Jackie Brookner: 2013 AHN Awardee

“The urgency to protect and restore water, reveal its power and importance as the source of all life, and encourage a loving and caring connection to it is what fuels my work. Ultimately this is about loving the mystery and power of what we are part of.” – Jackie Brookner

Arts & Healing Network is delighted to present one of the 2013 AHN Awards to environmental artist Jackie Brookner. Her dedication to making works of beauty that literally purify the toxins in our water is laudatory. Her innovative work not only remediates environmental problems, but also invites people to enjoy, appreciate and deepen their relationship with the natural world. We applaud her immense talent and creative spirit.

To learn more about Jackie's outstanding work, please visit jackiebrookner.com. You could also find her work in the book, Urban Rain: Stormwater as Resource.


Below is an interview by Arts & Healing Network Director Mary Daniel Hobson with Jackie Brookner from June 2013:

Mary Daniel Hobson: Could you start by telling me about your background, and what inspired you to make art about environmental issues?

Jackie Brookner: Here are a few of the dots that I only saw were a meandering path in retrospect….

Most of my earliest memories are of my intimate moments with the little bit of “nature” I had access to in the backyard of our house in Cranston, Rhode Island. 

I remember kneeling at the far end of the back yard, fascinated by the rich, dark soil under the bushes, digging my fingers into it and cupping it to my nose to smell that dark brown smell. Tugging on long fluffy green leaves, I was amazed that I pulled up orange carrots. I delighted in untwisting the translucent green and yellow and purple skins of the iris buds growing next to the house along the driveway. 

When I was six, we moved to a new house. We had a lot of large houseplants that were being used to divide the space. I loved these plants, but they didn’t have enough light, so they would always die after a few months. This really upset me. I hated seeing my friends die. Feeling the wounds of these other beings, especially plants, has always been with me and is probably part of what fuels my need to do whatever I can to help us change our disastrous relationships with the beings of earth and the natural systems that are our extended family.

When I went to college in the 1960’s, I was absolutely sure I was going to be a biologist. I took a course titled with a word I had never heard before. The course was called “Ecology.” It was the heyday of microbiology, and this was the only course that dealt with living organisms. And I loved it, but there was only one course. I was also taking an art history course. Something happened to me in the art history course that was not supposed to happen. I was only supposed to be learning how to understand paintings and sculptures, but I actually started to see the world in a new way. It was as if a veil was lifted from my eyes. We were assigned to draw something and I decided to draw the pear tree at the back of our house. I remember looking at its trunk and truly seeing and feeling its subtle bends and fullness. It revealed itself to me in an astonishing way. I wanted to give this felt vision to other people and ended up majoring in art history and then went to Harvard to get a PhD. Just as I was about to start my dissertation, I took the summer off and spent it at a beach house on the Rhode Island shore. I found a piece of bark that was still a complete cylinder with a single slit in it and became fascinated by it. I drew it repeatedly, and then got an idea for a sculpture based on it. 

I imagined the sculpture would be made of steel, as I’d been taught this was the only “valid sculpture” and I was a “good” student who thought I was supposed to listen to my professors. Frustrated with my model that kept flopping over, I learned to weld, and an entirely different sculpture happened, and then another.  I was hooked, and that was the end of the art history. After 4 years of working in the tradition of David Smith and Anthony Caro, I realized that I needed to root my work in nature, not in other art. I spent several years working in wax and casting my own bronze. I was exploring the feeling of growth in plants and how energy (chi) moves through our bodies like water moves through plants, and this was layered with explorations of how memories reside in our bodies. 

As the 1980’s wore on and the dire state of the world was unrelentingly calling my attention -- with AIDS, horrendous urban poverty, and constant news of increasingly severe environmental problems -- I began to feel that my very introspective practice was not enough. I was not doing anything to help the world.  I knew I had imagination, intelligence and energy and wanted to make some kind of a difference, but I had no idea how. It was not until 1990 when I was doing research as the editor of a special issue of “Art Journal” on Art and Ecology that I started to see how I could do this. While learning about the work of the Harrisons, Joseph Beuys, Mel Chin, Mierle Ukeles and others it all became clear. My work could bring everything I love together. It could be “of nature” rather than “about nature,” and I could integrate art and ecology.

