Biocreativity on the Road: Over The River, in Colorado

Let’s talk landscape ecology today. And contemporary art. In fact, let’s talk about an art project so big, it’s been over 20 years in the making, and it’s the only one to have ever received a federal Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Just last fall, the Bureau of Land Management gave their final approval for the Over The River project, a temporary art exhibition that will suspend 5.9 miles of translucent fabric over a 42 mile stretch of the Arkansas River between Salida and Cañon City, Colorado. Known for their large-scale structure and monument wrappings, artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude first conceived of Over The River in 1992 and have since been working on details of the project, which include an incredibly lengthy design and permitting process.

OTR is a curious case-study in environmental policy. The federal EIS conducted for this temporary art project was financed entirely by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, a process that often happens without much public attention when it comes to more routinely-conducted activities on public land. The BLM allows many activities conducted by private entities on public lands including livestock grazing, oil and gas development (including hydraulic fracturing), mining and logging on public lands in the region. Most of these projects have not been subject the level of public scrutiny that OTR seems to have received. Nevertheless, Christo continues pursuit of the remaining permits to make OTR a reality. Christo paid for the EIS at an expense to himself of over $6 million, which was conducted over a 2.5 year period by a team of engineers, wildlife biologists and environmental consultants. The plans for OTR now include scheduling the two-week temporary exhibition to avoid major wildlife migrations, nesting seasons and to minimize noise and disturbance in any one place on the river to a minimum during the construction and take-down process.

Christo Over the River, Project for the Arkansas River, State of Colorado, Collage 2007 in two parts: 77,5 x 30,5 and 77,5 and 66,7 cm (30 1/2″ x 12″ and 30 1/2″ x 26 1/4″) Pencil, fabric, twine, pastel, wax crayon, charcoal, enamel paint, hand-drawn topography map, fabric sample and tape. Photo: Wolfgang Voltz © Christo 2007.

Interestingly, the NEPA review process calls for environmental design arts and aesthetics to be considered in EIS reviews. As former National Director of the Bureau of Land management Patrick Shea explained in a 2010 letter to the director of the Colorado State Office of the BLM:

“It is striking to remember that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) itself provides that it is the Federal Government’s responsibility to “assure for all Americans safe, healthful, productive, and esthetically and culturally pleasing surroundings”. In order to do this, NEPA states that the federal Government must “utilize a systematic, interdisciplinary approach which will insure the integrated use of the natural and social sciences and the environmental design arts in planning and in decision-making which may have an impact on man’s environment.”

Despite widespread public support for Over The River, there is some opposition to this project from a small local group which seems to simply not want the temporary art exhibition of this scale in their own backyard. Curious to view the area myself, I drove alongside the Arkansas River on my way to Taylor Park Reservoir, Colorado this summer. As I paralleled the Arkansas, I encountered prospectors searching for gold, anglers hopeful for trout, rafting outfitters guiding the adventuresome, cattle grazing, ATV and motorbike trails, freight traffic, agricultural fields and even quarries. And, if you care to look past the immediate roadside to the adjacent landscape, the list of proposed private uses of BLM land out of the Royal Gorge Field Office (can anyone direct me to the list of current uses?) indeed includes energy trasmission, private development right-of-ways, oil and gas development, coal leasing, mining, cattle grazing and christmas tree harvesting.

Why then, I wonder, does the Over The River project seem to have been singled out as a “disturbance of the peace” by a handful of locals? There are certainly activities on our public lands that are much more disturbing to the local ecosystem and to wildlife, including ones with much more long-term consequences than the proposed Over The River project. Is it because Colorado has a long history with mining, fossil fuel extraction, ranching and agriculture? Are these activities therefore more comfortable, commonplace, and acceptable by local residents, despite our current knowledge of how they affect our environment? Is it because art is a much less common use of our public land? Yet, Colorado also has a long and rich history of art, from the artistic traditions of Colorado’s Native American cultures to nineteenth-century geological survey photographer William Henry Jackson and contemporary photographer John Fielder, whose comparative approach to photography has explored how the Colorado landscape has changed since Jackson’s first forays in to the western wilderness (see Colorado 1870-2000). Whatever the reason, just imagine if all activities by private entities on our public lands were held to such a level of public scrutiny as Christo’s temporary art exhibition. It seems that our public lands would be much different places. What do you think?

