Patricia Leighton and Del Geist, Barum Stenning, 2007. Devonian slate, 12 steel structures, 2 topiary hedgewalls, overall area 200 x 500 ft.

Monumental Collaborations: A Conversation with Patricia Leighton and Del Geist

Patricia Leighton and Del Geist, who are married and call New York home, have been making public art for more than 25 and 35 years, respectively. They have developed major site-specific works in the United States, Europe, and most recently, South Korea, where they each created new sculptures for the Jeju Museum of Art, and Leighton produced eight new works at Suncheon Bay Eco Park, a coastal wetlands and UNESCO World Heritage site.

Leighton grew up amid the green hills and mountains of Greenock, Scotland; Geist on his family’s farm on the high plains of North Dakota. They met in 1983, at the Djerassi Resident Artist Program in Woodside, California. Their collaborative works are driven by a shared preoccupation with landscape and place, capturing the intrinsic echoes of a landscape and often incorporating indigenous stone to create sculptural markers. Sawtooth Ramps (1993), for instance, made quite an impression on me when I saw it firsthand. This striking earthwork consists of seven immense ramps rising high above the adjacent M8 motorway in Bathgate, Scotland. Recognition as a national monument is pending from Scottish Natural Heritage, a rare honor for an artwork.

Leighton and Geist’s current projects include the light rail station to be built at the University of North Carolina Charlotte as part of the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) LYNX Blue Line Extension, as well as earthworks, sculptural markers, and art integrated into the station platform and plaza. They are also working on an earthwork with a series of sculptural markers, commissioned by the City and County of Denver, Colorado, Public Art Program.

Brooke Barrie: What was your first collaborative project?

Del Geist: That’s hard to answer, because we often work on each other’s projects.

Patricia Leighton: Our collaboration has developed as a process. Both being artists, you’re often discussing your work. You both have ideas, so a seed of an idea is growing in one person’s mind, and the other provides input. You have an exchange, that exchange develops, and then grows.

BB: Then it’s fair to say that you’ve been collaborating on public projects since you met at Djerassi.

PL: To a certain extent. In the earlier days, we were assisting each other more than collaborating. I have my degree in drawing and painting, and then I became interested in working three-dimensionally. I went to Poland and began to do works that related to each other, and they became installations. My work prior to that was more gallery oriented, although very much related to nature. My first outdoor sculpture installation was at Djerassi, using indigenous materials from the redwood forest.

DG: At Djerassi, I made a large earthwork carved into the mountainside, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The space included folded steel plates.

BB: When you work together, you wear different hats, performing different functions. In Passage (2004)—at the Roosville Border Station in Montana—I see a perfect visual melding of Patricia’s earthworks with Del’s boulders and steel. It’s clear that you both wore “artist hats,” but I hesitate to pigeonhole your roles because of the flow of ideas.

DG: We had both done diverse works and used aspects of geology before we met, but we have different approaches. Patricia had done a series of standing stones long before we created Passage. And in 1975, I did an earthwork with steel for the Metropolitan Museum and Art Center in Miami.

PL: Del’s referring to a series of woven structures based on standing stones that I made after my travels to Neolithic and Megalithic sites in Europe. I’m interested in the mystery and presence of these sites and their connection to the land, the feeling of timelessness that you get when you go to these places. I think I’m right in saying that we both begin work when we’re invited to a site. You’re looking at the land, you’re feeling the land, and you’re reading about it, exploring the history, the geology, and noting any natural markers. You’re gradually taking this information in, and sometimes the response is very intuitive. From there, you reach a crossroads.

DG: When we were invited to do Passage, they wanted us to look at the environment.

PL: The General Services Administration wanted a work that related to the land. It was a very interesting site because the border station makes the transition from the U.S. to Canada.

DG: When we went there, the first thing our research showed us was that the ancestors of the native Kootenai had been there since the last glacial period, a very dynamic and exciting concept. Here we were at a border, which ran east to west, but through its entire natural history, the movement of people was north to south. We decided to address this movement, which took place before there was even the idea of a U.S. and Canada. We found Precambrian boulders nearby, and we placed five of them on a north/south axis. The 18 earthworks spoke to glacial cirques, crescent-shaped depressions in the mountains, and to ancient sand dunes nearby.

