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Earth Mover

A tower of sod rises on Sheridan Road

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By Jeff Huebner

We're shoveling a mix of sand and clay from a 12-ton mound into a trough that looks like a sandbox. It's push, pitch, push, pitch. When the trough is full, we sprinkle in a bit of cement and then a bonding agent diluted with water. Artist Herb Parker seems satisfied. He revs up a rototiller and moves it up and down the length of the shallow box, churning up the dirt. After about 15 minutes, he picks up a moist, smooth clump, feels it, and drops it. "You know it's ready when you can ball it up in your hand, drop it from waist high, and it'll still disperse," he explains in a Carolina drawl.

The material is called rammed earth; Parker says it's "one of the oldest building techniques known to man." He's using it to create a tower in the front yard of the Evanston Art Center. When he's finished, his temporary installation, Grosse Point Passage, will have combined the disciplines of building, sculpture, and landscape architecture, creating, Parker says, "an environment for people to interact with."

Our crew of volunteers takes shovels in hand once again to scoop the earth into big white plastic buckets. We carry the buckets to the round tower, which is encased in a 15-foot-high wooden mold. This structure is about a third full--the rammed earth will rise higher as the days progress.

With each new batch, Parker and his two assistants trade off standing inside the wooden form to pound down the earth with a mechanical tamper--a menacing jackhammer that Parker says will "chew right through your shoes" if you don't know the ropes. Volunteers take turns watering each new layer.

When I agreed to help build an earth sculpture, I didn't know the emphasis would be on "earth" and not on "sculpture." So much for creating art: this is a construction job. But we're building a one-of-a-kind edifice.

Parker, a nationally recognized environmental sculptor based in Charleston, South Carolina, began work on Grosse Point Passage on May 1. It'll be done by May 21, when the piece opens to the public with a reception and a talk by Parker. By then it will consist of a 65-foot-long covered and colonnaded walkway spiraling into the tower, a reference to the neighboring landmark Grosse Point Lighthouse. The entire structure will be topped with sod laid over steel armatures, making it look like a fanciful house made of grass.

The concept grew out of a visit to Evanston Parker made after he was commissioned by the art center. "The two things that really struck me were the lighthouse and the interior of the art center--the stairs that go around on the second floor. They were the most exciting architectural elements, and they tend to work together well."

Parker is 47 but seems a decade younger. Though slight of frame, he's in good shape--the result, perhaps, of years of hard labor in the outdoors. With his pants tucked into military-style boots, he looks more like a drill instructor--he's a former marine--than an artist. Since 1983, he's built about two dozen mostly temporary structures; they're located throughout the U.S. as well as in Canada and Europe.

Grosse Point Passage is the 12th in a series of installations at the Evanston Art Center. Since 1994, its Sculpture on the Grounds program has been stopping traffic and raising eyebrows on Sheridan Road. Last year North Carolina artist Patrick Dougherty's four 18-foot-high structures made of handwoven willow and dogwood saplings stayed up several months past their deadline to accommodate birds that had built nests in their branches. The piece was only dismantled after the chicks had hatched and the birds had flown away.

Most of Parker's large environmental structures (including projects at a Savannah park, the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, the Toledo Botanical Garden, and the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans) are meant to be ephemeral, questioning our assumptions about what is lasting and monumental in art.

At about 4 PM our work crew is joined by six teenagers from Evanston high school, who are helping out as part of an after-school program. They already know the routine, so the shoveling, mixing, scooping, and carrying goes much faster now. By the end of the following week, Parker says, the mold for the tower will be filled to the top with 24 tons of rammed earth. The crew will then remove the wooden frame and the heavy-duty chains holding the circular form in place.

Two crew members--Glenbard South student Maya Janczykowska and New Trier student Chad Farwell--are here on internships. Janczykowska tells me that to complete her internship she must work more than 100 hours. She has toiled full days from the very beginning and will see the work through to the end. A quiet, determined trouper, she wants to be a sculptor. "It's great that there are still teenagers who want to be artists," says volunteer Cathy Westphal, a retired public relations executive and a studio assistant at the art center.

Parker is patient; he says teaching is his "day job." For the last nine years he's been a professor of sculpture at the College of Charleston, a small liberal-arts institution. He's now the acting head of his department. His two assistants, Zac Ward and Edward Kelley, are former students. They'll also help on his next project, at an elementary school in Greer, South Carolina.

"It's only in the last five years that people have gotten involved--school groups, people outside the art world," says Parker. "The first ten years or so it was just me and my pickup truck. This one I couldn't do by myself. Now when I go do a site visit, I try to engage any community group. Because if the people who are working here take an active part and they get some ownership in it, then when I leave it'll be taken care of."

Herb Parker was born in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, "right by the Great Dismal Swamp," he says. "I always worked construction jobs, metal fabrication in construction--that was my mainstay." He enrolled at East Carolina University, but quit to join the marines in the early 70s. Though U.S. troops were still fighting in Vietnam, he never saw combat. The GI Bill later enabled him to complete his BFA. In the late 70s he spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer on the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent. "It was really harder than the marines," he quips. He returned to the university to earn his MFA, and then lived and taught in New Orleans.

