I have always worked with nature. Early in my work I imitated its beautiful forms, but this collected too much dust and did not really respond to the true nature of nature – which is mutability and process. In my day job as an urban forester, as I was adjusting the plants of old fields and woodlands so that they could become more native and diverse, I became aware of the difficulty and joy of having nature as a collaborator. I found that my artwork needed to reflect the ever-changing face of the natural world, and I began to work with a focus on natural process. With this began a long line of work about how nature works: how much does it rain; which way does the wind blow; what lives in water; when is the tide high; where is the moon? My mission has been to show the simple, often overlooked and forgotten aspects of the natural world, and to show that nature resides in every aspect of the land – from the most densely urban concrete grid to the unsuccessfully sterile suburbs. Much of my work diagrams what is too slow or too fast, or too microscopic, or too vast to see or comprehend. I often do not understand how things work, so I try to create visual metaphors for complicated systems. I have done projects on how the moon orbits the earth, where a city gets its drinking water, the distribution of waterways within a watershed, and what plants survive in an urban vacant lot.
As an artist, I am often confronted by a lack of anything interesting or visual on a given site. My job is then to infuse the site with some understanding, some handle to comprehend the layers that make the surface we see. I find it essential to connect the site to a larger system, making it a link in the chain of a larger nature. I have been working on two river projects, on the Schuylkill in Philadelphia and on the Hudson River in Manhattan, in which I try to create a sense of the rivers’ patterns and their place in the waters” journey from rain to ocean.
I am driven to find a moment of interest (and hence beauty) in the banal perpendicularity of our built spaces. There is not enough to look at in our everyday life. The visual world has been oversimplified. Only advertisements give us a visually interesting occurrence as we wait for subways or stop at traffic lights. (One might even begin to wonder if the media community has conspired to keep urban and suburban places a dull background to their bright posters and billboards.) Much of the built world is simply too ugly, the richness of the site is locked out by cheap construction, liability issues, lack of human scale, and quick fixes overtop of complicated problems. So what is an artist to do?