From Britton to Rome, Traveling a Straight Line
For 1983 Britton-Macon graduate Kevin Benham, art, landscape and biology are interrelated and provide a fascinating perspective on the world. In January he takes his explorations of the natural world and biodiversity to Italy after being awarded the prestigious 2020-21 Prince Charitable Trusts/Kate Lancaster Rome Prize in Landscape Architecture from the American Academy in Rome.
By moving a herd of sheep 100 kilometers down a mountain into the city of Rome, Benham plans to present both a performance piece and an in-depth study of the natural world. His goal is to view the shepherds’ older paths for possible change in biodiversity.
“That’s the plan,” said Benham. “I’m looking to trace the pathways to see how legible they are in the landscape. I want to see how the sheep have affected the landscape over the millennia.”
Benham sees all landscape as constantly evolving. Introducing even a small change to the environment provides a new visual experience as well as affecting the natural world in ways expected and unexpected.
The idea for study that Benham presented to the American Academy continues work he has explored in other venues in the United States and Europe. In Sweden, Benham worked with the Swedish Fortifications Agency to inscribe lines in the earth to expose dormant seed beds that produced rare plant material that drew rare insects and birds to the area.
In the tall grass prairie of Kansas, he worked with the National Park Service to erase the existing landscape through the use of burning to bring rare species to the area. During each project, Benham’s photography and videography documented the process and were artistic pieces that could stand on their own merit.
“I kind of work the margins,” he said. “I work at the intersection of fine art and biology. I’ve been working with the concept of line in the landscape. I kept thinking about these pathways.”
The landscape of Benham’s childhood in Britton was fields filled with wheat, soybeans and field corn. That connection with open vistas stayed with him even as he moved away from Southeastern Michigan.
He earned B.A. from Kalamazoo College in 1987, a master’s degree in architecture from the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan in 1995 and a master’s in landscape architecture from the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University in 2001.
To finance his explorations through research, Benham is currently the Jon Emerson/Wayne Womack Design Professor at the Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture at Louisiana State University. His students include first-year undergraduates studying landscape architecture as well as first-year graduate students in landscape architecture.
“I love teaching,” said Benham. “I love the students. They are amazing.”
Many of the people in his field are focused on the positive and negative effects on urban landscape architecture, but Benham is also concerned with rural areas.
“We need to be thinking about all systems. They aren’t mutually exclusive,” he said. “Having a childhood in a rural condition makes me more empathetic. I think I have a relationship with the land that’s pretty healthy. I’m constantly between these two poles. It broadens the way that I think about the world.”
The philosophy of disruptive ecology encourages a healthier environment for all living organisms, including humans, connected as they live together in a particular area. “This idea of a static landscape is a fallacy,” Benham said. “Disrupting the environment can actually provide more biodiversity.”
The Rome Prize receives 1,000 applications in a variety of disciplines, and Benham was one of two landscape architects with a winning proposal. The American Academy in Rome follows a two-phase review process, with Benham flying from Louisiana to New York City in the second phase.
“It’s a fairly rigorous process,” he said. “This was the first time I felt like I had enough work of quality to apply.”