Local octogenarian eco-artists are ahead of the environmental curve
A note to all future journalists preparing to interview environmental and ecological artists Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison: Despite all of your prior research and groundwork, chances are you will end up asking all of the wrong questions. “There’s a better way to look at it than that,” Newton will say. “I would like to go somewhere else with that question.”
Rest assured, the former UC San Diego professors are happy to help you figure out what questions you should be asking, and in the process, you will learn much more.
The work of the Harrisons—award-winning and internationally renowned husband-and-wife collaborators—will be showcased in the upcoming exhibition, entitled “On Mixing, Mapping and Territory,” which runs Feb. 6-March 15 at UC Santa Cruz’s Mary Porter Sesnon Art Gallery. As leading pioneers of the environmental and ecological art movement, the Santa Cruz residents are recognized for their use of maps as narratives to track climate change and map ecosystems.
“Most maps are about development, about the military, about command of some environment or another, about the power of your mobility through an environment,” says Newton. “So they’re political. That’s why we will take a map and yank the roads off, and empower the rivers—we’ve made the map a political statement too.”
The Harrisons have always been ahead of the environmental curve, as demonstrated in “The Book of the Lagoons,” a veritable behemoth of a read—leafing through its pages is a two-person job—on display at the gallery, in which they wrote about climate change in 1974 and awareness of the landscape and environment.
“Looking at this book, something that wasn’t aware to me was their idea of storytelling, and their sense of the Bible, which led them through this process of how a story gets told through decades and through centuries,” says Mark Shunney, manager and assistant curator of the Sesnon Gallery. “And their focus in the ’70s—dealing with the environment when so few people were really concerned with the environment—set them up well with this notion of documenting change and the environment, and how we interpret it. And they still consider storytelling a very core part of their work.”
Among the other works on display will be “Tibet is the High Ground,” a piece that emerged from a dialogue between the Harrisons and the Dalai Lama, and eventually served as the literal backdrop for a meeting between then-Vice President Al Gore and the Dalai Lama in Washington, D.C. on April 25, 1997.
So did that piece initiate the wider public dialogue the Harrisons hoped it would? “No,” Newton answers bluntly. “It didn’t hit the Chinese parliament, and it didn’t hit our government.” But Helen acknowledges that the piece did have an impact, if not in legislature. “It was very well received wherever it was exhibited,” she says, “and it created a discussion in the art world.”
Newton adds that it is difficult to gauge success in a measurable way. “Every time you do something, there’s an expectation that it’s not successful unless 40 million people tweet it,” he says. “In truth, we put an idea on the table, and it is slowly integrated into the culture. So we don’t worry about audience—we don’t have our own Nielsen rating.”
Indeed, it’s the work that has motivated the Harrisons for four decades, and continues to do so. “The work emerges from a discourse between us,” explains Helen. “When we began our collaboration, we said that we would do no work that did not in some way help the ecosystem—that’s what we were concerned with, and so all our work relates to the ecosystem in one way or another.”
It’s the stuff of—if you’ll forgive the brief outbreak of sentiment—a pretty great love story.
“They were both born in New York City,” says Shunney, “and they come from an interesting perspective in how
they became environmentalists. Not from the forests of Santa Cruz but from New York City—he was Brooklyn and she was Manhattan.”
“They want people to ask them to solve problems,” Shelby Graham, director and curator of the Sesnon Gallery, chimes in, “because they like to look at a situation, see where it is, and why people aren’t getting it.”
Unfortunately, even four decades later, people aren’t getting it quickly enough. “It does not look like the human condition, nor legal system, nor beliefs, nor industrial system will permit the kind of cooperation necessary to save the planet,” says Newton.
It becomes apparent that at some point during this lengthy conversation with the Harrisons, it ceased to be an interview. Almost imperceptibly, it turned into something else entirely: a lesson. Helen smiles kindly, while Newton leans back and asks, “So, what other questions do you have?”
‘The Harrison Studio: On Mixing, Mapping and Territory’ runs from Feb. 6-March 15 at the Mary Porter Sesnon Art Gallery, UCSC, 1156 High St., Santa Cruz. Gallery hours: Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, noon to 8 p.m. Wednesday. No cover. 459-3606. Photo: Shelby Graham