PL: We refer to the old trading routes and the movement of the glaciers. The stones are elevated to relate to this movement in time. Multiple layers of meaning tie the work into the landscape and the people.

Patricia Leighton, Seven Runes, 1991. Hewn fossilized coral and limestone, 7 structures, 15 x 6 x 6 ft. each. WOrk located at the Department of the Environment, Pompano Beach, FL.

BB: It’s even harder than I thought to separate your roles.

DG: I don’t think they can be separated because they’re so intermingled, even though our methods and approaches may vary. My degree is in environmental art, with studies in sculpture and geology, and I’ve worked with stone for most of my life. So, it’s all much broader than that.

PL: We’ll discuss what we both felt at a place or saw or read about, and we may arrive at very different points of view. When these points or ideas start coming together, there’s a crossing, and that’s where the collaboration comes about.

BB: Barum Stenning (2007) appears more like Del’s work, though that was a collaborative project, too.

PL: It is a fusion of our work. Every project has a different set of parameters and links to its landscape. In this case, the remarkable coastline of Devon with its uplifted and tilted stone strata influenced the work, as did the textured green hedgerows that mark the field boundaries. We had to get a feeling of what would work on the site and what could be installed within a very narrow time frame since there wasn’t enough time to build an earthwork. This influenced how the sculpture was developed. We used a type of steel cradle to hold the stone that Del developed with the engineering team, and the slate installation was completed in two weeks.

DG: When we installed the stones for Barum Stenning, half or more of them were positioned under Patricia’s direction.

PL: When you’re working on these commissions, there’s an openness that you must have as an artist. More than openness, you need the experience and ability to know how to make changes while maintaining clarity of vision. You have to be versatile.

DG: Barum Stenning also has two monumental topiary hedge walls. The theme is taken from the Devonian period of geology, when the first forests appeared on the earth.

BB: Sawtooth Ramps (1993) has the visual stamp of one of Patricia’s earthworks, yet Del played a role. When one of you gets a commission and brings the other in, is it reasonable to say that there’s a lead artist?

PL: Yes. Del assisted on this commission, as he has on many others. This particular commission presented a very complex situation and site. The landscape architect, Carter McGlynn, became a close collaborator. You have a very interesting piece of land with a motorway right beside it, so you need a work that unfolds as you’re driving by at 70-plus miles an hour. You want something that you’re going to see in progression. Then, in contrast, as you turn off and go within the property, the work can be experienced in a much more contemplative and quiet manner.

BB: You can feel the immensity of it, even when you’re going by so quickly, because it takes a while to pass. Is it the largest earthwork in the U.K.?

PL: It’s 1,000 feet long. I believe it is the largest contemporary earthwork. It had to be of a certain scale to fit the landscape, to fit the site, and to be something that people can experience. It also used the soil that was displaced when they built the facility.

DG: The site had already been altered. It was a low level berm, possibly made from soil left over from building the road.

PL: One of the things I wanted was a view through the site because of an existing glacial formation, a perfectly formed drumlin. We worked with the Department of Transport and had to make sure that when another lane was added to the motorway it wouldn’t cut into the earthwork. Many steps were taken to try and think ahead so it would remain as it was envisioned.

DG: The drumlin is part of the composition. There’s a spatial echo between the drumlin, a perfect natural form, and the seven ramps, a long series of forms with a curve.

PL: I addressed the landscape as a whole—that wasn’t what was asked for at the competition stage, but I believed it was the correct approach. There were additional components of the design that have not been realized. I designed another drumlin, similar to the existing one, to be constructed out of red shale in homage to the people who worked there—the shale is a waste material from oil extraction. I also proposed five towers built from glacial boulders. The numbers are important: the five towers relate symbolically to the human hand, and the number seven is symbolic of perfect order, a complete period or cycle.

DG: The other drumlin was called Bing-Drumlin. Bings are the large heaps of bright red shale spoils. So, there would have been a natural drumlin and a contrasting, manmade one.

