On November 2, 1979, artist and designer Robert Morris (b. 1931) makes the final inspection of his Untitled Earthwork (Johnson Pit #30) in south King County in what a decade later will become the City of SeaTac. Morris's design for the Johnson Pit was chosen as a demonstration project at a 1979 King County symposium titled Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture, where artists were invited to create reclamation plans for the county's environmentally damaged lands. The Johnson Pit is number 30 out of 100 surplus county gravel pits. Morris's design reclaims the space for the sake of art, carving terraces into the triangular-shaped landscape and honoring the forest that existed before the site was developed as a gravel pit with a row of truncated blackened tree stumps. After heavy rain erodes the site and maintenance issues arise, Morris will revisit the pit in 1995 and an improvement project will be completed the following year to create a more park-like setting and address constant maintenance issues; nevertheless encroaching urban development will remain a threat to the site.
The City of SeaTac, which incorporated on February 28, 1990, is located in south King County approximately halfway between the larger cities of Seattle and Tacoma. The Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, from which the new city took its name, is located entirely within SeaTac's city limits. The greater SeaTac area is centered on the Highline (originally "High Line") ridge, which divides the Puget Sound from the valley of the Duwamish, White, and Green rivers. Thousands of years of glacial activity in Western Washington resulted in the high ridge with layers of clay and sand and brimful of gravel.
In 1905, a Kent Valley landowner platted nine lots of forested land on the Highline ridge west of the Green River valley, in what would later be within the City of SeaTac. Lot nine had a triangular shape at the northern edge of the plat. In 1907, King County bought the lot for $500 to use as a gravel pit.
Lot nine became known as the Johnson Pit because of the William A. Johnson Road (later 42nd Avenue S) that ended at the site. As with other gravel deposits along the Highline ridge, King County used the Johnson Pit as a source of borrow material, a basic building block of construction projects. By the 1940s mining of the gravel pit had come to a halt and from that period forward it mostly sat abandoned. The pit was used as a dumping site for the construction fill material from a construction project on S 216th Street. By 1973, the Johnson Pit was number 30 on a list of 100 county gravel pits designated as surplus land, hence the name Johnson Pit #30. Although it was offered for sale, no buyers were interested.
King County Earthworks Symposium Demonstration Project
One of the initiatives of the King County Arts Commission (later 4Culture) in its 10th-anniversary year, 1979, was a symposium titled Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture, where artists from around the world were invited to create reclamation plans and public spaces in the county's surplus gravel pits and other environmentally damaged lands. The symposium included six design proposals by artists participating in the symposium, as well as a design created separately by Herbert Bayer (1900-1985) for the City of Kent's Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks Park. In addition to the designs presented, the symposium featured one built demonstration project: Robert Morris's Untitled Earthwork (Johnson Pit #30). Construction of Morris's demonstration project at Johnson Pit began concurrently with the symposium, at which he shared his controversial views in the keynote address on the opening day, July 31.
Morris's Johnson Pit #30 demonstration project was funded through a combination of partners. The King County Arts Commission had adopted a percent-for-art funding mechanism, one of the first in the country, which allotted a percentage of the cost of publicly funded capital-improvement projects for commissioning public art. The King County Department of Public Works donated the surplus gravel pit to the county. Funding from the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Endowment for the Arts, King County Department of Public Works, and the U.S. Bureau of Mines allowed for the first artwork to be specifically built as landscape reclamation.
The symposium's innovative ideas set forth new precedents by insisting that artists could shape civic life and public policy decisions by being included on water, utility, and other infrastructure-project teams. The symposium influenced regional and national public-art programs as it introduced art commissions to the world of public works. In 2017, 4Culture Director of Public Art Cath Brunner wrote of the 1979 symposium, "This initiative was and is a master class in risk-taking, coalition-building, and ambitious programming" (Brunner).
