as a park. Unfortunately, development on the bluffs above Mill Creek led to silt and refuse coming down the ravine, clogging the creek, spoiling the surroundings, and blocking city stormwater systems.
By the late 1970s city administrators saw that a system of catch basins and stream flow controls was necessary. But installing such a system would spoil the site’s natural beauty, which was the reason that the City of Kent purchased the property.
When, in late 1978, the King County Arts Commission announced its upcoming 1979 symposium Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture, and the associated creation near Kent of an earthwork structure designed by artist Robert Morris, the City of Kent saw a potential solution for its Mill Creek challenge. Could an artist devise water-control structures that could also function as a public park? The city asked the same jury that had selected Robert Morris to recommend an artist for the Kent site. The name suggested by the jury was Herbert Bayer.
Herbert Bayer was an established and respected artist, architect and designer. Born in Austria in 1900, he originally apprenticed as an architect with an interest in graphic design and typography. In 1921 he joined the Bauhaus design workshops in Weimar, Germany, where he eventually was appointed director of printing and advertising. His distinctive, all-lower-case typefaces distinguished Bauhaus publications. In 1938 he moved to New York and in 1946, to Aspen, Colorado. He continued his work as an artist, architect, and graphic and landscape designer, notably as an art and design consultant to various corporate and industrial clients in postwar America. In 1955, he created an earthwork sculpture in Aspen that is credited with being the first contemporary earthwork. He died in 1985.
Herbert Bayer was considered a solid and capable choice as artist for the Kent earthwork. He was seen as someone who could give the city a park designed by an architect who was also an artist. As a Kent newspaper stated, “An earthwork is less an art form to be looked at than lived in. The Mill Creek design is not only art but a park as well.”
Herbert Bayer visited the Kent site in January 1979 and subsequently submitted his design to the Kent City Council. It was under review at the time of the August 1979 design symposium sponsored by the King County Arts Commission. While the project was not officially a part of the symposium, Herbert Bayer’s models and designs were displayed and were discussed by symposium participants. The Mill Creek project was also cited as an example of another municipal government using an artist-designed earthwork to reclaim a troubled site.
After long discussion, largely centered on project cost, the Kent City Council approved the start of construction before monies for the artist’s fee of $143,000 had been fully raised. Ground was broken in March 1981. After an energetic and creative fundraising effort, including a $5000 grant from the King County Arts Commission and an “art bond drive” locally in Kent, the Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks was dedicated on Labor Day weekend, 1982.
The Earthworks has provided Kent with both stormwater control, and with a popular recreation and special-events site. In April 2008 the site was designated Kent’s first official landmark. In 2010 it was the recipient of a $70,000 National Trust for Historic Preservation grant which allowed a two-year restoration to be undertaken.
You can find photographs, a video, and more information about the Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks at http://kentwa.gov/arts/earthworks/.
RESOURCES FOR FURTHER RESEARCH
This online exhibit was prepared in September 2013 using the resources of the King County Archives: textual records, photographs, audiotapes, and videotapes.
King County Arts Commission
The Arts Commission’s own history of the symposium, written as a grant report to the United States Bureau of Mines, can be found online at http://kentwa.gov/arts/earthworks/. The King County Archives holds the original hardcopy version in its complete form.
King County Office of Cultural Resources
King County Department of Transportation, Road Services Division
- Series 400, Photograph and moving image files 1900-2002
- [Multiple unprocessed accessions], Virtual Map Vault maps. [Images online at https://info.kingcounty.gov/transportation/kcdot/roads/mapandrecordscenter/mapvault/]
See also: 4Culture's Public Art Collection Project Profile for the Robert Morris Earthwork