I knew I wanted to do something that went beyond diagnosing problems, that was functional and could make a positive difference, but I didn’t know what or how. It took me about five years to find ecologists who would even talk with me -- most that I met said, “What does art have to do with ecology?”  When I finally did meet some more open-minded ecologists, they told me about the amazing capacity of moss to filter water. 

This led to my first Biosculpture™.  In 1995, I received a commission from Appalachian State University to create Prima Lingua, a giant moss-covered tongue that licks and cleans the polluted water in which it stands. Others of these vegetated, sculpted ecosystems followed.  Over the years, in order to function effectively, the Biosculptures™ have grown to landscape-scale projects.

Mary Daniel: You have been working with water as a collaborator for so many years - can you tell me what inspired your commitment to this element?

Jackie: Water is the sacred connector -- it links all living beings and is a gift of the universe. Without water there is no life. We could say that water IS life, which means that we are water, in one of its many forms. Water has truly awesome power to both sustain and destroy life. We cannot make water, but we can certainly damage it, as we have been doing so well over the past century or more. Water all over the world, both the oceans and fresh water systems, and the organisms that live in it are in dire trouble from human causes. The urgency to protect and restore water, reveal its power and importance as the source of all life, and encourage a loving and caring connection to it is what fuels my work.  Ultimately this is about loving the mystery and power of what we are part of.

Mary Daniel: Do you believe artmaking can be a catalyst for healing and positive change and if so, how?

Jackie: I absolutely think both making art and experiencing art can be a catalyst for healing and positive change, but it is most effective if it is one among many different catalysts. In terms of how, of course, each artist does this in their own ways. My projects heal and transform by rebuilding connections that have been broken, forgotten or overlooked. The works function ecologically to help restore connectivity within the natural environment. They function socially to help overcome the powerlessness, pessimism and passivity many people feel in the face of today’s overwhelming environmental problems. They are designed to create opportunities in which people can exercise their creative agency and see its effectiveness. People of all ages and backgrounds can intimately experience their capacity to help heal damages we have wrought and build a world where humans can embrace nature and respect its abundance as well as its limits. The form, imagery and beauty of the works are also transformative as they affect us emotionally and remind us that we are part of something beyond ourselves, something much larger. Hopefully this recognition can help lead to the “new paradigm” our culture so desperately needs if we are going to start to create a healthier relationship with the natural systems that support our lives. To affect values, to create desire, to encourage people to care about something, you have to affect their hearts, their bodies, their unconscious dream lives and their imaginations. This is the work art can do so well and is the root of my passion and commitment.

Encouraging creative agency is crucial because it helps undermine the malleability and public passivity our culture intentionally designs. To change larger cultural patterns…well, I wish I had an answer for how to do that and do it fast, but it is obvious that, at the least, we need a huge groundswell of committed public will and action to counteract the enormously powerful corporate forces that are controlling and destroying our world. These forces work on us through advertising and the media, both of which manipulate through emotional affect.  Those of us who live in the privileged world are all complicit in this, so we need to push against those emotional messages, and literally create different kinds of dreams through the deeper powers of art.

Mary Daniel: What is your creative process like? Could you share the story behind the making of one of your projects?

Jackie: My process is dynamic and responsive to the uniqueness of each site. I always begin with listening to the place itself -- how it feels and functions or could function ecologically and socially -- and to its assets and needs. I listen to the people who will use the space -- to local leaders and policy makers and to the various science, social science and design collaborators. Through this process and other research, the needs that can be addressed, both human and non-human, are revealed.  


I am currently working with the City of Fargo, North Dakota and a team of local artists and residents on The Fargo Project. This is a pilot project in which holistic ecological restoration, socially engaged ecological art and active community process are synergizing to transform functioning stormwater infrastructure into a vibrant and innovative green space. We are transforming an 18-acre stormwater detention basin into a multifunctional neighborhood commons through a fully participatory community process. The project provides an opportunity for city residents of all ages and backgrounds to envision, design, build and care for a place where they can connect with others and celebrate Fargo’s rich natural and cultural diversity. Because the basin must maintain its function as a stormwater collection site to prevent flooding, part of the exciting challenge of the project is designing other uses for it that are compatible with and even enhance the basin’s infrastructure function.

