Internationally renowned artist Andy Goldsworthy’s first permanent project in Maine entitled Road Line was commissioned by the College of the Atlantic. Goldsworthy was in residence during August to supervise and direct the placement of 1500 linear feet of granite curbstones transported to campus from several quarries in New England. Goldsworthy‘s work invariably asks questions about time, about human interactions and presence within nature, about boundaries and barriers. His work looks at systems, science, history, and social archaeology as it draws on and draws with raw nature. Indeed, it illuminates the ways natural and human ecology intersect and reveal themselves to be art. It’s unclear whether Goldsworthy thinks much, if at all, about materiality other than the look and feel of natural materials and their evolution in his own work over time. That is to say, materiality is what his work is about.
Goldsworthy has been making art about nature and natural processes for nearly as long as the College of the Atlantic has been in existence. He invents new ways of seeing commonplace natural materials: from granite, to leaves, to trees, to ice. In a recent presentation at the college with Courtney J. Martin, Paul Mellon Director of the Yale Center for British Art, Goldsworthy patiently explained that he is not and never has been an environmental activist. He is an artist. Following the conversation with Dr. Martin, student questions about the installation were answered patiently, honestly, and in accordance with his longstanding practice based on working with nature on its own terms. Indeed, his practice is grounded in subtle, albeit necessary, adjustments to new discoveries and conditions “on the ground.” Nature is his guide in real time. He is careful to point out that environmental awareness of the land must also include understanding human social and cultural needs—fuel, shelter, transport, farming, and even religious or aesthetic concerns. His work reminds us that trees and humans have a long and symbiotic relationship—that vegetation and human beings occupy and share common space because they have to, at least in those parts of the world where nature and humans abide together.
Overhead drone photos and films document Road Line as it is under construction. Its sinuous contours recall the windswept moors and rolling dales of North Country England, birthplace, too, of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth whose organic sculpture forms (differently) derive from abstract visual conversations between art and nature. Growing up in the rural north, Goldsworthy worked on farms and experienced the hard, repetitive, hand-work of digging foundations, baling hay and setting stacked stone walls—the formative experience of working outdoors in all weather. He learned how wind, rain, ice, and snow affect both the land and those who work it.
Goldsworthy’s art has long been seen and admired for its light, evocative touch and his quietly transformative methods for inserting his modest though incisive sensibility into projects in and with nature. His European-British awareness of the ancient and on-going impact of the human presence on the landscape recognizes there are few places where the land has not been shaped by human hands at one time or another. In Britain and in Europe generally, monumental stone sculpture stretches from what remains visible of Neolithic portal tombs to free-standing dolmens and markers made of stacked stones well before Stonehenge. He lives not far from traces of Hadrian’s Wall dividing Roman Britain from the unconquered wilds of his native borderlands. Recent projects in England by Goldsworthy include “hanging” fieldstone shelters and restored sheep folds. Indeed, Goldsworthy likes living in Scotland because he says he has more freedom to wander in sparsely populated counties where property boundaries are less enforced and mostly ignored, at least by local hikers like himself.
In America, Road Line suggests a kind of leisurely aimlessness, even if its curves are not so much random as mathematically plotted and machined—perhaps, as metaphor for young minds learning in a creative environment where curiosity and lived experience take precedence over classroom lectures. Curiosity about Goldsworthy’s work might lead students to investigate how American art has always been deeply informed by landscape, that “wilder image” painters encountered in America, far less tamed than in the cultivated, nature-shorn fields and valleys of their European homelands. Current students might also reflect upon the massive earthworks by Native American mound builders in the Midwest, possibly as homage to the shifting snake-like outlines of the constantly changing nearby Mississippi River. There is Thomas Cole’s iconic View from Northampton, Holyoke, Massachusetts—the Oxbow (1836) with the river circling back on itself, charged with moral significance. The view is from the wild, tangled precipice (where the artist sits with his easel) to the fertile valley below. Goldsworthy’s own drawing is composed of granite curbstones; his sculptor’s pencil pointing toward Frenchman’s Bay where Europeans first made contact with what to them was a new world, a New Eden.
Road Line complicates how we usually think of curbing as marking a transition or boundary between one means of passage to another—street separated from sidewalk. Most often, curbing is encountered along urban streets to separate pedestrians from vehicular traffic, usually utilizing the straightest line possible to move from point A to point B. Since boyhood, Goldsworthy would walk the illogic of medieval European city streets. He is intimately familiar and comfortable with curving pathways without discernible function or purpose. Or, his gray-granite road’s curving outline suggests another approach to ideas about progress, literally and metaphorically. He asks whether progress is ever only straightforward. For a liberal-arts college, it conveys an overarching truth—getting from here to there often requires backtracking, even getting lost at times—a sense that education and learning might require more time and effort than easier, and more straight-line avenues. To walk these narrow, curving, curbs requires time and attention, to balance progress with an awareness of nature underfoot, to look where we are going.
