XXV.6 November - December 2018
Page: 86
Digital Citation

Collaborative art: A new method for landscape architecture

Whitney Holt, Brittany Murphy

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This past April, 10 students at the University of Oregon installed two land-art pieces on the Eugene campus. The installations explored the capacity of collaborative art making as a tool to be used in landscape architecture practice to foster inclusion and discern community values. In the end, they illuminated Oregon's often overlooked racist origins and complicated history, provoking dialogue among students. The installations were created as part of a student-initiated class, "Collaborative Art-Making: A New Method for Landscape Architecture."

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The class centered around The Pioneer and The Pioneer Mother, two historically and culturally significant statues located at the University of Oregon. Erected in 1919, sited along what is now a major campus throughway, the Pioneer sculpture depicts a bewhiskered man outfitted in buckskins, a worn hat, and heavy boots. He stands 13 feet tall atop a base of weathered local stone. The figure carries a rifle in his left hand; his right hand boasts a bullwhip. At the unveiling of the statue, Joseph N. Teal, a prominent civic leader, stated, "The pioneer represents all that is noblest and best in our history" [1].

In 1932, The Pioneer Mother, a donation by University of Oregon vice president Burt Barker, went up north of Gerlinger Hall, the women's memorial hall. According to the sculptor, "[Barker's] conception was of an elderly woman sitting in repose with her hands in her lap. In her hands would be a half-closed book, her fingers marking a place. Her head would be tilted slightly forward in contemplation" [2].

She is situated atop a 6-foot-tall pink granite base and seated on a high-backed chair, with an open book on her lap. Bas-relief panels portray the Pioneer Mother's arduous journey west, and a plaque reads, "...but to us there lives that spirit of conquering peace which I wish posterity to remember." One of the few statues on campus memorializing women, The Pioneer Mother was erected to represent the attainment of peace upon settling in Oregon.

Whitney Holt, the graduate student instructor, and Brittany Murphy, a graduate student enrolled in the course, discussed the project's process and subsequent outcomes.

Brittany Murphy: What was the origin of this experimental experience project?

Whitney Holt: In short, it was my master's research project at the University of Oregon. I chose to research the capacity of collaborative art making as a tool for landscape architects to discern a community's unique values and foster inclusion in the landscape architecture design process.

Landscape architects have historically been tasked with creating spaces that inform individuals' perceptions of nature and shape public interactions. As communities and demographics shift rapidly in the contemporary U.S., landscape architects are responsible for creating spaces for increasingly diverse communities. The U.S. census reveals that racial and ethnic minority populations are among the nation's fastest growing [3]. Consequently, in an era of extreme nationalism and xenophobia, designers are compelled to rethink the scope of their professional obligations. I believe we are confronted with a moral and ethical duty to design spaces that recognize diverse needs and actively foster inclusion. My project strived to understand the utility of collaborative, inclusive processes to solicit community members' feedback in the design conception process.

Why did you decide to take the class?

BM: I wanted to participate in this project because co-creating art installations was something entirely new to me. I didn't come to our landscape architecture program with a very heavy art background, and the idea of collaborative art making intrigued me. I think landscape architects should be able to produce their designs in collaboration with the people for whom they are designing, but the ways in which designers collaborate with the public are often lacking real depth and connection. This project offered the opportunity for design students to practice and observe the process of how art is produced by a group of people. Working to co-create and construct an art piece sounded like a great opportunity to practice designing humbly while paying attention to the creative power of a group.

ins02.gif Collaborative collage by students enrolled in the course "Collaborative Art Making."

What was the origin of the class format?

WH: To test my research question, I planned and taught a class through the UO Department of Landscape Architecture titled "Collaborative Art-Making for Landscape Architecture." I opted to facilitate a class in order to ensure sustained participant engagement and gain access to departmental resources. Through collaborative and iterative making, the class explored the capacity of art making to communicate divergent ideas, foster relationships, and, as a result, promote inclusion. Students produced two collaborative art-making projects to explore individuals' perceptions and values regarding two culturally and historically significant statues situated on the University of Oregon campus, The Pioneer and The Pioneer Mother.

