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Exclusive: A 15-Foot Wide Slice of Old New York

Thanks to A Clearing in the Streets, a temporary installation by Julie Farris (a landscape designer) and Sarah Wayland-Smith (an artist/landscape designer) commissioned by the Public Art Fund, you can now find a secluded meadow in the middle of downtown New York. Driven by the idea of finding creative, yet sustainable, ways to take advantage of the city’s small available spaces, the women converted Collect Pond Park — once a 60-foot-deep freshwater pond, now a concrete plaza — into a tiny slice of what once was; after the jump, find out more about how and why.

What was your inspiration for this project?
We are interested in finding ways to powerfully and temporarily re-insert nature into the very dense urban environment of New York City. We created an installation that emphasizes the split or disjunction between an architecturally-defined environment and an organic, living one.

What do you hope people take away with them? What was it about this location that spoke to you?
This installation reveals a natural process that will change over time. Inside the wooden structure, the meadow will gradually take over the mound of earth, grow in height and expand, adapt to its environment and conditions, and bloom. We hope that people will keep coming back over the course of the summer to see the artwork change as it grows. Also, by following this natural cycle of time, we hope that people begin to think differently about their connection to the natural world and the impact that the built environment is having on it. As for the site itself, it was formerly a 60-foot-deep freshwater pond called Collect Pond that was drained in the early 19th century. The fact that the site is now so thoroughly developed adds a second, more massive cycle of development to the installation, matching the natural growing cycle of the plants.

How did you come up with the specific numbers involved in the project (the ten-sided enclosure, a meadow that’s fifteen feet in diameter)? Do they have any sort of personal, environmental, or artistic significance?
While the numbers and dimensions of the piece are not symbolic in a literal sense, they were carefully selected. We worked in drawings and with models to figure out a scale for the piece that allowed enough space to represent the diversity of a meadow. The interior space was also linked to the size of the wooden panels. We arrived at having 10 sides because this allowed for a number of apertures to view the interior and rounded the architecturally defined form. We wanted each panel to be of a human-scale and decided that each side should be 2′ x 7′. All together the 10 corner panels created an interior space 15 feet in diameter that allowed us enough space to create a meadow without it being overwhelming.

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Interior view. Photo: Seong Kwon, courtesy of Public Art Fund

Why did you decide to make the enclosing structure out of wood? Why not use something clear? Or concrete which is more a medium of the city than wood?
We wanted this small meadow to be detached from the urban environment allowing only glimpses into the natural world within. These narrow apertures, where the bright blue photographic mural can be clearly seen, draw visitors toward the structure and to a closer, more intimate view of the plantings inside.

Plywood is also an off-the-shelf, inexpensive and common urban material that can be put up and taken down quickly. Our artwork was designed to be a temporary installation that could be recycled at the end of the summer. The choice of wood also reflects the scale of the artwork: it is not as large as a building that would be made from steel and concrete; rather is it more on the scale of a small room where wooden doors or furniture would be found.

What kinds of plants will grow in the meadow? How did you choose them?
We selected a group of native plants and grasses to reflect the kind of vegetation that might have been found on the site centuries ago before the area was developed. Because they are native to the regions climate and conditions, they are hardy and drought-resistant. The wildflowers will bloom at different times throughout the summer in reds, oranges, yellows, blues and purples.

Is there a reason why the project is four months long? Does that have anything to do with the life cycle of a meadow, or the specific plants you’ve chosen?
This artwork is presented by the Public Art Fund through its In the Public Realm program, which is an opportunity for artists living or working in New York State to create a temporary work in a public space. Because it is a living sculpture, we naturally chose to install at the beginning of the growing season and to dismantle the installation in early October, revealing and magnifying its tremendous transformation in a minimal amount of time.

You mentioned recycling the plywood. What will become of the meadow when the installation is finished? Will it be destroyed, or will it be replanted permanently perhaps?
All the materials from the sculpture will be donated to New York City community gardens. The wood will be used to build planter boxes, the soil will go into gardens, and remaining organic material composted and used as nutrients for the soil in these gardens.

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