Terraforming: Art and Engineering in the Sacramento Watershed

Terraforming exhibit opening invitation

Top: Helen and Newton Harrison perform Sacramento Meditations at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1977. Harrison Papers, Stanford University Libraries. Bottom image: Folsom Dam on the American River. CA State Library. 

Cross-disciplinary exhibition examines California water history 

The Stanford University Libraries presents Terraforming: Art and Engineering in the Sacramento Watershed, a new cross-disciplinary exhibition curated by Laura Cassidy Rogers (PhD Candidate in Modern Thought and Literature) and Emily Grubert (PhD Candidate in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources). The exhibition is on view in the Peterson Gallery, Green Library Bing Wing, from January 26 through May 10, 2017 with a public reception on Thursday, January 26, from 3-5 PM in the Munger Rotunda. 

Terraforming: Art and Engineering in the Sacramento Watershed examines the history of freshwater in the Sacramento Watershed, juxtaposing materials from the archive of California artists Helen and Newton Harrison with materials from local, state, and national archives that document the development of water resources in California’s Central Valley and the West. Presented as discrete, parallel displays—with Art on one side of the gallery and Engineering on the other—the exhibition demonstrates that social and environmental consciousness has manifest in both professions, and that artists and engineers can work together to rethink and reimagine freshwater landscapes and ecology in a sustainable way.

Art in the Sacramento Watershed

Born in New York City in 1927 and 1932 respectively, Helen and Newton Harrison came of age in the years following WWII and married in 1953 with ambitions to develop and use their abilities in a way that would benefit society. From the 1940s through the 1960s, Helen studied language, learning, and social psychology and Newton studied painting and sculpture. That period of training and self-reflection is key to appreciating their 50-year tenure as collaborating artists and educators in the UC system, first at UC San Diego and subsequently at UC Santa Cruz. In the first decade of their collaboration, the 1970s, the Harrisons began to pose questions that challenged institutional norms and advanced a new model of artistic research that engaged with both social and environmental issues. For example, in Sacramento Meditations (1976–1977), the Harrisons challenged the historic transformation of the Sacramento River, Delta, and Bays of San Francisco from a seasonal floodplain into an intensive irrigation economy with dams, canals, levees, and drains, asking “What if all that irrigated farming isn’t necessary?”

Art in the Sacramento Watershed draws selectively from the Harrison archive to show their development as artists, and to demonstrate the creativity and utility of their artistic research in the context of California’s Central Valley and the West. The exhibition highlights Sacramento Meditations (1976-1977) as well as a more recent work called, The Bays at San Francisco (2007–present). But they have worked extensively through the world in areas as varied as Japan, Brazil, the Netherlands, Sri Lanka, and Tibet. 

Engineering in the Sacramento Watershed

The timeline of Engineering in the Sacramento Watershed begins a century earlier, at the time of the Gold Rush. Just weeks after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed at the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, news of the discovery of gold in the Sacramento Valley swept the nation to spur a massive wave of westward migration, settlement, and water demand. The completion of the transcontinental railroads, built in the decades after the American Civil War (1865–1890), brought millions more people and their water needs to this arid region. In response to the need, surveyors and engineers developed proposals for water management in California’s Central Valley. This precipitated the construction of a major system of canals, dams, and other built infrastructure known as the Central Valley Project. Maps, letters, photographs, diagrams, and objects from local, state, and national archives as well as private collections tell the story of the Central Valley Project with a focus on Folsom Dam on the American River, which runs from the Sierra Nevada to its confluence with the Sacramento River in the Sacramento Valley.

Dialogue and Convergence

The cross-disciplinary argument of Terraforming: Art and Engineering in the Sacramento Watershed is that these parallel histories converge temporally and conceptually in the 1970s when artists and engineers alike began to question the guiding tenets of their professions, concurrent with a broader turn toward social and environmental consciousness in the United States. In the 1970s, the Harrisons abandoned the tenets of abstraction and its reverence for art objects to engage more directly in the compositional fields of the physical environment. And civil engineers began to more explicitly consider questions of ecosystem sustainability in addition to questions of water provisioning and human safety, developing into the field now increasingly styled as Civil and Environmental Engineering. The exhibition thus follows art and engineering to the present day to argue that human influence and creativity will continue to shape freshwater systems in California, with challenges like climate change, groundwater depletion, and wetlands restoration continuing to require multidisciplinary effort and collaboration. 

About the Harrison Papers

Stanford acquired the Harrison Papers in 2010, introduced the archive to the Stanford community in the exhibition and symposium Art Meets Technology: Core Samples from Nine Archives in the fall of 2013, and made the archive fully available for research in 2016 upon completion of processing by project archivists Lucy Waldrop and Freya Channing. Photographs, original drawings and collage, exhibition posters, audio and video recordings, and topographic maps are major components of the archive, supplementing 72 project files that document the Harrisons’ wide-ranging artistic research in conjunction with their site-based works. A project gallery of the Harrison Papers is available for online viewing at https://exhibits.stanford.edu/harrison

In conjunction with the exhibition, and in recognition of the Harrisons’ status as recipients of the inaugural 2013 Award for Imaginative Cartography from the North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS), “Tibet is the High Ground,” an ongoing work by the Harrison Studio, is on display in the David Rumsey Map Center, Green Library Bing Wing, 4th Floor.