Published  06/11/2007

Art and Survival: Patricia Johanson's Environmental Projects

Art and Survival: Patricia Johanson's Environmental Projects

Caffyn Kelly, with an introduction by Lucy R Lippard.
Published by Islands Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies,
Salt Spring Island, BC, Canada

The outstanding American landscapist Patricia Johanson occupies a unique position in American contemporary landscape design. She is first and foremost a conceptual artist who trained as an architect but who undoubtedly has brought a new meaning to the role.

There is a reluctance, on the part of some academics, professionals and indeed clients to recognise the role of the landscapist. A landscape architect, of course: but how many of the profession today have the combination of art school and architectural training? Increasingly today this covers the activity of an artist-designer working in the landscape field. This new book, by Caffyn Kelly, brings us up to date on her work, including progress on California's Petaluma Water Recycling Plant, and there are other major projects following, such as her Salt Lake City highway crossing and a master plan for San Jose, California. At 67, Johanson is still producing highly original designs, as she always has. Amongst her most influential friends has been the painter Georgia O'Keefe, and also Helen Frankenthaler. Her creativity has been inspired and strengthened by these friendships, but she has always followed her own inclination, a lone individual seemingly always well ahead of the pack.

Caffyn Kelly charts this progression through many vicissitudes- the joy and labour of being a single parent for one. The book is aptly entitled Art and Survival: Patricia Johanson's Environmental Projects. Her forays into what is chiefly a public art, by definition show images always sourced from natural forms, derived from botanical and biological examples with meticulous engagement. Such involve preferred forms in her landscape planning, such as the loop, the coil (and the uncoil) which incorporate natural rhythms applied by Johanson. She welcomes a contextuality related to time, as much as a serial narrative for her work on any particular project. The narrative always relates to the local ecology. Hers is, as Lucy Lippard says in her inspiring introduction, a landscape of human nature, where ecological principles are paramount. Johanson herself remains always a 'country' person, not unlike her mentor the painter Georgia O'Keefe, and not a metropolitan artist. So she harmonises readily with every new environmental challenge every project, without preconception. Increasingly the profession and the world at large has fallen in line with her long held concern about the necessity of planetary survival. Interestingly, snakes as such are welcomed into the ecosystems she develops, benign but recognisable forms. Lippard says that her art actually becomes a healing force itself. Johanson knows how important this is for humans: she herself contracted but survived a virulent cancer long ago. In her work, as Lippard says, 'she seeks to collaborate with nature rather than compete'.

In her architectural training at Columbia, Johanson had worked with the architectural firm Mitchell/Giurgola (who notably designed Australia's new Parliament building at Canberra). Very early on, she came to sketch her own proposals, long before, for a city 'with a continuous network of forested roofs'. This was well in advance of Giurgola's own plan for the Parliament Building at Canberra, Australia, which significantly boasted a green clad roof. Her 1992 plan for a park for the Amazon Rainforest was also well in advance of ideas at that time.

Perhaps the most interesting of Johanson's current projects is the Salt Lake City set of proposals. The Sugar House Pedestrian Crossing provides an accessible link across a major highway, connecting with the Parleys Creek trail there. This element is specifically designed to reflect the narrative of the City's origins at the same time as enhancing a contemporary biological corridor of considered value both to the children and the city's citizens and visitors. The provision of a symbolic Sego Lily, of a species which aided the original settlers in their very survival (by consuming the lily's roots),was a flash of inspiration for Johanson, based upon research into the early settlement which helped her to establish a landscape narrative. 'I try to create situations', she says, 'where people can understand, through their own experience, how the world works'.

As Caffyn Kelly, the author, says, 'She always identifies first as an artist. Her ideas are rooted in an artist's palette of image, colour, form, pattern, symbol and the relationship between spectator and object'.

At Sugar Park here, the two elements, the snake and the Sego Lily, provided a readily comprehensible combination of narrative-based images which the people of Salt Lake City could recognise. The Sego Lily is established in the Park, while the Rattle Snake lies in Hidden Hollow. This almost mythological combination gives form to the park. The art forms are evocative, as the writer Xin Wu says, 'Yet the figures are not only obstructed on site but disintegrate into details that are symbolic signs signifying discrete messages. Johanson relies upon a visual connectivity in this fragmentation to convey meaning. The art and experience emerge into one another, they are both the framer of the journey and at the same time framed by it'.

Patricia Johanson is possibly the world's most important contributor to landscape theory as practice led. As an artist and engineer turned landscape architect she has ploughed a lone furrow in the increasingly bureaucratised world of landscape and garden design. Her parks and gardens are readily comprehensible to the newcomer. They incorporate site narrative, climate and ecology, as well as what can only be called user psychology. The establishment of such links with the public users, as in all her schemes substantiates the validity of her practice. This monograph is a valuable introduction to her works, her art, and above all perhaps, to the understanding of Patricia Johanson herself.

Michael Spens

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