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CityLink Seattle

Drawing, painting and sculpting land: An interview with Elizabeth Conner

We recently spoke with Elizabeth Conner about her artworks Painting and Sculpting the Land and Drawing the Land, dedicated at the Jefferson Park Jubilee held this month at Beacon Hill’s Jefferson Park. Painting and Sculpting the Land serves as a rain garden/water feature with plants that create a ring of contrasting colors and textures based on the plants’ differing tolerance for having their feet wet. Drawing the Land incorporates rows of concrete contour lines that indicate the depth of the original reservoir and provide hints of the site’s histories. Commissioned with Seattle Parks and Recreation 2000 Parks Levy 1% for Art funds and Seattle Public Utilities 1% for Art and construction funds, Conner collaborated with landscape architects Berger Partnership to fully integrate art into the overall park design.

Can you tell us about your concept behind your artwork?

Fascinated by historic transformation of land into water and back again, I emphasized new land forms by rendering the civil engineering plans for the Jefferson Park reservoir covering project in three dimensions, highlighting the park’s new topography. The project was a massive earthmoving effort that reversed the sluicing of land that carved the original reservoir out of Beacon Hill. Salvaged soil from local construction sites filled the park’s decommissioned reservoir, and the second reservoir was restored, filled with water and lidded. At intervals along contour lines, sandblasted ovals indicate elevation above sea level and appear to “reveal” recycled soil.

How did your project develop over time?

Early ideas involved the incorporation of bright red artificial turf as an element to mark contours.  Due to maintenance considerations and the elimination of this material from other areas of the project, the landscape architects and I chose concrete as the best alternative to mark elevation and the creation of new land forms.  I still have an image of bright red lines on green grass, but I appreciate the intersection of more “casual” and intermittent contour lines with the formal pathways of the park.  I love seeing kids choose the contour lines as a less-traveled, narrow path that inspires skipping and running to unexpected places.

How does working with landscape architects impact your thought process? How do you mutually decide how the art is manifested on the site?

I really enjoyed collaborating with Andy Mitton and Greg Brower of the Berger Partnership.  Since we began working on the project at about the same time, I was able to be involved in community and other discussions related to how the park would be used, how much the community wanted to have free and open access to the space, how the infrastructure of soon-to-be-buried water supply functioned, and how the site evolved over time.  Andy, Greg and I were all interested in the new land forms and the enormous scale of the project, as well as the role of water on the site.  Scale, change in use over time, access and function are important components of an artwork that spreads across a large portion of the most recent transformation of Jefferson Park.

What challenges did you encounter?

How to make a significant and meaningful gesture within a 52-acre park, with a limited budget.  How to create artwork that works with, rather than against, regular maintenance performed by dedicated, and very busy Parks staff.

How do you engage community?

Every project is different.  I try to work closely with a particular place and the people who appreciate it and will use it in the future.  In the case of this project, I was involved over several years and had the opportunity to listen to community desires, concerns and passions, which helped me develop a subtle and, I hope, poetic response to how this community and this park have changed over time.  I listen, try to understand what is important, and respond with respect and appreciation.

What did you learn from this project?

The Jefferson Park Jubilee was a joyful experience–a day in which so many different desires and passions came together in a beautiful and rare kind of suspension, within the ever-expanding bubble of a shared community space on a beautiful day.  It was amazing to think back on all the activism, energy, effort, thought and stewardship, provided by so many people, over tens of years, that resulted in a sweet assurance that this place will serve the community well, in ways both planned and spontaneous, far into the future.  

You had some beautiful proposal watercolors for this project.  Your titles suggest an artist working in different traditional media: painting, drawing, sculpting. How do you feel about the transformation of a studio practice into an earthwork?

I believe the transformation goes both ways.  The reason I created watercolor renderings for the project, in very early stages, was that I was interested in using the irrigation system to creating lines and fields of color in the landscape. I felt a water-based medium was appropriate to experiment with and illustrate that idea.  Once it was determined, based on overall project and budget considerations, that certain areas of the park would not be irrigated, I had to come up with other ways to realize and communicate the concept.

Unlike many artists, I began working on public projects before I developed a studio practice, so the two inter-relate in ways that are not necessarily direct.

Images: (Top to bottom) Elizabeth Conner, Drawing the Land, 2012, at Jefferson Park in Beacon Hill, photo by Spike Mafford; Elizabeth Conner, Drawing the Land, photo by Spike Mafford; Elizabeth Conner, Painting and Sculpting the Land, photo by the artist; Drawing the Land at the Jefferson Park Jubilee in July, photo by Erik Stuhaug; Conner leading a tour of the artwork at the Jefferson Park Jubilee.

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