Migrant Sanctuary Garden: The International Forest Art Center, Darmstadt, Germany

A project developed for The International Forest Art Centre, Darmstadt, Germany and presented at The International Forest Art Symposium, and the 9th Forest Art Path exhibition, 2018, by SporaStudios. Exhibition Curated by Sue Spaid and International Forest Art Centre Director Ute Ritschel.

Concept Development 

Early in our research for this project, we came across a BBC report that covered a 2015 celebration thrown by the city of Darmstadt to officially welcome the thousands of refugees it now hosts, mostly from the war-torn countries of Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. This stuck with us and became especially poignant in light of how our country, The United States, has responded to the refugee crisis – a crisis it had no small part in creating – by banning and jailing immigrants, and refugees, while blaming them, for all manner of social ills. However, we were encouraged by so-called “sanctuary cities” in the US, who refused to participate in the federal government’s anti-immigrant directives. For us, seeing Germany – who, at the time of this writing, admits more immigrants than any other country in the EU – and Darmstadt specifically as a sanctuary for refugees was an inspiring starting point for our project. The fact that an abandoned US military base, bordering the forest in which we were to work, was now being used to house refugees, solidified our intent to create an ecological artwork that incorporated migration and sanctuary as central themes. At the same time, we’d become immersed in garden design following a recent move and faced with designing a permaculture landscape at our new home. Inspired by the work of United Plant Savers, we became interested in botanical sanctuaries, specifically for wild medicinal plants endangered due to their overharvest for the herbal supplement industry. Having a home-scale herbal products business ourselves, we committed to incorporating endangered medicinal plants into our home medicine gardens, a collection we’re still building. At the same time, we were becoming more familiar with the idea of “sanctuary gardens”, and their various manifestations throughout the world, as sacred spaces for people to seek refuge and contemplation. Using the permaculture concept of “stacking functions” it made sense to us that a garden could function as a more holistic mutual sanctuary for plants as well as humans, and other animals.

For our proposal, we conceived of a project that would layer various ideas of sanctuary, as expressed through “sanctuary cities”, “botanical sanctuaries”, and “sanctuary gardens”, in hopes of evoking a meditation on the blessings of plants and people, their interdependence, and their capacity to heal one another, while exploring ideas of endangerment, sanctuary, refuge, and migration concerning both people and plants. Our initial proposal was to create a “sanctuary garden” in the forest made-up of endangered medicinal plant species indigenous to North America. The idea was to relate migration to sanctuary and healing, rather than to threat and violence (as the case often is) and draw a parallel with Darmstadt’s hosting of refugees – many actually housed at an abandoned US military base stretching along the perimeter of the forest. The sanctuary garden would have more potency in light of the fact that Germany itself has a huge herbal medicine industry, sourced in part by wild harvested populations of plants around the world, including North America. It made sense to us, that Germany provide sanctuary, even in a small symbolic way, to the dwindling populations of plants in North America that feed the global herbal medicine trade. However, months into the planning process our communication regarding securing plant stock broke down with an email from Dr. Uwe Schippmann, Head of the Plant Conservation Division of Bundesamt für Naturschutz, which alerted us to the fact that the German National Species Conservation Law has strict conditions that non-native species must not be introduced in nature, i.e. outside of gardens and other urban structures. He recommended that we get in touch with a regional administrator to ensure that our project would not fulfill the definition of “introduction in nature”. Exhausted and already months in, we dropped the ball here on this particular manifestation of a sanctuary garden, expecting that the idea of a “forest garden” made up of “alien” plants (or the pursuit of any type of agroforestry concept) in Germany would likely be forced to challenge definitions already laid out in German law. No doubt this would all be an interesting research project on its own, but not well-suited to a three-week residency in the middle of forest.

