Environmental Art: From Gravel Pits to Medicinal Gardens

Elysian Koglmeier | April 17, 2023

Robert Morris (1931-2018). Untitled Earthwork (Johnson Pit #30), 1979. SeaTac, WA. King County Public Art Collection. Photo: Joe Freeman

In honor of Earth Day, we’re spotlighting eco-conscious art displayed by our Artwork Archive clients.

Art about the environment has been around since mankind discovered the artistic process (cave drawings, etc.) but environmental art as a recognized movement only emerged in the 1960s. Famous artists like Jean-Max Albert and Nils Udo started the movement with their works that focus on environmental issues. 

Since the 60s, environmental art has become as broad as the issues and landscapes they portray. Within it are different practices like Land art, Earth art, Sustainable art, and Conceptual art. And environmental artists have been employing a wide range of media, techniques, and styles.

In recent years, environmental art has been focused on the destructive effects of climate change. Artists have made works to spur conversations about and awareness of land rights, ecological disasters, and more. 

In honor of Earth Day and the work of our Artwork Archive clients, this article spotlights seven art projects that highlight the relationship between people and the environment in unique ways.


Robert Morris (1931-2018). Untitled Earthwork (Johnson Pit #30), 1979. SeaTac, WA. King County Public Art Collection. Photo: Colleen Chartier

Robert Morris’ Untitled Earthwork (Johnson Pit #30)

Commissioned by 4Culture

Inspired by early efforts to use art as a means for rehabilitating abused post-industrial sites, 4Culture‚ then known as the King County Arts Commission‚ sponsored an innovative symposium called Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture in 1979.

The Commission brought together a unique team of government agencies and artists to discuss the potential of earthworks—large-scale sculptures that use the earth itself as their medium—and to create historic public artworks designed to restore natural areas damaged by industry.

Robert Morris received the first demonstration project commission. He removed undergrowth from an abandoned 3.7-acre gravel pit in the Kent Valley, terraced the earth, and planted it with ryegrass, in effect returning the land to active use. Decades later, the destination continues to serve as a community gathering place.

“Simplicity of shape does not necessarily equate with simplicity of experience.” —Robert Morris

The commission is one of the first ever publicly-funded Land Art projects and is now listed in the Washington Heritage Register.

On the heels of this honorary designation comes precedent-setting inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places for “significant contribution to the broad patterns of history,” embodiment of “distinctive characteristics,” and “high artistic values.” A contemporary earthwork has never received such status.


Project Bike curated by Dana Sikkila at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport in the Thomson Reuters Concourse C Art Gallery, 2020. Photo courtesy of Arts@MSP

Project Bike Retrospective curated by Dana Sikkila

Exhibited by Arts@MSP

Project Bike Retrospective is an exhibition of artwork curated and arranged by 410 Project Gallery owner and creator of Project Bike, Dana Sikkila. More than 50 works of art spanning multiple mediums showcase the work of 12 artists from across Minnesota state who were visited by Dana during her five Project Bike bicycle journeys between 2015 and 2019. The exhibition also features the bike and trailer Dana used to transport the artwork from studio to studio, as well as an 8-minute retrospective documentary about the project.

Project Bike is Minnesota's only woman-led bicycle tour with visual artists and their studios setting the destinations. For the past five years, Dana has set out with Kyle Zeiezler on this one-of-a-kind art/bike tour, advocating for the important point that every artist has skills and creative ideas to help grow and sustain our communities. Over the years, with her bike, trailer, and film crew, Sikkila has traveled over 2,500 miles across Minnesota to artists living in communities ranging from rural areas to large cities. Project Bike's mission is to showcase that art and artists are truly part of our chemistry as individuals, as communities, and as a state.

The artists include: Adam Swanson, Michon Weeks, Russ White, Gregory Wilkins, Betsy Byers, Patricia Canelake, Erika Hagberg, Hend Al-Mansour, Michelle Kaisersatt, Mark Hall, Jonathan Sell, Megan Hoogland

The show was exhibited in the Thomson Reuters Concourse C Art Gallery from June 22, 2020 to December 4, 2020.


Ilan Averbuch. The Bridge, (work in progress). Concept image from public art proposal to Fulton County Public Art Program. Photo courtesy of Fulton County Public Art Program.

Ilan Averbuch’s The Bridge

Commissioned in partnership by Fulton County Public Art Program and the City of Johns Creek

The Bridge will recycle a 100-year-old bridge that would have been destined for the scrapyard and will hopefully breathe new life into a piece of history.

New York-based artist Ilan Averbuch proposed a stunning large-scale installation titled “The Bridge” for the Rogers Bridge Public Art Project. By repurposing steel from the historic Rogers Bridge, which served as a vital transportation link for over a century, the project celebrates the power of transformation and the importance of community. 

At its core, the Rogers Bridge Public Art Project demonstrates the power of creativity and collaboration to reimagine the past and shape the future. By incorporating recycled materials into the artwork, the project highlights the importance of sustainability and environmental responsibility. 

This work also leads to the question of whether the work is fully environmentally friendly since it will expend additional resources to create the art. What do you think? 

You can learn more about public art projects created from recycled materials here.


Carol Baum, House of Sorrow 1, 2021. Image courtesy of The Corporate Art Loan Program of deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum

Carol Baum's House of Sorrow 1

Part of The Corporate Art Loan Program of deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum

House of Sorrow 1 is a recent addition to The Corporate Art Loan Program of deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, which provides companies in the Greater Boston area with museum quality, original artwork.

Artist Carol Baum created the painting to address climate change. The subject matter references the sea rising.

