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King County Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture

A symposium sponsored by the King County Arts Commission July 31 – August 18, 1979

In 1979, the King County Arts Commission sponsored a project entitled Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture to reclaim environmentally damaged sites such as abandoned gravel pits, surface mines, and landfills. The project brought together artists and government agencies to discuss large-scale sculptures that use the earth as its medium and to create artworks designed to rehabilitate natural areas damaged by industry. In involving contemporary artists in land reclamation, the King County Arts Commission entered a field that no governmental agency had yet attempted on any significant scale.


The earthworks project had two components: Phase I was the rehabilitation of a surplus county gravel pit in south King County by internationally renowned artist Robert Morris. Phase II was a design symposium with six artists assigned to restore damaged sites for which they proposed reclamation projects in the form of artworks. Also showcased at the symposium was an earthwork design undertaken by the city of Kent, Washington with artist Herbert Bayer.

Formed in 1967, the King County Arts Commission provided support to art and artists in King County, including the commissioning and purchasing of artworks. Prompted by a commissioner and a staff member in early 1978, the Arts Commission agreed to present a symposium on the theme of “Earthworks as land reclamation.”  The two-part symposium, scheduled for August 1979, would include a public dialogue with earthworks design artists, and a demonstration of earthwork art on a King County site that needed reclamation. 

Phase I: Robert Morris Earthwork, SeaTac, Washington

For a demonstration site, the Commission turned to the King County Department of Public Works, which oversaw the county’s more than one hundred gravel pits. The Commission selected Johnson Pit #30 as the project site which John Winston sold to King County for $500 in 1907 for use as a gravel pit. Despite the attractiveness of the hillside setting, the pit had a somewhat troubled history as it was used as a dumping ground for abandoned household goods and automobiles.

Selection of Robert Morris as Site Artist

The Arts Commission’s Visual Materials Committee determined that the artist selected to create an earthwork at Johnson Pit #30 should be of international stature.  A three-member jury invited twenty-two selected artists to express their interest in the project.   From these, eleven responded and Robert Morris of New York was chosen.  This was the first time that the Arts Commission had gone outside the county to award a commission. Morris’ sculptural design was submitted to and approved by the King County Arts Commission in April 1979. Read more about the artist by expanding the accordion below:

About Robert Morris

Robert Morris (1931-2018) had an international reputation as an influential sculptor, painter, experimental artist, and writer. By 1979, he had made important contributions to the development of performance art, land art, and installation art. His work emphasized concept over aesthetics, and he was not afraid of bringing challenges before his viewing audience. Morris’s most characteristic sculptures consist of large-scale, hard-edged geometric forms. His work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Art Institute of Chicago; and the Tate Modern in London, among many other institutions.

Critic Roger Downey, writing in Seattle’s The Weekly newspaper on January 10-17, 1979, said of Morris: “[A] sculptor, conceptual-artist and theoretician, Robert Morris [is] one of the few artists in this jaded time whose work can legitimately be referred to as ‘avant-garde’;, and which can still raise the hackles of the unprepared observer.” The Seattle Times art critic Deloris Tarzan agreed, writing in a January 14, 1979 article, “Morris is one of a handful of artists in the world whose work is so consistently innovative as to elicit shock with each new concept…[His] creative thinking…has influenced the creations of other artists and forced tentative new definitions of what art means and could mean.”

Robert Morris had already undertaken a land art project in Washington state. Steam Work for Bellingham (1971-1974) remains a part of the sculpture garden on the Western Washington University campus. Commissioned from Robert Morris after his participation in a symposium, it uses steam released from the university’s underground heating system to create a fountain-like effect.

By the time of King County’s Earthworks Symposium, Robert Morris had also created earthworks in the Netherlands (1971) and in Grand Rapids, Michigan (1974). The Grand Rapids Project used pathways to re-contour an eroded hill slope in a city park in a manner that combined civil engineering with landscape architecture. It was the first major earth artwork in the United States to be supported by public funds.

