On a cold, rainy day last winter, I visited Jackie Brookner’s studio in SoHo. Jackie is a sculptor and professor at Parsons School of Design who has pioneered some unusual sculptural forms that employ plants as part of their surface textures. She was introduced to me by my aunt Ryan, who has lived in the Village for almost thirty years and knows an astounding array of artists and unusual characters.
Jackie’s space was filled with the quiet energy of creation and a sense of serenity uncommon in the city. She seemed a patient and positive soul and certainly a welcoming host. We sipped tea and compared our personal histories: we had both been raised in the same neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island. I described to her my project at the Wyckoff Farmhouse in Brooklyn and she suggested some sources of historical information.
We soon moved on to the studio. The space was filled with sculptures of different kinds; I was surprised to find myself as much drawn to the other pieces as to the biosculptures I had come specifically to see. Her explanation of each group of sculptures unfolded as a narrative, revealing the evolution of the biosculpture concept. Jackie’s art had always been about the intersection of earth, nature, and culture.
The biosculpture process began with a project called “Of Earth and Cotton”. This involved Jackie’s travelling through the South, interviewing aging cotton pickers and molding sculptures of their feet from the very fields they had once worked. The clay/earthen theme carried through another sculpture series in which she fashioned earthen chairs in the shape of giant tongues (these were amazingly comfortable to sit on!). A friend of hers had then suggested growing moss on the chairs and from this idea, biosculpture was born.
There were five or six different biosculptures in the half of the room closest to the south-facing windows. For these projects, Jackie had explored her interest in biology; she worked closely with a number of experts in the field. Essentially, the idea has been to create living sculptures that through biological processes function to purify polluted water. Jackie places mosses, liverworts, and other moisture-loving plants so they take root on an earthen form. When water passes over the sculpture’s surface, the plants and associated bacteria clean the water of pollutants. The sculptures are biogeochemical filters that function ecologically, aesthetically, and metaphorically.
There were a number of different biosculptures on display, each an experiment with different forms, plants, and water delivery methods. The largest, titled “Prima Lingua”, again the shape of broad tongue, displayed a mosaic of different plant species which created a painting in shades, tones, and textures of green. Stunned by the aesthetic charm of the arrangement, I asked her if the mosaic had been designed. She replied that the pattern had evolved on its own, her only input being to trim back the more aggressive species occasionally. Some of the other sculptures, in a series called “I’m You”, took the form of unusual ringed shapes that looked vaguely like six-fingered hands. She explained that these shapes were based upon the microscopic cell formations of some of the mosses growing on them!
As we arrived at each sculpture, Jackie turned on the recirculation system to demonstrate the different ways in which the water was delivered. It was fascinating to observe water creep across the surfaces, tiny rivulets causing the mosses in their path to bloom into life. She passed me a magnifying glass to examine the process more closely. I commented that children must love the sculptures and she replied that people of all ages seemed to be entranced by them. Once she came across an old man staring motionless at a particular spot on one of the biosculptures, as if he had become transfixed there as a young man and grown hunched and old under its spell, like some strange character from Greek myth. At the same time there had been a group of children playing where the water was dripping into the collecting pool at its base.
After we had finished the studio tour, Jackie described to me some of her biosculpture projects, completed and pending. In 2001 the town of Grossenhain, Germany (near Dresden) commissioned her to create a work she titled “The Gift of Water”. This biosculpture of two mossy, cupped hands is part of a remarkable new public swimming complex where the pool water is filtered entirely by wetland plants without the use of chlorine or other chemicals. One of her latest endeavors is part of a biofilter for the Salway Park Wetland and Stormwater Filtration Project in Cincinnati, Ohio. There, working with a variety of partners, she is creating a series of biosculptures and wetland habitats that will filter runoff from parking lots, sidewalks, and ballfields before it enters Mill Creek. After collecting in a small plaza, the stormwater will pour into a stream of biosculptures, over “schools of hands that gradually transform into fish as the stream flows toward the creek.
In West Palm Beach, Florida, she is contributing “Elder’s Cove”, a thirteen foot biosculpture, to the redevelopment of Dreher Park. Paying homage to Seminole history, the sculpture will be a focal point amidst eight acres of interconnecting lakes and dry retention ponds being built to catch, hold, and drain stormwater within this large regional urban park.
Finally, here in New York, Jackie is working on a proposal for a large outdoor wall sculpture- to filter stormwater runoff from adjacent rooftops- that will be a centerpiece of the developing Jardin del Paraiso community garden on the Lower East Side. The image of the sculpture will incorporate the same hand-like microscopic moss structures as in “I’m You”. These will be mixed with elements based on the hands of children from the garden community.
Jackie and I discussed our feelings about the global environmental crisis and discovered similarities in how we perceive our role in its possible resolution. While Jackie brings practical ecological function to art, I see an opportunity, through my background in landscape design, to bring art and aesthetics to the permaculture movement. In this way, we are both edge-dwellers, providing larger communities access to the world of ecological design through the use of art.
I would like to posit that Jackie Brookner is one sort of person the permaculture movement would do well to “form strategic partnerships with,” as Michael Kramer suggest in his “Challenge to the Movement.” (PCA #49). Her work or the work of other ecological artis would make a powerful focal point for any permaculture demonstration site. Good art can successfully convey a message or sway minds and hearts where words and abstract ideas might fail. We desperately need to make a greater impact on American society; art is one way we might hope to do so.
“The major theme of my work is that humans are part of larger natural patterns and are dependent upon the natural systems that support our lives. The images I use are intended to foster conscious understanding of this and to instill an emotional connection to nature and a sense of literal kinship.” –Jackie Brookner