In her artist statement Baum shares that her work most often patterns natural elements—flowers, leaves, constellations, and waterfalls. She states: "It explores where the inner world of spirit and feeling and the outer landscape intersect."

The Corporate Art Loan Program of deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum is also managed by The Trustees – the nation’s first and Massachusetts’ largest preservation and conservation nonprofit. As a steward of distinctive and dynamic places of both historic and cultural value, The Trustees' landscapes and landmarks continue to inspire discussion, innovation, and action. Supported by members, friends and donors, The Trustees’ more than 100 reservations are destinations for residents, members, and visitors alike, welcoming millions of guests annually.


We spotlighted Doug Aitken's mirror-surfaced hot air balloon commissioned by The Trustees in this article about spectacular public art. 

Bjorn Skaarup. The Seven Continents, 2019. Photo courtesy of Lucile Packard Children's Hospital | Stanford.

Bjorn Skaarup’s The Seven Continents 

Acquired by Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital | Stanford 

One thing that ties the Packard's collection together is a focus on nature. And the theme of nature often takes the form of animals. 

A particular work was sculpted in celebration of our planet by Danish sculptor, Bjorn Skaarup. It’s called The Seven Continents and has seven bronze animals standing with their arms outstretched – a symbol of unity – on a carved map of the earth. The map is the base and is made from a solid slab of granite. Each critter is standing with its respective continent.

  • In North America, we have the raccoon.

  • In South America, the tapir.

  • In Asia, the panda.

  • In Africa, the zebra.

  • In Australia, the koala.

  • In Antarctica, the emperor penguin.

  • And in Europe, the badger.

Three of these animals are on the endangered species list—the emperor penguin, the tapir, and the panda. Their inclusion is meant to start a conversation about protecting our planet for future generations. 

Antonia Dapena-Tretter, the hospital's art curator, shares, “green space is integrated into the hospital, because our patients and families can only benefit from a holistic approach to healing, including the awesome power of nature!”


Elizabeth Billings and Andrea Wasserman. Heber W. Younken Medicinal Garden, 2013. Photo courtesy of RISCA.

Elizabeth Billings and Andrea Wasserman's Heber W. Younken Medicinal Garden

Commissioned by Rhode Island State Council for the Arts (RISCA) and the University of Rhode Island

The Medicinal Garden is located at the College of Pharmacy at the University of Rhode Island with plants that are traditionally used in medicine. It is a great example of public art that connects to the mission of the facility at which it is sited. 

The artists worked together with Wagner Hodgson landscape architects to create this contemplative, meditative space within the campus. 

“It’s a wonderful gathering place. In good weather, it’s the place where everyone congregates,” shares Molly Dickinson, Public Art and Cultural Facilities programs director for RISCA.

Elizabeth Billings and Andrea Wasserman were trained in art school as weavers. Their collaborative works often reference nature with a focus on trees. Together they design and construct outdoor public spaces and permanent installations. Another Artwork Archive client, Nebraska’s % for Public Art Program, commissioned one of their installations at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. Learn more here.


Screenshot from Public Art Omaha's Artwork Archive profile showcasing two works by George Trakas – Leon's Bridge and Sullivan's Passage.

George Trakas’ Leon's Bridge and Sullivan's Passage

Commissioned by Public Art Omaha

George Trakas is a sculptor who builds work by recycling derelict urban spaces, engaging the spectator's body through a discovery of self and a path of desire. Trakas's work is primarily situated outdoors, exploring relationships between nature, the built environment, and human presence.

Trakas' outdoor site-specific works include Self Passage (1989), a sculpture leading to a waterside platform at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, and Beacon Point (2007), a permanent dock installed on the Hudson River waterfront at Dia: Beacon. He has also conceived several walking trails, most notably Newtown Creek Nature Walk (2007), a nature walk along the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. 

While the artworks within Public Art Omaha’s collection don't specifically address environmental concerns (they were built to honor Reverend Leon Howard Sullivan Jr., a successful minister, civil rights advocate, humanitarian and corporate leader), they are built into the environment in a very intentional way. So much so in fact, that when the city sold the property on which the sculptures were originally installed, they added an addendum to the contract requiring the new owner to either keep and maintain the installations as public art or pay for their removal and storage until they could be properly reinstalled on public property.

The new owners chose the latter option and the pieces were made a signature part of the city's Adams Park revitalization plan. They are currently in storage, with plans to reinstall them (with the input of the artist) in early 2024.

Reed Madden Designs. Opening Circle, 2004. Image courtesy of the City of Berkeley.

Reed Madden Designs' Opening Circle

Part of the City of Berkeley Permanent Collection

Opening Circle is located in Cezar Chavez Park in Berkeley, California. The location is not only popular with residents of and visitors to Berkeley; it has a feathered visitor as well. 

Low geologically-inspired walls and earthen mounds with grass-inspired fencing create a 750-foot-long protective habitat for endangered Burrowing Owls. Two seating areas by the water allow for bird watching and outdoor, docent-led classrooms. Two educational plaques inform the public about the rich bird habitat of the area.


As an art maker and/or art collector, chances are, you’ve probably been affected by climate change.

The increasing intensity and scope of wildfires, flooding, hurricanes and other natural disasters demonstrate how dire the climate crisis is and how it is growing each passing year. 

The risk that climate disaster poses to our art objects is both urgent and ongoing. Here is an article that outlines art insurance for eco disasters.

If you're making or collecting environmental art, keep track of it all with Artwork Archive. Sign up for a free Artwork Archive trial to unlock artwork, location, exhibition, contact tracking and more!

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