Learn more about the artist’s design from video captured during the Robert Morris Earthworks Seminar in 1979:

Text of the Morris keynote address (edited for publication).

Construction of Untitled Earthwork (Johnson Pit #30)

No new public funds were used in the original construction of the Morris earthwork. The site was donated by the Department of Public Works. Arts Commission staff raised the monies needed, which included artist fees and expenses, from a variety of grants and from monies already appropriated by the King Council for artworks. The Commission’s actual receipt of grant funds determined the construction start date (August 7, 1979). Because of the late-season start the work, by the D. J. Hopkins Company of Redmond, was carried out swiftly under a tight time frame. The first month of construction coincided with Phase II of the Earthworks Symposium.

Arts Commission staff administered the project, aided by a technical assistant hired as site representative. King County’s Architecture Division provided professional construction management services. The King County Parks and Public Works departments addressed technical issues arising during construction. Artist Robert Morris was also onsite for the construction. He kept detailed technical notes and participated closely in construction meetings.

Early Response and Reaction

Art commentators at Phase II of the Earthworks Symposium, looking at models of Robert Morris’s design, had thought it “beautifully devoid of interruption,” “gracefully undulating,” and “a work of awesome, elegant simplicity.” 

Some county councilmembers reviewed initial site work with skeptical puzzlement.  What could the earthwork be used for? Was it a park?  With only eight parking spaces, it didn’t seem to be a park.  Wouldn’t native vegetation eventually take over the site, as it had once taken over the old gravel pit?

On October 23, 1979 a protest of about a dozen local residents was held near the site.  They objected to the perceived public funding of the project, to the general appearance of the earthwork, and to the perceived lack of any public environmental review.  They also criticized a perceived lack of openness by King County government. Arts Commission representatives met with the protestors and maintained that, although communication about the project was lacking, the process followed to design and build the Morris earthwork was sound.  


Earthwork Construction Completed

Arts Commission representatives deemed the Morris earthwork to be completed. Robert Morris, accompanied by King County representatives and the press, made his formal inspection of the project.


Erosion Damaged Site

Soon after construction completed, rock and mud fell onto South 216th Street, blocking traffic.


Repair and Restoration Concerns

King County Council passed Ordinance 6908, regulating activity at the site, and successfully lobbied for a maintenance budget.


Site Deterioration Reported

A1989 site report found numerous areas of concern at the Morris Earthwork: general deterioration, a too-low level of maintenance, and poor presentation of the site as an artwork. The report recommended a $50,000 rehabilitation of the structure.


Robert Morris Earthwork Study Group Convened

Robert Morris Earthwork Study Group convened to preserve the site as a work of art. The possibility of demolition drew international protest.


Design Enhancements Approved

The work of the study group resulted in funds for a restoration. Robert Morris visits the site and approves design enhancements.  


Recognition of Restoration Efforts

The Morris Earthwork earned an Honorable Mention Award from Save Outdoor Sculpture!, a preservation organization based in Washington DC. This recognition was given for King County’s two-year restoration effort.


Ownership Transferred to 4Culture

King County’s public art collection and arts programs were transferred in 2003 to the new Cultural Development Authority of King County, a tax-exempt public development authority better known as 4Culture.


Recognition by U.S. Federal Government

The site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NHRP) in recognition of it’s international importance.

The Morris Earthwork: King County and the World

The 1979 symposium Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture brought King County a national and international reputation as a perceived leader and innovator in the use of artist-designed earthworks to solve environmental problems. The Morris Earthwork remained one of the very few structures from its time period still in existence. Its survival has added historical significance to its value as a work of art.

Phase II: The Design Symposium

Symposium Events: July 31 – August 18, 1979

In addition to preparing designs, the artists involved in Phase II of Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture participated in a series of forums, panel discussions, slide lectures, a university summer school studio course, community meetings, and social events that were intended to acquaint the public with the aesthetic and public policy issues involved in art as land reclamation. 

