Environmental Art at the Schuylkill Center
With a large parcel of habitat and miles of free public trails, there is always something to see at the Schuylkill Center, located in the Roxborough neighborhood of Philadelphia, for a nature fix. But the ecological artworks along the trails might just help uncover things about nature that are new, exciting and beautiful. Walking through a forest, lush tangles of green understory rise on either side while sunlight through the tree canopy creates dappled shadows below. Feeling the earth below and hearing the bird calls in the distance, visitors may soak in the many benefits of spending time in nature.
Welcome Home, by Vaughn Bell, on long-term view. Contains an unexpected red door and a stone welcome mat. A mailbox in nail-polish red waves its flag in friendly salute. The door opens into a fenced area, with more plants inside. Something is different about the plants inside the fence.
Intrigued by the invasive plants that threaten to overtake our forest, Bell worked with Schuylkill Center staff to create a “home” for plants native to Pennsylvania. White-tailed deer love to browse on native plants and don’t prefer the invasive ones, so restoration plantings always need a protective deer fence. Bell used the motifs of home and belonging to call attention to this ecological dynamic in the forest and raise questions about who belongs here, what it means to be native and what it means that the plants whose home this is now need special protection to survive. The artwork is an unexpected spark that helps us see familiar or invisible things differently.
Welcome Home is art, restoration, and education all in one, part of the ongoing environmental art exhibition program at the Schuylkill Center, founded in 1965. It is one of the first urban environmental education centers in the country, with 340 acres of fields, forests, ponds and streams in northwest Philadelphia. They work through four core program areas: environmental education, environmental art, land stewardship and wildlife rehabilitation. The Schuylkill Center’s mission is to inspire meaningful connections between people and nature.
The environmental art program incites curiosity and sparks awareness of the natural environment through presentations of outdoor and indoor art. Working collaboratively, they create spaces and opportunities for artists and audiences to creatively engage in ecological issues. Since 2000, the environmental art program has brought hundreds of artists to the site. There are novel pathways to connect people and nature through art; often more emotional, visceral and immediate than traditional presentations of scientific information.
The health benefits of both nature and art are well documented, but art can help to heal the land, as well as people. That’s why the Schuylkill Center supports ecological works like Welcome Home, which aren’t just located in the landscape, but are active participants that benefit nature.
Another piece in this vein is Rain Yard, by Stacy Levy, an interactive work on permanent display. Before this work was installed, any time it rained, the water from the roof gutters would rush through the backyard and cause damage to the trails. Now, this innovative artwork serves both a practical function mitigating stormwater runoff from the building and an interpretive function highlighting the critical role that soil and plants play in the water cycle.
It holds back the water to be used by plants in a rain garden while people get to hover above it and experience these processes without getting their feet wet. Bins containing samples of different surfaces that water may encounter like concrete, asphalt, lawn and meadow are located near a pump, allowing visitors to experience how it is different when it rains in downtown Philadelphia versus at the Schuylkill Center.
In addition to site-based art programming, Schuylkill has an indoor gallery space in the Visitor Center building, where curatorial concepts explore and reflect on environmental themes relating to local ecologies. They present three to five exhibits each year of professional contemporary artwork, and have had diverse shows exploring moss, climate change and everything in-between.
Christina Catanese is the director of environmental art at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education.