Exhibit explores the intersection of art and engineering and its impact on California’s water history

Poster from the exhibit “Terraforming: Art and Engineering in the Sacramento Watershed.”

The archive of HELEN and NEWTON HARRISON is featured in an interdisciplinary exhibit now on display at the Green Library.

Terraforming: Art and Engineering in the Sacramento Watershed is on view in the Peterson Gallery, Green Library Bing Wing, through April 30.

Curated by PhD candidates LAURA CASSIDY ROGERS (Modern Thought and Literature) and EMILY GRUBERT (Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources), the exhibit juxtaposes materials from the Harrison archive with items from local, state and national archives that document the development of water resources in California’s Central Valley and the West.

Rogers and Grubert conceived of the exhibit as discrete, parallel displays—with art on one side of the library’s Peterson Gallery and engineering on the other.

“We wanted to maintain the integrity of each discipline, but also to demonstrate that social and environmental consciousness has manifest in both professions, and that artists and engineers can work together to rethink and re-imagine freshwater landscapes and ecology in a sustainable way,” said Rogers, who also helped process the Harrison Papers.

Terraforming: Art and Engineering in the Sacramento Watershed illustrates how these parallel histories converged temporally and conceptually in the 1970s, when artists and engineers alike began to question the guiding tenets of their professions, concurrent with a broader turn toward social and environmental consciousness in the United States.

“In the 1970s, the Harrisons abandoned the tenets of abstraction and its reverence for art objects to engage more directly in the compositional fields of the physical environment,” said Rogers. According to Grubert, civil engineers during this time also began to more explicitly consider questions of ecosystem sustainability, in addition to questions of water provisioning and human safety, developing into the field now called civil and environmental engineering.

Art in the Sacramento Watershed

The section of the exhibit called Art in the Sacramento Watershed draws from the Harrison archive to show their development as artists and to demonstrate the creativity and utility of their artistic research in the context of California’s Central Valley and the West.

The Harrisons began to question institutional norms and advanced a new model of artistic research that engaged with both social and environmental issues. For example, in Sacramento Meditations (1976–1977), the Harrisons challenge the historic transformation of the Sacramento River, delta and bays of San Francisco from a seasonal floodplain into an intensive irrigation economy with dams, canals, levees and drains, asking, “What if all that irrigated farming isn’t necessary?”

In addition to the work presented in the exhibit, Stanford Libraries has developed an online gallery of the Harrison Papers.

Engineering in the Sacramento Watershed

The timeline of engineering in the Sacramento Watershed begins earlier, at the time of the Gold Rush. Just weeks after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed at the end of the Mexican-American War in in 1848, news of the discovery of gold in the Sacramento Valley swept the nation to spur a massive wave of westward migration, settlement and water demand. The completion of the transcontinental railroads, built in the decades after the American Civil War (1865–1890), brought millions more people to this arid region. In response to water need, surveyors and engineers developed proposals for water management in California’s Central Valley. This precipitated the construction of a major system of canals, dams and other built infrastructure known as the Central Valley Project.

This section of the exhibit features maps, navigational instruments, letters, photographs, planning documents and artifacts from local, state and national archives. It tells the story of the Central Valley Project with a focus on Folsom Dam on the American River, which runs from the Sierra Nevada to its confluence with the Sacramento River in the Sacramento Valley.

“Environmental challenges like climate change, groundwater depletion and wetlands restoration will require complex solutions that can only be created when multiple disciplines converge,” said Rogers. “Green Library is the optimal venue for this exhibition because it is an interdisciplinary space that draws students and faculty from every corner of campus, and they will extend the possibilities of the exhibition through further observations and insights on the parallel and converging histories of art and engineering.”

Read more about the exhibit.