We arrived in Darmstadt in disarray, our list of plants impossible to attain and grow, and increasingly encouraged to plant a permaculture inspired forest garden with edible “native” species rather than the “strange” medicinal plants we had originally proposed. As artists, we were reluctant to take this course because it eschewed the concept we’d been interested in exploring. Also, there were many qualified people already living in the area who could plant a forest garden. Why did we fly here? What are we doing? Some days later, a passerby in the forest inquired what we were doing there, and at the end of our exchange simply said, “so you’ve flown all the way to Germany to plant a garden?” Our response at the moment was, “yeah, we know, right?” We’re still dwelling on the absurdity, particularly in light of it being an eco-art exhibition, but there are certainly worse reasons to travel. One thing we did know was that our “garden”, given just the 3 of us, limited time, and an unforeseen drought, would be modest – though would hopefully spread year by year rather than decay and be removed like most forest art installations. But we’d wanted to convey a conceptual basis for the project for it to feel like art. That seemed missing – so yeah, we were just planting a garden. We were extremely well fed on the night of our arrival, and joined by lovely company, and after having knocked off a bit of jet lag at the “Nature Friend’s House”, we got up the next morning to a wonderful surprise. We were surrounded by medicinal plants – growing everywhere like weeds – in fact, they were weeds! We walked the forest roads for hours looking at art, but mainly noting the many medicinal, edible and generally useful, but underappreciated and detested “weeds” that we know well from back home – Nettles, Burdock, Dandelion, Goldenrod, Plantain, and many others. We inquired about some of them, got some distasteful responses and then inquired about the word and concept of “weeds” in the German language. We learned the word “unkraut”, which we were told translates to English as “non-plant”. We were reminded of the histories of both the United States and Germany and the violence perpetrated on humans designated as non-people. We were reminded of the sanctuary Darmstadt offered to refugees, many housed a short walk through the forest at an abandoned US military base. And we thought about our initial concept to provide sanctuary for rare North American species. We began thinking that an inversion of that concept would likely be even more interesting – not to mention more practical. We began rewriting our project concept to embrace this concept of the unwanted, migrating plant – the “weed”, which is arguably a closer analogy to a common disposition toward migrating humans, whose value to society often goes unrealized or unrecognized. And it was a plant that gave us this idea. We’d received a list of invasive species from curator Sue Spaid, who’d received it from artist Rebecca Chesney, also working on a project in the forest. We recognized all of the plants on the list, the majority being celebrated medicinal plants. One of those plants, Oregon Grape Holly, we recognized as a plant on the endangered “red list” of United Plant Savers as a result of its rapid decline in its “native” North America where it is harvested for the herbal supplement trade. We began noticing Oregon Grape Holly growing as an ornamental plant in front of homes and along city streets. When we inquired further, we found that this plant was not widely known as a medicinal plant in Germany, despite its prevalence as an herbal supplement, and most regarded the plant as a mildly invasive ornamental plant despite its rare status in North America. We found several of the plants growing in front of the Forest Art Center and decided to use a couple for our forest garden. The fact that a plant, endangered in the US, could find such a refuge in Europe seemed to be the link we were looking for. To most conservationists in Germany, the plant would likely be regarded as an exotic garden ornamental, and more or less useless, but once jumping the garden fence into the “wild” it could be considered an “alien” – maybe an invasive danger – there seemed to be no better illustration of migration and the complex attitudes applied to both people and plants outside of their “native” lands. We thought about the limitations of an approach to conservation that seeks to stabilize nature at a time when flux is necessary to counter human impacts on the planet, such as climate change, overdevelopment, and the toxification of the biosphere. We thought about cultures that protect themselves in various ways, by excluding others, often at the expense of diversity and resiliency.

