Photos, from top:

Power Towers East – 1996; temporary installation in series, specific to each site; salvaged shopping carts, native live trees, outdated computer parts, stones or debris. Shown: Empire Fulton Ferry State Park, on the East River, Brooklyn, New York. Rubble collected from nearby demolished housing sites, loaned and/or salvaged carts from nearby streets. Later, the indigenous trees were permanently planted in park. Other series venues: 1994, Spatial Politics exhibit, San Francisco (4 months); 1994-95, Oakland Museum Sculpture Garden (9 months).

Mandela Artscape – 1998-99. 2-acre temporary (+/-3 years) installation of recycled freeway materials and native plants on West Oakland’s Mandela Parkway, symbolizes positive urban regeneration on new-found but degraded open space where the ’89 earthquake collapsed an elevated freeway. It involved the unique cooperative participation of community residents, Caltrans, the City of Oakland, Merritt College and the Museum of Children’s Art. Designed and managed by the artist from the ground up, the project was funded by private foundation art grants awards.

Urban Apple Orchard – 1994-95, 12 x 150 x 30' lot. Unutilized degraded land under an inner city freeway was transformed into a demonstration antique varietal apple orchard. Steinman worked with neighbors, teenagers, homeless people, and an urban garden action group to create the one-year installation sponsored by the San Francisco Art Commission. Dismantled trees went to two neighborhood schools and nearby park remodeled by residents inspired by project.

River Of Hopes And Dreams – 1992. Permanent 3-acre sculpture garden designed as a model of reclamation, resource conservation, recycling, and community involvement for San Francisco’s waste and recycling plant Artist-in-Residence Program. 100 local high school students and SFC staff participated in the artwork. Used for educational programs for 3000+ visitors per year.

Mandela Artscape – 1998-99

Susan Leibovitz Steinman’s


In the late 1980’s, after 18 years as a professional ceramic artist/sculptor, I began creating “Artscapes” — environmental sculptures and installations that connect political and personal community life, global and local ecological issues. Site-specific and audience specific, Artscapes celebrate the values of community-based self-determination, collective action, and art as functional part of everyday life.

(In transitioning materials and genres, I try to carry forward what I most admire of the ceramic arts community: its earth-based, no-material-waste work ethic. It’s labor-intensive, socially functional, technically demanding, and aesthetically rewarding art. Despite real need and creative egos, there’s a shared global language among ceramic artists that transcends politics and borders, and is worth studying.)

Over the last dozen plus years, the Artscape projects have increased in scale and complexity. Most are temporary, and involve community participation or audience interaction. Designed for multiple functions and meanings, the aspiration is aesthetically dynamic, conceptually relevant artworks that function as educational greenscape models of biointensive gardening, bioremediation, reclamation and recycling. A more mercurial double-sided goal is to critique precarious ecological and social situations and still, to constructively seed hope through action.

Artscape Strategies—A Primer Of Working Definitions

Collaboration is key. Inclusion is achieved via collaboration. Collaborations--with public school students, community action groups, community college horticulture students, public infrastructure staff, and other artists--are essential to this methodology. The primary collaborators may be teachers or grassroots community leaders. For example, rather than my “teaching” students, I collaborate with the classroom teacher whose on-going relationship with his/her students fosters a deeper exploration of issues and a richer art experience.

Collaboration is based on a political belief that people and organizations living in affected communities have a right to participate in a process to create the context and content of public art.

Structurally, collaboration allows me to work on several projects at a time, which is helpful working with communities, cities, permit processes and the like where time frames are not under the artist’s control. It also allows me to work with a vast range of personalities and agendas, visiting different worlds through different people. It’s a form of itinerant art that has as many possibilities as people working on any given project.

Collaboration has a built-in critique mechanism that allows for exploring further than one could realize individually. There’s an unpredictable magic that occurs in the best of collaborations that can be addictive.

Permission – Mine is essentially an art of permission. An itinerant, project-driven artist, I acknowledge that I’m a guest in every community, and try to gauge my behavior as if I were invited into someone’s home. I design to stated community needs and desires, not really any different than architects or landscape architects who design for clients. The community and the environment are my clients.

Community – It’s important to define “community” narrowly and carefully. I don’t collaborate with “The community,” but rather “A community” — a subset of self-selecting community members and grass-root organizations that are project stakeholders.

