Connecting Aquatic Eco-Sculpture to the Hudson River Restoration Movement



Recently I have been particularly interested in functional art, a genre which fits under the label of fine art, but serves utilitarian purposes (Allenchy).  This subject has become of interest to me because o]]><![CDATA[f this fine line that is drawn between high art and craft in such instances, but also the question of what the purpose of making a utilitarian object to have unnecessary aesthetic qualities is.  This art can be said to be the stark contrast to the genre of found objects, done by artists such as Marcel Duchamp, famous for The Fountain– a urinal signed, dated and placed on a pedestal.  Found object art is exactly what is sounds like; already manufactured objects are taken out of their context into a gallery space in a way that removes their original function (Allenchy).  Functional art is the exact opposite, creating new functional objects in an “artistic” way, usually placed outside the confines of a gallery setting (Allenchy).

My interest within functional art specifically lies within eco-art.  Innovation seems to be a large descriptor of Eco art (Weintraub, 2012, 5). Linda Weintraub (2012) states that, “the overt functionality of much eco art introduces a particularly disputed form of innovation, because it frequently seems indistinguishable from engineering, gardening, farming, researching, educating, and so forth,” (5). Topics that artists have adapted from ecologists consist of non-human organisms, the nonliving environment, and human action.  In eco art there usually is a focus on interconnectedness of physical entities, dynamism (an object that takes up space changes overtime), and ecocentrism (the concept that humans are not the most important thing on this planet) (Weintraub, 2012, 6-7). In terms of eco art, I’ve been particularly looking at aquatic ecosystems.

Aquatic ecosystems, like all ecosystems, consist of chemical and physical properties, as well as biological properties.  Water is unique in that it remains in liquid form, unlike most physical properties in our universe that prefer to take a solid or gas form on Earth (Dodds, 2002, 13).  One of the most important properties of water, density, which is controlled by temperature and dissolved ions, affects aquatic ecosystems, as dense water sink and less dense water rises.  This can cause stratification, layers of water with different amounts of density (Dodds, 2002, 14-15). Other significant factors of water include being very soluble and having a high heat capacity (Dodds, 2002, 15-16).  In terms of the life found in aquatic ecosystems, the main categories of species are algae, protozoa, nonvascular plants, aquatic plants, aquatic insects, and fish (Dodds, 2002, 122)

Freshwater ecosystems specifically, include streams, rivers, lakes, ponds and wetlands. Lakes are relatively stagnant open bodies of water, completely separated from the ocean (Dodds 92).  These are often formed by glacial activity (Dodds, 2002, 96). Streams and lakes are flowing bodies of water, and therefore important actors in transporting materials such as minerals and nutrients (Dodds, 2002, 69).  One topic of interest in relation to wetlands, it their production of methane, which is a relatively powerful greenhouse gas (Dodds, 2002, 125).


Framing Questions:

How can aquatic sculptures assist or restrain certain environmental movements?


Situated Context:

A large part of my passion for freshwater ecology stems from being raised along the hudson river.  The Hudson has a long history of human interference, pollution, and restoration. Around 1790 people started daming and altering the hudson, which was in many parts shallow and filled with channels and islands, to make it more navigable (Strayer, 2012, 109).  This caused intense habitat loss, to a river that once was filled with complex and varying habitats (Strayer, 2012, 109).  Erasing shallow habitats would cause massive decreases in primary production, affecting overall biodiversity (Strayer, 2012, 110).  Dams have created sediment traps and blockades for migratory fish, and shoreline hardening – replacing the shores with rocks or cement for protection from erosion and floods and for railroad construction – which erases the wetlands sand flats and mudflats that previously would have existed. (Strayer, 2012, 111-113).  Previously existing oyster reefs that provided habitats for numerous species have been erased from overfishing and pollution (Strayer 114). The list of changes to the river goes on. However, while some of the major alterations to the Hudson River cannot be undone, large restoration efforts have significantly improved water quality and biodiversity (Strayer, 15).  “Ecological restoration is the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed” (Weintraub, 2012, 59).