The Artist and Their Sites

The artists held meetings with citizens of the communities where the design sites were located, presenting their proposed designs for review. All of the designs specifically addressed issues of public access and use. They were either sited in a park (Oppenheim), intended for various user groups (Miss, Pepper), or they incorporated recreational structures (Baxter, Fleischner), or they could become part of a park (Hanson).

Phase II was a design symposium only. None of the designs presented by the artists were ever completed by the site sponsors.

The King County Arts Commission intended to prepare a documentary film about the symposium to be shown on public television.  To this end, a videographer filmed symposium events, artist interviews, and early construction at the Robert Morris Earthworks site.  King County did not receive the grant monies it needed for the project, and the symposium videotapes were eventually transferred to the King County Archives.

Learn more about the artists and their projects by expanding the accordion below:

Ian Baxter

Tolt River Steppes, 1979. Carnation Pit No. 60, N.E. 32nd Street and 328th Avenue SE, King County, sponsor.

British-born Iain Baxter (1936 –       ) is a Canadian conceptual artist with a wide-ranging career.  He turned to art after early studies in biology and ecology.  At the time of the 1979 Earthworks Symposium he had held academic teaching positions at British Columbia universities, and had founded the N.E. Thing Company (1967-1978) through which he and his wife produced a wide range of art forms and projects.  He has taught art at universities in Calgary and Windsor, Ontario since the early 1980s.  In 2005 he legally changed his surname to Baxterand, or Baxter&.  His own work has been informed by the ideas of Marshall McLuhan and communications theory.  Other conceptual influences are Zen Buddhism and his studies in the natural sciences.  He has explored a broad range of media and genres, including environmental art and multimedia installations.  His work is included in the collections of  major Canadian and international galleries.

Iain Baxter’s 1979 Earthworks Symposium design site was a King County gravel pit, Carnation Pit no. 60, in the Snoqualmie Valley. The steep site presented serious erosion problems. For the site, Baxter proposed a steeply graded 134-acre semicircular amphitheater-like pit that descended to a platform where two mounds were placed to form the infinity symbol. He noted, “I would like to create a great sculptural place. A sort of park, a whole family experience.” The tiers, or “steppes,” of the amphitheater, were to be paved as asphalt jogging tracks, interspersed with exercise stations. Another track around the infinity mounds was designed for wheelchair users, and included ten wheelchair fitness stations. Critics of the Baxter design thought in 1979 that the site, near present-day Remlinger Farms and the Country Fair Fun Park, was too far removed from population centers to be effective as a fitness facility.

Richard Fleischner

Proposal for Lakeside Sand and Gravel Pit, 1979. 6600 230th Avenue SE, Issaquah, Washington, Lakeside Sand and Gravel, sponsor.

Richard Fleischner was born in New York in 1944. He received his BFA and MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. As a sculptor, painter, installation artist and furniture maker, Fleischner began working in and on the outdoors in the 1960s. His landscapes and large-scale public sculpture emphasize the relationship of man-made architecture and the natural world. The maze, the corridor, the box and the field are all cultural elements that have figured in Fleischner’s work; these elements are utilized in combination with and in contrast to features in the natural environment such as trees, hills, sod and other plants. Fleischner’s environments have been constructed in numerous public and private sites, and his drawings and paintings are widely collected.

For the 1979 Earthworks Symposium, Fleischner was partnered with the only private company sponsoring an Earthworks artist, Lakeside Sand and Gravel. The company was interested in exploring non-traditional remediation for its large (340 acres) and very visible gravel mining operation one quarter-mile north of Interstate 90 below the Issaquah Highlands. Fleischner worked closely and extensively with Lakeside’s owners and developed two designs for the steep cliff face.

One design involved placing a mammoth, triangular 200-foot-high office and residential complex across the cliff face and cut into it. It would have also served as a retaining wall. Steep, formal terracing would descend at right angles to either side of the building. A drainage problem at the site would be resolved by a shallowly terraced, square collecting area, in the form of an inverted sod pyramid dug into the earth, above and behind the building. This pool would drain, via underground pipes, into a square reflecting pool in front of the building at the foot of the terraced side slopes. The pools could be used for many purposes and included seating areas nearby. The second design substituted more terracing for the building. The terraces could serve as walking paths, and the owner favored development of public park spaces in the design.