BM: What were the advantages and drawbacks of that classroom setting?

WH: The structured class format encouraged consistent and regular student participation. The class met for two hours each week for five weeks, in addition to one all-day Saturday class meeting. It also prompted me to be more organized. I had to establish course objectives, a course syllabus, and evaluation criteria. Conversely, the class also narrowed the participant sample to individuals enrolled at the University of Oregon.

What was your perception of the class format?

BM: The class setting was largely positive and advantageous for the creating process. Knowing we only had a few hours over five weeks to complete our art pieces meant that everyone had to commit to group decisions fairly quickly. Some students felt constrained by the tight time frame, but I believe it facilitated efficient discussions and helped ensure that people prioritized compromise to keep the process moving. The group size, 10 students, was small enough to allow everyone to speak their opinions, but large enough to include many points of view. The group size was also perfect for having informal meetings outside regular class time, when we gathered at individuals' houses over food and drinks to discuss our ideas and plans.

Why did you choose the statues as the focus?

WH: The Pioneer and The Pioneer Mother statues were of particular interest due to discord on campus pertaining to who and what they represented. The significance of these monuments, especially now, at a time of national tension, reveals the values statues memorialize in our landscape. I also believe that landscape architects are especially poised to respond to both the spatial and social implications of memorials. And the statues presented an actionable project. Students were able to conceive and construct installations within the five-week span of the course.

What did you think of co-creating in response to the statues?

BM: As students at the University of Oregon, many of us walk past The Pioneer every day. This statue is a stop on every campus tour for prospective students and is generally considered an important landmark for the campus culture. In contrast, The Pioneer Mother is in an out-of-the-way part of campus, and many students do not know of her existence. The different messages that these statues convey, and the differing level of attention and deference given to them, make them interesting launching points for discussions about the design of memorials in public space.

What did you do to aid group decision making throughout the class?

WH: Prior to assigning the large-scale installations, I primed the students with small, cooperative art-making activities. Small-scale, quick, low-pressure activities allowed students to learn how making art together affected both their social relations and the finished artwork, without making them feel as though they had to compromise the quality of their work. There was also a lot of listener-centered and iterative dialogue throughout the course.

How did your group fare with collaborative decision making? How did you come to agree on specific ideas or methods of representation?

BM: The smaller activities that we did before we dived into the final designs were so useful in establishing the group dynamic and setting us up to make decisions together. While we each could have created our own individual response to the design prompt, it was essential to establish a group-oriented ideation and creation processes that elevated all voices. Making a collage of our thoughts, inspirations, and commentary on the statues after our first visit set up an egalitarian creative environment, as each piece of a collage lacks a visible or discernible author. Having a few low-pressure brainstorming sessions, followed by anonymously reviewing and editing one another's first drafts, created an open forum in which everyone could see how the overall group's thought processes were progressing. This made the final decision-making process smoother, as the trajectory of where we were coalescing around ideas was clear.

WH: Can you describe the Pioneer and Mother installations, as well as the themes each group explored through art making?

BM: The Pioneer installation, Destiny Manifested, reflected the unforeseen consequences of colonization. Students in that group (which I did not directly participate in) constructed a plexiglass pedestal to place at the base of The Pioneer. Inside the pedestal were layers of objects, symbolic of concealed layers of history. Soil laid the foundation, as all history is built on the land. Grass seeds were spread over the soil to represent the loss of habitat and indigenous people's ecology, and corn kernels represented agricultural practices. Bullet shells and plastic soldiers referenced the oppression and warfare that have displaced communities throughout history; Douglas-fir cones symbolized large-scale ecological changes that occurred throughout the Willamette Valley region. A layer of moss on the very top represents the covering up of history. Reflective Mylar that lines the top of the pedestal enables viewers to see themselves as part of the installation and as agents of historical change. Finally, The Pioneer stands atop all of these layers as an icon of frontierism and oppression.

ins03.gif University of Oregon students Peyton Johnson, Shasta Meehan, Chris Weaver, and Chad Hawthorne assembling the Pioneer Installation.
ins04.gif Pioneer installation Destiny Manifested by Peyton Johnson, Shasta Meehan, Chris Weaver, Chad Hawthorne, and Isabela Ospina.

