Drawing in McHarg’s Fottsteps

Laurel McSherry celebrates Ian McHarg’s life by tracing the ways it intersected with her own.


The Design with Nature Now conference at the University of Pennsylvania will celebrate the life and work of the pioneering landscape architect Ian McHarg this month with a slate of exhibitions and conference events held at the design school.

Among them will be an exhibition of works by the landscape architect and artist Laurel McSherry titled Laurel McSherry: A Book of Days that twins the valleys that defined Ian McHarg’s life—the River Clyde in his native Scotland and the Delaware in Philadelphia—and incorporates McSherry’s own meditative explorations of Glasgow through video, etchings, and sculpture. In this interview conducted by Lynn Marsden-Atlass, the executive director of the Arthur Ross Gallery, McSherry weaves a site-specific installation that encourages people to reconsider the prosaic landscapes that surround them.

Stave sections of trees native to Scotland, from a Scottish Gaelic alphabet. Image courtesy Laurel McSherry.

Design with Nature Now takes place June 21–22, 2019, at the University of Pennsylvania. Laurel McSherry: A Book of Days will be on view from June 21 through September 15.

Lynn Marsden-Atlass: This multimedia exhibition presents a body of work that you produced during your 2018 Fulbright Fellowship at the Glasgow School of Art from January to July 2018.

Laurel McSherry: The starting point for A Book of Days was my mother’s diaries. Her name was Marilyn Tarnopolsky, and she grew up in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s. After she passed in 2014, her diaries came to me. One in particular spanned the years 1938 to 1942. When reading her entry for January 1st—she was 16 at the time—I realized that I would be in Glasgow on that date, 80 years later. But what also struck me were the other entries beneath that first one: four entries, all for the same date, but years apart. This got me thinking about the difference between calendar dates, which repeat, and lived days, which don’t. My six-month fellowship would give me the opportunity to explore this difference as well as practices specific to that duration of time, my circumstances, and a new location. A Book of Days forms a portion of the results.

Marsden-Atlass: The Glasgow School of Art is one of the leading art schools of its kind in Europe, or in the world, for that matter. What was your experience like there?

McSherry: There is no landscape architecture program at the Glasgow School of Art, so choosing it as the location of my fellowship was something of a provocation—a chance to become part of a community of painters, printmakers, jewelry designers, photographers, and textile designers—to learn about the practices of others, and to reflect and expand my own. The work I made, which engages photography and drawing as well as print and mapmaking, was inspired by who I met and what I experienced there.

One series of maps records my daily walks. I was curious about how my life in the city might change over time, and so each morning I made a drawing of where I walked the day before. I then redrew these maps digitally, which enabled me to regroup the walks in different ways and reflect on them. For instance, my January walks were quite circumscribed, as I didn’t know much of the city on arrival. Over time, the space of my walks expanded as I gradually discovered other parts of Glasgow. February was more ambitious, as was March, as was April, and so on. If I display all mapping layers simultaneously, I am able to see the space and routes of 180 days of walks and how my patterns changed across the six months. I can also compare, say, my Monday walks to those of other days. When I started working in the print workshop, which was in a separate building, how I navigated the city changed.  When the historic Mackintosh building burned in June, and streets were cordoned off, my navigation changed again. It’s quite interesting to look at one’s own patterns, to recognize both the routine and the novelty.

Detail of a composite drawing of 180 daily walks that Laurel McSherry took through Glasgow. Image courtesy Laurel McSherry.

Marsden-Atlass: How does A Book of Days resonate with the work of landscape architect Ian McHarg?

McSherry: In both the map series and the video project, what’s present is both the increment and the accumulation—a theme that all the works explore in one way or another. Increment and accumulation are also vivid in my transect drawings and prints. These works originated from a curiosity about two rivers influential to Ian McHarg—the Clyde in Scotland (where he was born) and the Delaware in the United States (where he lived much of his life). I initially came to know the landscape of the Clyde through Ordnance Survey maps. The National Library of Scotland has an extensive collection of digitized maps. Similar to the organization of a diary, the collection permits the viewing of the singular in the context of the multiple, for instance, a specific location on the river across time. Working with these maps, I became interested in places along the river where change was significant—both through the building up and the taking down. The transect drawing began as my attempt to record the locations of early fords—shallow stretches traditionally used by drovers to move cattle from one side of the river to the other. Over time, some of these locations became the sites of ropeways, or ferry crossings, or bridges. Others simply disappeared beneath the river. Gradually, this evolved into recording other types of crossings as well, and much like my process for making my daily walks, I created a series of discrete digital layers. It was only when I displayed all the layers simultaneously that I was able to see patterns and density in my markings, and how they changed along the lengths of the two river gradients. It was a working method that echoes one used by McHarg, this idea of mapping landscape phenomena—both horizontally in layers and vertically in profiles—in an effort to reveal relationships between and among them. For example, how geology and climate influence hydrology and, in turn, the way and where people settle on and use land. In my work, I also wanted to capture the fact that relationships between the city and the surrounding countryside were interdependent, and so make a drawing whose reading was nondirectional. In the end, for me, the transect drawing became a site of discovery as well as an illustration—revealing what formerly I didn’t know, which is quite a different aim than reinforcing that which I already did. The thrill was in allowing the material to guide me.

Marsden-Atlass: Did you anticipate that this drawing of the River Clyde would become more than 20 feet long?

McSherry: After I worked on the Clyde portion of the drawing, I repeated the process for the Delaware, which is three times the length of the Clyde. Remarkably, though, the fall of the two rivers is identical, both dropping 280 meters from headwater to mouth. Discovering this made me eager to superimpose them, which accounts for the drawing’s length. It also presented me with other challenges. Although a digital file can be taken home in your pocket, I was interested in exploring ways to visualize the drawing’s content outside of digital space; other ways of making the drawing portable. This led me to the School of Art’s Centre for Advanced Textiles, and conversations and experiments with artists there about ways to realize the drawing on fabric.

Marsden-Atlass: What did your field walking and transect mapping reveal about the Clyde and the landscape around Glasgow?

McSherry: One of the more poignant parts of Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature is the introductory chapter in which he shares memories of growing up in Clydebank, which was then a village just outside the boundaries of Glasgow. He describes memories of walks—eastward walks, leading down into the city, and northwestward ones, leading up into the highlands. It was through McHarg’s walking practice—which gradually extended in both directions—that he came to know and understand these landscapes. Reading his words inspired my own journeys, within and outside the city, real as well as imagined.

Marsden-Atlass: You also gathered samples of indigenous trees. How have you incorporated them into the exhibition?

McSherry: Bilingual signs are common throughout Scotland. Railway stations, in particular, use both English and Scots Gaelic, whose alphabet contains 18 letters, each of which refers to a native tree or shrub. The image of an alphabet constructed from varieties of wood fascinated me, and led me to the GalGael Trust, a community of woodworkers and traditional boat builders in the South Glasgow neighborhood of Govan. For several hundred years the identity of many Govan residents was derived from shipbuilding. Today, nearly all maritime-related work has vanished from the Clyde, creating a gap filled with poverty and addiction. The GalGael is a place for men and women in recovery, a place that nurtures confidence through the learning of new skills. In addition to building boats, the GalGael processes native timber. During my first visit to the GalGael to source wood for the alphabet, I was invited to return for their open workshop night, a weekly event which includes a shared meal and an evening of community. For the next three months, I returned often on Thursday nights, and in May invited my new friends from the art school and other Fulbright scholars in Scotland to join me in making a meal at the GalGael and meeting members of this remarkable community.

Support for A Book of Days, as part of Design with Nature Now, has been provided to the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.

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