State of the Arts

S39 E6 | FULL EPISODE

Art and the Environment

Artist Maya Lin created her installation Ghost Forest with Atlantic White Cedars from the Pine Barrens that were victims of climate change. Meet Maya Lin and the forester who worked with her, Bob Williams. Six public artworks revitalize former illegal dumping grounds in Camden. And Jersey City artist Nancy Cohen makes work with paper pulp addressing industrial contamination and global warming.

AIRED: June 19, 2021 | 0:26:46
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TRANSCRIPT

Narrator: Jersey City artist Nancy Cohen

creates large abstract work with handmade paper

about the fragility and strength of the environment.

Cohen: The nine pieces are based on landscapes

that have been changed by time

and often by environmental conditions.

Narrator: A million-dollar public-art challenge

brings a giant trash picker,

a panther made from car hoods, and more to Camden.

Camp: Art can bring a sense of civic pride

and encourage civic engagement around any urban issue.

That's the connection between public art and illegal dumping.

And so the new view was an opportunity

to see that actually happen.

Narrator: Artist Maya Lin uses trees killed by climate change

to create a ghost forest in Manhattan.

She found them in the New Jersey Pine Barrens.

Lin: We have very little time,

but I am going to be absolutely an optimist.

This is the time when you absolutely don't give up.

This is when you work even harder.

Anything we can all do.

Narrator: Art and the environment

on this special edition of "State of the Arts."

[ Music plays ]

Announcer: The New Jersey State Council on the Arts,

encouraging excellence and engagement in the arts

since 1966,

is proud to co-produce "State of the Arts"

with Stockton University.

Additional support is provided by

the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation

and these friends of "State of the Arts."

[ Music plays ]

Narrator: In Madison Square Park,

deep in the heart of New York City,

49 skeletal trees stretch to the sky.

[ Music plays ]

Ghost Forest is a six-month installation

by the artist Maya Lin, made with Atlantic white cedars

that were victims of climate change.

Lin: Each tree, I realize, has a distinct personality.

I kind of call them gentle giants.

These trees are 80 years old, 60- to 80-year-old trees,

so they were magnificent.

Narrator: Maya Lin found these trees in a dying forest

in the New Jersey Pine Barrens.

[ Music plays ]

Her guide was forester Bob Williams.

Williams: Here we are in the real ghost forest.

We're in northern Cape May County

on the Delaware Bay coast.

This forest is certainly dying.

It's dying from sea-level rise

and storm surges from the hurricanes.

Cedar can't tolerate salt.

Therefore, it dies.

Narrator: Atlantic white cedar once ranged from

the coast of southern Maine to the Florida Panhandle,

but now, only pockets remain.

Southern New Jersey has some of

the most significant stands left anywhere --

healthy forests with mature trees

and a low-growing understory.

But there are also large areas

where the Atlantic white cedar is in decline.

These are the ghost forests

that Bob showed Maya Lin and her team.

Lin: The first time down when we were driving through some of

the stands that were really hit hard by Hurricane Sandy.

I took pictures. It was haunting.

And I was -- I get out and I go...

"This is the piece. This is what I want to capture."

[ Music plays ]

Williams: After they had installed the trees,

my wife and I drove up to the city to see them,

and I'll be honest, driving there,

I was pretty skeptical that this is gonna look fake.

You know, "That's an artist.

"She doesn't know a forest like I do,"

and really, really happy to see

that it does look like a natural forest,

and her vision from an artist viewpoint jives with mine

as a forester who looks at forests

in terms of their structure.

And I think she actually did that.

Narrator: "Ghost Forest" is part of "What Is Missing,"

an ongoing series and website focused on the environment.

Maya Lin calls the series her last project

because she plans to spend the rest of her life

working on it.

It's that important to her.

Lin: We have very little time,

but that I am going to be absolutely an optimist.

This is the time when you absolutely don't give up.

This is when you work even harder.

Anything we can all do.

Rapaport: Maya Lin is one of the great

envisionary artists of our time,

and she brings an acute vision as an artist

and pairs that with her environmental activism.

This work is a call to action.

Narrator: Maya Lin created what is perhaps

the best-known public artwork of our time,

the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

[ Music plays ]

Her environmental works are also memorials of a kind,

but they ask us to look to the future, as well.

[ Music plays ]

"Ghost Forest" is the latest of these.

It was commissioned by the Madison Square Park Conservancy.

Myer: We have three core programs --

art, horticulture, and sustainability.

The art program is just an extraordinary way

to change the space.

When you bring -- each artist does their thing,

and suddenly, the place is a different place

and it's a different conversation

and it stimulates different ideas.

Narrator: Such as thinking about ghost forests.

They're on the rise around the world.