Ownership – Ownership resides in community, not the artist. I have strong ideas re ownership, where it helps and where it’s harmful. Ownership of material goods for the sake of seeing who has the biggest pile is not helpful to environmental or human health. Conversely, ownership and pride are integral ingredients to fostering stewardship—of the environment, of public art, of neighborhoods, cities, countries. You do not take care of what you do not feel part of. Participation fosters empathy, leadership, and stewardship.

Location – As context and content-builder, site selection is critical. To function as community and environmental catalysts, it’s important the installations be created in publicly accessible, highly visible locations. A favorite site is median strips on shopping streets, major thoroughfares, and open sites adjacent to community centers and well-used gathering places. Indoor sites are best in street-front windows.

Value of Temporary Art in the Public Arena – Needing smaller budgets and shorter permit processes, more temporary art can get done in less time. Communities are not afraid to experiment on short-term basis. I often say that the public art process takes three years and three weeks:  three years to get permission and raise funds, then three weeks to install.

Personally I like a mix of longer and short-term projects to keep the ideas flowing and my hands and mind busy. There is spontaneity and joy in working on an almost improvisational basis to build short-term installations, that is missing in the high level of preplanning needed for long-term work.

There are so many degraded urban spaces that will take years of money and political wrangling to fix up (if ever). Through temporary art and garden projects, public could make good use of undervalued land, physically and psychologically improving blighted areas. Temporary creative structures that enhance the health and aesthetics of neighborhoods also enhance the potential of new economic investment.

What is Permanent Art in an Inpermanent Age? – So-called permanent art has to somehow be failure-free, which only ensures that it will look like something safely produced elsewhere. Composting and recycling art and art materials makes room for more art to be created.

Positivity vs. Negativity in Public Process and Context: What Can You Really Get Done, or Why Bother? – Exposed to political and meteorological calamities, this kind of artwork takes a certain amount of hubris and alligator-skin grit. Disappointment, frustrations and failures are built-ins. There is never enough money, nor enough time, which is part creative challenge and part unending frustration.  Poor neighborhoods and degraded natural and/or urban sites, like art and health care, are the last to get funds in good times and the first to lose funds when the economy weakens.

Often it seems like not much can be changed or accomplished. The permit process can be overwhelming and defeating. The human process, too, can be painful. With so many needs unmet, even a King Solomon would be stymied for the thankless task of dividing a hardtack pie. There are no easy answers, and no easy public projects.

In this genre one can only hope to stay flexible, knowing that no matter what goals a project begins with, it will finish as something shaped more by process and circumstances than strict artistic control.

The rewards are the human and natural histories that emerge in the process. The story telling and emerging layers of buried histories are worth the journey.

The Importance of the Field over the Individual – In the final analysis, I believe the cumulative affect of the field is much more important than any one work of art. There are many ways to affect positive change, and we need them all. The only choice is to keep trying. Without action, despite failure, there is no hope.

Susan Leibovitz Steinman salvages materials directly from community waste streams to construct public art installations that connect common daily experiences to broader social issues. Conceptual sculpture gardens meld art, ecology and community action.

Projects include: 2000 Portrero Nuevo Prize winner Gardens to Go, Oakland; River of Hopes & Dreams, 3-acre reclamation sculpture garden for San Francisco’s waste transfer/recycling facility; Urban Apple Orchard under a downtown SF freeway; California Ave, California Native, indigenous bunch grass meadow on a Palo Alto shopping street median; 2-acre Mandela Artscape built of freeway salvage and 3,000 native plants on new-found open space where an earthquake tragically collapsed an elevated freeway.

She is concurrently working on community and artist collaborations in Kentucky with Suzanne Lacy and Yutaka Kobayashi, and in the Pacific Northwest with Jackie Brookner. The Kentucky project is waterfront revitalization sponsored by Appalachian nonprofit Appalshop. The Pacific NW project is a yearlong residency in three states working with National Park Service Rivers & Trails Program, “Art and Community Landscapes” cosponsored by National Endowment of Arts, NPS, and New England Foundation of Arts.

Since 1996 she has edited, and with Jo Hanson, co-produced WEAD: Women Environmental Artists Directory. She co-curated the Living in Balance exhibit, San Francisco International Airport; and contributed the “Artists Compendium” to Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art (Suzanne Lacy, ed; Bay Press, Seattle).

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

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