We rewrote our concept statement and retitled our project to coincide with our changing frame of reference. “The Migrant Sanctuary Garden” would now be populated by common plants that have migrated to temperate regions all around the world – some for centuries, and others more recently. The plants are all known for their tenacity, often found thriving in damaged landscapes; they are the first to pop up through cracks in city streets, occupy vacant lots, overgrazed or tilled farm land, and spread along the edges of the countless roads that cut through the landscape. They are migrant plants, but also pioneer plants that can exist in the most inhospitable conditions, putting green on the earth and setting the stage for ecological repair and succession. However, because of their vigor and success, these plants are often scorned as “weeds”, or “invasive”, “aliens”, set to “take over” our concept of what “natural” or “cultivated” (and the line that divides them) landscapes should be.

Site & Design

The site we decided on for our project was a crossroads in the forest. The symbolism of the crossroads grew increasingly apparent to us over the coming weeks as the severe drought went on, and climate change increasingly became the topic of conversation. Our site was already dense with brambles, nettles, burdock and other edge pioneer plants invited by the road opening up the forest to light and the compacted and degraded soil along its edges. Our forest garden uses existing indigenous cherry and oak trees to “host” our selected migrant plants creating plant “guilds”, a permaculture term for designed cooperative plant communities that mimic ecosystem structures and functions while integrating human use, in this case, for food and medicine. In a nod to “Hügelkultur”, an old European folk planting technique to improve soil fertility, water retention, and soil warming, we buried wood found in the forest under our garden beds. The plants selected for the Migrant Sanctuary Garden were dug up along the roads crisscrossing the forest and donated by local permaculturalists and artists (Thank you Stefanie Welk, Bianca Bischer, and Roger Rigorth!). Despite their common status as unruly “weeds” or “invasives”, all of the plants we selected have long and often forgotten histories of use as medicine and food for people, and their value in this regard is incalculable. Additionally, many of the plants seen as worthless actually provide important ecosystem services from feeding and providing habitat for insects and wildlife to conditioning soils and building biomass on stripped land – such as a road cutting through a forest.

Our original design called for the garden to be laid out in the shape of a compass with each subsection of the compass providing a bed dedicated to a single species. Over the years, the plants would seed and spread over the boarders of the beds and an integrated garden would form – eventually obscuring the compass design altogether. However, as is often the case, as we started working onsite, things started to go in another direction. The existing terrain, suggested to us a different garden shape and we started to lay it out in response to the “host” cherry and oak trees we’d selected. We finally decided on a lung-shaped design symbolizing respiration, the most basic and necessary exchange between plants and animals, the bench would occupy the heart space, a place of empathy and connection, for visitors to rest and contemplate.


Photo by Florian Schneider
Photo by Florian Schneider
Photo by Florian Schneider

Thoughts on mending the Culture/Nature Divide

The art of permaculture gives us concepts and practical methods for dealing with the failure of industrial society to integrate the needs of humans with the needs of the environment. The “man vs. nature” paradigm has ended in a slaughter of nature, and yet the war is carried on employing the newest technologies and asserting now, with species invasions, that nature needs to be protected from nature itself. Industrial society’s inability to form sustainable relationships and interactions of humans with their environment is epitomized by its contradictory pursuit of industrial agriculture on one side and the nature preserve on the other – both heavily managed by humans to reflect a view of what “culture” and “nature” should be, but rarely introduced to one another. Permaculture offers that introduction with its concept of the “forest garden” or the “food forest”, which demonstrates that human sustenance and functional ecosystems needn’t be segregated or mutually exclusive. The forest garden eschews the polarities of farm vs. forest, wild vs. domestic, and native vs. alien, and ultimately “culture vs. nature” in an effort to focus on the functionality of ecosystems and how we might build a culture of positive and mutually productive interactions between people and the environments on which we depend. A synthesis of the concepts of wilderness and agriculture, whether it be called permaculture, ecological farming, agroforestry, or something else, shows promise for the future in terms of finding new ways of aligning the interests of humans and the natural systems that sustain us.

