MEMORIAL TO NEWTON HARRISON, A FOUNDER OF THE ECO-ART MOVEMENT
Newton Harrison, who, with his wife, Helen Mayer Harrison, was a founder of the eco-art movement, died on Sept. 4 at his home in Santa Cruz, Calif.
He was a Research Professor and Director of the Center for the Study of the Force Majeure at the University of California at Santa Cruz, Director of Harrisons Studio, and Professor Emeritus at the University of California at San Diego. Throughout the last two years of his life, he also was an active member of the editorial board and held the position of advisor of the “Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice” journal, during which he shared the new creative projects that he developed at the Center for the Study of the Force Majeure with us.
Newton Harrision was among the pioneers of the eco-art movement, and worked for over forty years with biologists, ecologists, architects, urban planners and other artists to initiate collaborative dialogues to uncover ideas and solutions which support biodiversity and community development. Long before climate change and other environmental issues were in the public consciousness, the Harrisons recognized their looming danger and for many years strived to change the human relationship to the Earth.
From the beginning of their collaborative work together, Newton and Helen Harrison believed that art can influence public opinion and the position of authorities and business regarding environmental issues and that art must be in liaison with science, in order to provide a broad interdisciplinary cooperation in the interests of our planet, to become a “counterforce” to the ecological and human crisis.
As long ago as the early 1960’s, they emphasized that environmental problems can no longer be perceived as secondary and should instead become central in everyday politics: in the economy, in everyday life, in education, etc. Since then, the field of environmental art has developed alongside an increasing awareness of ecological issues and the rise of the environmental movement. Once an area of interest for a relatively small group of people, art that addresses environmental issues has become part of the powerful artistic mainstream, using its forms and methods.
The Harrisons’ work involved proposing solutions and stimulated not only public discussion, but also community involvement and extensive mapping and documentation of environmental situations in an art context. The Harrisons’ visionary projects have, on occasion, led to changes in governmental policy and expanded dialogue around previously unexplored issues leading to practical implementation, both in the United States and in Europe. They exhibited extensively in different part of the globe, and were awarded grants from the National Endowment for the Arts in the USA, the European Union, the German, Dutch, French and English Governments.
The Harrisons began thinking and doing this work together in the late 1960s and continued until Helen’s death in 2018. Their inaugural work, The Birth and Death of a Lily Cell, was first exhibited in the Howard Weise Gallery in 1968. Fur and Feathers piece was done in 1969. Helen and Newton agreed to make a joint career combining their diverse talents and to not do any work that did not benefit the ecosystem.
The Harrisons raised catfish and then Sri Lankan crabs, simulating the monsoons of the crabs’ native seas to encourage them to reproduce. They studied soil science to create topsoil, grew meadows and orchards, and demonstrated the effects of global warming on Alpine plants in a 2001 video work that shows flowers, grasses and lichens blooming and then disappearing.
They collaborated with government agencies, scientists and urban planners and often earned grants from scientific organizations. A commission from a cultural organization in the Netherlands spurred them to create a design that preserved parks and farmland for a growing population, instead of paving it over, as the developers had proposed. The Vision for the Green Heart of Holland is now permanently protected open space.
However, many years later, looking at the evolution of environmental art, most of the work looked to Newton as though many artists were taking on local ecological problems and raising the issues at community levels, and were not addressing the Life Web itself.
Due to his visionary and poietic talent, Newton Harrison came to understand that the field of ecological art needs to be trained in how to read the Life Web. He believed that the Earth continually speaks to us humans, and that in reading this Life Web, we need to become sensitive and obedient to its wishes. Therefore, we “…would do best to seek ways to join the Web, stop consuming it, but rather become niches in the Life Web which would then reinforce its evolution, but above all its ability to continue.” 
Following the same strategy, in the situation of his recent illness he produced his last piece of art about our relationship with the environment, which he put in the artistic message called "Epitaph." It was published in the “Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice” journal in 2022, together with a page of comments[2 ] by others.
When he asked the Life Web if it had any rules beyond self-making, the Life Web responded that it has only one all-encompassing, ultimately unforgiving rule. That is, that every species, without exception, in order to be part of the Web of Life continuum, must give back as much or more than they take. When this is the condition of all living beings, the global living system becomes more complexly auto-poetic, that is, able to reproduce and develop itself.
Though he worked for over forty years with biologists, ecologists, architects, urban planners, and politicians, Newton Harrison strongly believed that the arts have a tremendous advantage in addressing environmental issues and that this advantage should be brought to their attention. This differs artist by artist, but all should have in common freedom of expression, freedom of research and freedom with improvisation. In fact, an artists’ career is about search and discovery and taking immediate responsibility for that which is discovered.
Newton regularly used poetic language in many environmental art projects, since he believed that a simple poetic gesture is not only the written word but also the spoken word that can provide a powerful effect. He claimed that he was influenced—as was Helen—by the work of the ancient bards, particularly in Ireland and Scotland, as well as Heraclitus, Socrates, and the Noble Eight-Fold Path of the Buddha, with a little help from Gandhi. His poetic expressions were meant to be read but often did best as performances in which Helen and Newton did alternate readings.
Newton recognized that, as an artist, he felt compelled to improvise much the way companion species do, to improvise our human existence as best we can with the materials at hand in order to improve our environment. To act in this manner is to represent the ecopoietic way of life, a way to survive and adapt together with other companion species, a way of both a pragmatic as well as an aesthetic responsibility for the fate of the earth.
The intention of such action is to the improve that which is around us, to cherish the wealth of our future: in nurturing the Life Web and harvesting the excess to our benefit for trade and making sure that the harvest improves or at least sustains our ecopoietic system.
 Kopytin, A.I., Levine, S. (2021). An interview with Newton Harrison. Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice, 2(1). [open access internet journal]. – URL: http://ecopoiesis.ru (retrieved 09.30.2022). DOI: 10.24412/2713-184X-2021-1-74-82
 Harrison, N. (2022). Epitaph: Chanelling the Lifeweb. Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice, 2(1). [open access internet journal]. – URL: http://ecopoiesis.ru (retrieved 09.30.2022).