In 1979, the King County Arts Commission hosted a symposium called "Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture." One of two major works to come out of it was Herbert Bayer's Earthworks at Mill Creek Canyon in Kent, an entire campus of earth sculpted into geometric shapes that function together as a storm-water detention dam.
Bayer, who died at age 85 in 1985, had been director of the printing and advertising workshop at the Bauhaus in Dessau. Throughout his career, his mantra was, "The total environment should be the focus of art." Earthworks at Mill Creek Canyon is a seminal work in a whole genre of art made in the land itself that addresses practical issues.
"Now you have artworks that clean up acid drainage from coal mines, and art parks that process polluted water and restore the land," said Sam Bower, founder of San Francisco–based Greenmuseum.org, an online clearinghouse of information about environmental art. "The Bayer piece is one of those very important earlier pieces in this movement."
The City of Kent's standards for storm-water dams changed recently, putting the artwork in jeopardy. City planners want to preserve Bayer's design while adhering to his commitment to function, so the Kent Arts Commission have engaged students at the University of Washington School of Landscape Architecture, led by Nancy Rottle and supported by SVR Design. The students "provided the City of Kent with ingenious alternatives, all of which we are considering," e-mailed Cheryl dos Remedios, Kent's art coordinator.
In the meantime, artists, historians, and landscape architects from around the world (Dennis Oppenheim and Beverly Pepper included) will participate in an exhibition describing the ongoing influence of Bayer's Kent piece in a movement that hasn't abated. Take, for instance, the Olympic Sculpture Park, or SOIL's Groundtruthing show last month. Performing artists—maybe even Texas-based Earthman—will kick things off in a party at the site on Saturday, September 8.