Oct 18, 2011

TREND| Earth Art

Maya Lin, Storm King Wavefield, 2009

Some of the most breathtaking artwork to me is art that is incorporated into nature. I’ve always been enchanted by nature’s beauty and I feel that artists who are able to embellish the land with their masterpieces, without overpowering the natural beauty of the landscape, have a rare talent and understanding of their environment. Although, in my opinion, some contemporary artists fall short of successfully combining art with the natural world, there are several artists that I feel have found the perfect balance of art and nature to create exquisite pieces.

            Earth art (also known as land art or earthworks) started in the U.S. in the 1960’s by a number of artists who wanted to express man’s relationship to nature. Some artists only use natural materials to create their earthworks, while others introduce manmade materials to the natural world to form their pieces. Among the artists who helped start the movement was Robert Smithson, who created the famous Spiral Jetty. The Spiral Jetty stretches 1,500 feet in length and 15 feet across, and is made up completely of organic materials like mud, salt crystals, and water. It was created in 1970 and reaches from the shore into the water of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. The piece still remains there, but is only visible when the water level of the lake is low. Otherwise, the land art is completely submerged. The mystery of when you can view this art, and what it will look like when it’s visible is an intriguing and unique aspect to the piece.

Andy Goldsworthy, Russet Circle

            Although many earthworks are massive in scale, some works can be effective with just a small change to nature. Andy Goldsworthy only uses material he finds in nature for his earth art, but creates simple, yet elegant compositions that I think would be a pleasure to stumble upon. Goldsworthy works with a variety of organic materials to create different kinds of pieces, but one work of art I thought was particularly clever is his Russet Circle. At first glance, it looks like he somehow colored an orange circle onto a pile of leaves on the ground, but a closer look reveals that he collected orange leaves and placed them in a circle, matching up with the brown leaves already on the ground. Even though it’s just a simple detail added to the ground, I find it very appealing and delightful.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Valley Curtain, 1970-72

            A pair of artists that I believe have made some of the most astonishing land art using large-scale, non-organic material is Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Their ability to blend enormous works of art with the landscape, without taking away from the earth’s natural beauty, is genius. One of my favorites of their works is Valley Curtain. It was a 200,200 square ft. orange, woven nylon curtain that stretched between two mountains in Rifle, Colorado. The piece only remained up for a couple of days, after taking 28 months to complete, proving the dedication these artists have to their work. Although the curtain couldn’t have been missed if you were in the area during the time it was up, it only added to the beauty of the mountains around it, without blocking the view of the mountains behind it.

Earth art is a unique twist to the conventional ways and materials used in art. It allows the viewer to take in the landscape around them as well as the artwork, as a whole piece. It also provides new, appealing aspects to viewing art like, depending on the time of day, the piece can look completely different and take on different meanings to the viewer. Also, for many of the earthworks that are temporary, the viewer can revisit the site even after the work is gone and still see the piece mentally. I look forward to seeing the designs contemporary artists will come up with in their future earthworks.

-Sarah Shackelford


  1. What I love about Andy Goldsworthy is that when he makes his works in nature he uses natural elements, like you mentioned Sarah. He appreciates nature and does not want to defy it by bringing in non-natural materials. He also like to get his hands into his work. Its very unlike nature to have uniformity and clean lines.

    -Diana Babson

  2. First of all i want to tell you how much I appreciate the topic you chose. When I have creative blocks I frequently look back to natural forms. You have presented me with an entire new host of inspiring images, artists, and an art medium that I wouldn't have otherwise known of. Your first image really caught my attention and was a very wise decision on your part in order to grab a readers attention. At first I thought it was a painting then upon reading the title my thought was "wait ... this is actual ground and grass. I must see more." Thank you for this post.

    - Josh Seaton