Journey to Fargo: The Work of Jackie Brookner

Artist Jackie Brookner is an American urban rainmaker, but not the kind who fakes a ritual and skips town. She belongs to the truly wondrous kind who embeds herself in a local water cycle and dialogues with everyone and everything in order to design what is humanly and ecologically functional; what is sustainable for those people and their landscape long after she is gone. Brookner is a born storyteller. I had the pleasure of visiting her magical mossy loft in SOHO recently, to listen.

Veden Taika (The Magic of Water), Jackie Brookner, Salo, Finland, 2010. Photo by Jackie Brookner.

Ernesto Pujol: Your studio environment speaks for you. It is like a greenhouse filled with living sculptures. But how did you get here?

Jackie Brookner: It’s a long and winding story, like a meandering river.

EP: Looking at your public art projects, you were so ahead of your times. How did you train yourself during times when art programs did not provide environmental arts training? Of course, most still don’t.

JB: In high school, I was positive that I would become a biologist. When I went to college, I encountered a word that I had never heard before: ecology! And I fell in love with it. It was amazing, but there was only one course. It was the heyday of molecular biology. I wanted to work with whole living organisms. At the same time, something took place in my art history course that was not supposed to happen. I was only supposed to contemplate paintings and sculptures, but I actually started to see the world in a new way. I felt 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 my parents’ house. I remember looking at its trunk and truly seeing and feeling it. It revealed itself to me in an astonishing way. I wanted to give this experience to other people and ended up majoring in art history.

EP: You quietly began to bridge those disciplines on your own.

JB: Yes, but it would take many years. So I went on to Harvard to pursue a Ph.D. in art history. I had renowned teachers, but one splendid spring day I remember coming out of a darkened classroom after looking at a myriad of art slides, and none of the professors noticed how magnificent that day was. I knew something was wrong, terribly wrong. So 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.

EP: A tree again!

JB: Some of my most revelatory experiences have been around trees. I imagined the sculpture in steel, because I had been taught that steel was the only “valid” way to sculpt. I had been awarded a research fellowship but I needed to weld that sculpture, so I took a course through the Museum School. During the welding course, a different sculpture happened. I was surprised and I was hooked! However, while I could picture the rest of my life as an art historian, I did not know if I could be an artist. That was much more mysterious.  So I used the fellowship money to buy welding supplies and worked in the studio every day. I worked for three years by myself. Eventually, I wanted to make bigger pieces, but I only knew how to weld and cut metal. I didn’t know how to bolt it! So I went up to Bennington, Vermont, to be an assistant to South African sculptor Isaac Witkin, who had apprenticed with Henry Moore and studied with Anthony Caro.

EP: You were so incredibly driven.

JB: I was shocked when Witkin would ask my opinion and actually follow it! There were many young steel sculptors there who knew all the techniques that I wanted to learn, but their work did not have what I was after. I will never forget that Isaac looked at me one day and said: “The trouble with those guys is that they never worked from Nature. They do not understand three-dimensionality.”

EP: What did you do?

JB: I took Nature to mean the human body, so I went to the Art Students’ League in New York, supposedly for one month. Then, someone walked in with a Giacometti catalog and told me I should go to the New York Studio School. I started there the next day and spent fifteen months drawing and sculpting from models while listening to my drawing teacher talk about metaphysics. I had three part-time jobs and got a five-year lease for a loft in SOHO, where I still live thanks to the loft law. I also began to build a cabin in the Adirondack woods on seventy acres I share with several women. By then, I had been casting my own bronze sculptures for about eight years. I was very introverted, but I could not help feeling that the world was a mess and was continually asking myself what was I doing to make a difference? I did not know how or what I could do. Then, in 1990, I was invited by editor Lenore Malen to be guest editor for an issue of the College Art Association’s Art Journal, dedicated to art and ecology.

EP: Every time I have curated, it has been like a home-schooling experience.

JB: Yes, all of a sudden it became clear, I could bring my art and ecology together. Shortly afterwards, I began researching cotton for a project and learned about its colonial history, its thirst for water and intense use of fertilizers and pesticides. That project, Of Earth and Cotton, led me to travel throughout the South to speak with former cotton farmers. While they told me their stories, I sat on the ground before them, modeling “portraits” of their feet with soil from the nearby cotton fields. That exchange was such a gift-a spiritual gift. The process lasted for four years and taught me that, along with working with ecosystems, I needed to work with people.

EP: And working with real people transforms everyone and everything…

JB: I was driven to do something functional, something that would actually make a positive ecological difference. But it took a while to find ecologists who would take an artist seriously. Eventually, I did and learned about the capacity of moss to filter water. In 1995, I received a commission from Appalachian State University and created my first biosculpture, Prima Lingua, a giant moss-covered tongue that licks and cleans the polluted water in which it stands. In 2000, I was invited to do a biosculpture for the town of Grossenhain in Germany, as part of a swimming complex where water is filtered entirely by wetland plants without the use of chlorine or other chemicals.  Over the years, in order to function effectively, my projects have grown to landscape scale. In 2007, I was invited to Salo, Finland. There, I created three floating islands in former sewage treatment lagoons that are now used by migrating and breeding birds. The islands provide safe nesting areas for the birds and harbor plants that remediate pollutants in the water.

