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The Art of Earthworks Connects and Inspires a New Generation

Nicole Patterson

“These things are made to eventually break apart, fade away, do what they’re supposed to do—the natural thing.” - Liyah Curry, C’24

Inside Williams Art Gallery on opening night, the student exhibition Earthworks drew nearly 100 students, faculty and their families and administrators. Meticulously arranged woven husks and berries covered windowsills; crushed rocks in clay-colored palettes adorned pedestals; braided grass and pokeberry juice-covered deer bones crawled up the wall; and a nautilus of seed pods spiraled onto the hardwood floor.

curry_headshot-in-text.jpgThroughout the semester, Professor of Art Elizabeth Holtry, MFA, guided her Environmental Art course to “explore the creative possibilities of natural materials.” An unconventional array of forms and textures delighted visitors—providing heightened awareness of the natural world.

Liyah Curry stood beside her favorite piece she titled Leaves. A set of eight vertically hung vines made of maple leaves in autumnal shades and in various withering stages invited a closer look. “Originally, I braided the stems. I prefer having a needle in my hand, having the thread and physically going through the leaf,” she explained. The cascading collection, long since faded from a blazing farewell performance, threw shadows on the wall. She rubbed her fingers against the skin of the leaves and flipped the strands to reveal her handiwork coded with a unique pattern. Curry said she has always “had her hand in nature, on the ground and in the grass.”  

Earthworks (or land art) often consists of large amounts of earth or land that is shaped into a sculpture. In their contemporary form, earthworks originated in the 1960s as something of a literal return to nature. While many of the works are site specific, meaning that they enhance in some way the place in which they reside. Ultimately the work creates a dialogue between itself and the land.

kline_headshot-in-text.jpegLyla Kline, C’24, a double major studying art and Italian with a minor in communication, first started incorporating the natural world in her art when she studied abroad in Florence, Italy, in the spring of 2022. Her Art Journal course brought her to the Boboli Gardens where she collected pieces of shrubbery and parts of flowers to use as materials. “Each week I would meet with classmate and friend Aubrey and Professor Hutchings, and we would talk about the work we made, and he would send us out to different places to go visit and explore,” she said.

Kline walked over to the windowsill facing the seminary. She is proud of her piece titled Flower Pod Print. “That class was similar to this Environmental Art class because it was very meditative and about being present and in the moment and looking at the world around you,” she added. She foraged the seeds and pods used in kline_pattern.jpgher piece from behind Purcell Hall (formerly 1808) on an unexpected day. She’d just given a presentation for another class when Holtry told her about some cool pods she’d seen.

“I was in the knee-high grass wearing sandals and a dress—jumping in trees to get these pods. I knew right away I wanted to crack them open and see if I could make something with them. I just started playing,” she said. Her piece was the cover art for the student show. Behind her, a strategic mound of goldenrod stretches through a circular gap in a piece of driftwood. This is another piece she created called Enchanting. Italians know the herb as solidago. Goldenrod’s genus, from the Latin word solida, means “to make whole.” Kline admits her favorite way to view it is from above. “In the studio, it didn’t look the same. In the gallery, though, you can walk the whole way around it—which makes it more interesting,” she said. A nearby listener started to record a 360 video.

The earthwork movement began as a reflection of an increased concern for the environment. Earthworks were also a reaction against some of the highly industrialized, unnatural materials that had found their way into sculpture throughout the early years of the twentieth century. The movement was also a reaction to the notion that art is simply a commodity in the pristine, cold, white cube: the art gallery.

sophia_headshot-in-text.jpgViewers automatically used their cell phones to take pictures of the artwork. Some posted on social media. Almost no one touched the works—a liminal space between wonder and standard protocol. Sophia Toth-Fejel, C’27, who studies psychology, English and music, stood quietly chatting with a friend. Her piece Water was made from grass reeds she found near the seminary. She wove together a light cream with a Gen Z pastel green. The form curved against the wall and exuded an alluring, undulating appeal. Visitors were crowding around another one of her pieces titled Muerte de la Luna, which features a gorgeous brick red color contrasted against muted tan and lonely grey—remnants of crushed rocks. “I’ve never taken an art class before,” she said.

Throughout the semester, Holtry requires students to go on hikes and get outside. Additionally, students are not permitted to take their phones on these hikes. “My experience was much more real,” Toth-Fejel admitted. “I engaged more with nature. There is so much noise that I get distracted.” She recently deleted her social media and is drafting a book of fiction. Kline agreed. “At first, I didn’t know what to toth-fejel_crushed-rock-in-text.jpgthink about that, because I’d never really put my phone away,” she said. “But I got to see fall in a new way; it is my favorite season. I don’t think I would have been able to fully take in God’s creation if we didn’t have to turn in our phones.” Kline said she plans to incorporate “phone fasting” as a regular practice in her daily life.

Curry, now standing beside her friend and classmate Kaitlyn Gonzalez, C’27, is talking about their collaborative piece Squares I and Squares II made of goldenrod, berries, seeds and grass. “We are friends. She is a little more hands-on; I’m a little more curry_collab-in-text.jpgconceptual. We would eat all our lunches and dinners together. This class challenged us to look at nature and see how forms come together. How do we imitate them? How does the earth imitate us? Everything is here for a reason,” Curry reflected.

Most earthworks are ephemeral or temporary and, in some way, serve as a metaphor for the transience of life. Professor Holtry talked with Dean of the School of Natural Science and Mathematics Christine McCauslin, Ph.D., in the corner of an otherwise crowded gallery. Curry pointed out how the berries in their collaboration eventually meet, become intertwined, and more connected than not. She smiled and said, “The real assignment is to understand that you have to learn what the materials do, their nature, while not imposing your own will—and then practice letting go.”

Photos by Trevor Kern, C’22, MBA’24


Nicole Patterson