Art Works Blog

MICD25 Spotlight on Kent, Washington

Kent, Washington

The Herbert Bayer Earthworks is a public park, storm water detention dam and Modernist masterpiece located in Kent, Washington. (c) Herbert Bayer, Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks, 1982. Courtesy of City of Kent Public Art Collection. Photo by John Hoge

The City of Kent established an arts commission in 1975 to provide leadership on cultural opportunities and arts education, and improve the quality of life and aesthetic environment in the city of 85,000. To learn more about Kent's MICD25 project, we spoke with Cheryl dos Remedios, the visual arts coordinator for the City of Kent Cultural Division.

NEA: Please describe your project and what you hope it will bring to the residents of Kent.

CHERYL DOS REMEDIOS: The Earthworks Bicycle Tour will physically connect four iconic landscapes located in the Green River Valley: the Herbert Bayer Earthwork, Robert Morris Earthwork, Lorna Jordan?s Waterworks Gardens, and the Green River Natural Resources Area. This collection of land art is a legacy of King County?s groundbreaking 1979 Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture symposium.

Robert Morris was at the forefront of both Minimalism and Land Art when he was asked to reclaim a gravel pit overlooking the Kent Valley. Bauhaus master Herbert Bayer successfully integrated a stormwater detention dam into a public park at the foot of Kent's Mill Creek Canyon. During this same time period, the Kent Public Works Department began transforming an abandoned sewage lagoon into one of the largest man-made, multi-use wildlife refuges in the United States. The Green River Natural Resource Area provides habitat to more than 165 birds and 53 mammals, attracting international eco-tourism. In 1998, building upon these prior projects, Lorna Jordan?s ecological artwork at the Renton sewage treatment plant began purifying stormwater, enhancing a wetland, and providing eight acres of garden rooms and open space for public use.

These land art and reclamation sites are widely recognized by the international design community, but locally they are a hidden treasure. The bicycle tour will provide Kent residents with a new artistic and recreational experience. These properties are all within a four mile radius, and the valley bike route is primarily flat (an unusual terrain in the Puget Sound region), making the tour popular for people of all ages and fitness levels. The route can be accessed via a regional transit/rail station here in Kent.

NEA: Why is it important to have arts and culture at the table when planning community revitalization efforts?

DOS REMEDIOS: While I was doing research for our Earthworks documentary, I found that having artists at the table is one of the legacies of the 1979 Earthworks symposium. As 4Culture Public Art Director Cath Brunner noted, "The symposium marked an important moment in thinking that artists could be meaningful place makers, that they could use their skill and visionary spirit to create spaces for public use.?

The subtitle of our Earthworks documentary is "A Place for People,? emphasizing the importance of creating public spaces---one of the documentary?s main shorelines. In the late 1970s, engineers began designing a concrete dam complete with ?do not trespass? signs adjacent to Kent's historic downtown. City leaders responded by hiring Herbert Bayer. Writing for Art in America, Bill Berkson stated that the Herbert Bayer Earthwork is ?generally considered a miracle of park planning and water management; it?s also enormously popular as a concert site.? The Herbert Bayer Earthworks is the City of Kent's first historic landmark, receiving a designation of "exceptional significance? for its contribution to Modernism and the field of public art.

Another prime example of place making is the Renton sewage treatment plant. ?Instead of an ?out of site, out of mind? approach,? artist Lorna Jordan proposed ?an environmental art/public works project that invites people to observe the natural processes of water purification while connecting to them to the cycles and mysteries of water.? Waterworks Gardens is a place where people choose to get married.

Infrastructure projects are very large, public investments. It is our public art programs that ensure that these spaces---even the sewage treatment plants---are places where people will want to celebrate the most important moments of their lives. Having artists at the table is a wise part of the overall investment.

NEA: How do you think environmental art projects benefit the civic life of a community?

DOS REMEDIOS: This past weekend, our region received record rains. The Green River didn?t flood, but residents remain concerned about their safety. Even if we are fortunate enough to avoid a major flood event in the coming years, the potential failure of the Howard Hanson Dam is severely dampening Kent?s economic vitality.

At a time when an innovative approach to flood conditions is most urgently needed, these Green River Earthworks offer model solutions. Each project clearly illustrates how an aesthetic approach to stormwater management can create natural habitat, tourism opportunities, and recreational enhancements.

