Patricia Johanson '62 unifies public spaces, wildlife habitat, and art
“The survival of our planet is threatened. Each day brings news of accelerating environmental crisis: global warming, species extinction, toxic wastes permeating earth and oceans. For over forty years, Patricia Johanson has patiently insisted that art can heal the earth. For more than twenty years, she has traveled around the world creating large-scale public projects that realize her radical, yet utterly practical vision. Johanson works with engineers, city planners, scientists and citizens’ groups to build her art as functioning infrastructure for modern cities. In San Francisco, her sculpture is a sewer and a baywalk allowing public access to the waterfront, as well as life-supporting habitat for endangered species. Her art invites people into the Amazon rainforest and cleanses a polluted African river. In Korea, a 912-acre park creates territory for tigers, cranes, deer and bats, while linking the land with Korean cultural images. Every facet of a Johanson project is designed to perform multiple functions: cultural, social, infrastructural and environmental. Her designs satisfy deep human needs for beauty, belonging and historical memory, while they cleanse water, process sewage and create habitat.”—excerpted from Art and Survival: Patricia Johanson’s Environmental Projects, by Caffyn Kelley (Islands Institute, 2006)
In 1969, Patricia Johanson ’62, then a 29-year-old painter and sculptor with no previous experience in garden design, was commissioned by House & Garden magazine to create a garden. Among the 150 radically innovative design proposals she created were 28 “water gardens,” including two that dealt with sewage treatment facilities as a public park. “The art of survival—systems that provide pure drinking water, food, and flood control—has produced some of the most beautiful gardens in the world,” wrote Johanson of her designs. Why couldn’t modern water gardens, she posited, find their inspiration in irrigation channels, drainage systems, and sumps?
Forty years later, Johanson’s concept for a sewage treatment “water garden” has come to life in the form of the Petaluma Wetlands Park in Petaluma, California. Johanson became involved with the project in 2000, when it was being conceived as a conventional sewage treatment plant—the Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility. Having gotten in on the ground floor, “when the project was still just a gleam in somebody’s eye,” she saw that, by combining the Ellis Creek facility with a neighboring 272-acre parcel of tidal marsh and mudflat, a multipurpose public space could be created. She set about convincing the city council, the project engineers, the coastal conservancy, local citizens, and others of her vision: treatment wetlands and polishing ponds, public walking and biking trails, diverse wildlife habitat to attract and protect native and endangered species—all designed as an evolving work of naturalistic art. In July 2009, the Petaluma Wetlands Park opened to the public.
This is not the first completed large-scale public project to have originated from Johanson’s 1969 House & Garden designs. Although the magazine deemed Johanson’s proposals unacceptable and never published any of her designs—much less build one, as was originally planned—the commission nevertheless sparked a seminal turning point in her career.
Johanson arrived at Bennington College with an unwavering passion for music, but in her first term, her advisor insisted that she take at least one course in another discipline. She grudgingly chose a painting class and instantly fell in love. Johanson’s instructors, including Paul Feeley, Tony Smith, and Eugene Goossen (whom she would later marry), were immediately impressed with her talent and originality and became close mentors and friends.
In her second year, she created her first notable work of art, a “color room” installed in Paul Feeley’s office on the top floor of Commons. “I took rolls of drawing paper, painted it, and created this environmental room,” explains Johanson. She covered the walls, floor, and ceiling of the room in orange paper and erected a green and black, irregularly faceted paper object in the center, creating “color in space.” Looking back, it’s clear that, although Johanson’s early focus was on painting, her interest in creating environments was apparent even then, as were her tendencies toward experimentation and defiance of conventional boundaries between disciplines.
According to Johanson, the color room “became something of a cause célèbre” and attracted the attention of a number of established artists, including Kenneth Noland and David Smith, who came to view it. “It was considered a fire hazard because the office was part of the egress from the theater,” she remembers. Johanson spent several days camped out in the color room; it was only when her friends were no longer permitted to bring her food that she left—the installation was torn down by the time she returned from the dining hall.
As she continued her studies at Bennington, Johanson became acquainted with a growing number of established artists, including Helen Frankenthaler ’49 and Barnett Newman, and the art critic Clement Greenberg. She added more names to the list when, after graduating from Bennington, she enrolled in the graduate art history program at Hunter College. As a result, by her early 20s she was already well known and well connected in the New York art world. Her striking, large-scale sculptural paintings captured the attention of her contemporaries and quickly earned her acclaim. In 1964, her work was included in Eugene Goossen’s “8 Young Artists” exhibition at the Hudson River Museum, which was at the forefront of the emerging Minimal Art movement. Later, she had group and solo shows at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York, and her work was included in a traveling exhibition organized by the Museum of Modern Art called The Art of the Real.