Thoughts on Migration and Otherness

At the heart of the rhetoric, which seeks to excuse the inhumane treatment of migrants and refugees, is the language of the other, the “alien” outsider, the scapegoat for society’s problems, who, if given the chance, would “invade” and “takeover” “our way of life”. In many contexts, we recognize the rhetoric of otherness, its sociopolitical dimension, and its manifestation into violence the world over, and yet many well-intentioned people, who might otherwise condemn such terms in reference to the social world, wholeheartedly embrace such terms regarding the natural world. We are interested in how the language of otherness, for example terms such as, native, alien, invasive, naturalized, etc. with all of their overt sociopolitical baggage have permeated our understanding of our relationship to the natural/cultural systems that sustain us. Our perspective is probably best expressed through a term common to conservationists, farmers, gardeners, and lawn manicurists alike; the term? Weed. The word has loads of subtext, conjuring notions and feelings of fear, aggression, invasion, combat, colonialism, xenophobia – fueling eradication campaigns steeped in deadly chemicals. Yet a “weed” is simply a plant maligned for being in the wrong place at the wrong time as determined by humans. We were interested in how a plant can move from being a precious, endangered thing to an alien thing simply by moving it out of place, or vice versa. We were interested in the positive role of species migrations as a way of protecting threatened species, but in a larger sense, the role of migration in building a resilient response to global climate change. We were also interested in using our knowledge of permaculture and herbalism to highlight the human and environmental benefits of many of the common, and yet disregarded or despised plants we find all around us.

Thoughts on Invasion Biology and a New Wild

The cold war era institutionalization of invasion biology helped to codify a conservative and militaristic language to describe the rapidly changing ecosystems of the 20thcentury. More recently, ecologists have begun challenging some of invasion biology’s fundamental concepts and terms. The long-held belief in the “balance of nature”, has been overturned and replaced with ecological flux. The idea that co-evolution of indigenous species is the only successful driver of ecosystems is now challenged with research on “novel ecosystems” or “synthetic ecosystems” populated with migrant species and chance encounters made successful through “ecological fitting” rather than inherent qualities tied to species origin. It seems that ecosystems are much more symbiotic, fluid, random, and adaptable than previously thought and that many of nature’s “weeds” provide essential ecosystem services. Some ecologists are even asking if many of those perceived alien invaders, with their tenacity, rapid biomass production, and ability to grow in the most inhospitable conditions, might be part of the answer to some of our most pressing problems, soil depletion, climate change, biosphere toxification and other effects of industrial society. Could it be that like migrating humans, migrating plants and animals are scapegoated for being the cause rather than a symptom of much larger forces at work? Climate change alone will certainly necessitate the relocation of species if they are to be saved. Will we look to the value of the “aliens” in our midst and see what they might have to offer for our new “wild” spaces, or will we continue to wage war aimed at conserving or recreating a natural history that may be ill-equipped to deal with a rapidly changing planet?

Migrant Sanctuary: The Four Winds Journal

By Mark Cooley and Elizabeth Hall

Check out the Spring/Summer 2019 edition of Four Winds Journal by Orenda Healing International. We have an article about a project we completed in Darmstadt, Germany last year as part of The International Forest Art Centre’s Forest Art Biennial. The article and installation explores attitudes around migration through a forest garden installation of “alien” plants in a “native” forest, which the city uses for public recreation and to house newly arrived Middle Eastern refugees in abandoned US military buildings located on the forest edge. Check out the article here.