Like his earlier closely related work, the Wood Line in San Francisco’s Presidio Park, which is made of sections of curving roots from dead eucalyptus trees (recently deceased from natural causes, not by the artist’s hand), Road Line simply traces a similarly arcing path through nature. In differing ways and settings, both embody and celebrate visual simplicity and elegance. Both convey a unique sense of a particular place: an urban park overlooking the Pacific, and a small college campus on the edge of the North Atlantic. In Maine the path runs quietly, almost invisibly from the edge of the campus set within one of America’s most loved and visited national parks. A kind of lengthening dance, Road Line performs a long distance pas de deux with its distant Pacific partner, both reaching for the ground from whence they came, where they will one day return.
Goldsworthy speaks about his sculpture in the context of human movement and change. It begins (or ends, depending on one’s perspective—indigenous native-born or descendent of foreign immigrants) at Frenchman’s Bay, where white Europeans first explored the impossibly indented, island dotted, cove-notched Maine coastline. Both daily low and high tide cycles, along with a steadily rising sea, will inevitably alter Goldsworthy’s current placement of the sculpture. From active roadway or shore frontage, Road line connects to human modes of travel and transport, past and present. At either end point, Road Line gestures toward wider pathways and worlds beyond the compact College of the Atlantic campus.
So, Goldsworthy’s gently meandering curb will gradually become an integral part of an everyday campus milieu, at times almost disappearing altogether, especially when snow buries its footprint. As students’ eyes and ears are otherwise distracted and engaged by their phones or just each other–talking, reading, sending texts, hurrying to class—the granite curbstones insert themselves surreptitiously into the quiddity of student life. If Road Line sometimes becomes something of a tripping hazard, so be it. Pay attention to your surroundings, to little things, Goldsworthy seems to be whispering from afar. The low, ground-hugging, heavy gray-granite sculpture is meant as physical reminder of passage, not as barrier. Unlike Richard Serra’s steel Tilted Arc across a Manhattan pedestrian plaza, Goldsworthy does not bar movement or enforce his own will on the public as students and visitors make their individual ways around and through the partially buried sculpture. Serra’s heavy, twelve-foot tall sheet metal walls conveyed instability, blockage, and danger. Goldsworthy’s discrete, self-effacing Road Line invites skipping, jumping or just casually sitting upon it for respite and contemplation. By graduation, Road Line will likely belong to the students, in ways confirming youthful wanderlust and wonderment during a special place and time in their lives, an arcing stone umbilical cord connecting memory to place. In any event, stubbed toes are a small price to pay for inattention or indifference to art at a college dedicated to human ecology.
A photographer and filmmaker who closely documents his own evolving projects, Goldsworthy studies the sculpture’s evolution over time, adjusting its placement and look. The bird’s-eye or drone-camera view from above indicates its wider rhythms and unified design, but also, how the sculpture looks as a whole and relates to its surroundings. Students will mostly experience the work from the ground. As with all three-dimensional sculpture, what it looks like depends on where we are in the moment, our stance and relation to the object, as well as our own movement through space. Goldsworthy knows that sculpture is a cinematic experience. Even when an outdoor sculpture just sits there, changing conditions of weather and especially light will transform the artwork, sometimes subtly, gradually, and often greatly as time passes from day to night, from winter to summer, as years recede from graduation ceremonies to adult careers, families, life. How we see objects in space and over time is Goldsworthy’s gift to us; it is, in his own words, “how he draws the place.”
Looking down at these curbstones is a reminder that the earth has many hard layers, evidence of change, with twists and turns affecting, and sometimes because of, our human presence. Goldsworthy is aware that his low curbstones might one day disappear, possibly beneath an encroaching shoreline, between a sidereal sky and the slipping sea. In some version of natural resilience as human redemption, his low granite sculpture might surprise future archeologists from the College of the Atlantic, a few hundred or thousands of years hence. Will they then discover the curbstones’ immaterial ley lines have been transformed into something different, now pointing to that brief moment in the past when Acadia was still a place of respite and learning, even as human neglect and indifference colliding with natural processes conspired to hasten ecological collapse and the ghostly specter of what materiality even was or once meant?
Image at top: Andy Goldsworthy, Road Line, installation view, August 2023 (photo: Ilham Santosa, courtesy of the College of the Atlantic).