These basins were built to address water quantity but not water quality. They are barren sites that cut off neighborhoods and socializing. Many of the basins are in neighborhoods with low or moderate-income residents, including Fargo’s “New American” population, refugees from twenty different nations such as Bhutan, Somalia, Sudan, Liberia, Iraq and Bosnia. The project has been shaped to engage these communities to have a major role in enriching their neighborhood. Fargo is also home to many urban Native Americans. Because of the complexity of the population, we have been spending much more time than we originally planned on outreach, as the need for a more personal approach became clear.  We felt it was important to learn from their long experiences in this region and to ground the project in the place where Native American values and ecological values intersect. Our first major public event was a site visit and well attended lecture with Lakota ecologist and ethnobotanist Linda Different Cloud.


Our primary efforts during the project’s first year were to create relationships with city residents of all ages and backgrounds to understand what kind of commons people want and the research opportunities the site presents. Over several months, our ecological artist team and other volunteers engaged over 400 people in the initial visioning outreach. The project team visited nearby residences and businesses, went into churches, had participatory events in the park, worked with secondary schools and the high school, met with New Americans from many cultures including representatives from the Native American Community, and engaged with students and faculty from Fargo/Moorhead academic institutions, including North Dakota State University, Minnesota State University Moorhead and Concordia College.  


Because I work with real ecological problems in the public sphere, I have had to learn to speak many languages. For example, on a single day during a recent trip, I started out talking with the City Engineers about hydrology, followed by a conversation with the Park District about trees and neighborhood demographics, then a dialogue with some local business leaders, and finally a meeting with a group of elders at a Bhutanese wedding.

In late spring 2012, over 200 people participated in the celebration inaugurating the basin with Native American dancing and drumming and in the WeDesign workshop that followed. For the three days after the workshop many other people came to contribute their ideas and to see the models and drawings from the workshop at the open design space at the warming hut next to the basin. A schematic plan was then developed based on the community ideas. The multifunctional commons will feature 17 acres of restored native prairie habitats, walking trails, natural play areas, an amphitheater and festival space, gathering areas, an orchard and a community garden that will feed forty families. Specialized job training in prairie restoration and maintenance, and healthy living recreational programs are being developed. Water quality, flood control, biodiversity, cultural diversity and human health and well being will become the beneficiaries of recognizing and celebrating stormwater as a valuable resource. 


We have been working with plant and soil specialists as well as the city engineers to try to determine the best methods of establishing native prairie in a functioning basin that is periodically full of water.  We are just about ready to break ground with the first phase of earth work, and the artists team is just beginning to organize community planting events for the orchard and ceremonial plants that will be part of what we are calling “The World Garden Commons.”  Work will continue over the next two years (if funding materializes) to complete the earthwork and water features where the water enters and leaves the basin, to build the community amenities, and to start the job training and other programming.   As you can see, my creative process requires patience and flexibility, communicating over years with residents, stakeholders, team members and other collaborators of all sorts, as well as learning as we go from the water, soil, plants and other organisms. 

As a pilot project, we want this to be a place that inspires people -- a beautiful and healthy ecosystem that helps people experience their connection to each other, to other species and to the natural systems that support our lives. I hope that people feel a positive connection to water as the source of life. This may sound obvious, but in a city that deals with the threat of a river flooding every year, that would be a formidable and meaningful achievement.

Mary Daniel: What excites you most about your work right now?

Jackie: My favorite part of the projects is the collaborative brainstorming and problem solving. I also really love learning, and the complexity of the work gives me more than ample opportunity for this. I am constantly learning on so many levels, certainly in terms of the science, but especially about the social aspects of the work, about the choreography of collaboration -- knowing when to guide, when to lead, when to follow.

Mary Daniel: What advice do you have for other artists who would like to use their creativity to help heal the environment? 

Jackie: I would recommend finding a way to bring everything you love together.  And to work with a place or issue or group of people and/or other beings where you feel profound connection and equally profound need. Let this passion and compassion fuel the work you are drawn to. Develop your perseverance, because there is so much to do, and it is not usually easy. Enjoy what you do as an expression of gratitude for the gift of life, and for the privilege of being and doing. 


To learn more about Jackie Brookner's work, please visit jackiebrookner.com.

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