Exploring the Relationship Between Ecology and Art in Exhibition Santa Fe Watershed: Lessons from the Genius of Place Friday, December 10, 2004 Husband-Wife Team Have Ideas for Revitalizing Santa Fe's Dried-Up Waterway By John Arnold Of the Journal
The Santa Fe River that Helen and Newton Harrison knew when they taught at the University of New Mexico in the 1960s was much different than the one that exists today.
For starters, Helen Mayer Harrison said, it had water in it, not to mention a healthy riparian habitat along its banks.
"I can remember when people went fishing in it," said the writer and eco-artist, who resides in Santa Cruz, Calif.
The husband-and-wife team - "sort of like the grandparents of ecological art," according to Newton Harrison - are back in New Mexico for the opening of their latest exhibit "Santa Fe Watershed: Lessons from the Genius of Place," opening Saturday at the Santa Fe Art Institute.
Known for their large-scale works examining the relationship between art and the environment, the Harrisons have taken on the demise of the Santa Fe River and watershed in their latest project. It advocates— with the help of engineers, planners and fellow artists— solutions for a healthier future.
"There is your dead Santa Fe River," Newton Harrison said as he motioned toward an enormous map sprawling across a gallery wall. Constructed using aerial photographs, it clearly showed the Santa Fe River bed as it winds through the heart of the City Different. "In the main, it is gone," Newton Harrison said of the river. To get it back, the Harrisons and a collaborating engineer propose that the river bed be raised by installing some 400 sediment-accumulating small dams along the river. A higher river bed, Helen Mayer Harrison said, will allow water to sink into the ground. "So you want to prevent (water) from moving rapidly," she said. "Dams hold the water, hold the debris. That restores the earth, and as the earth becomes restored, then the plants bring themselves back in." The project would cost about $4 million, far less than the increased land values such an effort would inspire, Newton Harrison said. Not only that, "you raise the quality of life for everybody," Helen Mayer Harrison added. "That's one of our profound concerns." Maps are at the heart of the Harrisons' work. Some allow city-dwellers to see precisely where they live in relationship to the river. Others depict much larger areas— the entire Rio Grande Valley, for example. They have been modified and manipulated to extract and show information and viewpoints that may otherwise go unnoticed. And therein lies the art in the Harrisons' activism, according to Santa Fe Art Institute executive director Diane Karp. "Art is a vehicle for people who are extraordinary problem solvers to engage an audience in an exploration of ideas or images," she said. "Maps are a perfect metaphor for the arts... (the Harrisons) ask different questions of the image and make the image respond." In some maps, for example, roads and political divisions are blocked out, providing a clearer view of the relationship between watersheds in the Rio Grande valley. Another map highlights nearly 90 arroyos feeding the Santa Fe river. A photographic compilation, titled "The Piñon and the Patch," suggests that with some human help, the remains of dead piñon trees can be used to encourage the regeneration of topsoil and sponge-like grasslands. Rather than leaving piñons to rot in place, the Harrisons said that dead needles and branches, along with seed, should be spread over wider areas. The photographs show grassy areas that have flourished following such an effort. "It is somewhat labor-intensive," Newton Harrison said. "But how else are you going to get your topsoil?" Much of the exhibit, which also includes poetry and prose, video displays and other multi-media installations, underscores one of the Harrisons' core beliefs— that to restore the Santa Fe river, the community must first restore the earth, which has become the victim of grazing, development and other human interventions. "The problem with the Santa Fe River is only part of a much larger problem," Helen Mayer Harrison said. "That is, a lack of respect for water, land and earth, and other lives besides our own." WHAT: "Santa Fe Watershed: Lessons from the Genius of Place" WHEN: Opening lecture with artists Helen and Newton Harrison 3 p.m. Saturday; exhibit opening reception 5-7 p.m. Saturday; show runs through Jan. 22. WHERE: The exhibit is displayed at the Santa Fe Art Institute, College of Santa Fe campus, 1600 St. Michael's Drive; the opening lecture will be held at Tipton Hall, also on the College of Santa Fe's campus This ABQjournal Page Is Free Today This story is available free without registration as a public service of the Albuquerque Journal. ABQjournal content is always free to Albuquerque Journal 7-day newspaper subscribers.