While many artists are looking to make their mark, eco-artist Daniel McCormick tries to do just the opposite.
The Bay Area artist, who holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental design from UC Berkeley, installs sculptures in eroded gullies and riverbanks to restore damaged ecosystems, hoping that after a few years, every trace of his craft will disappear.
“I like to do the work and see it work,” he said. “I don’t need a monument.”
For the past 25 years, McCormick, 60, has been blending aesthetic beauty and functionality to create these ephemeral pieces that filter dirty water to heal rivers and creeks. With support from public organizations like the U.S. National Park Service, he has woven these basket forms throughout sites in Northern California, including Berkeley and Oakland. And as his body of work grows, so does his reputation – not just as an artist, but as a pioneer of eco-friendly art.
A handful of his pieces, which resemble large, elongated birds’ nests that are made to fit each creek individually, were on display Thursday at the David Brower Center, a nonprofit in Downtown Berkeley that aims to inspire environmental and social action.
“He’s one of the preeminent eco-artists, and what we love about this work is that … he’s using these forms for watershed and creek restoration,” said Amy Tobin, executive director of the center. “This work that’s really lovely to look at and then has this utilitarian purpose is really perfect.”
Since his elegant structures are intended to interact with nature and work best outside the gallery, the show, Methods and Materials: Ecological Art in Practice focused on the building blocks of his pieces. However, a list of his materials – willow branches, dogwood cuttings, sycamore and oak roots, burlap, recycled coconut fibers – sounds little like a typical artist’s palette.
But McCormick is not a typical artist. Using riparian materials, which originate around or near the banks of a river, allows his work to biodegrade and become integrated into the local ecology, he said.
“This idea moves away from an anthropocentric view of nature,” he said. “Nature is not a resource anymore; we need to think of it as a partner.”
McCormick’s work – which he calls watershed sculptures – could easily be considered a part of the Earthworks genre, a movement in which artists carve into the earth. However, McCormick said he was inspired by the political and social climate of the 1970s and watching the federal government try to save a scarred environment with the foundation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Water Act of 1977 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
“Growing up in the Bay Area, I felt some kind of responsibility,” he said. “I began to look at ecology and art and design and landscape and just kind of figured out how to do it.”
Through his relationship with the National Park Service, McCormick collaborates with hydrologists to choose the correct locations for his sculptures to take root. Usually, the sites are grounds for steelhead trout and coho salmon. He attempts to restore the quality of watersheds, areas of land where all the water has been drained.
“Every state I’ve worked in, there are big water issues,” he said. “We’ve paved too much, and everybody knows it.”
The increased urbanization that encroaches upon once-rural land pushes more water into the creeks, overflowing and eroding the banks, thereby polluting the water, he said. His sculptures act as silt traps, filtering the water, which prevents sediment from suffocating fish eggs.
“We all live on a watershed. Think of your citizenship as a ‘watership:’ as an ecological boundary and not as a political boundary,” he said. “If we have a healthy watershed … it makes for the issue of water as a commodity to be less contentious because you have water.”
The idea of establishing a symbiotic relationship with nature – being a part of it without harming it – is slowly gaining momentum, according to McCormick.
“There’s definitely a paradigm shift, and it’s very evident,” he said. “I just play my role as an artist.”
And he’s been playing his part successfully – over the years, McCormick has effected change, relying on the interplay of nature’s processes and his own innovative works.
“Growing up, I was always told that we have great natural resources in this country, but we don’t anymore – they’re damaged,” he said. “We need to partner with and have a relationship with it, so it can serve us too as we serve it.”