Land Art and Post-Industrial Landscapes
The success of the symposium was directly related to the strength of the environmental and art movements of the 1960s, which led to the beginnings of land art in the early 1970s. Also known as earth art, environmental art, or earthworks, land art rejected formal museums and galleries. Instead, artists viewed the land and its context in place and time as the canvas. One of the best-known land-art pieces, called the Spiral Jetty, was created by Robert Smithson (1938-1973) in 1970. Early examples of land art were found in open landscapes of the American West or along shorelines, as was the case with the Spiral Jetty.
At this time of environmental awareness, some post-industrial sites like pits, surface mines, landfills, and more that had been derelict and abandoned for decades were turned over to artists. Robert Morris's demonstration project for the 1979 symposium in King County was among the first land-reclamation art projects in the country. It was also one of the first post-mining sites to receive funding from the passage of the 1977 Federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.
Both Smithson and Morris argued that art carries environmental and societal responsibility and should challenge the viewer. Their post-industrial reclamation projects were not aimed at repairing land to its pre-manipulated states, but at reclaiming it in the name of art. In his controversial keynote address at the symposium, Morris disagreed with those who would "suppose that artists hired to work in industrially blasted landscapes would necessarily and invariable choose to convert such sites into idyllic and reassuring places, thereby socially redeeming those who wasted the landscape in the first place" (Morris).
Morris was already a leading artist in the land-art style at the time of the 1979 symposium. His skill set also extended to those of sculptor, painter, experimental artist, and writer. Previous earthworks projects included his 1968 Earth Project in Evanston, Illinois; the 1971 Observatory Project in the Netherlands; the 1974 Grant Rapids Project X in Michigan; and his 1971-1974 Steam Work for Bellingham Project in the sculpture garden on the Western Washington University campus.
Morris's professional background and interests matched what was needed for the symposium's demonstration-project artist. His sculptures were known for their large-scale, hard-edged geometric forms. His Earth Project had included the sculptural manipulation of a landfill and close collaboration with surveyors, engineers, and geologists. He was interested in the artistic concept of time in outdoor works and how the changes of light, temperature, and seasons would change the viewer's perceptions.
Untitled Earthwork (Johnson Pit #30)
Post-industrial America was left with numerous blasted landscapes, among them gravel pits. The Johnson Pit was one of 100 publicly owned former mining sites in the county, and many other privately owned such sites also dotted the landscape. Many were both abandoned and in need of reclamation. The county chose the abandoned Johnson Pit for the pilot project to test whether art could save the abused site. By 1977 the former gravel pit had revegetated itself with species including scrub alder, scotch broom, and blackberries. The setting overlooked farms and pastures of the rural Kent Valley with views of the Cascade foothills and Mount Rainier providing further potential for the pilot project's success.
Morris first visited the 3.7-acre Johnson Pit site in January 1979. He submitted his design and it was approved by the King County Arts Commission in April. The terraced design drew inspiration from both ancient and modern traditions. Morris was inspired by ancient mountainside cultivation, Persian and Mogul terraced gardens, the amphitheaters of Muyu-uray in Peru, and modern mining. His design cleared the triangular-shaped landscape of vegetation, then built up the site into a hill carved into a series of descending concentric slopes and terraces using 16,000 cubic yards of excavated earth. The western side of the pit was gradually sloped, while the eastern section was steeply terraced. The slopes were planted in wild rye grass but in general the design focused on form rather than on vegetation. Yet near the eight-car parking lot in the upper northwest portion of the site Morris included in the design a row of truncated blackened fir tree stumps, a message that he was not fully cleaning up the site after its industrial use. The "ghost forest" was to honor the forest that had existed before the site was converted into a gravel pit and stand as a reminder of the destruction involved in doing so.
Construction of the earthwork began on August 7, 1979, with Morris present. He attended construction meetings and kept detailed technical notes of the process. Throughout the project, misunderstandings between the artist and the engineers and contractors resulted in drainage and slope issues. During construction, the terraces were being sculpted too steeply due to outdated site surveys provided to Morris during the design phase, so Morris was given the task of adapting his calculations. Despite challenges, Morris, along with county officials and members of the press, formally inspected the project, which was deemed complete, on November 2, 1979, proud of the earthwork's clean-sculpted lines.