PL: There was a possibility that perhaps in stages, as the facility grew, the other components would be constructed. It was a huge responsibility to do a work at that scale, particularly for me, because I grew up nearby. I wanted to make a work that really connected to the land and people.

Patricia Leighton and Del Geist, Passage, 2004. 18 earthworks, 5 Precambrian boulders, galvanized steel, overall area 1000 x 300 ft. Work located at Roosville Border Station, Eureka MT.

BB: It seems that you’ve been increasing the degree of integration in your work. How has the collaborative aspect evolved?

PL: There’s always been a team aspect, but as we do more projects together, we’re able to hone in on each other’s skills. We know who is good at what and which roles we should take.

DG: We seem to be doing more proposals as a team, and we’ve gotten more formal about it.

PL: I’m good at looking at the big picture, with no fear of scale. I start by making many sketches of different ideas and options. I don’t give myself any constraints, any budget. Del is very good at identifying what can work and what is too grandiose. He’s good at reining me in. He starts from a more practical side, pulling it all together. I will push the boundaries. My technical knowledge has improved greatly over the years, but sometimes pushing boundaries in a field that isn’t your own can work to everyone’s benefit.

DG: It’s a real plus because she comes up with sketches and ideas that push unexpectedly. And that’s great, because there’s a germ in them that can work. I tend to work toward seeing what we have to begin with and looking at the possibilities of where it can go. Somewhere between, we make it work.

BB: Although it begins with both of you, the final team is much larger because you’re dealing with engineers and landscape architects.

PL: Which can also be very interesting. When it works at its best, you’ve got a true collaborative project and you can stretch ideas to very exciting levels.

DG: Our work, which celebrates nature, was not always the direction of public art, which makes cultural statements based on interaction with the public while not necessarily taking nature into consideration. Now there seems to be a move in that direction, and our work is receiving fresh attention.

BB: So, more commissions are becoming available for artists working with nature and environmental issues?

PL: As it should be, with the global environmental situation. These types of commissions have existed for a while, but they’re getting more attention now. Seven Runes (1991), which I did in Pompano Beach, was at a wastewater facility. Artists continue to look at these issues, because creative solutions can be very exciting.

BB: You said that your roles fall naturally to each of your strengths. Do you know each other so well that it just happens?

PL: I would say that now it just happens. It didn’t always.

BB: Was that related to aesthetics or technical issues, or both?

PL: Our working approach is quite different. Now we can make it work as a strength, at one point it was not.

DG: But we had to find out, and it’s very easy and comfortable now. For instance, with the project at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, we are both studying the sites and I’m making the working models.

PL: We’ve identified where the work will be, surrounding the station and integrated into the platform and plaza. The campus and the terminal station allow us to create earthworks that will permanently change how the community thinks about public art. Because of our involvement since the earliest design phase, we’ve had opportunities to consider what will work well, where and how to engage our collaborators.

BB: It’s great that they brought you in at such a preliminary point.

PL: It’s terrific. At this stage, everybody can sit down and say, for example, “Here’s an area where something could happen.” It’s an exploration, people working together in collaboration, and it’s fantastic.

DG: What’s interesting is that there may be two areas for earthworks, and we also have a plaza and station platform where we connect the earthworks and sculptural markers to the overall concept. We decided our approach would be to begin with the earthworks and some steel towers, some icons for the campus. What we do in the landscape and what we do as icons will inform how the platform is developed.

PL: We’re trying to have a completely integrated artwork highlighting the uniqueness of the site. It takes time to develop this integration, taking into account how to make a relationship to the landscape, the platform entrance, and the markers. The station itself relates to the integrity of the entire work.

DG: This can be a very pure earthwork. There can be a change from being within an earthwork to being on top of one, a wonderful transition and sequence of form.

BB: What’s the expected completion date?

PL: The project is going into final design this summer. The construction will be bid in 2013, and it will take about four years, opening in 2017.

BB: What do you feel makes successful public art?

PL: First of all, the artist has to have a very clear vision. The openness of the various collaborators is extremely important—how you integrate your working approaches, giving each other the freedom to stretch and grow with the process, so that everyone has the capacity.

BB: The same principles that apply to two artists working together as a team.

PL: Absolutely.