Watch excerpts from an August 1979 interview with Richard Fleischner onsite at the Lakeside site:

Richard Fleischner Earthworks Video 1 of 3
Richard Fleischner Earthworks Video 2 of 3
Richard Fleischner Earthworks Video 3 of 3
Lawrence Hanson

Stoned Reflector, 1979. Snoqualmie Pit, 372nd Place SE and SE 84th Street, King County, Sponsor.

Born in 1936, Lawrence Hanson was a professor at Western Washington University and curator of that institution’s sculpture acquisition program at the time of the 1979 Earthworks Symposium. He had one-man and group exhibitions of his art and had also received commissions.

Lawrence Hanson’s Symposium site was another King County gravel pit, this one near the city of Snoqualmie. The pit was in the shape of a gently curving bowl with grass slopes and a base of gravel. It was surrounded by a lip of trees and, in the distance, by the Cascade foothills.

Lawrence Hanson proposed shaping the pit into a five-acre dug-out oval bowl encircled by a walkway that spiraled into a ramp into the oval. The bowl would be lined with brilliant white gravel and stones of varying size that would reflect the natural light by day.

Large airport-obstruction lights inserted beneath the stones would switch on for a time at night and cause the work to radiate with a soft bluish light. (The artist considered the use of wind power to provide electricity to the lights.)

Viewers would have a different perception of the site depending on the time of day, position of lights, and the viewer’s position (along the path, from the top of the hill, or from the air. The site could double as a five-acre park.

Watch excerpts from an August 1979 interview with Lawrence Hanson at the Snoqualmie Pit site:

Lawrence Hanson Earthworks Video 1 of 2
Lawrence Hanson Earthworks Video 2 of 2
Mary Miss

Enclosure for Viewing with Passages and Courts, 1979. Airport free zone at southwest edge of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, east of Twelfth Avenue South, Port of Seattle, sponsor.

Born in 1944, Mary Miss is an American sculptor, draftsman, filmmaker and environmental artist. As a child with her family she visited many early forts, Native American sites, abandoned mines and, in Europe, demolished buildings, medieval towns and castle ruins. These structures strongly influenced her artwork. During her academic training as an artist she became aware of the work of contemporary Minimalist sculptors and land artists, including Robert Morris. Her early landscape works dealt primarily with the measurement of distances in relation to a specific location. Later works draw on the architecture, landscape design, gardens and history of worldwide cultures. She has received multiple awards and has been the subject of many exhibitions. An untitled landscape sculpture by Mary Miss is located on the grounds of the University of Washington Medical Center, Seattle.

For the 1979 Earthworks Symposium, Mary Miss prepared a design for a long narrow strip of irregular terrain at the southwest corner of the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.  The land was part of an “airport free-zone,” an abandoned residential area abutting the airport that had been cleared of homes by the Port of Seattle for health and safety reasons.  It contained remains of old roadways, house foundations and shrubbery, which the artist incorporated into her design for the site.  The design consisted of a walkway through a sixteen interwoven structures (walls, platforms, corridors and rooms) in which and from which a strolling viewer might gain an appreciation of the site’s topography, explore scale relationships, and either observe the adjacent airport and its traffic, or find seclusion from it.

Critical response to the design was generally favorable, noting that there was “nothing ordinary” about it. Local residents of the Sea-Tac community wondered if the number of structures present on the site would invite vandalism.

Watch an excerpt from interview with Mary Miss onsite at the “Airport Free Zone” site, 1979:

Dennis Oppenheim

A Waiting Room for the Mid-Night Special (A Thought Collision Factory for Ghost Ships), 1979. Warren G. Magnuson Park, 7400 Sand Point Way NE, City of Seattle, sponsor.

