Natural art world

Two artists build sculptures that double as conservation projects—including one on the Truckee River

A watershed sculpture made of live willow saplings, 360 feet long, can be found at River Fork Ranch Preserve in Minden.

A watershed sculpture made of live willow saplings, 360 feet long, can be found at River Fork Ranch Preserve in Minden.

“Daniel McCormick & Mary O'Brien Watershed Sculpture,” an exhibit documenting the Watershed Sculpture projects, is on view at the Nevada Museum of Art through April 5.
For information about Watershed Sculpture, the organization, visit
For directions to watershed sculptures at McCarran Ranch Preserve and River Fork Ranch Preserve, visit
To volunteer at an upcoming Watershed Sculpture work day, contact Martin Swinehart, Director of Volunteers & Outreach for The Nature Conservancy, at

Mary O’Brien stands thigh-deep in an offshoot of the lower Truckee River, unofficially named Turtle Oxbow. Next to her, a volunteer pounds two rows of wooden fence posts into the riverbed with a manual post driver. At this spot, part of the McCarran Ranch Preserve, about eight miles east of Sparks, the river winds lazily through acres of ranchland, thickets of cattails, and stands of cottonwood and willow.

O’Brien, geared up with waders, a Camelbak, and a brimmed hat that she won’t end up needing on this overcast March morning, is a filmmaker-turned-sculptor. She makes up half of a two-person organization called Watershed Sculpture, based in Fairfax, Calif., just north of San Francisco, that builds outdoor structures, also called watershed sculptures. Each sculpture is part of a conservation project, such as oyster beds in Oakland and storm surge barriers in Louisiana’s Gulf Coast.

O’Brien’s partner, Daniel McCormick, the other half of the organization, directs a few more volunteers as they gather sections of sun-bleached trunks and branches. They float some of the larger logs across the river to where O’Brien waits patiently.

The Nature Conservancy owns this land and has been restoring the damaged floodplains of a nine-mile stretch of the Truckee here since 2003.

Had the multinational conservation group not contracted two sculptors and recruited hundreds of volunteers to make this sculpture—along with two others like it on the same preserve—they would have likely angled a large tree trunk or two in the water instead to serve as an access ramp for Western pond turtles and a shelter for fish. In this case, that’s how the sculpture will be used.

“We see turtle scat every morning,” says McCormick. He hasn’t seen any turtles, but that’s not worrisome. They’re skittish, and in terms of habitat restoration, the mere evidence that they’ve been there counts as success.

Progress in riparian forest restoration can happen as slowly as it does with ambitious art projects. McCormick estimates that a similar piece, a 360-foot watershed sculpture built of intricately bundled live willow at River Fork Ranch in Minden, took about 1,600 work hours. About 400 volunteers came from schools, corporations and art groups to help.

Working the land

The morning work session proceeds, with intermittent moments of productivity and quick problem solving sessions, and the crew fine-tunes its methods with each procedure.

McCormick says, “When we get to this point of our work, we’re drawing on everything we have. We’ve always done that; it’s so critical. We use everything.” He’s referencing his and O’Brien’s long list of academic and practical credentials, including his environmental engineering degree and experience as a builder, and her business-writing skills and political science background.

O’Brien and her helper pick up the floating logs—pausing here and there to figure out the leverage of a particularly heavy one or decide where to best place another—and soon they have a recognizable retaining wall.

Later, the logs will be packed with soil and wired together tightly to make a graceful, partially submerged sculpture.

Across the river, there’s already a mostly finished one. It’s a bundle of branches, tightly wired together into the shape that resembles the tips of a mythically large tree root, three or four feet around at is thickest. It angles down into the water, but most of its length, 20 feet or so, is on the bank.

Duane Petite, Carson River Project Director, the Nature Conservancy, at River Fork Ranch

PhotoS/Kris Vagner

“I’ve got a good problem to solve,” McCormick tells a volunteer. He points out a few loose spots. “It’s no problem now, but when a storm hits or a raccoon gets to it, it’ll start to come apart more.” The volunteer uses a tool with a metal hook to twist the wires tighter.

McCormick explains, “We think it’ll weather pretty well for the next three years. Then it’s supposed to fall.”

Sculptures designed to decompose in a few years aren’t exactly the immortal, third-century-BC Hellenic bronzes that are on a multi-museum world tour this year. But that’s OK. They’re not supposed to be. “Sculpture” stopped being synonymous with “permanence” a long time ago.

Artists have been making works that use the landscape as both canvas and material since the late 1960s. One of the best known examples is Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty,” begun in 1970 in the Great Salt Lake. Made of basalt boulders, it’s still intact. A more recent example is Andy Goldsworthy, who makes sculptures with materials as fragile as icicles, leaves or patterns left by raindrops. Those pieces fall apart quickly, though they’re widely known by Goldsworthy’s lavish photographs.

So, land art can be large or small, ephemeral or long lasting, famously well documented like Goldsworthy’s or—like James Turrell’s Rodin Crater in northern Arizona, an actual extinct volcano he’s been converting into a massive art piece since 1972—so deeply shrouded in secrecy, hardly anyone has seen it. But as far as anyone involved can recall, until Watershed Sculpture contracted with The Nature Conservancy, there’s been no real tradition of land art being functional.

Thinking back to how this whole project started, TNC Volunteer Coordinator Martin Swinehart says, “over lunch.” He’s paraphrasing, but that’s a pretty close summary.

In 2010, the paths of a few artists, environmentalists, and Nevada Museum of Art folks naturally crossed. Sara Franz, archivist and librarian for Center for Art + Environment, was also a Nature Conservancy volunteer. Museum board member Carole Anderson was also on TNC’s board. And TNC’s Chris Sega, manager of McCarran Ranch Preserve, happens to have an art degree.

The museum’s Bill Fox, director of its Center for Art + Environment, who was also in on the early rounds of conversation, recalls, “We started talking about the idea of moving earth for art and moving earth for environment.”

The Nature Conservancy expressed interest in large-scale functional sculpture to use in erosion control and habitat restoration, and Fox began searching for suitable artists.

“I knew about the work of Daniel and Mary,” he says. They were a natural fit.

Swinehart, thinking back to 2010, pointed out: “Our interfacing with the land has some things in common with land art.” They each raze land and move dirt. Often they use the same equipment.

There’s also a noticeable resemblance between Watershed Sculpture and some existing, non-functional land art. Artist Andy Goldsworthy, in addition to making those icicle pieces that may not last the day, also has some permanent pieces in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco. Like some of the Watershed Sculptures, they’re made from natural materials found on site, and they snake through the landscape in a similar kind of design. That kind of aesthetic is part of the well-established visual vocabulary McCormick and O’Brien bring to their work.

Will the idea of land art as practical, environmental art take hold? So far, says Bill Fox, it’s not a trend: “We have [archive] materials from more than 600 artists on every continent. There aren’t that many people in the world who do this.”

He did mention, however, that McCormick and O’Brien are in conversation with the University of California Berkeley’s Sage Hen Creek Research Station, which is part of the Truckee watershed, about the possibility of functional land art.

That conversation is scheduled to move along further this spring and summer. Meanwhile, whatever happens, Fox is thinking big and hopes the region’s environmental groups are, too: “For Nevada to be a role model is huge. I think that’s the biggest thing here.”