becoming-Botanical: a post-modern liber herbalis

Book: becoming-Botanical: a post-modern liber herbalis Article: Kudzu: The Plant that (never) Ate the South” EDITED BY Josh Armstrong and Alexandra Lakind PUBLISHED BY Objet-a Creative Studio; Glasgow, Scotland PRINTED BY Mixam, United Kingdom It’s awesome to be included in this new fascinating book published by Objet-a Creative Studio in Glasgow, Scotland. The book features 46 entries from over 50 international artists, researchers and practitioners spanning 6 continents–beautifully fusing academia, scientific and ecological research, art, and creative practice. In our article, we take up the issue of migration and discuss the inadequacy of the “invading aliens” paradigm through which species (human and otherwise) migrations are framed. We are interested in recent critiques of some of the fundamental assertions of invasion biology, its beginnings in the cold war, and its baked in cultural ingredients of intolerance, othering, and reliance on a purity vs. polluted paradigm. We explore some of this with the most challenging and dreaded of subjects – none other than “the plant that ate the south” Pueraria montana, or hatefully known as Kudzu! Buy the book here https://objeta.org/portfolio/becoming-botanical by Mark Cooley & Elizabeth Hall – SporaStudios The concept of The Other refers to hierarchical social order established and maintained through the creation and representation of simple binary us and them oppositions.1 In recent years, a worldwide right-wing backlash over an ongoing global refugee crisis has reacquainted many with the image of the alien outsider who, we are told, is invading and taking over our way of life.2 In the socio-political realm, we may recognize this rhetoric and understand its historical manifestation into bigotry and violence the world over. One might ask then, how is it that terms such as invasive, native, alien, naturalized etc. are deemed necessarily ripe with ideology and prejudice in a sociological attempt to understand human migration but at the same time form the fundamental vocabulary of biologists in describing the migration of all other species in the natural world?3 To this extent, the very terms of conservation biology, that species migration should be understood in terms of foreign invasions of otherwise pristine and balanced native habitats is extremely problematic. In both cases, there is often a failure to account for larger forces at work in which migrations play out as a symptom rather than the condition. It is easier for the U.S. government to demonize immigrants from the middle east and south of its border, for instance, than it is for it to look critically at its foreign and economic policy. Likewise, it is easier to demonize migrating plants and animals as invasives destroying our native habitats than to look at causes such as climate change, overdevelopment, and toxification of the biosphere.4 We owe this language to the cold war era invention of invasion biology, which helped to codify a conservative, nationalistic, and militaristic language to describe the rapidly changing ecosystems of the 20th century. As science grew in its awareness of the war colonization and industrialization had waged against the earth’s life support systems, so grew the reactionary response of conservation science to freeze those systems in a constant state, as though change itself were the enemy. The colonizer is recast as the saviour, and yet the colonizer’s desire for control continues. Fortunately, a new generation of ecologists, documented in such books as Fred Pierce’s The New Wild: Why Invasive Species will be Nature’s Salvation and David Holmgren’s, Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration, are asking if many of those perceived alien invaders, with their tenacity, rapid biomass production, and ability to grow in the most inhospitable conditions, might be part of the answer to some of our most pressing ecological problems rather than their cause. The question is, will we look to the value of the aliens in our midst and see what they might have to offer for our new wild spaces, or will we continue to wage war aimed at conserving or recreating a natural history that may be ill-equipped to deal with a rapidly changing planet? Known as the “the vine that ate the south,” Kudzu is the prototypical “invasive species” in the United States, and as such it provides a good and challenging starting place to rethink the “native” versus “alien invasive” paradigm. Kudzu was introduced to the