My Adventures as an Eco Artist

Jo Hanson

From top:

Lion – Urban spirit figure from street-crushed metals, small: 5 x 10 x 2

Sweeping (for the camera) by my front steps

Logo – my identification for all my work with urban street trash

Button – Exhibition announcement,1980

Mother Courage – from work that I call urban spirit figures, using metals that are crushed by street traffic. 51 x 17 X 7

“Wall” of salvaged lumber, constructed as a presentation for small sculptures in huge warehouse space.


Historically, artists have often sensed when their societies were going off course — the Romantics with their perceptions of the tragic side effects of the Industrial Revolution, the Dadaists with their understanding of the insanity of World War 1 and the threat of Nazism. We should heed, then, the growing number of artists in the past few years who are reminding us of the need to live in balance with the Earth.

Evolving into an eco artist couldn’t have been farther from my mind when I went out to clean the 180 feet of my12-foot wide sidewalk in my windy new neighborhood of San Francisco in 1970. The term “eco artist” didn’t exist then, and the work was not readily accepted as art. Aesthetics and a litter-free sidewalk motivated my cleaning, but a great deal more was blowing in the wind: the anguish of the Vietnam War; anger toward the government and the “Establishment” (Hippie vocabulary) that were responsible for the war; also Hippie culture, with migrations from all over the U.S., drawn by the mystique of the “Haight-Ashbury;” drug culture; ethnic turmoil. I learned the inseparability of sociology and ecology as I saw how anger and discontent expressed themselves in the gesture of trashing the streets — aided and abetted by the wind!

Soon my cleaning extended to the whole block —  one to three times daily. City trucks came one to three times daily to haul it away. City workers and I became buddies and collaborators, which led into unanticipated collaborations down the line. Neighbors liked to stop and talk, usually beginning or ending with “Let the City do it; we pay our taxes!” Observing changes in the discards promoted me to begin documenting the street’s contents. Disposable needles had disappeared! It informed me that Hippies had left the area. Primarily from privileged families, Hippies knew how to work the systems, while other heroin users had not access to disposable needles. More than 100 binders now reflect the contents and changes of the street since 1970.

Street discards flowed like the ocean, instantly renewed after each removal: very personal notes and letters (some appearing at intervals, like continued stories), parking tickets, photos and negatives, bills, collection letters, cancelled checks and bounced checks, grocery lists with creative spelling, religious tracts, ZigZag papers for rolling joints, drug paraphernalia, rock posters, advertising, cigarette packages, food packaging, newspapers, books, political and social protest, anti-war artifacts (the demonstration route was only two blocks away), prison discharge papers, medical records, clothing, and much, much more. One could not find a more striking demonstration of the waste society, consumerism, ecological ignorance, irresponsible industry and commerce, materials waste through irresponsible design.

Through my various activities I learned two very important realities: (1) Trash/junk has great public appeal, and feature people are eager for good stories. The issues of waste and consumerism could get mass attention via media features. I analyzed the elements of effective feature stories and appreciated mass outreach for the “messages” of my work. (2) Knowledge alone does not bring change in ecological bad habits. Emotional commitment is needed; the heart must be engaged. I learned this from two boys attacking a newly planted street tree with plumbing pipe. When I stopped them and began about oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange, they said, “Oh, we know that!” They learned it at school. But neither their knowledge nor their own need for oxygen made them cherish the tree instead of trying to destroy it.

During the late 1970s and early ‘80s I documented community “clean-ups”. I collaborated with the street cleaning department in various City Hall presentations and curated a school contest for the mayor’s committee on litter management. This attracted 1700 students and their teachers, who used it as curriculum enhancement. In l980 I received a grant for an exhibition of the various facets of my work in City Hall (and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). The exhibition displayed artifacts from the street, my documentation, community vignettes, and the work and personnel of city street cleaning.

Clearly, this kind of work reflected on-going revolution in art and artists. I identified first with conceptual art’s advocacy of art as experiences or phenomena that could not be bought and sold. But it was feminist art that fulfilled the aims of conceptual art in empowering artists, collaboration among artists and with communities, advancing life and social experiences/issues as appropriate subjects of art. This was my trail in discovering that my work was “environmental art.” I have never felt related to the land artists of that period who used Earth features and nature as their materials.

In 1982, when the International Sculpture Conference met in the San Francisco Bay Area I organized a Dada-style bus tour of illegal dumping in San Francisco. It provided unusual insights as well as a good tour of San Francisco.

