Helen Mayer Harrison, leader of the eco-art movement, dies at 90
Helen Mayer Harrison, one half of the husband and wife team known as the Harrisons, pioneers of the eco-art movement whose works blended elements of art, biology, environmentalism and more, died on 24 march in Santa Cruz, California. She was 90.
His family said the cause was Alzheimer’s disease.
Mrs. Harrison and her husband, Newton Harrison, were both well on their way to careers as educators when, in the late 1960s, they began to focus on making art, swearing that anything they created would involve ecosystems and environmental awareness.
Their works were unconventional to say the least, pushing the very boundaries of what constitutes art. They made topsoil and grew crops on it. They have consulted on urban planning projects in Baltimore, Europe and elsewhere. Long before global warming was in the public consciousness, they considered its likely effects through maps and other means.
And then there was “Hog Pasture,” one of their earliest works, created for a 1971 exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts titled “Earth, Air, Fire, Water: Elements of Art.” They made a real pasture inside, hoping to get a real pig root there. The museum, they remembered years later, was okay with grazing but not with the pig.
In 2012, they recreated the work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and this time a pig named Wilma was allowed. In front of curious spectators, Wilma rushed into the pasture, looking for what the pigs are looking for in the earth.
“The meaning of the piece is what you see,” Ms. Harrison said in a video of the exhibit. “All of a sudden, people are looking at the environment one way or another, and they’re looking at it differently. In other words, it grabs their attention in a meaningful way.
Helen Mayer was born on July 1, 1927 in Queens. Her father, Henry, and her mother, Natalia Perla Wiseman, were both teachers.
She received a bachelor’s degree in English from Queens College in 1946 and a master’s degree in philosophy of education from New York University in 1949, then began teaching in the New York school system. She met Mr. Harrison, an artist who initially concentrated on sculpture, in the early 1950s. They married in 1953.
After living for a time in Florence, Italy, they returned to New York, where, living on the Lower East Side, Ms. Harrison immersed herself in the causes and cultural movements of the early 1960s, particularly the growing peace movement.
After Mr. Harrison completed his master’s work in 1965, he and Mrs. Harrison were offered teaching positions at the University of New Mexico. Two years later, they moved to the University of California, San Diego, where Ms. Harrison led the extension division’s education programs.
But by the early 1970s, she and her husband were dedicated to making art of an earth-conscious nature. One of their earliest efforts took this commitment literally: For “Making Earth” (1969-70), Mr. Harrison made topsoil in their studio parking lot, and Mrs. Harrison did it. used to grow plants.
They came to call these early works their Survival Pieces. “Hog Pasture” was one. Another was a portable orchard, inspired by what they saw happening in Orange County, California.
“It was made with trees and we brought them inside,” Ms Harrison said in a 2013 video interview. “We did it because we thought, ‘All the orange trees in Orange County are disappearing. The orchards are felled. So we created an orchard for the museum that would be the last orange orchard in Orange County. And it was, in all probability.
The work was first exhibited at California State University, Fullerton.
To the inevitable question, why Survival Pieces were art rather than agriculture, Mr. Harrison had a ready answer.
“What we did in a series of museums was do work that as a whole added to the food chain,” he said in the same interview. “So we thought quite differently from the farmers.”
The Harrisons dabbled in urban ecology in the 1980s, working on concept designs for a boardwalk in Baltimore, the rehabilitation of a debris pit in Pasadena, California, and more.
However, not all of their works were so great. Their contribution to the 1989 group exhibition “The Drowned World: Waterworks” at the PS 1 Museum in Queens (now MoMA PS1) was a distillation device that purified water from the East River, showing the gunk it contained.
In the 1990s and beyond, their projects took on a regional dimension, examining ecosystems and environmental degradation. These works may include installation, videos, maps, urban designs and other elements and involve input from planners, biologists and others not usually associated with the art world.
For example, the multi-part study ‘Greenhouse Britain’ (2006-2009) examined the possible effects on England of rising sea levels resulting from global warming, suggesting high-rise living spaces, hanging gardens and a barrage to protect Bristol.
Climate change was on the Harrisons’ radar long before it started making headlines, which Mr Harrison attributes to his wife.
“Helen Mayer Harrison brought to our collective work a deep expertise in literature, educational philosophy and transdisciplinary research,” he said by email. “A startling example of this was in 1973 when she introduced research into global warming, which then became the lifelong theme of our work.”
In addition to being an artist, Ms. Harrison was a professor at the University of California, San Diego from 1980 to 1994. At her death, she was professor emeritus of digital and new media arts at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
“Ahead of its time, yet very of her time, Helen aimed to strengthen the connection between the mind and everyday life through her work,” said Susan Solt, dean of the arts division of this university, by e-mail. “Helen blended the worlds of art and science so skillfully that conservationists, landscape architects, engineers and politicians were convinced to rethink their own contributions to our ecosystems.”
In addition to her husband, Mrs. Harrison is survived by three sons, Steven, Joshua and Gabriel; one daughter, Joy Harrison; nine grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
In a 2010 interview, the Harrisons opened up about their long partnership.
“People want to know who’s doing what,” Harrison said. “What happens is I do the first draft, Helen does the second, I come back for the third, and then Helen has the last.”
To which Ms. Harrison added: “So he has the first word, and I especially have the last word. That works.