Environmental artist aims to bring people closer to time and tide on the Schuylkill

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The Schuylkill River runs through the heart of Philadelphia, penned in by the I-76 highway, a dam, boathouses, railroad tracks, a corridor of industrial refineries, and miles of concrete. For hundreds of years, people have tried to contain and control the river for industry and recreation.

Nobody puts the Schuylkill in a corner.

“This river has some serious moods to it,” said Stacy Levy, an environmental artist who has devoted two years to developing an installation over many sites along the river. Although she has gotten to know the river intimately, it still hasn’t revealed its secrets to her.

“River Rooms” and “Tide Field” were both commissioned by Mural Arts Philadelphia and Bartram’s Garden in Southwest Philadelphia, with support from the William Penn Foundation.

The two installations are connected: One is an invitation to sit and watch nature’s slow changes, while the other gives you something to see.

“River Rooms” are seating platforms designed to resemble the bow of a rowboat. Six are dotting the area around Bartram’s Mile, a recently built walking and biking path along the Schuylkill in Southwest Philadelphia. Each is embedded with a stone carved with a graphic explaining an element of the natural environment: the effect of wind currents, for example, or the astronomical reasons behind tidal flow.

Mostly, however, they are comfortable places to sit and watch the water.

The second part of the installation, “Tide Field,” is on the water. In 10 spots on the Schuylkill River, clusters of brightly colored buoys bob in the current. The main field off the bank of Bartram’s Garden features 40, each a string of nine plastic foam balls normally used in aquaculture fish farming. They are painted different colors – green, turquoise, red, yellow — like a meter indicating tidal height.

Weighted to the riverbed, the buoy balls lie flat on the surface of the water at low tide. As the tide rises, each string of balls straightens vertically until only the top is visible.

The Schuylkill River has a 6-foot tide cycle, twice a day, every day. A true river rat might be able to mark the tide by observing the level of mud on the riverbank; for the rest of us, there are these colorful balls. It takes about 15 minutes of patience to visually track the lifting or lowering of the river.

“A lot of my work is making the invisible parts of nature more visible and visceral,” said Levy. “Giving people a sense of what’s at arm’s length from their understanding.”

Levy, a Philadelphia native now based in central Pennsylvania, has been making environmental art for decades, in public places of New York, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Ontario, and Philadelphia. Still, she claims her understanding of natural phenomena is just one step ahead of her intended audience, the general public.

Some of those people might be familiar with the phrase, “No man ever steps into the same river twice,” a quote from the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus. “For it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

Heraclitus was saying something about the ever-changing nature of existence. Levy takes it still further, saying that a river changes around you while you’re submerged.

“With this river, you can’t ever say what it’s doing,” she said, while rowing out to one of her buoy clusters. The Schuylkill flows north to south, its water moving down to join the Delaware River near the Navy Yard.

At that moment, however, it appeared to be flowing upward.

Levy noted that natural forces pull the water in every direction, simultaneously.

“Wind currents pull in one direction, the actual river currents in another direction, tide in a third direction, and there are micro areas of eddies affected by other things, like the topography of the river bed. There are myriad things,” said Levy. “The more time I spend on it, the less I know it.”

This disclosure: The William Penn Foundation supports WHYY.

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