NEW ORLEANS — California “ecological artists” Daniel McCormick and Mary O’Brien say that the sculptures they leave behind in locations around the country are functional, thought-provoking and intended to engage the community in solving environmental challenges.
McCormick and O’Brien spent the past six weeks as artists in residency at A Studio In The Woods on the lower coast of Algiers.
While planning their sculptures, a large part of what they call their remedial environmental art is researching and talking to local residents with the intent of “influencing the balance of compromised environments,” O’Brien said.
Rather than take a photo and walk away, O’Brien said they try to leave behind a catalyst for restoration with cost-effective, site-specific technologies and create awareness.
Their latest installation, a 20-minute boat ride to the west of Venice, protects newly planted bald cypress trees from the voracious nutrias that munch on the roots.
Constructed out of recycled crab pot wire, McCormick and O’Brien installed 50 protective cages around 2-year-old cypress saplings. The cages are anchored into the silt with tall poles, topped with flags bearing a “no nutria” symbol, which also alert boaters to the baby trees.
The installation is called “Line of Defense: A sculptural solution to an ecological problem.”
Their stay in Algiers was part of Tulane University’s Ebb & Flow Residency Program. The pair said that their project came from learning that when trees are planted, in an effort to restore the state’s best protection from storm surge, many of them are quickly killed by nutria.
“They plant 1,000 trees and lose 700 or 800 to nutria,” McCormick said — accomplishing, more than anything, to “feed nutria.”
Nutria were brought to Louisiana from Argentina in the 1930s for their pelts and now are an extremely damaging invasive species considered a major culprit in wetland loss.
McCormick noted the role humans played in introducing the rodents to Louisiana. An alternative to mink, the hats made from nutrias were in part symbols of status, McCormick said, as humans unknowingly brought in a highly destructive force to nature.
To say they “breed like rabbits” is an understatement. The rat-like creatures with long orange front teeth and an insatiable appetite for marsh grass and other vegetation can have up to 13 litters each year. Currently, there’s a $5 bounty for each tail brought to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
The artists said one of the most interesting things they found about the area was the “cultural and moral dichotomy” between the forces playing a part in eroding the land — oil exploration and production — and efforts to save the quickly disappearing coast.
They said they met one man who said he “sells his soul” working on oil rigs all week while planting trees on the weekend, a reality not uncommon in a region where the oil industry provides the best job opportunities. And McCormick acknowledged that the same dichotomy “applies to us all,” in that would be extremely rare to find someone whose life does not include the use of and dependence upon petroleum products in one form or another.
McCormick and O’Brien said that their projects don’t provide answers but create inquiries into solutions and connections between the human culture and the environment. “It would be hubris to think there is a solution to the fix we are in,” McCormick said.
“It becomes hubris if we don’t work with the environment and work to lean away from an anthropocentric view,” O’Brien said.
Working in watersheds in the Carolinas and sustaining salmon populations in the northeast, the artists said the complexity of the issues facing coastal Louisiana was particularly eye-opening.
There are so many factors, McCormick said, with political and cultural influences in addition to scientific ones.
But when undertaking projects like planting trees, O’Brien emphasized that “individual efforts should not be underestimated.”