Imagining Water #13: About Tides, Rainfall, Wetlands and Watersheds

American environmental artist and sculptor Stacy Levy is a keen observer of urban tides, rainfall, wetlands, and watersheds. Tide Field and River Rooms, her current installations (through November 20, 2018) on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, are only the latest in a prolific body of work devoted to what she describes as using “art as a vehicle for translating the patterns and processes of the natural world.”

Tide Field and River Room were commissioned by the Mural Arts Philadelphia Art@Bartram’s project, which began in 2015 to support the development of public art projects connecting Bartram’s Garden — a 45-acre National Historic Landmark whose mission is to inspire visitors of all ages to protect and care for nature — and the Schuylkill River.

Consisting of hundreds of round multi-colored buoys, Tide Field has been calibrated to reflect the twice daily, six-foot change in the height of the river. As Levy explains: “At low tide, all the buoys are exposed and lie on the surface of the river. As the tide rises, the green buoys are covered and the red and aqua buoys arch over the water’s surface. When high tide arrives, the strands are covered except for the top red  buoys, which stand up from the surface.” The process reverses with the tide cycle. Levy’s installation invites visitors to engage with and reflect upon the twice-daily push and pull of the ocean and its tides within the confines of a major urban environment. She explains the project in her most recent video:

River Rooms, Levy’s companion installation at Bartram’s Garden, is comprised of six wooden rowboat-shaped “open-air rooms” placed along the Schuylkill’s shoreline. The “rooms” were designed to provide a designated physical space for visitors to contemplate the tides from a different perspective than Tide Field and to enjoy the riverfront environment from six distinct sites.

Although Tide Field and River Rooms are primarily about calling attention to what Levy refers to as “nature’s clock” operating within a vibrant urban setting, many of her projects are efforts to create solutions for environmental issues including excessive storm water and water pollution.

Stacy Levy planting a section of “Spiral Wetlands.”

In 2013, using the form of a spiral and with a direct reference to Spiral Jetty, one the earliest and most well-known Land Art works by artist Robert Smithson, Levy created Spiral Wetland with the goal of improving the water quality of Lake Fayetteville in Fayetteville, Arkansas. A 129-foot-long spiral of native soft rush growing in a closed cell foam mat and anchored to the lake’s floor, Spiral Wetland was designed to remove excess levels of nitrogen and phosphorus from the lake water as well as improve the lake’s fish habitats. An inveterate collaborator with scientists, engineers, architects and geologists, Levy worked with the Fayetteville Watershed Alliance and the Biology Department of the University of Arkansas on Spiral Wetland to monitor the water quality and the nutrient uptake of the wetland’s plants. On her website, Levy explains her motivation for the project as follows:

“After years of being haunted by Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, it seemed like time to remake that form (into one that was) more generative and kinder to the landscape. After studying floating wetlands, and finding their forms dull and mattress-like, the artist wondered how to mesh the function of floating wetlands with the beauty of a natural form. The artist took this masculine mark in the landscape and reformed it through a feminist lens, creating a project that was supportive of environmental service.”

Spiral Wetland was commissioned as a temporary installation for Artosphere: Arkansas Art and Nature Festival, an annual event sponsored by the Walton Arts Center. At the end of the project’s duration, sections of the floating structure were transplanted into regional wetlands and retention basins.

Stacy Levy, “Spiral Wetlands.” Closed cell foam, anchors, native plants, 2013.

In 2016, Levy worked with the engineers and the building and landscape architects of Pittsburgh’s Frick Environmental Center to design a way to divert the storm water at the site in a manner that was both aesthetically pleasing and environmentally appropriate. Levy calls Rain Ravine a “collaboration between the rainfall and the built environment.” Comprised of layers of local sandstone, the installation is 279 feet long by 35 feet wide with an 18-foot change in elevation. In its finished form, Rain Ravine is a terraced runnel (or narrow channel for liquid to flow through) that carries the rain from the rooftop of the structure to wetlands below. Visitors can walk up and down the installation as the water flows into a steel mesh walkway where it then falls through the mesh to hydrate the native plants, rather than be diverted by pipes into rivers and streams.

Stacy Levy, Rain Ravine. Local sandstone and rain, 2016.
Stacy Levy, “Rain Ravine.” Local sandstone and rain, 2016. The mesh walkway is visible at the bottom of the installation.

Levy’s current installation on the Schuylkill River, as well as her numerous previous projects, are impressive in the way in which they flawlessly integrate the built environment with the natural world. As she so eloquently put it, “my practice is motivated by imagining what is too small to be seen, too invisible to be considered, or too vast to be understood.”

(Top image: Stacy Levy, “Tide Field,” at Bartram Garden, Philadelphia, PA, 2018. Installation at low tide. All photos courtesy of the artist.)

This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are popping up in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.


Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist, writer, and educator whose work has been exhibited in numerous museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Her latest bodies of work focus on the threat of rising tides caused by climate change, the trillions of pieces of plastic in our oceans and the wars that are predicted to occur in the future over access to clean water. She is also the co-creator of two interactive public art projects: The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and Home, which calls attention to homelessness and the lack of affordable housing in our cities and towns.


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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