EP: And those are but a few of your many public art projects. I love your website. What else have you learned through the more recent projects?

JB: Although some restoration ecologists do not agree with me, I believe that you cannot do ecological projects without working with people, because our values need as much healing as our ecosystems do. The dominant culture encourages us to be passive, to be obedient consumers, and not to think too much. As a way to push against this, I have been trying to figure out how to encourage creative agency within communities. In Finland, I worked with high school students who built the floating islands while older volunteers did the planting. But I was still the author and something did not feel right. I realized that I had to go beyond engaging people to help implement my ideas. I needed to challenge and share authorship, to provide opportunities where people could exercise their own ability to solve local ecological problems in creative ways.

EP: And that brings us to your current project in Fargo, North Dakota. How did it come about?

JB: During two consecutive Buddhist retreats, I met someone from North Dakota who wanted me to do a field visit to Fargo. I told her that if the city got me a ticket, I would come. Eventually, I visited and the City Administrator invited me to address their detention basins. So I conceived The Fargo Project, for which we were awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Our Town grant.

EP: No project is unleashed faster than when the universe wills it…

JB: There are twenty water detention basins spread throughout the city of Fargo. It is prairie out there, flat as a tabletop. So, when it rains, the detention basins collect the storm water runoff and prevent flooding. However, most of the time, they look like drab, dry pond basins, often gathering garbage. The Fargo basins are surrounded by neighborhoods, and I thought it was a perfect situation. Could people dream of a commons? Could people determine how they want these spaces to function, what they want them to feel like? The City Landscape Architect and I planned a deeply participatory process as a pilot project, one that ideally could be replicated with the other basins. In order to seed this way of working there, we are collaborating with a team of local artists. We have all been doing outreach together for several months to build a community of interest amongst the Fargo residents to participate in the basin’s redesign process.

The Fargo Project, Jackie Brookner, North Dakota, 2012. Photo by Maria Sauvageau.

EP: So many within the very art world itself do not have any idea of how complex and how much time our public projects take, whether performance- or sculpture-based.

JB: 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, a dialogue with some local business leaders, and finally a meeting with a group of Elders at a Bhutanese wedding. 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. Surprisingly, there are many New Americans in Fargo, refugees from war-torn countries across the globe. There is also a large, urban Native American community, in addition to the majority population of Scandinavian descent.

EP: What would be your ideal result in Fargo?

JB: I would be thrilled if people connect to these spaces as their own, enough to want to transform them, use and take care of them: as prairie and wetland habitats, as areas for cultural celebration, gardens for growing food, places for contemplation-places to experience how the earth nurtures us. I would also hope that people could feel a positive connection to water as the source of all 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. My ideal result would involve the full engagement of Fargo’s diverse population. We recently invited a Lakota ethno-botanist to visit and inform us how traditional wisdom can guide our project; what kinds of native plants can grow, particularly culturally significant plants. Her site visit and lecture were amazing.

EP: You seek project credibility.

JB: Yes, both ecological and social.  It is important to demonstrate our commitment to a truly inclusive project. This is a very visible site. As a pilot project, we want this to be a place that inspires people, a beautiful and healthy ecosystem that helps people to experience their connection with other species and the natural systems that support our lives. It must be credible to the plants, the microbes in the soil, the water, the birds and the trees; because, if it isn’t, they won’t flourish. Then, there is the social credibility. We are about to host our WeDesign workshop, to which community members of all ages and backgrounds are invited. Part of that day will be an outdoor celebration at the site, beginning with prayers and a drum circle. This will exemplify how different cultures can host celebrations for everyone. Many of the city’s New Americans are among our most enthusiastic supporters; they are very excited about having more places to grow food together.

EP: How important is it that you are clearly identified as a visual artist throughout this process?

JB: In my spiritual practice, there is no man or woman-there is no human being. Therefore, at that level, what people call me doesn’t really matter.  However, having said that, I probably would not be doing what I am doing, the way that I am doing it, if I were not an artist. Being an artist has taught me how to work on many levels at once-to be open. What matters to me is doing the work. Being an artist gives me leverage. I can be non-threatening. I can say things that I could not say or do if I were something else. I throw a pebble into a pond and it ripples. Or maybe I am the pebble. My goal is to keep opening, to become more transparent and permeable.

EP: Is it strange for you, as an ecological artist, to live in the midst of New York City?

JB: It is here where I feel the most urgency, in the middle of the disturbance.

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