Post-Completion Complications and Local Reaction
Unfortunately, completion of construction did not bring the reclaimed site an untroubled future. A month after the inspection, the terraces were seeded with grass to stabilize the soil. However, the work was done too late in the season and before the grass could establish itself heavy rains caused saturated soils and the complete erosion of the southeast slope. Rock and mud spewed onto South 216th Street, blocking traffic and bringing criticism from county residents. Even from the design phase of the project, Morris acknowledged the public would want to know the meaning of the design, but insisted each visitor have the freedom to experience the site without preconceived notions. The lack of information or outreach regarding the mysterious project generated disapproval from some residents, who had not been given any explanation of its purpose or the idea of artwork coexisting with environmental engineering. On October 23, 1979, residents held a small protest near the site. The King County Arts Commission, on the other hand, was receiving national praise from the art world, and responded, "This has national publicity!" ("King County Earthworks ..."). The erosion of the southeast slope so early the earthwork's life made it hard to win full local support. With limited money available to restore the collapsed slope, Morris approved a slightly lower southeast terrace than originally constructed.
Although Morris's design proposal stated the Johnson Pit would require no maintenance besides periodic mowing, this proved far from reality. Frequent care was needed if the site was to remain true to the artist's intent, including invasive-plant removal; pruning new shoots from the sculptural tree stumps, which later rotted; and dealing with inappropriate human activity such as littering, fire-setting, and vandalism. The Johnson Pit was draining King County funds more than anticipated, which continued the trend of public criticism. In response the arts commission offered creative suggestions to both clean up the site and involve local residents with an annual volunteer cleanup day, community service performed by offenders assigned to the site, and an Earth Day celebration with school groups. The message was heard. In 1984 the King County Council enacted Ordinance No. 6908 to prohibit the inappropriate activity occurring at the earthwork. Arts commission staff started official outreach to the site's neighbors and arranged for a maintenance budget through the county council and the South King Activity Center.
Some improvements had been made physically at the site and with local stakeholders, yet a 1989 site report still found fault with the general deterioration, low maintenance budget, and the site's presentation as artwork. A $50,000 rehabilitation was recommended, which the King County Council resisted. In 1992 the council instructed the King County Arts Commission to assess whether the Johnson Pit had a future, should be removed from the county art collection, or destroyed and sold as surplus property. Again, preservation of the site had international support, especially from those in the art world, but nearby residents remained unsure of the Johnson Pit's value.
Improvements and Preservation
The arts commission recognized it had lacked in outreach beyond the arts community and that local stakeholders needed a better understanding of the Johnson Pit in comparison to the nearby Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks Park in Kent. Local stakeholders understood and loved Herbert Bayer's earthwork, which was designed specifically for use as a park as well as for environmental reclamation. In contrast Robert Morris built an earthwork that was his personal statement about industry, but it was not clear to area residents how they could interact with the site and therefore value it as a neighborhood asset. The Robert Morris Earthwork Study Group met in 1993 to begin the assessment requested by the county council. Members included King County agency officials, representatives from local arts agencies, participants in the 1979 symposium, and representatives from the City of Kent and City of SeaTac. Their recommendations following the assessment were to preserve the Johnson Pit earthwork as a work of art, to stabilize the site, enhance public access, and connect to the parks and trails in the Kent Valley. Money for the recommendations came quickly and in May 1995 Morris visited the site and approved several enhancements to create a more park-like space. Key new features included a perimeter trail with a path to the pit bottom, wooden stairs and benches, and an interpretation feature.
In the years following completion of the improvement project in 1996, efforts were made in the preservation community to recognize the Johnson Pit's unique presence as one of the few surviving pieces of its time and type. In 1997 Save Outdoor Sculpture! awarded the Johnson Pit an Honorable Mention Award for its 2-year improvement project, providing funds to create an interpretive brochure. The Johnson Pit earthwork one of 11 threatened land-based art sites highlighted by the Cultural Landscape Foundation in 2014. Similarly, the following year the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation included Johnson Pit on its list of the state's "Most Endangered Historic Properties." The site was deemed threatened due to problems of illegal dumping and vandalism, soil erosion, and the increasing pressures of urban development.