Eco-Artist Newton Harrison Has Left A Legacy Of Connecting Environmental Conservation To Art.
On Sept. 4, 2022, renowned ecological artist and activist Newton Harrison passed away from pancreatic cancer at age 89. He was one of the first artists to actively promote environmental protection, urban planning, and conservation through artistic expression. Starting in the 1970s and continuing into the 2000s, he and his wife Helen were known for creating effective, sometimes controversial, exhibitions with hidden messages.
The Harrisons began their work at the University of California San Diego, teaching art. Long before climate change was a hot-button issue, the Harrisons educated themselves on the effects of pollution on the climate. This knowledge motivated them to teach the world how climate change would affect humanity, studying soil science, urban planning, agriculture, and nature concerning human interaction. From there, Newton would create grand pieces of art using maps, topographic surveys, and infographics to paint a picture of the world without natural resources.
One of the early works the Harrisons created was the “Sacramento Meditations” in 1977. With foresight, the couple understood the value of water and land in California and how any natural disruption could cripple the state.
The Meditations are five maps of California’s waterways and mountains that addressed how big agricultural operations were overusing water. Without significant rainfall to make up for it, droughts would take a toll on state water supplies.
In the 70s, this take was seen as slightly dramatic. However, in the 21st century, many of the Harrisons’ anxieties came to fruition. The piece was the “first critique of the green revolution and intensive irrigated farming in art, linking the loss of biodiversity to the green revolution and industrialized agriculture. It also advocated an early bio-regional approach to the Central Valley of California,” according to The Harrison Studio.
Not all of Harrison’s work aimed to paint a grim picture. In the 1990s, the Cultural Council of South Holland commissioned Newton and Helen to consider an area in Holland that was experiencing urban development. They created a series of images of various materials proposing a balance between the urban, ecological, and farming communities. “The Vision of the Green Heart of Holland” was one of their most influential works, with the Dutch government eventually declaring this “green heart” as a protected public green space. No urban developments would be permitted in the outlined area between Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Utrecht.
So, what makes the Harrisons’ work controversial? Let’s just say they never shied away from using performance art to send a message. One of the first exhibits they opened was in Boston in 1971 called “Hog Pasture,” which used a live pig scurrying around in a box full of dirt and vegetation. Designed to explain how animals need nature to survive, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts would not permit a live pig in the exhibit. “Hog Pasture” was given a revival in 2012 in Los Angeles, CA, with a live pig grazing as initially intended. However, this wasn’t even the most controversial performance piece Newton and Helen would produce.
Notoriety came to Harrisons with the 1971 “Portable Fish Farm” in London. Six 20-foot-long tanks were filled with oysters, brine shrimp, and catfish to explain how humans might feed themselves while living in pollution, and the fish were to be eaten at the end of the show.
When word got out that they would be harvested by electrocution, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals protested heavily, despite reports saying it was the most humane method. Nevertheless, the catfish weren’t killed in public, and Harrison’s reputation was cemented. “I like to approach everything with an open mind and a bad attitude,” Newton said.
The Harrisons’ art became more popular in the 21st century with the rapid increase in climate change awareness. In 2008, they created the “Peninsula Europe” project, which aimed to invent the idea of a new type of trans-European forest that could actively move across the continent. It would combine different forest types that could absorb glacial run-off and snowmelt to negate droughts and help with carbon sequestration.
Newton Harrison, born on Oct. 20, 1932, in Brooklyn and raised in New Rochelle, NY, is survived by his three sons, a daughter, nine grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren. His artwork was powerful, forceful, cute at times, and, at other times, strange. Although, the message remained the same: we only have one planet; let’s take care of it.