Over The River Life-Sized Test for aesthetic and technical considerations, four life-sized prototype tests were conducted in 1997, 1998 and 1999 on private property on the Utah/Colorado border. Photo: Wolfgang Voltz, © Christo 1999

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, however, are no strangers to opposition of their monumental-scale works. “This has happened before,” Christo recently told the Denver Post, “This is a natural process for which we are very familiar.” They seem accustomed to the lengthy permitting processes that accompany their projects, and demonstrate a love of their work, an admiration for public discourse and a level of patience that is itself quite admirable. A recent update from the OTR project page indicates that on-the-ground activities will be delayed yet again, perhaps until August 2015, because of ongoing litigation by a local group against two of the agencies that have approved the project (the BLM and the Colorado State Parks).

The opposition remains small, however, and the Over The River project has gained an incredible list of supporters including the Cañon City Chamber of Commerce and City Council, current and former governors of Colorado and the Colorado Council for the Arts, to name just a few. Since Jeanne-Claude’s passing in 2009, her husband Christo remains dedicated to making Over The River a reality. As an art lover and former Colorado resident, I can’t wait to write a future On The Road post along the Arkansas River, under the shimmering canopy of Over The River. Until then, here is Christo in 2010 talking about the origins of the project back in 1975 as he and Jeanne-Claude were wrapping the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris:

Over The River perfectly reflects the type of artistic, social, and cultural engagement that public art seeks to create. Public art such as Over The River is by definition meant to provoke reaction by engaging the public outside the framework of a traditional artistic exhibition — outside of the four walls of a museum, and outside of the four corners of a painting.” – Patrick Shea, Former National Director of the Bureau of Land Management

Fish sculptures from plastic bottles!

I saw this today via Colossal (thanks to the Ecological Society of America for posting a link!): giant fish sculptures made of plastic bottles at the 2012 Rio 20+ U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development! I’m not sure I need to spoil this with words, so here are the fantastic photos:

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Curiously, I can’t find any information out there about who the actual artist is – almost all sources attribute this work to the conference itself. Any ideas out there?

If you’re interested in learning more about sustainability issues in our world’s oceans, please visit the UN’s site:

Evolutionary Biology in Video Games?

Magna Arbor Vitae Deku © 2011 by Jude Buffum.

I came across this print today which features a very biocreative rendition of the evolutionary biology of the creatures of the Legend of Zelda video game. Created for a show last fall at iam8bit gallery in Los Angeles, this poster by artist Jude Buffum shows 200 of the game’s legendary species complete with binomial Latin names and their common ancestors. Click here to see details of this print. Here is Jude’s statement from the show:

I created Magna Arbor Vitae Deku (traslated “The Great Deku Tree of Life”) a sprawling exploration of the evolutionary biology of the 200 most important species from the Legend of Zelda video game series. Complete with binomial Latin names (Zora Bellator and Zora Fluvialis share a common ancestor with the more peaceful species Zora Sapien, for example), the brances of the Deku tree trace the evolution of each species over millions of years. Forks in the branches indicate an extinct common ancestor of the species that follow.

As I’ve discussed before on the biocreativity blog (the ecology of Frogger), I think popular video games have the potential to have a role in science communication. Buffum’s print is a really creative way to think about evolutionary relationships, even if it is with fictional species. However, can anyone spot the reason Buffum should have collaborated more closely with a biologist on this print?

Buffum actually uses quite a bit of interesting biological imagery in his infographics and illustrations. I think we may have found the ultimate designer capable of creating engaging science video games! Indeed, he’s already collaborated with The Franklin Institute on their new exhibit about electricity, and this infographic created for O.C. Tanner could be the basis for a fun new game on gene expression!

Appreciatology infographic © 2008 by Jude Buffum.