The piece my group created, Peace (PAX) For Who?, was meant to challenge the sentiment behind The Pioneer Mother, which was erected to celebrate the end of the westward expansion and the "conquering peace" it brought to the western U.S. territories. Our work asserted that, far from being the end of the white settlers' domination of the West, westward expansion set into motion a continuing legacy of white supremacy and structural racism. Our art piece used the form of rustic trail signs to orient the viewer in both time and space to injustices that had occurred in the area in the decades since The Pioneer Mother was built. Signposts surrounded The Pioneer Mother in a grid pattern that extended out into the landscape to reference western settlement and the long-enduring patterns of white supremacy and racial injustice.

ins05.gif Pioneer Mother installation Peace (PAX) for Who? by Brittany Murphy, Katya Reyna, Emma Stone, Summer Young, and Ryan Nicholson.
ins06.gif Close up of a sign post from the Pioneer Mother installation Peace (Pax) for Who?

What interesting outcomes or responses did you see arising from the project?

WH: The students did an incredible job. I was so impressed by their thoughtfulness and craftspersonship. Both of the installations challenged predominant historical narratives and invited critical contemplation. Moreover, I think the class and the installations demonstrated that collaborative art making is a viable tool for landscape architecture for the purposes of engaging communities and soliciting participants' unique values, and that it warrants further research. Of the 10 participating students, nine felt that collaborative art making promoted empathy and the understanding of divergent perspectives, while one student indicated that they were unsure. Many students reported that the process of translating disparate ideas and values into a cohesive art piece incited dialogue and thus encouraged deeper understanding.

Unexpectedly, the installations provoked discourse among other classes on the UO campus. One class from the planning department and another from ethnic studies congregated around the Pioneer Mother installation for a discussion.

Another unexpected product of the installations was their documentation on social media. The physical installations were exhibited in the landscape only for seven days; however, their conceptual presence and impact was extended on social media such as Facebook and Instagram. Images of the Pioneer Mother installation were shared more than 500 times within the first five days, subsequently engaging viewers beyond Eugene and even outside of Oregon.

What was a meaningful outcome of the class for you?

BM: It was so gratifying to see people walking through our exhibit and reading the signs. Even as we were installing the posts, on a rainy Oregon spring day, people were approaching and engaging with our work. Over the week that it was on display around The Pioneer Mother statue, every time I passed by, there were people walking through and reading the signs. I hope it inspired thoughtful reflection and discussion among those who saw it.

back to top  References

1. Address delivered by Joseph N. Teal on the occasion of the unveiling of The Pioneer. May 22, 1919. Oregon Historical Quarterly/Volume 20.

2. Proctor, A.P. Sculptor in Buckskin: The Autobiography of Alexander Phimister Proctor. Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 2009, 203.

3. U.S. Census Bureau. Demographic turning points for the United States: Population projections for 2020 to 2060. Mar. 2018;

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Whitney Holt is a landscape designer and artist in San Francisco. She is a recent graduate of the Master of Landscape Architecture program at the University of Oregon. Her interests include inclusive design, collaborative processes, and the confluence of art, social justice, and environmental systems.

Brittany Murphy is a recent graduate of the Master of Landscape Architecture program at the University of Oregon. Her professional interests include urban water and greenspace, landscape narratives, and interactions between people and nature. She aims to improve the lives of people and the health of the environment around them.

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