Born in 1938, Dennis Oppenheim received international attention for a body of conceptual artwork that included performance, sculpture and photographs. He was an American pioneer of land art and body art, born in Mason City, Washington. After completing his academic training in California, he lived and worked in New York City until his death in 2011. His early work in the 1960s was concerned with large-scale earth-oriented projects. Over four decades Dennis Oppenheim’s practice employed all available methods: writing, action, performance, video, film, photography, and installation (with and without sound or monologue).

He used mechanical and industrial elements, fireworks, common objects and traditional materials, materials of the earth, and his own or another’s body. He created works for interior, exterior and public spaces. Towards the end of his life his work became larger in scale and permanent, fusing sculpture and architecture. He was the subject of many group and solo exhibitions, and of a number of books discussing his work.

For the 1979 Earthworks Symposium, Dennis Oppenheim created a design to reclaim a distressed area at the City of Seattle’s new Warren G. Magnuson Park at the former Sand Point Naval Air Station: a deserted, torn airstrip that stood between the existing park and what would be government facilities for the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Oppenheim used humor, fantasy and contemporary artistic vocabulary to create what was intended to be a dream environment for channeling thoughts and ideas. His structure centered on a circular space (called by the artist a “waiting room”) around a sunken chamber holding a revolving 50-foot section of track.

 The track would interconnect with four “gates”: a V-shaped launching canal or trough oriented to a circular boat basin on Lake Washington (for “ghost ships”); boat shaped templates (“for incoming energy”); a long concrete-arched walkway partially covered in sheet metal (“for entry of forces and ideas”) and a structure resembling a furnace chamber (“for conceptual transformation from material to gas, power, communication”).

Critical response to this design ranged from the highly skeptical to enthusiastic praise for the artist’s vision and imagination. Watch excerpts from interview with Dennis Oppenheim onsite at the Magnuson Park site, August 1979:

Dennis Oppenheim Earthworks Video 1 of 2
Dennis Oppenheim Earthworks Video 2 of 2
Beverly Pepper

Montlake Landfill Proposal, 1979. University of Washington East Campus on Union Bay, University of Washington, sponsor.

Working independently of any specific movement, Beverly Pepper has since 1972 made her home in Todi, Italy. Major site-specific works by Pepper are located across the United States and abroad. In the 1970s, she developed the concept of “Earthbound Sculptures,” sculptures that seem to be born in and rise up from the earth. In the 1980s and 1990s, Pepper continued to combine nature with industrial materials, exploring themes of genesis and continuity. Her work reflects a tension between the cold forms of steel and a mysterious inner quality. Pepper has received many commissions for earthworks and environmental projects, in which the landforms as well as the usage of the land are taken into consideration.

For the 1979 Earthworks Symposium, Beverly Pepper worked with the site sponsor, the University of Washington, to develop a design for a part of the Montlake Landfill, on the eastern edge of the university’s Seattle campus. This site, located between the University and Lake Washington’s Union Bay, was a garbage dump from the 1920s to the 1950s, and a landfill (mixed garbage and earth) from the 1960s. Pepper’s design proposed a viewing structure from which both the man-made environment and the natural order might be observed. The design consisted of two structures connected by a straight, gently terraced three-hundred-foot pathway. One structure was a 150-foot-long, 20-foot-high earth mound on a circle of bluegrass; it could be climbed in part to view both the landfill and the surrounding environment.

The mound would be cut on one side and faced with a glass wall through which would be seen roots of wild flora, three generations of layered garbage deposits, and a layer of gravel to gauge shifts in the land. The other structure was a 100-foot circle of white-capped posts meant as a monitoring station to measure future shifts in land level. The installation sought to address the needs of its community: university students, wildlife preservationists, and future naturalists.

Beverly Pepper Earthworks Video 1 of 2
Beverly Pepper Earthworks Video 2 of 2
Herbert Bayer

During the 1960s, the City of Kent began acquiring land in the Mill Creek ravine. The city wished to keep the natural character of the ravine by preserving it as a park. Unfortunately, development on the bluffs above Mill Creek led to silt and refuse coming down the ravine, clogging the creek, spoiling the surroundings, and blocking city stormwater systems.

