Robert Raczka

Yard Works, photographic inkjet prints, 2010


I was asked to create a project for Chatham University's Art Gallery (March 17 - April 8, 2011) on a theme relating to environmental sustainability. I turned to the subject of lawns because it is readily accessible, and I felt that this would be a way to address the relationship between individual choices and environmental outcomes, while also pointing to some of the forces that lie behind our choices. Lawns are so prevalent in our environment that essentially everyone has experiences with lawns at home or through friends or public spaces. And with lawns, our choices at the consumer level have clear implications for pollution and related matters, whether we mow-fertilize-herbicide or pay a lawn service to do so.

Most of my photography in recent years has been focused on the relationship between nature and culture in our built environment. About 10 years this interest led me to teach a class on “The New Built Environment,” for which I researched aspects of modified nature, including lawns. My thinking was deeply influenced by “The American Lawn” edited by Georges Teyssot (Princeton Architectural Press, 1999) and “Environmental Aesthetics: Ideas, Politics, and Planning” by J. Douglas Porteous (Routledge, 1996), which is a wide-ranging book that extends to all aspects of our environment. In 2004, I was invited to make a piece for an environmental art exhibit at the Erie Art Museum and, building on some of the ideas that I had encountered, I created “Toward a more environmentally-friendly aesthetic,” which is included here in a revised version (the photos I had originally used depicted a lawn so shaggy that most people would find it off-putting).

I have a fair amount of lawn and for the last couple of years have grappled with many of the questions raised in this exhibit: What is the standard to which a lawn should be maintained, and what does it take to meet that standard? Can one minimize mowing, watering, and application of chemicals while still having a functional lawn? Is it possible to do so organically? What is the cost, financially and environmentally, of replacing an existing lawn with other plants or materials such as stones? Are lawns primarily for use or for looking? One of the problems is that aesthetics usually override sustainability. Where does our ideal of the perfect lawn come from—historical sources, advertising, a creeping generalized perfectionism? Usually, the more perfect the lawn, the higher the cost in mowing (petroleum products, noise, heat), excessive watering, pesticides, and herbicides (“weed” killers). Can we accept a lawn that looks less perfect than a golf course? And by extension, can we accept an apple that doesn’t look synthetic--one which requires so much pesticide and entails so much waste? Do we need everything to be new or can we see the charm in imperfection, including when we are weighing the benefits of re-use? (The greenest building is the one that’s already built.)

This exhibit primarily takes the form of questions largely because, while we can move in the direction of responsible stewardship, many of these questions are not yet fully answerable, though more and more people are working on it. We have a lot of received and unexamined ideas about how things should be, which makes it hard for us to change, but there’s nothing wrong with a lawn that includes clover or one that turns brown in August—it’s dormant, not dead.



Toward a more environmentally-friendly aesthetic, text panel and 3 digital photographs framed separately, each 10 x 8 inches




A study in perception, 20 x 24 inches



The Real & the Ideal, 20 x 24 inches



Ideal Landscape, 2 pieces framed separately, each 20 x 24 inches



How many acres do you mow?, 20 x 24 inches



Is this a lawn?, 24 x 20 inches



Is this a healthy lawn?, 24 x 20 inches



That golf course look, 24 x 20 inches



What will it take?, 24 x 20 inches