Americas from Asia in the 19th century and used as a high protein cattle, goat, and sheep feed, as well as to prevent soil erosion. During the 1930s, the U.S. government paid farmers to grow more than 1.2 million acres of Kudzu to counteract the effects of erosion, and by the end of World War II, Kudzu covered an estimated 3 million acres of land and was heralded as a key to US recovery from the “dustbowl.”5 The postwar “green revolution,” the expansion of farmland, residential development, and the ceaseless building of roads in the eastern U.S., created the perfect habitat for Kudzu, which thrives in forest edge habitats with depleted and poor soils. As Kudzu’s benefits became obsolete to human interests and as humans cut more forests, creating more edge habitat, Kudzu began to be seen as an invader rather than a savior. By the 1970s, Kudzu’s biological success was met with a human downgrade in status to “noxious weed” and became the target of extermination campaigns armed with huge quantities of toxic herbicides, which seemed to have virtually no effect on the plant.5 However, despite being mythologized as “the plant that ate the south,” a recent U.S. Forest Service study found the plant to cover only 227,000 acres (about 1/6 the size of Alabama) of land rather than the millions usually quoted, and far less than in Kudzu’s heyday of the ‘30s and ‘40s when it was heralded as a savior.5 Meanwhile, more than 97,000,000 acres are devoted to corn in the U.S. (about the size of California), virtually all genetically modified and virtually all grown in monocrops where any other living thing is considered an invading organism. And yet, corn is not an invasive plant.6 This fact exposes the ideological value system applied to the supposedly objective science of studying ecosystems and the ill-conceived separation of agriculture from “natural ecosystems” in our culture versus nature paradigm. Considering Kudzu’s enormous use-value (perhaps on par with corn), the “problem” of Kudzu can be rephrased as one less concerned with invasion and more concerned with underutilization.
Plant Chemistry: Arachidic acid, ash, B-sitosterol, calcium, carotene, daidzein, daidzin, eicosanoic acid, formononetin, genistein, hexadecanoic acid, irisolidon, iron, magnesium, p-coumaric acid, phosphorus, potassium, puerarin, quercetin, riboflavin, robinin, silica, tectoridin, tetracosanoid acid.7 Use value: Medicine Traditional Chinese and ayurvedic medicine treatments for measles, dysentery, diarrhea, fevers, headaches, hypertension, stiff muscles, and the effects of alcohol. Pharmacological Actions: Cardiovascular, antiplatelet, antihypertensive, antipyretic, antidiabetic, antispasmodic, anti-alcoholic. Researched properties: Anticancer, Antioxidant, Antiviral, Heart protective, Alcoholism, Antihypertensive, Migraine headaches.7         Use value: Food Edible for humans, high protein feed for cattle, sheep, goats.7 Use value: Products Fiber, biofuel.7 Use value: Ecological Erosion control, nitrogen fixing, insect and wildlife food and shelter, phytoremediation, soil preservation, biomass accumulation.7  
1. Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos, “What is Otherness,” Other Sociologist,  https://othersociologist.com/otherness-resources.   2. Amanda Taub, Max Fisher, “In U.S. and Europe, Migration Conflict Points to Deeper Political Problems,” New York Times, June 30, 2018.  https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/29/world/europe/us-migrant-crisis.html. 3. Glossary of Invasion Biology Terms, Wikipedia,  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glossary_of_invasion_biology_terms#Terminology 4. Craig Welch, “Half of All Species Are on the Move—And We’re Feeling It: As climate change displaces everything from moose to microbes, it’s affecting human foods, businesses, and diseases,”  National Geographic, April 2017. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/04/climate-change-species-migration-disease.   5. Bill Finch, “The True Story of Kudzu, the Vine That Never Truly Ate the South,” Smithsonian Magazine, September 2015. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/true-story-kudzu-vine-ate-south-180956325. 6. Jonathan Foley, “It’s Time to Rethink America’s Corn System,” Scientific American, March 5, 2013. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/time-to-rethink-corn. 7. Timothy Lee Scott, Invasive Plant Medicine: The Ecological Benefits and Healing Abilities of Invasives, (Rochester, Vermont; Toronto, Canada; Healing Arts Press, 2010), 237-42.

