Jackie Brookner, a New York-based artist who creates “biospheres” by using storm runoff and other polluted waters as part of her outdoor, environmental earthworks, spoke at Xavier University this month about the ethical and spiritual dimensions to her work. One of her pieces, “Laughing Brook,” is in Cincinnati, along the struggling Mill Creek at Salway Park, across from Spring Grove Cemetery in Spring Grove Village.
“Water is a sacred purifier in every religion in the world,” Brookner said. Later, she explained that her work’s purpose was to “encourage a heart connection to nature and the water that sustains us.”
Brookner, who has an undergraduate degree from Wellesley College and advanced degrees from Harvard, started off studying biology but became interested in art, too. After working on more traditional sculpture, she gravitated to what is a combination of art and science. She also teaches at Parsons School of Design.
“Sacred purifier” is not a term that usually comes to mind when discussing the Mill Creek — “scary putrifier” is more like it. But the polluted 28-mile waterway, which has a 166-square-mile watershed and travels through the center of Hamilton County on its way to the Ohio River, is too important to stay polluted. To that end, the private nonprofit Mill Creek Restoration Project — which works with both Mill Creek Valley Conservation District and Cincinnati — raised money for Brookner’s “Laughing Brook.” The artist worked with ArtWorks and Human Nature landscape architecture/design firm.
(For more information, or to get involved, visit www.millcreekrestoration.org.)
Eventually, the District hopes to see the creek become an open greenway with recreational trails. This artwork, meant to show what is still possible environmentally with the Mill Creek, was dedicated in 2008, but work continues — Brookner and volunteers used her recent trip to apply moss to the rocks.
“Laughing Brook” is small-scale compared to some of her other projects. In Finland, she created an artificial island/bird sanctuary for an old lagoon once used for sewage treatment. And she’s hoping to work with Fargo, N.D., residents to reinvent a use for one of the city’s “ugly” water retention pits.
If you don’t get up close and spend time with it, “Laughing Brook” is underwhelming like random landscape decoration rather than art of consequence.
But with study, it pays off, symbolizing how small, transformational steps can improve a larger, damaged ecosystem. The artist has created a mini-wetlands, meant to cleanse the storm water and filter out pollutants. The cleansed surface water runs down a small artificial brook. There, Brookner and apprentices have created 106 cast, porous-concrete “biosculptures” where moss can grow. They start out as hands and, as they move down the brook, slowly turn into leaping fish.
The brook has edge filters to keep out sediment and a couple waterfalls that flow around and under a walkway. The water moves toward a drain into the Mill Creek, hopefully arriving clean.
As you walk along (and over) the brook, watching it flow toward the Mill Creek, the art makes you see the possibilities for the nature. It sensitizes you to the damage done to a place long taken for granted. And it makes you think about our own role in causing that, ultimately damaging our own health and humanity. Now, maybe, corrective steps are being taken.
That’s an awakening we need, Brookner explained at her lecture.
“The outer world and inner world are a single world,” she said. “What we do to the outer world, we do to the inner world.”
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