“I’m very interested in making a home for the rain,” environmental artist Stacy Levy told her audience at The Ware Center last week.
Levy is collaborating with the City of Lancaster to incorporate art in the upcoming redesign of Water Street.
Besides making the street better for cyclists and pedestrians, the city plans to add rain gardens and other elements designed to reduce stormwater runoff.
That’s where Levy comes in. Working with other professionals, she creates site-specific projects that meld expressiveness and functionality: They help people understand and feel a connection with natural processes, even as they manage stormwater, soak up nutrient pollution or improve the ecology of a riverbank.
Here are five takeaways from Levy’s Ware Center talk:
1. The making of an environmental artist
Levy said becoming an art teacher — the default career path for arts graduates when she was in college — didn’t appeal to her. Instead, she worked mostly as a forester (her minor) early on, doing art when she could find the time.
One day, her dog trotted past some seed pod-like items she had made, and they stuck to his fur. The incident led to a key insight: She realized she wanted to make art that would undergo change and interact with the world around it. She shifted her focus accordingly, continuing to work as a forester until she could transition into art full-time.
2. ‘We’ve lost track of how the rain works’
In rural landscapes, rain soaks into the earth. Waterways swell after a storm, then ebb, a process Levy likened to “a giant set of lungs.” Land and water mix in all sorts of ways: There are wetlands, bogs, mires, fens.
In cities, by contrast, rain endures a “fugitive existence,” Levy said. Blocks are paved and runoff is shunted into underground sewers. People go about their daily lives unaware that there used to be creeks and streams underfoot, or that their area is part of a complex hydrological system.
3. Treat rain ‘as a guest, not as an enemy’
“What does rain want?” Levy asked. Well, it wants to soak into the ground, which means it wants space and time.
“We really need to listen to the rain. ... If we don’t pay attention, we’re going to be inundated every single storm,” she said.
4. Teamwork is essential
“It’s not something you can do solo,” Levy said of her work. Extensive specialized knowlege is required, so she’s always part of a team of architects, engineers, biologists, geologists and so on.
Could average homeowners undertake their own projects? Think twice and do some research, Levy cautioned, because the technical challenges are formidable. (She likes the idea of developing mass-market do-it-yourself kits as one way to lower the barrier.)
5. The goals for Water Street
There’s a reason Water Street is called that: There used to be a stream there, known at various times as Roaring Brook, Hoffman’s Run and Gas House Run.
Levy said she wants her work to make people aware of that history and sensitive to the interconnections of earth, rain and sky.
She’ll be collaborating with the rest of the project team, so how it will all come together remains to be seen. Potential components include plantings, strategic cuts through the pavement and surface markings: “Whatever materials it takes.”