Environmental Art

by | Mar 1, 2016 | Art | 5 comments

I am working on a letter of inquiry to a San Francisco Bay Area organization that funds collaborative projects between artists and nonprofit organizations. I found out about them a couple of years ago, and an idea for a public art project has crystallized just in time to apply for this year’s round of funding.

Our prospective collaborators are the Friends of the Napa River, an organization dedicated to the protection and celebration of the river. Our idea is to make environmental art, something I’ve thought about off and on since I used to work for a conservation district.

There was nothing particularly aesthetic about the district’s work; although there is physical beauty in a well-executed creek restoration project, the aesthetic quality is not what you think about; you think about improvements in habitat or in some other environmental value. But if you spend enough time looking at things like creeks and forests, the aesthetic appeal becomes more and more important to you. You feel at home with the view.

So what would environmental art look like? I’m inclined to agree with Timothy Morton, who has recently sought to ground an environmental aesthetic in the notion of the interconnectedness of our human world with what we used to call the natural world, before we noticed that it wasn’t as pristine as we thought.

We are imagining pieces of public art that will by their very essence communicate the connectedness of people & the rest of nature, and we are thinking to place them at the intersection of our built environment and the wilderness. I think this is a great opportunity to make something out of wood for an outdoor site, if we can figure out how to design with the weather in mind. Perhaps we will make substantial benches or tables out of downed trees, ones that originated in the very river whose shore they adorn.   The local government agency responsible for maintenance of the Napa River flood project actually stockpiles large tree trunks that occasionally must be removed from the Napa River, either for reasons of public safety or because they are in the way of a restoration project; they are often used to reconstruct creek and river banks, a method that fosters fish habitat and anchors the bank well while the riparian vegetation grows back.

There’s always wood around a river. When I was looking into the availability of downed wood for our project, I happened to find out from Rick at the Flood District that impromptu sculptures have started appearing in the Oxbow bypass, the most recently completed part of the Napa River flood project that has been going on since the late 90’s. I went right down, and the picture shows an example of what I found. Humans can’t resist the urge to make art.


  1. Eric

    Let me chime in a little with a reference to Works & Conversations, a section of which devotes itself to varied notions of environmental art.

    Are you considering your own contribution to the Napa River bed (in addition to all that you already have)?

  2. Eric

    And as an addendum, my thought was about a personal sculptural piece. Your work has evolved to a place straddling the line between utility and the purely aesthetic and I wondered what you might give to the site.

    • Robert Zlomke

      The proposed project discussed in this post has a lot of latitude for creativity. There is an interplay between the usefulness of what we make, as something to sit on perhaps, and the array of meanings the wood material has. If anything, the latter is more important. Still, the relatively simple utility of the piece may be an essential \”foil\” to the complex associations wood has for us: wood is the thing that grows all around us, a marker for \”nature,\” and it’s also a construction material available to every 8-year old with a pocket knife. Look at a piece of wood, and you’re looking at a universe under your nose.

  3. Catherine

    I moved here a few years ago from the East Coast, and one thing I’ve noticed about Napa is that there are not many places in the parks or along the River Trail to sit down to contemplate nature. Perhaps a small sculptural copse or even a hollow tree that provides a quiet, shady space to pause for a few moments and simply look, listen, and breathe. I would love to sit in a hollow tree while observing the natural world, both in and outside of my own private space-like a human owl.

    • Robert Zlomke

      Thank you so much for your comment. We need those places.


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