Thoughts on Environmental Sculpture

What is an "environmental sculpture?" Let's start by thinking about what an environment is. According to the dictionary, it's "the aggregrate of surrounding things, conditions, or influences."

An environmental sculpture has a special relationship with its surroundings. It's planned for a particular site, and the qualities of that site influence the making of the artwork. The space can be anywhere – a room, a grove of trees, a pond, an alleyway, a public plaza, a complex of buildings. Often existing on a grand scale, an environmental sculpture surrounds its viewers, who experience the artwork as they enter and move through the space. The elements of time and movement, then, are also involved as important parts of the viewer's experience.

One could argue that any sculpture has a relationship with its surroundings. How we experience a sculpture is affected by its placement, how it's illuminated, how we move around it, and what other things are nearby. Any sculpture engages in a formal and conceptual dialogue with its site. But this conversation isn't planned, it's ad hoc; the interaction between a sculpture and its site may distract from the artist's intention or the viewer's pleasure in looking at the sculpture.

An environmental sculptor plans a piece from the very beginning in relationship to its surroundings. The site is a catalyst, becoming part of the creative process. The finished sculpture and its site form one integrated unit, working together to create a unified mood or atmosphere. In most of the works on this website, I spent hours on site beforehand conceiving the sculpture, then I built it on site; the space became my artist's studio during the installation process.

Each site has particular characteristics, which can affect the qualities of the finished sculpture. For example, a room may have a wall of windows through which afternoon light streams in, which becomes part of the design. Or a pond may have a path that leads to it or a grove of oak trees nearby that drop their leaves into it, sparking an idea for a sculpture on the site.

An environmental sculpture may also be a series of interrelated objects that exist together in a space, and through a repetition of materials, forms, qualities of light, or thematic links, they engage in a conversation, charging the space and making one aware of the atmosphere in the entire room. The individual sculptures may be small, but they create a kind of zing or spark between them. Then the larger space becomes unified, and one is aware not just of the materials but of the spaces between things.

This is not a new concept: think of a Gothic cathedral or Baroque architecture, where all of the elements – sculpture, decoration, painting, stained glass, and architecture – are experienced as one unified whole. Perhaps it's useful to think of a Mardi Gras festival, or a trip to the wax museum. Of course, these are not, strictly speaking, "environmental sculptures"; the former was conceived as a festival and the latter as a museum. But, like environmental sculptures, the intentions of each is to create an integrated viewing experience.

A second meaning of "environmental sculpture" is an artwork that's inspired by forms and processes from nature. Many artists use materials, shapes, colors and textures from the natural environment. Others explore meanings of natural cycles, such as the the four seasons; metamorphosis; cycles of birth, growth, aging, death, and decay. Natural processes are used as metaphors to reflect on the passage of time, capture a fleeting moment, express a sense of loss, or a hope for regeneration. Some environmental artists use ecological issues as their subject matter, and their work seeks to heighten awareness of a fragile ecology, or even to reclaim land, such as by using plant materials to alleviate pollution problems, returning an area to a more pristine condition.