Robert Morris (1931-2018). Untitled Earthwork (Johnson Pit #30), 1979. SeaTac, WA. King County Public Art Collection/4Culture. Photo: Spike Mafford
As a part of our Seattle Southside Scene series focused on the arts, culture, and history of the region, we had a chance to interview 4Culture’s Jordan Howland on the history of the Robert Morris Earthwork (Johnson Pit #30) in SeaTac, Washington. One of the most unique attractions in Seattle Southside, this hidden gem has a fascinating backstory, and promising future.
In 1979, 4Culture—then known as the King County Arts Commission—brought together a unique team of government agencies to create a historic work of public art, designed to rehabilitate land damaged by industry.
Artist Robert Morris removed undergrowth from an abandoned 3.7-acre gravel pit in the Kent Valley, terraced the earth, and planted it with rye grass. By creating Johnson Pit #30, Morris returned the land to active use—40 years later, we value it as a gathering place and internationally-celebrated destination.
Why was Johnson Pit #30 initially created?
Inspired to by early efforts to use art as a means for rehabilitating abused post-industrial sites, 4Culture—then known as the King County Arts Commission—sponsored an innovative symposium called Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture in 1979. They brought together a unique team of government agencies and artists to discuss the potential of earthworks—large-scale sculptures that use the earth itself as their medium—and to create historic public artworks designed to rehabilitate natural areas damaged by industry. Artist Robert Morris received the first demonstration project commission. He removed undergrowth from an abandoned 3.7-acre gravel pit in the Kent Valley, terraced the earth, and planted it with rye grass, in effect returning the land to active use. Decades later, the internationally celebrated destination continues to serve as a community gathering place. Johnson Pit #30 was officially added to the National Register of Historic Places in October, 2021. "The Earthwork was the first publicly funded project to reclaim an industrially-abused site with art." - The Cultural Landscape Foundation
Why was this specific location selected?
The demonstration site was chosen from among 100 gravel pits overseen by the King County Department of Public Works at the time. The department identified, and ultimately donated, a disused location that was large enough to have a strong visual impact, yet small enough to meet budget limitations, a site that was accessible to the public and offered an appropriate setting for a work of art: Johnson Pit #30, which at the time was mostly reforested with scrub alder, scotch broom, and blackberries. Southeast of the site, agriculture in the valley unfurled toward Mount Rainier. Despite the hillside’s beautiful view, the pit itself had been used as a dumping ground for years.
Morris, already an internationally influential sculptor, painter, performance artist, and writer then based in New York, had experience with land art, including Steam Work for Bellingham on the Western Washington University campus. He also had the potential to challenge people’s ideas about sculpture. His selection marked the first time that the King County Arts Commission had awarded a commission to an artist from outside the region.
How long did it take Robert Morris to create Johnson Pit #30?
After an initial visit to the site in January of 1979, Morris submitted a sculptural design that April, proposing to clear the vegetation and build a hill-form using 16,000 cubic yards of earth carved into descending concentric slopes and terraces in the shape of an amphitheater. His artwork was completed in November of the same year and later restored in the 1990s and again in 2018.
What was the inspiration behind Johnson Pit #30?
Morris' design reclaimed the abandoned gravel pit for the sake of art, carving terraces into the triangular-shaped landscape like that of a Peruvian amphitheater. The slopes were planted in wild rye grass, but in general the design focused on form rather than on vegetation.
“I have employed a method of terracing which has been used in ancient times as well as the present,” Morris said while making the work. “Such a method has produced sites of such widely varying context and purpose as palaces and strip mines, highway embankments and mountainside cultivation. Persian and Mogul gardens were terraced as were the vast amphitheaters of Muyu-uray in Peru…this is a prototypical act in shaping the earth.”
Morris also argued that art carries environmental and societal responsibility and should challenge the viewer. He didn’t want to turn Johnson Pit #30 into a purely idyllic or reassuring destination and thereby redeem those who wasted the landscape in the first place. While he added the pleasing concentric terraces descending to the base of the pit, he also left a row of blackened tree stumps at the top. Morris called this gesture a “ghost forest” to signal the site’s history prior to becoming a gravel pit, a reminder of the cost of unchecked practices.
What exactly is an earthwork?
The Museum of Modern Art defines an earthwork as art that is made by shaping the land itself or by making forms in the land using natural materials. Earthworks range from subtle, temporary interventions in the landscape to significant, sculptural, lasting alterations made with heavy earth-moving machinery. Earthworks were part of the wider conceptual art movement in the 1960s and 1970s.
What are some other famous examples of an earthwork?
Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) is one of the best-known monumental earthworks outside of Morris’ Johnson Pit #30. This way of working in and with the landscape forever changed notions of sculpture in contemporary art, removing it from the context of galleries and museums.
Previous earthwork projects by Robert Morris include his Earth Project (1968) in Evanston, Illinois; the Observatory Project in the Netherlands (1971); the Grant Rapids Project X in Michigan (1974); and his Steam Work for Bellingham Project (1971-1974) in the sculpture garden on the Western Washington University campus. In Observatorium (1977), Morris shaped a field in Lelystad, the Netherlands, into a primordial-looking circular form. He called the work a “modern Stonehenge.”
Other famous earthworks in King County include Lorna Jordan’s Waterworks Garden in Renton and Herbert Bayer’s Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks in Kent.
Who was Robert Morris?
Robert Morris, whose career stretched more than half a century, was a pioneer. Perhaps best known as a minimalist sculptor, performance artist, and writer, he also focused multiple decades of his life (primarily in the 60s and 70s) to the creation of land art.
A thread that tied all of his practices together was the idea that form – sculptures in a gallery as well as the sculpted earth – heightened the viewer’s sense of space, and that the work somehow was only complete when it included the viewer’s body in, around, and through.
Why is this site considered threatened/endangered?
This site, Johnson Pit #30, is probably the first permanent land-reclamation sculpture in the nation and perhaps the world. In 2015, the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation announced its annual list of “Most Endangered Historic Properties in the State of Washington,” and the Robert Morris Earthwork is on that list.
At the time of its creation, Johnson Pit #30 looked out on a sparsely developed Kent Valley with a rich agricultural history. Its contemplative site and bucolic view has since been dramatically changed by housing and industrial developments. 4Culture is committed to the preservation and restoration of this unique artwork. The designation by the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation and an earlier recognition as part of the Cultural Landscape Foundation’s Landslide 2014 Art and the Landscape will help the efforts to secure King County landmark status and a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
Are there any future plans for the site of the earthwork (i.e. benches, plaques, fences, statues)?
4Culture completed a massive restoration effort in 2018 – replacing the steps, retaining wall, fencing, and seating on site. New “ghost forest” elements will be fabricated and installed in 2021 or 2022 along with interpretive signage.
Any other interesting stories/facts about the creation/history of this earthwork?
Just a quote from the man himself, “Simplicity of shape does not necessarily equate with simplicity of experience.” —Robert Morris