Proposal: Rare Forest Project

Update June 2018: The Rare Forest Project has lost its proposed site and is currently exploring alternatives in Central Maine.

Project Links



The benefits of biodiversity, the variety of life found in the environment, are well known. The greater the diversity of species of plants and animals in an area, the more likely it is to be a healthy ecosystem that can better withstand and recover from threats. And the threats are plenty; Because declining biodiversity touches on some of our most pressing challenges from global food security to mass extinctions and climate change, many efforts are being made to save and restore biodiversity worldwide.

Maine is known for its vast wilderness, but Maine has not escaped the effects of pollution, habitat loss, deforestation, over-harvesting, disease, climate change and other threats that plague ecosystems the world over. As a result of these factors and others, many of Maine’s native plant and animal species common only a century ago are now either rare or have been entirely eradicated from the state. While many people may think of the caribou, eastern cougar, the gray wolf, or the humpback whale when regarding extirpated and endangered species of Maine, fewer people think of plant life that has met a similar fate. And though diversity of plant life is fundamental to supporting diversity of animal life, The Maine Endangered Species Act applies only to animals – plants are not included and do not afford the protections set out by the legislation.

The Podooc Rare Forest Project is an experiment in creating a living museum and seed library of Maine’s rare, endangered and extirpated native plant species. Over the coming years, the project is to be distributed along various sites throughout Lake George Regional Park making use of both existing and reclaimed habitats. As a living museum, the project will provide visitors an exhibition of a curated selection of Maine’s rare and extirpated plant species. As a seed bank, the project looks to the future in hopes of providing seed and stock plants for further efforts toward recapturing lost plant diversity of Maine’s forests.

Project by Mark Cooley & Derek Ellis


Dust To Dust: For Ozymandias

Dust To Dust: For Ozymandias

Commissioned by St. Louis Science Center. for “Grow“, a new pavilion and permanent agriculture exhibition at SLSC.

Design: Mark Cooley
Fabricated with local salvaged cedar by Scott Wunder @ Wunderwoods, St. Louis.

Nature is the most gifted sculptor.  But perhaps the core of nature’s art is not found in its forms, but rather in the beauty of its processes.  Among Nature’s basic processes is the nutrient cycle, a bland term that conceals the profound poetic reality of what it describes – the creation of life from death through the living medium we commonly call “dirt”. This process takes on a special relevance in a contradictory society, which devotes more landfill space to compostable organic materials than it does to all other sources of “waste” – all while struggling with a nationwide soil depletion crisis. Treating organic materials, from newspapers to food scraps, as “waste” to be thrown in landfills rather than composted and returned to the earth, linearizes nature’s ingenious nutrient cycle, thereby threatening its miraculous built-in system for reproducing itself seemingly infinitely, and in infinite diversity, from finite materials and conditions.

This vermiculture system provides a framework for nurturing and viewing a fundamental and necessary work of nature, the creation of living dirt – the medium through which death becomes life. This vermiculture system was designed to consume the organic material byproducts of the St. Louis Science Center. Shredded office paper, landscape clippings, and food scraps generated at on the grounds are composted and, through a symbiotic relationship of earthworms, bacteria, and fungi, are converted into rich compost to be used as fertilizer for SLSC’s grounds. Potential waste converted into living dirt is the completion of a work of Nature’s art with the help of humans who wish to aid and visualize this beautiful process.

For thousands of years, artists have been celebrated for their ability to transform raw materials into precious works, and in the process make visible what is often unseen, forgotten, or ignored. This work follows this traditional formula, but engages the goals and materials relevant to the current age – an age when our collective future depends on the redefinition of our relationship to the world by working with nature rather than against it.




GROW pavilion completed at St. Louis Science Center






Saint Louis Science Center Announces New Agriculture Exhibit


GROW pavilion completed at St. Louis Science Center



Green Studio

SoA Green Studio website
2010 – Present

Located on the grounds of the George Mason University’s Art and Design Campus, SoA Green Studio offers students a living studio in which to creatively explore the interdependence of biological and cultural systems. The Green Studio exists, as any working art studio does, in constant flux and develops organically through the relationship artists form with the developing ecology of the site.

The concept of an externalized art studio challenges conventional approaches to landscapes as master-planned perpetually finished products. The Green Studio also challenges the notion of the art studio as a place where artists retreat from the world, while repositioning the artist within the contingencies of a living space with its art materials embedded in a functional ecosystem. The goal of work in the Green Studio is not to create in spite of the world, but rather in relation to it. In this sense, traditional art and design concerns of creating abstract aesthetic relationships (whether on the canvas or in the landscape) are reshaped to include social and ecological relationships.