“Despite her success,” writes Caffyn Kelley in Art & Survival, “Johanson found herself becoming increasingly impatient with the tiny art world and its ‘self-congratulatory prattle.’ Her ideas were reaching out into the world, and she became engaged in design, architecture and urban planning.”
In 1968, Johanson built Stephen Long, a 1,600-foot-long sculpture made from plywood painted in contiguous red, yellow, and blue stripes, and installed along an abandoned railroad bed in Buskirk, New York. The magnitude of the sculpture defied the ability to view it in its entirety from a single perspective. Its size, combined with the fact that its appearance was constantly altered by the patterns of the sun and clouds and the natural environment around it, impelled the viewer to participate in the observation of the sculpture, moving across large spaces to view it from various angles or watching as the angle of the sun modified its appearance over time.
It was James Fanning, a consultant for House & Garden, who commissioned Johanson’s ultimately rejected garden designs after seeing Stephen Long featured in Vogue magazine. “It occurs to me that your fresh approach is one that would make a considerable impact on the field of landscape design,” Fanning wrote to Johanson. His words were prescient: following the House & Garden commission, Johanson’s art moved completely from gallery to nature and from painting and sculpture to garden and landscape design.
“There’s a big leap from being able to talk about something…and being able to actually create it,” reflects Johanson. She knew that if she ever wanted to see her designs built, she would have to first assemble the right credentials. In 1971, she enrolled in the architecture program at City College of New York and began working for the well-known architectural firm Mitchell-Giurgola. Her career as a budding designer and architect was flourishing when she unexpectedly became pregnant and subsequently moved to Buskirk, New York, to raise her family, and immerse herself in the natural world.
“Artists have always changed the way we see. Now we need to change the way we act.” A chance meeting with New York art dealer Rosa Esman in 1976 led to a show of her latest artwork. Harry Parker, director of the Dallas Museum of Art, saw the exhibition and invited Johanson to design the Fair Park Lagoon in Dallas, Texas, her first major commission for a large-scale public project.
“I don’t ever target anything,” says Johanson of the path her career has taken. “I always feel that the right thing will find me.” Indeed, although she’s quick to point out that she doesn’t take on many projects, Johanson has always seemed able to find the right ones, where, she says, “I feel I can have some kind of impact and change the way people see things. ”
Today, Johanson works with uncommon humility and care to create unique and innovative public spaces. She is unwaveringly dedicated to the natural environment, the cultural history, and the community needs of the places in which she works.
Although she still calls herself simply “an artist,” Johanson has also become a de facto engineer, ecologist, historian, city planner, and anthropologist. “You really need to be aware of the whole picture,” Johanson remarks. “I study everything.” She believes that the only way to produce a successful design is to gain a deep knowledge of the place. She spends long hours at each project site, studying the plants and animals that live there, observing when and why they come and go and how they interact with one another. She watches how water levels and flow patterns change throughout the seasons and studies how the site has been used over time, what its cultural significance is and how it has been altered by human use and by natural evolutions. “There is no piece of information that isn’t relevant,” Johanson observes. When she designs, “it isn’t just about getting all the parts in, but it’s about getting all the parts in so that they all work together seamlessly and everything is feeding into everything else.”
“I like projects that have a life of their own,” says Johanson. “I like to design things that won’t necessarily stay the same. That is very antithetical to most artists, who have a vision of ideal perfection. I don’t have that.” With Johanson’s work done, the Petaluma Wetlands Park is now evolving beyond her design, taking on a life of its own—just as she intended. Plants are growing and spreading, blooming for the first time; animals feed, nest, produce offspring, hunt or are hunted; a family of river otters has moved in; and birders, hikers, dog walkers, and bikers fill the paths and discover each foot of the changing landscape. Meanwhile, eight million gallons of sewage are processed each day, producing biosolids that enrich the land and pristine recycled water used to irrigate local agricultural crops.
“One of my missions as a designer is to create inclusive, life-supporting landscapes that broaden human understanding,” writes Johanson. “Artists have always changed the way we see. Now we need to change the way we act. The new wholeness and harmony lies not in design perfection but in our ability to bring competing popula-tions, interests, and points of view together harmoniously in the real world. Ultimately my projects seek design solutions that are as creative, functional, and biologically productive as nature itself.”
For more information about her work, visit patriciajohanson.com.