Cleaning up the land: Mel Chin

Environmental art has developed and diversified over the years, until today it has a multitude of different facets, many of which don’t lend themselves to easy definitions and categories. In fact, environmental art in itself is pretty hard to define, and certainly there are huge overlaps with other forms of arts practice – but let’s leave all that aside for now!

Is there, or indeed should there be, a right or a wrong way to regard environmental art? I don’t think so. All of its forms are of value in addressing our relationship with the natural world, though it helps to be as clear as possible about the framework one is operating within.

Mel Chin falls into that aspect of environmental art that I inwardly call ‘Remedial’. (Just another label of convenience), though some might call him a conceptual and ecological artist, or a socially/ politically engaged activist or an interdisciplinary practitioner. Trained in traditional sculpture, his interests gradually expanded to include social concerns, and issues concerning ecology and sustainability.

Revival Field is an ongoing land reclamation project that Chin initiated in 1990 in collaboration with Rufus L. Chaney, senior research scientist at the US Department of Agriculture.

(Source: Vulgare )

The original test site was 60ft square section of the Pig’s Eye landfill in St Paul, Minnesota, contaminated with cadmium, zinc and lead and other unmentionables. A site so contaminated by 20th century industrial practices that even today (2011) health officials are still trying to mitigate its deadly effects. General public access is not allowed.

The site was planted with a special group of plants, known as hyperaccumulators, that unlike most other life forms can not only tolerate the contaminated soil, but can absorb the heavy metal through their roots and leaves. The plants were harvested In 1991, reduced to ash and the heavy metal deposits extracted and analysed under controlled conditions. Since then, further plantings and valuable research have been carried out both at Pig’s Eye and other sites, the intention being that, over time, the contaminated soil will be transformed back into fertile earth, capable of sustaining a diverse ecosystem. The artist and his collaborators also hope that eventually the cost of healing toxic landfills with green remediation projects such as these will be recovered from the sale of the recycled heavy metal.

Revival Field / Mel Chin and Rufus L. Chaney( Source : )

In Revival Field, Mel Chin pays rigorous attention to the poetics and formal qualities of the work. This, together with the development of what was, in the early 90’s, a new type of collaborative and interdisciplinary aesthetic, makes Revival Field a significant ongoing work of art. Art and science together are involving themselves directly with the problem, not only reshaping our conceptions of the land but ultimately transforming the land itself… changes that would not otherwise have been possible.

Revival Field / Mel Chin and Rufus L. Chaney( Source : )

In 2006 Mel Chin and fellow artists visited New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to seek creative solutions to its devastating aftermath. He was appalled to discover there was a serious hidden problem existing since long before Katrina – lead contamination in the soil, putting thousands of children at risk of developing illness, severe learning disabilities and behavioural problems. He learned that 30 to 50% of the inner city children in New Orleans suffered from blood poisoning even before the storm – a figure he considered unacceptable.

And so began Operation Paydirt-

Chin hopes to treat the soil so that the lead is locked into a mineral formation that can’t be absorbed by the human body, and then cover it with clean earth. The biggest obstacle of course is the enormous cost: 300 million dollars, and to assist the funding of Operation Paydirt, the Fundred Dollar Bill Project was implemented in schools across the United States.

What is the Fundred Dollar Bill Project? I can do no better than to quote from Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia.  from the Wikipedia article Fundred Dollar Bill Project, licensed under CC-BY-SA full list of contributors here.

“The Fundred Dollar Bill Project is a nationwide art project implemented by Mel Chin, and is aimed to connect and represent the voices of children across the United States, with the end goal to propose a funding solution for the lead contamination in the soil of New Orleans, Louisiana. Anyone across the United States and across the globe are invited to draw their own 100 dollar bills and send to collection centers, or schools, for safekeeping. During a nationwide road-trip in an armored truck, the Fundred Dollar Bills will be collected.

The completed Fundred Dollar Bills will be presented to Congress for an even exchange of U.S. dollars to help the remodificaiton of lead in the soil of New Orleans. This funding supports Operation Paydirt, which is the program that, once implemented, will make the lead content in the soil safe for inhabitants of New Orleans and cities affected by lead poisoning-across the United States”.

Home page for the Fundred Dollar Bill Project is, , containing templates for drawing your own 100 dollar bill, and an address where to mail it… Plus there is information and video links, giving accurate information on the terrible effects of lead poisoning and explaining the whole project.


This one from a Maryland art teacher!

Fundred is an ongoing project, continuing through the 2011/12 school year, just until the 300 million dollars are collected. It is open to adults too, of all ages, and from any country.

I have mentioned a few other artists on this blog, who through their art are “fostering a new awareness of the importance of bioregions based on healthy, ecologically conscious approaches to living” (Green Museum). Artists such as Jean Paul Ganem, Lynne Hull and Alan Sonfist. With a little detective work on Google, it is easy to find other wonderful examples. All involve themselves totally with life as it is lived, and along with many types of eco and environmental practitioner, all are endeavouring to make this world just a little bit better.

About throughstones

I am primarily a visual artist, living on the North Devon coast, a beautiful semi-rural area in South West England. I am interested in full engagement with 'place' and the eternal movement of life - particularly as it relates to what we call 'the natural environment'.
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