Fig. 1: Google Earth Image of Hudson River

For instance, water quality in the lower section of the Hudson River has improved enough now for Oysters to be reintroduced to the area (Strayer, 115). 

Riverkeeper is one example of an organization that has consistently been part of the restoration campaign, focusing on issues such as pollution prevention and protecting river ecology (Riverkeeper). Growing up I would hear a lot about Riverkeeper, as well as Clearwater, which also has an educational boat that runs along the Hudson, and an annual fundraising festival, which was quite famous in my country.  

Growing up, the main art I learned about in relation to the Hudson River, was the Hudson River School of Painting.  This was, as described by Schwendener (2012), “a retroactive grouping of 19th-century painters that is often described as America’s first viable art movement… underwritten by theories about nature and the American wilderness.”.  Among these artists are the siblings Thomas and Sarah Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, and Asher B Durand (Schwendener, 2012).

The one eco-artist who has worked on the Hudson River that I have learned about in recent years, is Buster Simpson, who did the Hudson River Purge in 1991 (Moyer, Harper, 2012, 98).  For this project, he dropped massive limestone tablets, called “antacid tablets”, into the Hudson, which neutralized the acidic water and soil (Moyer and Harper, 2012, 98).  These were gone after just a few years, which Simpson and the media took as a clear sign of the level of toxicity in the river (Moyer and Harper, 99). Simpson did not see his project as sufficient enough, saying the “Limestone only treats the symptoms and not the underlying causes.” (Moyer and Harper, 2012 99).  My personal hope, is that because art is a practice of aesthetics and beauty, that it can play a role in how people see the Hudson, and might see it as beautiful and durable instead of abused and ugly, as I so often hear.

While I have yet to learn about other eco artists working in the Hudson area, there is an abundance of aquatic eco artists working in other areas, such as Betsy Damon.  Betsy Damon dedicated her life to such art, and started the organization Keepers of the Waters (Moyer and Harper, 2012, 129). She created one especially significant project, in which she help a two month long public art event of sculptures, performance art, art interventions and more, to create awareness about water contamination of the Fu and Nan Rivers.  This led to the education and recreation public park in Chengdu, Living Water Garden, and inspired students and teachers to create the Davinvi Water Garden Model Project in Portland Oregon (Moyer and Harper 130). This project turned an abondoned tennis court into a functional garden that captures and treats stormwater runnoff (Moyer and Harper, 2012, 130).

Another river artist, Mario Reis, does not create functional art, but rather uses the river as a material.  For his Riverwork, he sets cloth in rivers and lets minerals and vegetation color it (Grande, 2012, 105).  He calls the water his “paintbrush,” which he directs the flow of by placing rocks on different parts of the stretcher (Grande, 2012, 105-106).  He chooses his sight very carefully, because the speed of water and depth need to be perfect (Grande, 2012, 105). Over the past two years I have discovered many more artists like Reis and Simpson who work on and with rivers.

Fig. 3: Situated Context Concept Map

Research Question:

How has sculpture played a role in Hudson River restoration movements, both conceptually and functionally?


This will primarily be a research project of literary analysis.  There are many environmental organizations that focus specifically on the Hudson River, such as the Hudson River Watershed Alliance, the Hudson River Foundation, Riverkeeper, Clearwater, and more.  I will conduct a literary analysis of their websites, and analyze what their primary message and goal is. I will then do historical research on Hudson River restoration projects.

The next step in my research is finding literature and sources on outdoor sculptors who have worked on the Hudson River.  I will research the artists intentions, as well as the reception and outcome of the works of art. If the artists were working in coordination with scientists or organizations, I will investigate what the nature of the relationship was and anymore information I can find on the topic.  Media Reviews, personal artist statements, and other forms of public feedback will all be sources I use to decipher the outcome of the sources. After conduction my research, I will analyze the relationship between the initial literary analysis of Hudson River Organizations and restoration efforts and the art I looked into.