Prints of Buffum’s work are available from

ECO Art + Science Series: The Sustainable Art of Emily Bryant

On today’s ECO Art + Science Series I’m pleased to introduce the sustainable artwork of Emily Bryant. When Emily first contacted me through the biocreativity blog, I was awestruck by her work, which in many ways channels the iconic collages by Eric Carle (of The Very Hungry Caterpillar fame). Though, where Carle transforms colored paper into his widely recognized plants and animals, Bryant puts pressed invasive plants to work in her collages of invasive insect species. It’s not often you meet someone with the degree of simultaneous training in the arts and sciences that Emily has achieved. She pursued a double-major in Sustainability and Studio Art (along with a nifty minor in biology) at Baldwin-Wallace College. She even created her own course in Sustainable Art to research the environmental impact of fine art materials with stunning results. Her invasive-species collages and digital nature photography collages are created entirely from sustainable materials. I am glad that we both live in Austin, Texas, where I have been lucky enough to view her meticulous collages in person and assist her in collecting more invasive plants for her next series. As I head out the door to meet Emily on the Lady Bird Lake hike + bike trail to do more collecting, I hope you enjoy her thoughtful interview for the ECO Art + Science Series.

**UPDATE 4/16/12  Emily currently has 9 pieces of sustainable native species art hanging at Cafe Josie in Austin, TX until May 26th! 1200 B west 6th Street, Austin, TX 78703**

[biocreativity] Welcome to the biocreativity blog, Emily! What type of work do you do?

[EBB] As a specialist in the field of sustainability, I help reduce operating costs of companies by decreasing utility and natural resource consumption. I also use a lot of creative problem solving to make products and processes more sustainable. I have experience with a governmental organization, small local business, large international business, and multiple non-profit groups. I’ve worked with wildlife, engineers, automobile mechanics, park rangers, city legislatures, artists, and ecologists, and I’ve found that as long as I can be creative and make a positive contribution to environmental protection and promote stewardship, I am fulfilled. I love exploring and photographing natural areas.

Native Texas Aquatics. Digital photo collage © 2011 by Emily Bryant. Sustainably made prints available from

[biocreativity] Emily, where do you see yourself on the biocreativity spectrum? Closer to the arts end or the science end?

[EBB] I think I fall right in the middle! I went to school at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, where I double majored in Studio Art and Sustainability, with a focus and minor in Biology.

[biocreativity] That’s an impressive combination of credentials! How do you view the interaction of arts and sciences? What’s your take on how these disciplines interact?

Torpedo Bug. Collage, pressed invasive plants and plant-based glue © 2011 by Emily Bryant. Sustainably made prints available from

[EBB] I think creativity is a necessity in the sustainability field. You really have to have a holistic viewpoint and be able to balance many different disciplines and the concerns of many different stakeholders. I love the challenges involved in trying to find sustainable solutions that improve a product or process and save companies money. When people say the term innovative, I hear creative.

In positions I’ve held in the past, my employers have realized that my creativity was an unexpected asset. I’ve used creative writing, photography, filming, drawing, and graphic design to enhance marketing for sustainability initiatives companies were pursuing. They were thrilled with my ability to share sustainability messaging in such captivating and appealing ways. I think arts enhance the sciences and take them to another level. I feel that many people in the sciences can get so caught up with processes and data that they forget to take a step back and remember how incredible the subject matter they are studying really is. I think the arts enable people to share their research and passions with those outside of their academic disciplines on a very personal and captivating level, and I sincerely believe it is critical that scientists share more of their work with the general public.

The Magical World of Pollination. Digital photo collage © 2011 by Emily Bryant. Sustainably made prints available from

I was lucky in that I could sit in a biology class and admire the human body for its complexity and functionality and later go to a life drawing class and admire the human body for its beauty and form. My photography professor told me that the few science majors in his classes produced some of the best work. My invertebrate natural history professor, happy that I was using my art to teach others about insects, told me that we needed more creative people in the sciences. The natural world has always inspired me and is the motivation behind my art.

[biocreativity] It sounds like you had an amazing art-science experience at Baldwin-Wallace! Emily, what are your current art-science projects?