By the late 1970s city administrators saw that a system of catch basins and stream flow controls was necessary. But installing such a system would spoil the site’s natural beauty, which was the reason that the City of Kent purchased the property.

In late 1978, when the King County Arts Commission announced its upcoming 1979 symposium Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture, and the associated creation near Kent of an earthwork structure designed by artist Robert Morris, the City of Kent saw a potential solution for its Mill Creek challenge. Could an artist devise water-control structures that could also function as a public park? The city asked the same jury that had selected Robert Morris to recommend an artist for the Kent site. The name suggested by the jury was Herbert Bayer.

Herbert Bayer was an established and respected artist, architect and designer. Born in Austria in 1900, he originally apprenticed as an architect with an interest in graphic design and typography. In 1921 he joined the Bauhaus design workshops in Weimar, Germany, where he eventually was appointed director of printing and advertising. His distinctive, all-lower-case typefaces distinguished Bauhaus publications. In 1938 he moved to New York and in 1946, to Aspen, Colorado. He continued his work as an artist, architect, and graphic and landscape designer, notably as an art and design consultant to various corporate and industrial clients in postwar America. In 1955, he created an earthwork sculpture in Aspen that is credited with being the first contemporary earthwork. He died in 1985.

Herbert Bayer was considered a solid and capable choice as artist for the Kent earthwork. He was seen as someone who could give the city a park designed by an architect who was also an artist. As a Kent newspaper stated, “An earthwork is less an art form to be looked at than lived in. The Mill Creek design is not only art but a park as well.”

Herbert Bayer visited the Kent site in January 1979 and subsequently submitted his design to the Kent City Council. It was under review at the time of the August 1979 design symposium sponsored by the King County Arts Commission. While the project was not officially a part of the symposium, Herbert Bayer’s models and designs were displayed and were discussed by symposium participants. The Mill Creek project was also cited as an example of another municipal government using an artist-designed earthwork to reclaim a troubled site.

After long discussion, largely centered on project cost, the Kent City Council approved the start of construction before monies for the artist’s fee of $143,000 had been fully raised. Ground was broken in March 1981. After an energetic and creative fundraising effort, including a $5000 grant from the King County Arts Commission and an art bond drive” locally in Kent, the Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks was dedicated on Labor Day weekend, 1982.

The Earthworks has provided Kent with both storm water control, and with a popular recreation and special-events site. In April 2008 the site was designated Kent’s first official landmark. In 2010 it was the recipient of a $70,000 National Trust for Historic Preservation grant which allowed a two-year restoration to be undertaken.

After the Symposium

In late summer of 1979, the Seattle Art Museum sponsored an exhibit of the artists models and drawings at its former Modern Art Pavilion at the Seattle Center. The exhibit was accompanied by a handsome catalog, featuring Colleen Chartier’s black-and-white photographs of sites, drawings and models. After the close of Seattle show, exhibit toured museums and government facilities around the United States for two years.

The artifacts were returned to King County, who in 1996 donated them to the Seattle Art Museum. The Museum used the artifacts in a 1999 exhibition commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the Earthworks Symposium.

Additional Resources

King County Arts Commission
  • Series 255, Annual reports 1971-1980
  • Series 257, The Arts [newsletter] 1972-1990
  • Series 278, Earthworks Symposium administrative files 1978-1981
  • Series 1742, Earthworks Symposium coordinator records 1973-2003 (bulk dates 1978-1980)
  • Series 1738, Earthworks Symposium videotapes 1979
King County Office of Cultural Resources
  • Series 1747, Project files: Robert Morris earthwork 1979-1999
King County Department of Transportation, Road Services Division
  • Series 400, Photograph and moving image files 1900-2002
  • [Multiple unprocessed accessions], Virtual Map Vault maps

This online exhibit was prepared in September 2013 using textual records, photographs, audiotapes, and videotapes held by King County Archives. King County Archives staff updated this exhibit in 2023.