Finally, The Green Studio is not contained in any one physical space. It exists as conceptual space for exploring the role of art and design in building meaningful, creative, critical, and supportive relationships between people and the earth’s life support systems. The Green Studio can materialize anywhere and anytime an artistic act forms a conscious relationship with an ecological process, and renders the opposing concepts of “nature” and “culture” as inadequate terms for creating a sustainable future.

SubHerban Roots

Visit us @ www.SubHerbanRoots.com

SubHerban Roots, is a community-based family art project & business established in 2013 that offers homegrown homemade herbal remedies and home-scale permaculture design services to the Northern Virginia and Washington DC communities. SubHerban Roots is an art project, but it is not an ironic business-as-art performance. Rather, our work is a sincere art-of-everyday-life pro-formance. Through this pro-formance, we hope to provide for our family and help others take agency in regard to their personal health and the health of the land on which we all depend.

SubHerban Roots is a family collective project by
Beth Hall, Mark and Celia Cooley





By itself, a brand attached to a product is worth nothing. If brands matter, it is because it is us – faithful consumers – who are branded. This is the job of marketers, who employ artists and designers, statisticians and even psychologists in the ongoing competition to gain the biggest chunk of the public’s “mindshare”. We may have been conditioned to think by years of advertising featuring sleekly designed hi-tech gadgets occupying large expanses of glossy white paper that new technologies are essentially clean technologies. However, there are a myriad of toxic chemicals found in electronics, chemicals that damage the health of workers, communities and the environment at an ever-increasing speed and severity as we try to satisfy our endless desire for the newest gadgets and the accelerating demands of consumer capitalism.

From the mines of the war torn and poverty stricken Democratic Republic of the Congo where destitute children dig coltan for use in consumer electronics, to a “clean room” of a semiconductor factory in the United States where workers suffer from exposure to neurotoxins (even while they wear clothing to protect the technology they make from contamination from human hair and skin), to sweatshops in China where workers assemble iPhones by hand behind locked gates, armed guards and razor wire, to India where the machines that have reached the end their all too brief lifespans are sent to be disassembled by children unaware of the deadly toxins they handle daily, the tremendous cost to human health and well-being could never be included in the price tag of even our most expensive hi-tech gadgets.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that waste from discarded electronics is growing two to three times the rate of any other source of waste. Only 15-20% of e-waste is recycled, and even if 100% were recycled it would only account for a small amount of the total waste produced before products ever reach consumers. When we consider that at least 70 barrels of waste are created upstream during resource extraction and production processes for every single barrel of consumer waste produced, we can begin to see the limitations of consumer recycling and the need to create alternatives to consumer-driven capitalist economics.

We live in a time when many people are so alienated from the natural world that the concept of “nature deficit disorder” has entered our vocabulary to describe the potential mental and physical health effects from much of our society’s profound alienation from the natural world. Simultaneously, we have desperately used our technology to create simulations – extraordinary lies about the natural world – which light up our screens with the opposing and equally disturbing images of pristine “natural” settings untouched by human hands or post-apocalyptic wastelands in which humans are still somehow able to survive despite the collapse of the earth’s life support systems. We have made it possible, through our technologies, to immerse ourselves in the image of the world we want to see. However, until we get out there and act in the real world, these visions will remain only shadows on the wall while the world outside continues to decline and taking us ignorantly with it.


Founded by Mark Cooley and Dr. Changwoo Ahn
2013 – 2016

EcoScience+Art is an initiative and collaboration between the arts and sciences at George Mason University. It is our mission to bring together individuals working across the boundaries of ecosystem science, art, and design fields to share knowledge, expertise, and strategies for creatively engaging in the common pursuit of a sustainable future.