.Local Couple’s World-Changing Life Work

Artists Helen and Newton Harrison had already been happily married for 17 years and raised four kids when they made a pact to do no work that did not benefit Earth’s ecology. That was in 1970, when Helen was 43, and Newton, 38.

Since then, it appears that the Harrisons did nothing but work for the ecology. The proof is in their book, The Time of the Force Majeure: After 45 Years Counterforce is on the Horizon, published in October, which chronicles a joint-career so prolific that the square tome—a delicate balance of art and philosophical dialogue around the life web—weighs in at 6 pounds and 496 pages.

Since their collaboration began, the Harrisons have acted not just as artists, but as diplomats, historians and investigators, picking up the science they needed to address large-scale challenges, like feeding Europe if food crops are lost to drought and sea level rise.

But even while they’ve established a worldwide network of biologists, ecologists, architects, politicians and urban planners, and earned wide acclaim around the globe—not just as art activists, but as the pioneers of the eco-art movement—the couple enjoys a certain anonymity in Santa Cruz, which they’ve called home since 2004.

“We’re isolates,” says Newton, 84. “I really like being tucked away, and thinking.”

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Love Blooms

The Harrison Studio at their midtown home is a spacious room with high ceilings. Its shelving space is piled high with scrolls containing what I can only imagine are the intricate, hand-drawn maps characteristic of their work—present and future topographies of an ever-warming planet.

In their living room, a ceiling-high mural transforms an entire wall into a window looking out on a Sri Lankan lagoon—placing, where the average American household may have placed a big-screen TV, a life-sized water buffalo. It’s a scene from one of the couple’s most well-known works, The Lagoon Cycle—a 60-piece, 360-foot-long mixed-media mural completed between 1974 to 1980.

Helen and Newton Harrison
Artists Helen and Newton Harrison

As Helen’s health is fragile, I’m speaking with Newton, who is fresh from the post office, where he’s just mailed the 6-pound Force Majeure overseas, to friends he and Helen met while lecturing in Budapest years ago.

In an interview with KQED last year, Newton explained that his pact to take on only environmental work with Helen was because “neither of us could face that alone.” I assumed he meant that solving environmental problems on such a massive, global scale was simply too ominous for one person. But, though their life work certainly does swim against a strong current of human expansion and environmental exploitation of all kinds, that’s not what he meant at all. Their work together was always fun. And even more so, he was in love with his collaborator.

“It was the kick of a new project,” says Newton, settled into his studio chair. “That’s how you get past difficulties. You do something where you’re having a whale of a time.”

“But there was something else, you know. I had concluded something that I think was very obvious to Helen and most women, and that is that the deep creativity wasn’t going to happen in the work unless there was female energy and male energy thrown together. That’s why many ecological works are collaborative,” he says. “I could be wrong, but I have a hunch there’s something called an empathy gene. And I think women have more of it than men. I do know that I learned about that from Helen, much more than anybody else.”

Perhaps it’s fitting that the Harrisons’ first date was to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City—art and intellectual discourse play a key role in their attraction to each other.

“It is too easy to forget that every entrepreneurial act, even recycling, is itself a tax on the ecosystem.” — Helen and Newton Harrison

“What happened was very simple. We met and we talked from the very beginning,” Helen told KQED in the same interview. Newton figured that after 20 or 30 years, they’d still have an infinite supply of things to talk about—as he likes to say, “I’m way smarter than Helen, but Helen is way smarter than me.”
Around the time of their pact, Newton and Helen became the first husband-and-wife team to share a professorship at UC San Diego, where Newton was a founding member of the Visual Arts Department and Helen was Director of Educational Programs at UC Extension. But the couple decided never to teach together or administer together. It was a decision based on their different talents in academia, and perhaps a wise move that kept them from working together every single second. The art, then, remained an enclave of shared passion.

“We made this deal. There was a ton of work in front of us. So if Helen disagreed with the work, we didn’t do it. If I disagreed, we didn’t do it. So we didn’t have any arguments,” says Newton.

They also encouraged each other to be themselves in the work: Newton was a far better painter than Helen, he says, and she was far better at drawing. A fair amount of dialogue runs through the couple’s writings—which accompany most of their works, and which they’ve made sure to keep in the public domain. Helen, drawing on her philosophical background, takes on the role of questioner, while Newton is often the producer, builder and technician. Newton often writes the initial text, while Helen edits and develops it—a comfortable process, they say, where Newton has the first word and Helen has the last.

“It was a common labor, you know? Like, let’s go back to what used to be normal around here, which is family farms,” says Newton. “The husband worked it, the wife, the family, the kids, and grandma and grandpa made butter… it was a unity. So, rather than look at us as a special case, lament the fact that we’ve lost community.”


Work Together

In the early ’70s, the Harrisons focused on urban farming with The Survival Series, whose daring live exhibits included fish farms, portable orchards and a pasture piece that featured a live pig named Wilma. Almost all of these early exhibits are now being repeated at museums around the world, including the world’s smallest discrete ecosystem of brine shrimp and algae currently at L.A. County Museum, which, driven by the sun, Newton says “has the great advantage of starting to smell extremely strong.”

By the ’90s, the Harrisons were traversing the globe, well into their body of large-scale, Earth-inspired art installations and proposals. In addition to uncovering innovative solutions to support biodiversity and community development, their work has also effectively changed governmental policy.