Parker acknowledges his debt to the first generation of earth artists, who were working in the late 1960s and 70s. He mentions Robert Smithson, perhaps best known for his 1,500-foot-long Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake, and Richard Long, a British artist who drew lines in the landscape with stones or by creating worn paths through walking. But Parker also had problems with some of the massive pieces by Smithson and another earth artist, Michael Heizer. "They got art out of the gallery, but they put it in places that you had to be a rich person to see," he says. "It was often owned by a gallery, and you had to be in an airplane to see it." Still, he adds, "it certainly helped me develop the idea of moving outside with ephemeral work."

His major influences are "nature and primitive societies and structures--even animal-built and insect-built structures." He also refers to the nature writings of Thoreau and Emerson, the evolving park landscapes of Frederick Law Olmstead, and the "systems manipulation" theories of German artist Hans Haacke, whose early work demonstrated that natural processes can be altered or even created by human actions (in one installation, for instance, water placed in plastic cubes created mist and condensation).

Parker's first temporary outdoor works put Haacke's theories into practice. As a student, he talked his university into letting him dig up a lawn and stack the sod into columns. "I would take it out of the landscape and use it in a sculpture for a while--say a week--then put it back. It would be discolored and you could see the geometric patterns of where it had come out. And then after two or three weeks, every day you came by it looked a little different, until it disappeared completely and just erased itself.

"That," Parker says, "was the original impetus for the whole thing of using the landscape, the original idea of displacement and reintegration. It would regenerate; it would heal itself. Whatever damage man does to it, it's gonna disappear."

Inspired by archaeological excavations, he dug into the landscape. Over the years his works grew more elaborate and by 1983 he was creating "architectonic" pieces using sod, earth, steel armature, and other materials.

"I kept thinking I could do something else," Parker says. "I was able to finally make a column that could support itself, so I did a couple pieces with columns coming out of the landscape. Then I started thinking, well, maybe I could make a roof. From there it kept going one step further--each piece led to the next. I slowly got a vocabulary of approaches, materials, and shapes. I started doing the rammed earth thing about maybe ten years ago. That's the most recent of the developments."

As the seasons change, Grosse Point Passage will also change. The sod will mirror natural cycles of growth and decay. The rammed earth, which Parker has used in almost every project since 1994, is durable. It's been used as a building material for more than 5,000 years, and in the early 20th century it experienced a revival in Charleston. Recently, rammed earth has regained some favor as a construction material because of environmental concerns. Parker says there are even companies in Texas and California that specialize in it.

"This one will erode, but very slowly," Parker says of the Evanston tower. "The walls will be 18 inches thick, so in a year's time it won't get that much erosion....The grass will be the main thing that shows any age."

While Grosse Point Passage will reflect the transience of nature and serve as a record for the passage of time, it won't exactly crumble. It's scheduled to be dismantled next spring.

Parker likes temporary installations for a practical reason: freedom. "You can get away with a lot more," he says. "I have done some permanent pieces where you go through committees. I try to talk to everybody I can and then make my design decisions. But a lot of times it can be diluted because of things like safety. With the more permanent work, you have a lot more restrictions, and a lot more people who have some say-so. Some of those people are not ones that have any interest in aesthetics; they're very practical....With ephemeral work, they let you almost do anything, usually."

Parker had to consult architects and engineers to complete projects in San Francisco (because of earthquakes) and Charleston (because of hurricanes). "So it's different every place," he says. "Each project is a whole little life cycle. I enjoy this stuff, but two or three a year is plenty." He's paid about $5,000 for three to four weeks' work. The total cost of the Evanston project will be around $15,000, mostly paid for by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council.

Parker's work plays off the elements of the built and the natural, the contrived and the uncontrolled, flux and permanence. Each piece, he says, is a "metaphor for architecture and civilization as well as our interaction with nature." But, he points out, you don't have to be knowledgeable about art or his intentions to appreciate the structures. On the most basic level, they are cool green sanctuaries, places of fun, wonder, surprise, and secrets. Kids love them. They are meant to be seen, felt, and experienced as constructed environments that use landscape as a medium.

Yet his favorite pieces are located in places where "no one expects them and people discover them accidentally." He cites two permanent cavelike structures he created in the mid-90s using durable man-made materials along with plants, stones, and earth. One is at an environmental-art park in northern Italy; the other is built over a natural spring in the South Carolina Botanical Garden at Clemson University. "They really almost feel like they're some kind of existing natural structures," he says.

Parker believes his most successful projects "blur that boundary" between architecture and nature as they age. "The landscape elements or plant materials, dirt, whatever, more and more feel as if they could've been there forever, or for a thousand years or a hundred years. It still feels man-made but it's indeterminate whether it was made last week or if it's some remnant of a past civilization."

No one will mistake Grosse Point Passage for an ancient dwelling--it's too new for that. What viewers will see, though, is a strangely magical form that could have come from a lost chapter of history or from an alternate universe--a living edifice that is never finished, always changing, and ultimately destined to disappear.

"Part of the reason for this stuff is to get that sense of history and culture, but not any specific history and culture," Parker says. "I'm not trying to make a Mayan ruin or a Greek temple. It's more of a sense of shared history without being specific to any culture. At least that's what I hope they impart."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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