Lin: Mostly, a lot of ghost forests

are referring to saltwater inundation,

but it really depends on where you are.

Narrator: In some places, forests are dying

due to catastrophic fires or beetle infestations.

Each has its own problems and potential solutions.

Some, like the Atlantic white cedar, can be restored.

Williams: The question becomes, "Okay, the forest is dying.

What do we do?"

The answer is huge.

To stand by and just watch it happen...

is just irresponsible.

[ Music plays ]

Some forests actually will regenerate on their own,

and when we can let that happen, we should.

When it's not happening, we need to intervene.

[ Music plays ]

Atlantic white cedar is a forest ecosystem

that's declining across the entire eastern United States.

It's one thing to lose trees.

It's another thing to lose a whole ecosystem.

Lin: I became fascinated with the Pine Barrens

when I read John McPhee's book on it,

and I actually had the good fortune of maybe 10 years ago,

I got to meet him, and he said, "Would you," you know,

"you want to go out to the Pine Barrens?"

So we went out to the Pine Barrens,

and it was such a treat and we met with an ecologist,

so I have again been very, very fascinated

by the ecology of the Pine Barrens, as well.

[ Footsteps ]

Williams: Well, here we are in Atlantic County

in what really does offer hope.

A beautiful young, restored Atlantic white cedar forest

that we've worked on for the last 25 years,

and look at them grow.

Here you see six or seven trees,

and all these smaller trees are dead.

You see the dominant tree here taking over the forest.

They shade out these.

These die off, and trees will be dying off in here

for the right reason for decades to come,

not the wrong reasons,

and these dominant trees are the trees

that will become your 100-, 200-year-old trees.

[ Music plays ]

Lin: There is hope. We could turn this around.

We all could chip in.

We could all read about what we could each do

in our everyday lives -- what we eat, what we drink,

what we throw away, what we buy, as well as helping out groups

that are out there in the fields actually doing the work.

[ Music plays ]

Williams: When Maya Lin talks about solutions

and that we could be doing something now, she's correct.

There are solutions.

If this forest doesn't offer hope,

I don't know what does.

Look at it.

[ Music plays ]

[ Birds chirping ]

[ Music plays ]

Camp: As a resident of Camden, I grew up in the city.

I've seen what art can do.

Art can transform people's lives.

People that live in the city, they've been talked down to.

They've been disappointed.

Art can reverse that.

Art can bring a sense of civic pride

and encourage civic engagement around any urban issue.

That's the connection between public art and illegal dumping,

and so the new view was an opportunity

to see that actually happen.

[ Music plays ]

Narrator: In 2018, Bloomberg Philanthropies

announced its $1 million public-art challenge.

A partnership of Camden groups answered with a proposal

to highlight illegal dumping using large-scale public art.

Their project, dubbed "A New View,"

was one of only five grant winners nationwide.

Now bold installations made from reused materials

stand tall in parks that used to be dumpsites,

greeting both residents

and commuters with a new view of Camden.

[ Horn honks ]

Out of over 130 applications,

we picked six projects, eight artists.

We picked the "Mechan 11" robot

with a spear through a washing machine,

so he's literally picking up the illegal dumping.

We had the amazing project of "Turntable" to call back

Camden's history with its windmill, with RCA Victor.

You talk about STEAM --

combining science and math, engineering, with art.

The "Informatic Digester" is that project where it shows

mealworms can eat Styrofoam and turn it into organic material.

Black panther created by Don Kennell and Lisa Adler --

they're gonna use recycled car hoods

and make a 35-foot-long panther.

The "Phoenix" project --

20-foot-tall birds made out of bamboo

that just make you smile when you see them.

"Touching the Earth," made by a family

who's known for adobe building.

They said, "We're going to put a bread oven

in the middle of this community."

Erik Montgomery was brought into the project

because his photography and his idea was just amazing.

His work is all over the city,

and Tom Marchetty, who came up with the idea

of these seeding pods made out of recycled material.

Those are situated all over, as well.

Kolluri: For us, it's really about three things.

One, it's about reclaiming the land

and the environment in Camden.

Two, it's about changing the perceptions of the city,

and three, it is about highlighting the issue

of illegal dumping,

which is an issue that is really a problem for the residents.

It costs the city, on average, $4.5 million a year to clean up.

That's money we can use to fix roads or build more parks,

so we thought it was a very important issue to highlight.

Camp: But here's the unfortunate part.

Most of it comes from outside of the city.

People that are driving in

with a pickup truck full of old furniture,

they don't want to pay the money to go to the dump,

so they just drive into the city and just put it out somewhere.

Riggs: I've seen it happen firsthand.

I've seen where people dump into alleys,

and it's really jarring to watch,

especially when it's somewhere across the street

from where I live.