The totality of my experiences parlayed into my proposing an artist in residence program in San Francisco’s disposal company: Sanitary Fill Co., a division of Norcal Waste Systems, Inc. This company and Norcal, are unique in having grown up with the city from groups of Italian scavenger cooperatives that collected with horse and wagon. They have always salvaged for economic reasons. They had the vision to see the potential of art and artists as outreach to encourage public cooperation in waste reduction and recycling to achieve their state-mandated reduction in landfill

The Artist in Residence program opened in 1990. It has won several prestigious awards, but primarily it is an ever-increasing resource in public and student education and persuasion. It maximizes art’s unique ability to reach out and catch the imagination and the heart of its “audience.” Interestingly, the artist community also has become more sensitized to ecological concerns. The Open Studio receptions that conclude each residency often attract 400-500 mainly young people. In addition to the art, I believe they are drawn to the energy and rawness of this big muscle industry that serves such a positive and sensitive role. The residency is heaven on Earth for artists. The quality of their work is very high.

Many artists evolve new dimensions in this “shock” of unlimited possibilities. Chosen by a well-qualified advisory board, artists receive a stipend, access to any and all materials, big rangy studio space with 24-hour access, any equipment or tools that they need, the assurance of good exposure for their work. The company gets one artwork; the rest belongs to the artist. In 1999 the AIR program became the core of a new Environmental Learning Center. About 6,000 school students yearly tour the recycling and disposal facilities and artist studio, along with many other public educational activities.

Two years later, 2001, another kind of residency was added for art students, in a separate and smaller studio. They are not paid, but they receive a $500 budget and access to any material that comes in. The target audience for this part of the program is the “young 20s” population. The word spreads through the art schools and stimulates attendance at the studio tours and receptions that close each regular residency. This company’s commitment to educational outreach provides a powerful model for other companies in any arena.

Initially, for many years, I refused to make art objects that could divert attention from issues to objects. But a week of daily “deliveries” of cut-out hearts and music notes broke my resistance. I began doing collage work. Later I turned to sculpture using unique metals that are crushed by street traffic. This was timely because, beginning in the late 1980s, the non-profit galleries (and others later) began a trickle and then a flow of “eco” exhibitions. In that context, exhibiting art objects promoted discussion of ecological concerns and led to lectures, workshops, panels and symposia.

Rising Above Our Garbage, a major three-day interdisciplinary conference in which I participated in l993, focused on waste management. It assembled at the sponsoring San Francisco Exploratorium, organized by Mierle Laderman Ukeles, resident artist in the New York City Sanitation Department since 1975. Cross-disciplinary discussion involved public officials, engineers, artists, arts administrators, waste management personnel and an economic analyst. A diverse and highly qualified audience participated in a review session each day. Specific projects and their problems and solutions were presented. Discussion of projects led by artists, or including artists, noted particularly the integrative influence of the artist and the value of the artist ability to “think outside the box.” Cases were cited in which artist participation led to transforming design and planning problems into amenities, with cost savings. Probably un-resolvable questions concerned the ethics of artist participation in disguising closed landfills as parks/amenities. Does the recycling of landfills into public amenities undermine the public perception of the need to recycle, to resist consumerism and avoid non-recyclables? Closing a landfill is a costly operation, whether as a park or object lesson in waste.

The first Women Environmental Artists Directory sprang into being in 1996 to fill the eco void in the program of a Regional Conference of the Women’s Caucus for Art. One of the three founders excused herself to manage the crunch of other work; and Susan Steinman and I found ourselves with another responsibility too much. We invited nine equally overworked artists to share it with us. The result was magic. Each advisory board member is an accomplished artist in different areas of eco-art, providing wide-ranging networks and resources. The Directory is artist supported. Listing is free. Circulation is national with a small international listing and distribution. The primary intention is to serve artists and artist selections by curators, writers, administrators and whoever else needs artist information. Our website is

In 1999 Steinman, Aviva Rahmani (Ghost Nets, Maine) and I co-chaired a shockingly large panel of nine eco-artists at the annual conference of the College Art Association. Our panel description noted the rapid increase in eco artists; the widening parameters of work; collaborations among artists, but also across disciplines and with communities, in re-invigorated relationships; the inventive strategies; and a vocabulary that exceeds conventional aesthetic discourse. We called for an update of the status and practices of eco-art.

In all the work that I’ve described one can almost assume a spiritual dimension. Work in ecology leads to experience of the intelligent energy of nature, the wisdom of natural process. Even working early-on with urban trash, my anguish for the Earth was relieved in realizing the import of my utter failure to stop weeds from growing in the sidewalk cracks. Trying, later, to restore an ecosystem I learned that a lost ecosystem cannot be called back or re-created, but the weeds and the failed ecosystem taught me that Earth energy is persistent and will choose its manifestation, lawfully and with infinite imagination.

Mainstreaming eco-art has been a concern of all my work. Increasingly my experiences provide opportunities to promote eco-art and artists for the richness of their integrative, innovative thinking and the means that they bring to both education and action.


This article was originally published in Landscape & Art, Summer 2003.

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