Philly artist conveys climate change in new work at FDR Park

Nicole Donnelly uses her history of environmental and artistic zeal to approach an installation in the South Philly green space.

Influenced by ecology and environmentalism, Philadelphia artist Nicole Donnelly, who has unearthed inspiration across the country and continent, is working on a new public art installation for Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park. The project, which is a constituent of the Fairmount Park Conservancy’s master plan for the South Philly green space, sheds light on climate change. (GRACE MAIORANO/South Philly Review)

“What I was noticing, when I respond to color, when I respond to these elements of nature, is there’s an ephemeral nature to what you’re looking at, so it’s always an influx, and it’s always changing,” Philadelphia artist Nicole Donnelly recently explained, as she sat in her warehouse studio surrounded by earth tone tints and mulberry branches. “Everything is in a state of change, and it’s just a matter of how quickly or how slowly that change happens and your ability to shift focus and awareness to it.”

For the painter and papermaker, recognizing, harnessing and ultimately expressing such transient essences in the natural world seems to have always served as her stimulus.

With influences ranging from violet leaves dropped by Jacaranda trees in Mexico City to fossils deposits scattered among melted glaciers in Iowa, Donnelly, a Northeast Philly native, is tackling a new dimension of geological evolution through art.

Her latest subject?

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park.

A component of its overarching master plan, the Fairmount Park Conservancy is currently working on a multi-year restoration series for the South Philly green space — a strategy that launched earlier this year in partnership with Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and Friends of FDR Park. Amid its landscape of improvements includes a temporary public art installation that will start on Saturday, Oct.20.

The work, ideally, aims to not only serve as ornamentation but education, specifically regarding climate change and its immediate impact on Philadelphia, including the marshlands that compose FDR Park.

Made possible by a Climate and Urban Systems Partnership, or CUSP, grant, the conservancy’s arts and culture initiative, a recipient of the the Community Development Investments program of ArtPlace America, in August, the conservancy announced a call for artists to produce an outdoor and interactive form of public art, ranging from sculptures to multi-disciplinary designs.

Following weeks of consideration, the conservancy chose Donnelly, a 2002 graduate of Bennington College where she studied visual art and Japanese, as well as, an alumna of the University of Iowa where, aside from earning a master’s of fine art in painting and drawing, she discovered an aptitude for paper making.

Donnelly, who, after college, ran a contemporary art gallery in Vancouver, says she’s always responded to plant life — an enchantment she unearthed while working in a concrete makeshift studio — formerly maid’s quarters — on top of an apartment building in Mexico City in 2004.

This would actually serve as her first studio space.

“That was kind of the most beautiful,” she said. “That was when I was like ‘I’m really doing this.’”

About six months later, she returned to Philly, plugging into the city’s creative community, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Mural Arts program. Around this time, she relocated from West Philly to East Kensington and eventually settled into her first Philly studio.

But, always fleeing the city, as she describes, Donnelly dedicated the next couple years to making art in Iowa while in graduate school. Contrary to misconceptions about solely cornfields, she describes the terrain as the “third coast” of the continental U.S.

(GRACE MAIORANO/South Philly Review)

She says it was actually out in the midwest where she realized her desire to depict ecological evolutions.

“A lot of what I was paying attention to were sort of these phenomenological moments where’s there’s some kind of play of light and it tricks your eye into seeing something a little bit different,” she recalled. “And I just kept thinking — ‘how can I make this thing, how can I remake this thing, that’s happening that’s occurring naturally. How can I remake this so that someone else can experience it predictably?’”

While studying in the Hawkeye State, Donnelly was also thunderstruck after being introduced to papermaking by professor Timothy Barrett, the only papermaker to have received the MacArthur Foundation grant.

Aside from serving as as alternative canvas for oil paintings, Donnelly’s newfound love for paper coincidentally tied into her other zeals.

“I realized it incorporated all of these elements that I was already paying attention to,” she said. “So your raw material is cellulose. Cellulose comes from plants.”

In 2009, Donnelly returned to the River Wards region of Philly, establishing her own studio space in a Port Richmond warehouse where she has spent the last decade working on major projects, including the FDR piece.

The new installation concentrates on the watershed of the Delaware River, particularly the rise of sea levels in Philadelphia as a result of climate changes over the next century.

A while ago, Donnelly found maps of both Philadelphia and FDR Park depicting its natural terrain over the last five centuries. This concept would come to serve as the premise for the art installation.

“We don’t have the ability to see 400 years of history in one snapshot,” she said. “But, if I can show you one picture that’s the same picture each hundred years, and to show you how much that’s changed due to human settlement, and to really see our effect on the land and to see the green space go from everywhere to virtually nowhere. It’s really shocking.”

Using handmade paint that is produced through finely beaten cotton, Donnelly is recreating the evolution of the city’s and the park’s topography based upon the maps, splattering the dyes on five-by-four feet pieces of her own paper fringed with real mulberry branches.

The work, which features eight maps in total, four of the city and four of FDR park from the 1600s through today, will be showcased in a 20-foot long hoop-tunnel structure built on a stretch of lawn between the park’s boat house and American Swedish Historical Museum.

The installation will be on display for about a month after being officially revealed at Exploration Day at FDR Park on Saturday, Oct. 20. Donnelly will also be collaborating with the Let’s Go Outdoors local youth organization to create educational and interactive programming based on her artwork.

For Donnelly, she hopes her work conveys that recurring ephemeral element of nature, chiefly the shifts we most need to acknowledge.

“When we think about climate change, it’s very slow,” Donnelly said. “Going back to perception of change, somethings happen on a very slow geologic pace, and it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. It just means that our ability to see the length of that change is very limited.”

To learn about this weekend’s Exploration Day at FDR Park, visit