[EBB] The goal of my first series of sustainable art is to educate people about invasive species. Invasive species are species that have been introduced to an area purposefully or accidentally that harm ecosystems by out-competing native species. Some invasive species that have been introduced purposefully were originally intended for a good cause, such as pest removal, but it can be difficult to know all the impacts a foreign species can have in an environment. To make this artwork, I collect and press invasive plant species and layer them using a plant-based glue to form collaged images of invasive species. So far, I have been making insects, but plan on making other invasive animal species in the near future. In some of my pieces I have also featured the native plants that the invasive insects destroy to show people what impact the species are having on local ecosystems.

Japanese Beetle. Collage of pressed invasive plants and plant-based glue on paper © 2011 by Emily Bryant. Sustainably made prints available from

Native species are the focus of my second series of artwork. Many of these images have a fantastical or ethereal quality to them because I want people to see nature in the same enchanting way that I do. These pieces are made in Photoshop by stripping away the original colors of a picture and manually adding new ones, or by layering multiple pictures together in order to form a new image. These photographs are printed on sustainable bamboo paper by a company that runs on 100% green energy. Many of the animals featured in this series are also insects because after taking an Invertebrate Natural Science course where I had to make my own insect collection, I really began to observe and appreciate some of the incredible invertebrates of our world. I think most people don’t even notice insects when they are outside. As one of the most misunderstood types of animals, I thought it was important to show people how fascinating and compelling these species could be. Featuring native species was very important to me because I want people to become in touch with natural areas on a local level and get them passionate about protecting these places.

B-W Native Plants Garden (You're More Beautiful When You're Open). Digital photo collage © 2011 by Emily Bryant. Sustainably made prints available from

[biocreativity] I think the collages are particularly impressive. They’re so delicate, and the cutouts so intricate it looks like they must have been very painstaking to construct! What is your inspiration for these series?

[EBB] My idea to create sustainable art began when I decided to try combining my two disciplines. Having studied some material and product chemistry, I began to realize how unsustainable and harmful a lot of the art materials I had been working with really were. This led me to create an independent study Sustainable Art course with my art advisor. The objectives of the course were to create art with various sustainable materials that would educate viewers on different environmental issues. I had just accepted a sustainability internship with the Cleveland Metroparks at the time, and invasive species management was a big focus area of theirs. This inspired me to make artwork featuring invasive species because I knew that so few people in the greater Cleveland area were aware of the devastation that was occurring in our parks, especially from species like the Emerald Ash Borer.

Emerald Ash Borer. Collage, pressed invasive plants and plant-based glue on paper © 2011 by Emily Bryant. Sustainably made prints available from

[biocreativity] What does the emerald ash borer do to affect native species? Why is it so important that we know about the effects of invasive species?

More than 50 million ash trees in the midwest are estimated to have been killed by the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB), whose larvae eat through the tissue between the bark and wood of Ash trees, disrupting a tree’s ability to transport water and nutrients. Adults emerge from Ash trees and feed on its leaves in late spring or early summer. The adults then lay eggs, which promptly hatch and feed on the Ash tissue for one to two years before maturing into adults. Trees usually die over the course of a couple years. EAB was brought to Michigan from Asia from wood on boats. It has since spread to more than one dozen states, commonly through individuals transporting firewood. A large portion of suburban trees are ash trees, planted to provide shade and reduce energy costs. So far, we have no way to deter the spread or destruction caused by the EAB. It causes billions of dollars in damage each year and threatens to destroy most ash trees in North America. Do your part by not transporting fire wood and reporting signs of EAB infestation observed locally. Instructions on where to report EAB signs can be found by searching for EAB in your state online.

Other invasive species I have collaged include the Japanese Beetle, which feeds on roses and other ornamental plants in Ohio; the Cactus Moth caterpillar, which feeds on the Prickly Pear Cactus; and the Torpedo bug, which feeds on a variety of ornamental plants. I am planning on collaging one of the invasive species of ants in Texas next. I will continue to collage insects, but may branch out to other animals, such as birds, in the near future. It all depends on the materials I am able to find and what colors they are.

