Collaborating with Nature & Science: The Eco-Art of Stacy Levy

“I think art can play a much bigger role in solving environmental issues,” says Stacy Levy, whose eco-art harnesses the natural forces of rainwater, plant roots, and microbes to help tell the “ecological story” of a site and create solutions for storm-water and water pollution issues.

Collaborating with nature requires a multi-disciplined approach in order to find answers to the site’s issues. In addition to nature, Levy regularly collaborates with engineers, ecologists and hydrologists, and landscape architects. Levy enjoys this intersectionality of science and art and finding ways to express the workings of a system in a visible, comprehensible form. Speaking of her role in the collaborative team, she says, “engineers and scientists are kindred spirits to artists, they, too, are filled with wonder and curiosity about nature. My particular job is to make visual metaphors to translate the natural world.”

“Rain Yard” Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education  Philadelphia, PA 2013 Blue spiraling gutters carry rainwater from a major roof drain into the rain garden, where the water can slowly soak into the soil.
“Rain Yard”
Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education
Philadelphia, PA 2013
Blue spiraling gutters carry rainwater from a major roof drain into the rain garden, where the water can slowly soak into the soil.

Sustainable Design: Art that does the work

Environmental art
“Rain Ravine”
Frick Environmental Center, Pittsburgh PA 2016
Part of an overall Living Building Challenge site design, Rain Ravine carries all the rain from the building’s roof to the wetlands for reuse as part of the required net zero waste on the site.

For “Rain Ravine,”  a commission for Pittsburgh Park’s Frick Environmental Center, Levy worked with the engineers and the building and landscape architects to find a way that art could solve the site’s issue with stormwater. The end result—a large terraced stone runnel—conveys the rain from the building’s rooftop to treatment wetlands. Sometimes the water gushes across the artwork, sometimes it trickles,  depending on the recent rainfall. As an element in the project’s “Living Building Challenge,” the artwork animates the rain—a resource that would typically be hidden in and diverted by pipes and drains.

The artwork also has another job: to provide visitors with a visual metaphor of what they will find in the park below. As Levy explains, “I riffed on the geology of the local shale that naturally breaks into beautiful curves.” The sculpture enlarges the hard-to-see geologic forms into a path that visitors walk down and experience kinetically.  Visitors “take” this stone pattern with them into the forest as a sort mnemonic. “After experiencing the large-scale pattern of the Rain Ravine, your mind is tuned and ready to identify the more obscure geology of the actual stream.”

Though it functions to carry the rain from rooftop to wetlands, the project is above all a celebration of rain itself.  It gives people a place to enjoy rainy days— weather that is often begrudged but is simultaneously essential to plants and waterways. “Learning to share the land with the rain is critical. My art makes a home for the rain,” Levy says.

Another home for the rain is the project “Rain Yard” for the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Philadelphia. This Project “turns the paradigm of the pipe on its head,” giving rain more space to spread out and people less space to walk on.  Conceived as a “bunk bed system,” visitors to the environmental center are suspended above the ground on a steel mesh walking platform while the rain falls through the mesh to soak into the soil below. The rain garden’s plants thrive and visitors remain dry. “I’m trying to give a more equitable sharing so that nature gets more space. People get less, but it’s more interesting space.”

eco art
“Ridge and Valley”
Arboretum at Penn State. University Park PA
With MTR Landscape Architects and Overland Architects 2009
The local streams are sandblasted into stone creating a watershed in miniature.

“Rain needs a lot of room,” Levy says of the project’s larger message, “and buildings need to learn to drink their own rainwater,” not pass the water onto overtaxed streams and creeks. To this point, Levy has created projects that show the connectivity of the watershed. In her project “Ridge and Valley” at Penn State University’s arboretum, for example, rain flows off the roof of the visitors center and into a large stone map of the watershed, creating a watershed in miniature every time it rains. The rainwater then flows into an infiltration basin and soaks into the ground. Wet or dry, the map relays a sense of how the streams connect and visitors gain a sense of their “watershed address” in a visceral way.



Environmental Art: The gift of knowing the world

Eco art
“Pink Level”
Spring Mills, PA 2010
A level line was surveyed and then plastic flagging was wrapped around each tree trunk to the height of the floodwaters.

Back on her farm in rural Pennsylvania, Levy runs a kind of makeshift lab to study the effects of nature on the industrial materials she employs in her temporary installations. Out on the 84-acres of restored land, she says, “I get to test all my projects for a year or more, so I can see how materials respond to nature, and how things wear and change over time.”

eco art
“Crum Creek Meander”
Year Long installation at Swarthmore College
Crum Creek Meander is an incognito version of water: it is neither liquid, nor made of natural materials, but an echo running along the footprint of an ancient tributary

“I’m always borrowing from disciplines that need to make visible marks in nature,” says the artist, who spent her first decade out of college as an urban forester and retains an affinity for the tools and color markings that surveyors use “to leave temporary signs in nature so they can find borders and boundaries.”  Levy uses these same materials in unconventional ways: to register tides, floods, wind, currents, and—above all—the passage of time.

Wrapping tree trunks with bright pink surveyors tape, projects like Pink Level and Rose Level call a viewer’s attention to a site’s vulnerability to sea level rise or flooding.

In Crum Creek Meander, a “vertical stream” of vinyl stripping waves and blows in the wind. This material is typically used industrially to contain cold or dust. Recalling the footprint of a former tributary, the transparent curtains appear permeable as liquid and serve as “something transitional you can cross through like a stream, but not actually get wet.”

Whether blown in the wind, animated by tides, or moved by currents, all of Levy’s works trace an unseen pattern. The projects collaborate with natural forces in a form that allows people to understand how nature works. “My art creates a verb, an action by which to see nature and at the same time to solve some of the issues at the intersection of the natural and the built environment.”

View Stacy Levy’s profile on CODAworx.