Broader Implications:

There are a number of reasons why it is important to ask how sculptor has played a role in Hudson River restoration movements.  To start, it is a topic that has not received much attention. While Hudson River paintings have a clear presence in art history, not much is known about sculpture.  This may be because there is not much. In which case, the next question to ask is why and would it be helpful if there was more?

Freshwater ecology in general demands the attention of people around the world.  Most of the human population are landlocked on continents, but only a finite amount of the water on Earth is continental (Dodds, 2002, 1)  Furthermore, most continental water is locked in the ground, and not easily accessible compared to lakes and rivers. We depend for survival on an extremely rare resource (Dodds, 2002, 1)  If it weren’t for the atmospheric cycles of condensation and precipitation, humans would rapidly use up all the world’s available freshwater (Dodds, 2002, 3). Furthermore, freshwater organisms are rapidly going endangered (Dodds, 2002, 183).

other types of eco art

Looking at eco-art in one context helps build a larger picture for how eco-art is functioning more generally and on a larger scale.  For instance, one could relate the terrestrial Bayer’s Mill Creek Earthwork, which functions to protect from water rather than protect the water itself. This was a transformation of land into pools, ridges, dams and pathways that most of the year was dry and functioned as a recreational park, but creates islands and frames the water during rainstorms, simultaneously preventing flooding in the nearby town of Kent (Weintraub, 2010, 59).  It doubles as the usage of a public park, and continuous flood protection for an entire town.

Freshwater ecosystems also have a lot in common with marine ecosystems, even if they also differ in various ways as well.  One such artist working in aquatic ecosystems is Jason Decaires Taylor, who places sculptures depicting human activity in ocean floors depleted by marine activity.  These sculptures are pH balanced, which overtime facilitates coral growth and reintroduces biodiversity to the area (Issues in Science and Technology, 2013).  Answering my research question would allow me to see what’s similar and different in art on the Hudson River in comparison to examples such as these.


Next Steps/Further Research:

One possible development of research would be to broaden out and compare eco art at different Rivers throughout the country, or perhaps the world.  Are there similar themes occuring? The research could be conducted in a similar way, with literary analysis. Another further research question would be to as how abundant this art is.  This could be done with research, data collection, and a GIS analysis. I would also like to know how policy plays a role in this art. Do the artists have to file environmental reports, or have land access permission granted?  This could involve a look at government documents.

On the notes of policy, results from this data could inform whether or not to place stricter regulations on sculptor around the Hudson River, or if New York governments should be supporting this type of art financially.  This research also could inform restoration organization on how they could engage with the artists working on the river. Ultimately further research and next steps would develop one the more general question is answered of how integral a role art can play in environmental action and engagement.


Allenchey, Alex. “What Is Functional Art? (Or, Why Is That Switchblade on a Pedestal?).” Artspace.

“Aviva Rahmani : Ecological Artist.” Accessed April 23, 2018.

Dodds, Walter K. 2002. Freshwater Ecology Concepts and Environmental Applications. Aquatic Ecology. San Diego: Academic Press.

Grande, J. 2004. Art nature dialogues : Interviews with environmental artists. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.

“Hudson River.” RiverKeeper.

“Jason DeCaires Taylor.” 2013. Issues in Science and Technology 29, no. 3: 6-21.

Morton, Brooke. 2016. “Jason deCaires Taylor.” Sport Diver, p. 9+. General OneFile, 

Moyer, T., & Harper, Glenn. 2011. “The new earthwork : Art, action, agency,” 1st ed. Perspectives on contemporary sculpture; 4.  Hamilton, NJ : Seattle, WA: ISC Press ; Distributed by University of Washington Press.

Schwendener, Martha. 2012. “The Hudson River School, Seen Anew.” The New York Times.

Strayer, David Lowell. 2012. The Hudson Primer the Ecology of an Iconic River. Berkeley: University of California Press.

“Washed Up.” .

Weintraub, Linda. 2010. To Life! Eco Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. ISBN 9780520273627.

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