Cactus Moth Caterpillar. Collage, pressed invasive plants and plant-based glue on paper © 2011 by Emily Bryant. Sustainably made prints available from

[biocreativity] What is the most important thing that you want others to know about your work?

[EBB] I want people to look at my artwork to know what is at stake. I want them to look at my series of native species art and show them all the incredible and overwhelmingly beautiful organisms that are right outside their doors. I want them to know that natural areas can be enchanting, spiritual places that are a breath of fresh air when we are feeling drained in our lives. I want them to know that if we keep carrying on consuming the way we do, they might lose something beautiful that they never knew existed.

Ruby-Throated Hummingbird. Digital photo collage © 2011 by Emily Bryant. Sustainably made prints available from

I hope that through my invasive species art, people will begin to learn about and appreciate native species to stop the invasives from spreading. I think many people believe that scientists have all the answers, but invasive species show us that there are tangible consequences for being careless with foreign imports and purposeful introductions of exotic species. The United States may lose all of its ash trees from the Emerald Ash Borer, and there is nothing we can do right now except collect ash tree seeds for the future. I would love for people to know the positive impacts of growing native plants in their yards, such as mitigating harsh weather conditions and providing food and habitat for native species, some of which may be endangered due to habitat loss.

[biocreativity] Emily, I think that’s a very strong message, and a very creative way of conveying that message.What’s next for you in art + science? Where do you see your projects going, or what would you like to do next?

[EBB] I plan on continuing both series of artwork. Having just moved to Texas in August 2011, there are plenty of native species for me to photograph and collage. There are also many more invasive species to feature! I may move into pests and invasive animals outside of the insect world. I am considering making collages of native species out of native plants, but then I’d have to find a way to not feel guilty about collecting the native plants…

Find Us in Ohio's Parks. Digital photo collage © 2011 by Emily Bryant. Sustainably made prints available from

[biocreativity] What got you started in the arts?

[EBB] I have been making art since I was a child, but my current artwork where I am combining art and sustainability has meant more to me than any other work I have done. It gives my art a sense of urgency and makes me want to share it. It has helped me articulate my sustainability education and connect with and reach people in ways that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible. I think I’ve found my artistic niche and it gives me renewed inspiration, joy, and pride in my artwork. It’s really refreshing to work on art that you feel is unique when there can be a lot of redundancy in the art world.

[biocreativity] Do you have any advice for young artists and scientists who might be thinking about getting into art-science projects?

[EBB] I would tell them to absolutely go for it, young artists especially. Going through school and struggling to find out who you are in the face of difficult social situations can really damage your self-esteem. Your art is always a talent that you can feel good about. No matter what, no one can take that away from you. Art is always there for you to express yourself, learn about yourself, and grow as a person. Creativity is what has made the world we live in possible and what will continue to make our quality of life better. I think creativity needs to be appreciated more in our society and especially in our schools. Being both left and right-brained can open up an entire world for you that many people never get to explore. Art is a way for you to communicate with the world and I think the sciences need to be available to everyone, not just other scientists in the field.

[biocreativity] How can the biocreativity readers find out more about your work?

[EBB] I have an Etsy shop with prints of my artwork for sale, and jewelry that I make for enjoyment. I am also working on finding more sustainable products to feature my prints on. So far, I have made prints on recycled content note cards. You can check them out on I can also be found on LinkedIn.

Long-horned Beetle. Digital photo collage © 2011 by Emily Bryant. Sustainably made prints available from

[biocreativity] Emily, I hear you’re also looking to start a career in sustainability here in Austin, what types of work are you interested in?

I have found that as long as I can be creative and make a positive contribution to the environmental field, I am more than happy. I enjoy being challenged and look forward to the opportunity to contribute sustainable solutions to different environmental problems in Austin, whether that be through writing, product or process design, the protection of species and wild places, or helping green businesses grow.

[biocreativity] I can’t wait to see what comes next for you in the arts and sciences, Emily. Thanks for sharing your talents with the biocreativity blog! [Note to potential employers: hire this talented and creative woman before someone beats you to it!]