NEA: Given the nature of your project, how would you define public art?

DOS REMEDIOS: In short, public art is a collaborative process that makes public spaces more accessible, via a myriad of details and anomalies. The Green River Earthworks were shaped by visionary artists, forward thinking arts commissioners, and government employees who were unafraid to explore creative alliances, nontraditional funding sources, existing land-use regulations, and the public process.

Public art programs are a way to leverage community engagement of all types, yet the qualitative nature of public art is hard to measure. This is why I frequently reference a statistic from the field of Health Impact Assessment (the public health version of an environmental impact assessment): ?Neighborhood beautification increases public activity by 72%, whereas adding a bike lane to an existing roadway increases public activity by 22%.?

Within the field of ublic health, this statistic shows that public art has a surprisingly big role to play in encouraging citizens to walk and bike. For the purposes of public art advocacy, this statistic has proven effective because elected officials appreciate projects that accomplish multiple civic goals. Amusingly, the project we?re now developing combines public art with bike lanes, but any similarity between the project scope and my favorite statistic is purely coincidental!

Dry humor aside, this project is timely. For the next four to five years, the Green River Trail will be closed to bicyclists because giant sandbags along the levee crowd the trail. Rather than allowing Kent to be portrayed as a place to avoid due to the risk of flooding, the bicycle tour will provide new routes along existing public right-of-ways. We expect this project to increase activity on these publicly-owned lands by attracting both local residents and cultural tourists.

An important characteristic of public art is its specificity, and in this case, the bicycle tour connects a collection of significant public artworks. I am not advocating for public art funds to be used to build bike lanes, yet I am a proponent for broadly defining public art. For example, we periodically host site-specific performances at the Herbert Bayer Earthworks because we view site activation as an extension of the artist?s legacy, as commemorated on the Earthworks plaque: "My aim with environmental design is to carry art and design from the privacy of the museum to the public realm bringing it close to a greater majority.?

NEA: How important is MICD 25 funding for the success of your project?

DOS REMEDIOS: Essential! The support of the National Endowment for the Arts is critically important because it confirms that the properties on the Earthworks Tour are nationally significant. People will be more likely to take the tour knowing that this collection merits the NEA?s financial support.

Especially during these tough economic times, grant funding is crucial. Funding for city cultural programs has been reduced, so having matching funds from the federal government allows us to move forward with new, innovative ideas.

NEA: Any last words?

DOS REMEDIOS: We?d like to thank our partners! The Earthworks Bicycle Tour will create an ecological and cultural connection between urban Seattle and 4 suburban municipalities, so there are a lot of agencies involved.

The City of Kent owns and manages the Herbert Bayer Earthwork and Green River Natural Resources Area, both located here in Kent. The Robert Morris Earthwork is located in SeaTac. The artwork is owned by King County and managed by 4Culture. Lorna Jordan?s Waterworks Gardens is located in Renton at the King County South Treatment Plant. The artwork is owned by King County and managed by 4Culture. The connecting trail is managed by King County and maintained by Renton, Tukwila, and Kent. Cascade Bicycle Club (the largest non-motorized policy, advocacy, and educational organization in North America, with over 12,000 regional members) will help us plan and promote the tour. Partners in Preservation (the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the American Express Foundation) has provided the Kent Arts Commission with grant funding to help restore the Herbert Bayer Earthworks. 4Culture Historic Preservation has provided the City of Kent with funding to help restore the Herbert Bayer Earthworks, while 4Culture Site Specific has provided the Kent Arts Commission with funding to program the Earthworks.

We look forward to working with citizens and businesses located in the Green River Valley, and we?ll be hosting a community information meeting about the project in spring of 2011. Thanks to all of the artists, landscape architects and historians who have already contributed to our Earthworks projects.

Please join us for the inaugural ride in September 2011! As we get closer to the date, we?ll post event details at our website. In the meantime, please follow us on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/greenriverearthworks

One of the environmental art works featured in the City of Kent's project is Waterworks Gardens by Lorna Jordan. Take a look at the Fall issue of  NEA Arts for our interview with Jordan who talks about landscape as inspiration.

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