When there is illegal dumping,

I don't think we should take it as a mark on us

or something we've done to deserve it,

and it says a lot about their mind set.

Camp: I'm certain these people that are coming into the city

would not go back where they live

and dump that garbage on somebody's sidewalk

or somebody's front lawn,

and that, in essence, is what they're doing in Camden.

Garrity: That gave us criteria to select the six sites.

They were areas that were literally dumped on.

Also, we wanted multiple public artworks.

We didn't want just one site,

to sort of get them around the city

in places where people would see them from the PATCO train,

from the River Line train, from major thoroughfares.

[ Aphex Twin's "Avril 14th" plays ]

Narrator: "A New View" made community engagement a priority.

Schools and local artists provided the national teams

with ideas, assistance,

and even artwork for the six installations.

Camp: The creative high school got involved.

They designed the heart box for the "Mechan 11."

Garrity: One of the students, Rachel Jimenez's design,

was selected, which shows a mirrored heart chamber

with dragonflies and butterflies and flowers around it,

and it was very important to the artists

that the heart, of all things, be connected back to Camden.

Camp: We were able to hire local artists to work

alongside of these artists that were doing public art.

That's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Rios: We did the benches, so we mixed clay

and hay together to make the structures into a garden.

We did the planters that you see here.

We planted the plants, too,

and everything was just really amazing.

It was a very different experience.

I was working with another artist named Josh,

and so I was able to show him my portfolio with my artwork.

One conversation led to the next,

and literally within that same week,

I was able to get approved my mural.

And so it is the art that you see today.

It took about three to four days to finish.

The first day, we did have the community,

like little kids to come and help and paint,

but it was a really exciting and, like, cool process.

You know, it's a really big structure,

and it was just, like, to see the progress of how it was made,

it was like, "Wow, like, now I understand

how the people feel, like,

when they put their stuff out there."

Garrity: "Turntable" was created by slow architecture.

To tie it back to illegal dumping,

they wanted to use cut two-liter plastic bottles

on the top of the turntable, which gives it

this very beautiful, diaphanous kind of look.

There are over 8,000 recycled bottles,

and some of the apprentices helped out

with that work, as well.

And then inside, to create the dome,

which has the oculus at the top

that you can look through to the sky.

Originally, they were going to use plastic bags,

but once the pandemic started, we see these blue medical masks.

This is sort of a new form of trash,

so the interior dome of "Turntable" is made up

of over 3,000 medical masks.

Actually creates stunning geometric patterns

through the dome.

They almost look like this sort of a floral design,

and I thought that was just a brilliant change

and a nod to current history.

[ Music plays ]

Narrator: Events and tours taking place

throughout the summer will take residents and visitors

around the city of Camden to check out the art,

which is up through October 2021.

"A New View"'s website and field guides make self-tours easy.

[ Music plays ]

Camp: There are naysayers that said, you know,

"Why don't you just use the million dollars

and clean up the dumping?

What do you need art for?"

Cultural empowerment leads to political empowerment.

Riggs: It's important that it's here not only for the locals

so that they continue to have hope.

It's also to change the stigma and the mind set of people

who really don't know about Camden city,

and I think that has to happen even here

because some people buy into what others believe.

Camp: We've even seen in this program

people who were residents

who said they hadn't really thought about it

before we started the project

and they would throw stuff out of their window.

It's inconceivable, right?

But when you've been told over the years that you're nothing,

that you're at the bottom of the barrel,

it doesn't matter.

Art can reverse that. It really can.

Garrity: People will stop their cars and ask me,

"What is this?"

Without a fault, everyone is like,

"Wow, that's really cool. Thank you."

Camp: People are starting to come around to this idea

that they need to go see all of the sites.

I've also heard the reverse. That is distressing.

Talked to someone.

She said, "Oh, is it safe to drive in Camden?"

And I was like, "Yeah, people do it every day."

It's alright.

They're just people.

Art transforms the lives of people.

If you want to give people hope, you do it through the arts.

You want to help people understand

that all of us are the same.

The arts do that.

This project, I think, can help bridge that gap,

so I'm pretty excited by what's happening.

And I think it only gets better from here.

[ Music plays ]

[ Music plays ]

Birmingham: I think Nancy Cohen is one of

the most important artists working in New Jersey now.

I have been following her career probably for almost 20 years.

Narrator: Nancy Cohen's exhibition

of large-scale paper drawings

at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey

is called "Atlas of Impermanence."

Cohen: Out of the nine pieces, six of them are

based on landscapes that have been changed by time

and often by environmental conditions and climate change.

Narrator: The works resemble tapestries

but are made entirely from handmade paper and pulp.

Her works in glass, called wings, fill the windows

at each end of the gallery.

Cohen: The overall series is called "The Work of Time,"

and it's about places that have been changed by time

and our relationship --

and my personal relationship to those places.