Helen and Newton Harrison 'Crab Farm'
ADAPTATION ON DISPLAY The artists beside one of their live museum exhibits; this one a crab farm which explored artificial habitats in larger cycles.

To that respect, one of their greatest successes was The Green Heart Vision, commissioned by Holland’s Parliament. Taking into account the biodiversity rings in the region, it proposed a solution for saving 800 square kilometers of farmland and 13 small historical villages in the center of the surrounding cities, thus spinning more than 200 billion dollars that would have gone to outside developers back into the country.

“So the right wing moved in and threw us out,” says Newton. “And then five years later, we got a call from the Ministry of the Environment, they’re going to do the piece, and it’s now part of the government plan.”

On an even larger scale is the three-part Peninsula Europe (2000-2008), which, looking at Europe as a peninsula surrounded by water on three sides, offers a solution to sea-water rise which will negatively impact the food supply for more than 450 million people. “It costs about a trillion dollars, about what a Bush war would cost,” says Newton, of the proposal, which proposes re-terraforming the land and reforesting high grounds to conserve waters and generate biodiversity.

“It’s on hold. The reason that it’s on hold is it’s too big a mouthful for them to deal with when they’ve got all the problems they’ve got,” says Newton. “At a certain moment, the drought will get much worse, and this will get pulled off the shelf.”

He suspects the same thing may happen in America under the Trump administration—that we may come around to systemic changes, but only after great damage. But the trajectory of our current practices is a slow moving trainwreck—and the Central Valley, which the Harrisons address in 1976’s Sacramento Meditations as “an improbable profitable expandable system” is a good example. As early as 1976, the Harrisons predicted a sea level rise of 300 feet—the first artists to do so—coming within 10 percent of glaciologists’ current estimates of around 270 feet.  

“The solution suggests that you can keep on doing what you’re doing if you solve this, that and the other, and that’s not true—we have to change systematically,” says Newton, adding that he thinks it’s the reason Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election. “Because she would not propose systemic change, like Sanders.”

“We’ve messed up so bad that everything is a mess. The ocean, the topsoil, the air, the subsoil, the forests, the rivers, the aquifers,” he says. What about Santa Cruz? “We just do a slightly better job than anybody else, which is terrible,” he replies. “I mean, why would we give all of our water to a bunch of strawberry farmers and then talk about transferring ocean water at a great expense? The flaws of late 20th century capitalism are everywhere.”


Force Majeure

When the Harrisons began their decade-long collaboration to save the ecosystems, they realized quickly that they still needed to understand what an ecosystem was—a process they say took them four years. After almost a half-century of work they’ve again adjusted their approach.

Helen and Newton Harrison 'The Lagoon Cycle'
MAN VS. NATURE This scene from ‘The Lagoon Cycle’ explores the shift from water buffalos to less efficient, gasoline guzzling tractors in Sri Lankan agrarian culture.

Establishing the Center for the Force Majeure at the University of California in 2009, the nonprofit follows four works—Peninsula Europe, Tibet is the High Ground, Sierra Nevada, and the Bays of San Francisco—and takes on climate change by bringing artists and scientists together to design ecosystem-adaptation projects in these four critical regions.

“We proposed, about two or three years ago, that the core of all of these works is to drop the entropy of the planet, of the major life web planetary systems,” he says. Whereas five years ago that sounded bizarre, says Newton, the idea is starting to sink in. “People are starting to understand that our problems are at great scale, and we have to start looking at them that way,” he says.

The Force Majeure, which proposes “entropy analysis” as a new field of research took second prize two years ago in the Buckminster Fuller Challenge, which invites designers, architects, activists, artists, entrepreneurs and scientists to submit their “game-changing solutions to solve humanity’s most pressing problems.”

“The force majeure is of our own making,” he says. “It is the gigantic pollutions we let into the air, into the land, into the water. And it is the heat wave that will consequently touch all things, combined with a water rising that will touch all ocean surfaces, and combined with the way we live—we take energy from all life systems, but we don’t give anything back. So, you’re looking at deeply stressed life systems, the probable death of the ecosystem and the rest of the ocean.”
The work argues that if we have 11 million species, we’re likely to lose 5 or 6 million. “Conversely, if you could mediate that, and only lose, not 50 percent but 20 or 25 percent, then nature, the life web can recover.”

The outlook is not totally bleak—at least for bacteria and smaller critters, who benefit from disturbance, Newton adds. “For all I know, if the life web has consciousness, to a degree, not necessarily Gaia-type stuff, but if it has some kind of knowing, maybe what we consider to be ominous is a big relief, because we’re self-cancelling,” he says. “See, it takes nature 10 million years to regenerate from a modest extinction, and 50 or 60 million to regenerate from a big one. So we’ve got four or five 60-million-year periods, at least three, before the sun burns us up. So nature can do it over a few more times.”

But humans need to realize the responsibility they have to the planet, if any progress is going to be made for our own species. “Art is an avenue for that kind of realization,” says Newton. “But so is the best of religion, the best of philosophy, the best of many disciplines.”

His advice to concerned citizens is to take care of their basic needs and then act for the good of the larger whole.

And where does love fall in all of this? “Subtract it and you die. Exercise it and everything lives. Manipulate it and you become sick and unhealthy. And that’s enough,” he says.


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