Environmental Design: The Draw at Sugarhouse

By Lynne Olson

Environmental artists Patricia Johanson brings architecture, engineering and ecology to her art in producing public works that also function as public art.
by Lynne Olson
environmentaldesign"I think artists have always been inspired by the natural world… because so much of what we see is beyond our ability to comprehend." 
– Patricia Johanson

Walking through Hidden Hollow Natural Area with environmental artist Patricia Johanson is no walk in the park. The petite 67-year-old environmental artist is always working-listening, observing and taking notes that she will later use to create her signature projects. Her multidisciplinary approach to landscape design combines art, architecture, engineering and ecology to produce public works that function simultaneously as public art.

In 2003, Johanson brought her vision to Salt Lake City when she worked with G. Brown Design on a proposal for "The Draw at Sugar House," a pedestrian and bicycle crossing under 1300 East connecting Sugar House Park to Hidden Hollow and the Sugar House Business District. She spent two weeks researching local history and native plants and animals before creating drawings for the award-winning design.

In her design, Johanson used sculptural forms and color to create a sense of the journey of the early Mormon pioneers to the Salt Lake Valley. A trailhead by 1300 East is designed to represent the bulb of a Sego lily, an edible root that sustained the Hopi, Shoshone and Navaho people, as well as Mormon immigrants. The "stem" and slender "leaf" of the lily form accessible paths that link the Sugar House Park road to the pedestrian crossing.

In passing under the roadway at 1300 East, Johanson intended to create an environment that suggested walking through Parley's Canyon, with diffused light, seeping water, and rock walls planted with colorful species that provide food and habitat for wildlife.

On the west side of the highway, storm water will be collected from the streetscape and carried down to the wet meadow beside Parley's Creek. The conduit was designed as a giant rattlesnake, whose patterns transform into waterfalls and retaining walls, all linked by food and habitat plantings for birds and butterflies. The idea to use a snake was inspired by a line from Erastus Snow's diary entry dated July 21, 1847: "I crawled through the thicket…. Admonished by the rattle of a snake, I thanked him and retreated."

The project, which is being spearheaded by Parley's Rails, Trails and Tunnels (PRATT) Coalition, is still in the beginning stages of construction. Although they have funding for a basic tunnel crossing at 13th East, the group hopes to raise an additional $2 million to ensure that all the environmental and artistic elements of the project are included. Johanson did an amazing job weaving together the environmental and design aspects of this project. 'The Draw at Sugar House' is destined to become a symbol of community cooperation, demonstrating that public works such as this can combine art and function in wonderful ways.

This month, Johanson will return to Salt Lake City as a Distinguished Resident instructor for May term at Westminster College. She will work with students in a xeriscaping class taught by environmental biologist Dr. Ty Harrison and Kerry Case, director of the college's Environmental Center. She will also work with Doug Wright, professor of art, film and philosophy, in a class called "Meaning, Movement and the Arts," which explores the relationship between movement, art and community. In the class, Johanson will guide students in developing their awareness of how they respond to nature-how they move through nature and nature moves through them. The class is a perfect fit for Johanson, who said, "All of my sculptures are choreographed!"

Lynne Olson is a PRATT board member.

Tuesday, May 15 at 7 p.m., Patricia Johanson will present a public lecture and slide show of her work, titled "Environmental Design as the Art of Public Problem Solving." The talk will be followed by a reception at the College. Gore Auditorium, Westminster College campus.

To see examples of Patricia Johanson's work, visit her website at www.patriciajohanson.com.

To volunteer or for more information about the "Draw at Sugar House" project, visit the PRATT Coalition's website at www.parleystrail.org

This article was originally published on April 30, 2007.