Narrator: One of those places is very close

to Nancy's Jersey City home,

exit 13 on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Cohen: For the 30 years I've lived in New Jersey,

I've had the experience that everybody has of driving

up and down the New Jersey Turnpike

and seeing that weird orange light

flickering from around exit 13

and where all those power plants are

and thinking, "What is that?"

"13" is a drawing based on the orange light,

the really bizarre kind of almost space-age-looking

architecture of those power plants, the oil tanks,

which are pretty ubiquitous around this part of New Jersey

that you can see actually when you're kayaking

in lots of these waterways, the Hackensack and the Hudson.

This part of New Jersey has been,

you know, a disaster, between Agent Orange

and, you know, Passaic, and, you know,

all the factories polluting the Hudson and the Hackensack,

but there's also the inspirational ways

those waters have become cleaner over time.

So there's this back and forth.

[ Music plays ]

Birmingham: So she's always interested in how

the environment has this sense of strength

and lasting through time,

but also being very challenged by human intervention.

Cohen: It really started with water.

When I was a kid,

I grew up in Queens, so kind of near the river,

and my grandparents lived on Long Beach, Long Island.

They had a house on the beach. That's where they lived.

And so I spent a lot of my young childhood on the ocean,

and I never really thought of it as an influence.

But over the years,

whenever people would look at my work,

they would see water references, and that at some point,

I started taking that more seriously.

[ Music plays ]

I think very tactilely.

I think whether I'm working two or three dimensionally

through materials, and so I started out in clay.

The ability to manipulate it was really interesting to me,

and the thing that I would get stuck on

was what to do with it once it was fired.

Like the application of color later

didn't ever really make that much sense to me.

I think intuitively,

and so I tended over the years to work with materials

where I can join the color and the surface and the texture

and the material all at the same time.

When I started working in handmade paper,

I could make the paper the color and the texture that I wanted

before I started making the art out of it,

and the same when I worked with glass.

[ Music plays ]

Birmingham: It's quite beautiful,

and it makes you want to look at it

and wonder, "What is it that I'm looking at?"

They look like textiles with fabric and stitching.

Cohen: I've been working in handmade paper

for about 28 years,

and I love the material, took to it right away

because in many ways, it was like working with clay.

But it was lightweight, translucent.

You know, I loved it, absolutely loved it,

and have then worked with it as one of many materials,

most of that time primarily using it as a material

for making sculpture

and large-scale installations in handmade paper.

And it's only about seven years ago

that I started primarily using it

for making these large-scale paper wall pieces.

[ Music plays ]

So what I'm using right now

is a combination of linen pulp and cotton pulp,

so the same as linen and cotton fabric.

And the way that you make paper is you start with a pulp

in a lot of water, and then you make the sheet.

So what I'm using to what I call draw with is the pulp

before it's been made into paper.

Narrator: This piece was inspired

by salt flats in Bolivia.

She was there visiting her 20-year-old son.

Cohen: He was living in Bolivia in 2016 or '17,

and I visited a few times.

And one time, we went to a place called Salar de Uyuni,

which are the salt flats in Bolivia,

and we spent a day wandering,

but with a guide because they don't let you go alone

because you would never find your way out of there

because it's just this endless, you know, landscape

of sort of crusty hexagonal ground

as far as you can see.

[ Music plays ]

Narrator: Another work deals with the landscape

at Espiritu Santo National Park in Baja, California.

Cohen: It's called Espiritu Santo,

which is the name of a national park in Baja,

and I was there with this environmental group,

Ninth Wave Global,

and we were sleeping in the desert.

It was really dry, cactus, dry, dry, dry,

and we were hiking.

We came up over a mountain and looked down,

and we were -- there was the sea.

And it was just when the tide was changing,

and there was this incredible mixing of sand and water.

And I felt like I was sort of looking at the spiral jetty,

and so that was -- the mixing of sand and water

in that moment really stayed with me.

[ Music plays ]

When I become interested in a place,

I'm experiencing it visually, you know, looking at it,

walking around, hiking, and then reading about it,

you know, meeting with marine biologists,

speaking to people involved in the preservation

and the restoration of the water, so all of that.

So the work that I make is not a direct translation

but kind of an internal translation

of all of that understanding.

[ Music plays ]

Narrator: That's it for this special edition

of "State of the Arts"

devoted to art and the environment.

Visit our website for more or to share a story.

Thanks for watching.

[ Music plays ]

Announcer: The New Jersey State Council on the Arts,

encouraging excellence and engagement in the arts

since 1966,

is proud to co-produce "State of the Arts"

with Stockton University.

Additional support is provided by

the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation

and these friends of "State of the Arts."

[ Music plays ]


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