Friday, November 4, 2016

“Riverwork Project” and "Watershed Cairns" at the Jacoby Arts Center

by Carmen Alana Tibbets

The Mississippi is not my river. I was born to another, spent my childhood adjacent to a second, then  my youth with one drained dry (the rios San Pedro, Grande and Salado). I am from an arid region where rivers and the water therein are serious matters. Everyone is aware of water's status, distribution and use.  Life is centered along a thin, bright line through each valley, clear in everyone's mind, day in, day out.

When I moved here and met the Mississippi, I was a little disappointed - with the waterway itself and the people's response to it. I thought it would be bigger, lovelier than its parched cousins, respected, integrated into the daily life of the citizens. But none of those things were true. Historically it looms large, and it shaped the history of the region (geologically and culturally), but sadly, except for its flood potential, most people don't give it a second thought. Over the years, the indifference of the locals has rubbed off on me and I no longer publicly opine on nature-based topics. Conversation is difficult when there is no point of reference between parties. (Full disclosure: I am a former biologist and worked on endangered species of fish.)

Installation view: "Running Water: Riverwork Project" and "Watershed Cairns" at the Jacoby Art Center, Alton, IL. Photo by Carmen Alana Tibbets.

Visiting "Running Water: Riverwork Project" and "Watershed Cairns" at the Jacoby Art Center in Alton brought my ambiguous feelings to the surface. I meant for this to be a straight-forward review of the art itself, but each time I sat down to write, the topic veered off into my own thoughts about the natural world, large-scale art projects that incorporate the topic, and why I think they are failing the public. I felt as if I were short-changing the exhibit, but then I realized that perhaps it did reach its goal with this viewer. I've certainly spent a lot of time over the past few weeks thinking about water issues as I repeatedly rewrote this post.

Sun Smith-FĂ´ret. (detail) Riverwork Project. Photo by Carmen Alana Tibbets.

Sun Smith-Foret’s "Riverwork Project" is a circuitous track of textile collage created by improvisational piecework (only a portion is exhibited at the Jacoby -it is nearly as long as a football field). The sprawling segments were embellished using a variety of fiber techniques and provided by over 60 regional artists, from all walks of life and all ages. Poems, quotations and imagery refer to rivers and their influence on human lives.

As I strolled along the length of a longer section, I realized relatively few of the references were about the Mississippi or Missouri watersheds. Considering that the work was created by people living adjacent to one of the most well-known rivers in the world, I thought this was a lost opportunity. If all politics is local (as the saying goes), then to promote change we must foster personal efforts - the distillation of local.  Using artwork to call attention to social issues has a long history, and although useful as a touch-point for discussion, I think projects like these are losing their punch. It has become all too easy for someone to stroll into and out of a gallery, momentarily celebrate the call to action, post something laudable online, then fall back into his or her comfortable routine.

Watershed Cairns. Libby Reuter, Joshua Rowan. Transgendered Frogs. May 2012. Howell Island Conservation Area, Chesterfield, MO. N38.664411   W090.677908.

Admirable as it is to bring attention to the issue of clean water (or lack thereof), I am left with the impression that viewers will continue to think of water conservation as a large-scale concern - and therefore, something beyond one person's power to change. Part of this attitude is influenced by modern American cultural habit, as evidenced by the contributing artists themselves. When creating their own textile pieces, many looked out of the neighborhood, out of this continent even, and over into the realms of philosophy and literature for commentary. Few looked at their gutters, faucets, or newly purchased cases of bottled water in the panty. I wanted to see a closer connection to what is nearby; a sense of immediacy, both temporal and physical, a recognition of the tenuous grip we hold over public water resources. What is needed is artwork that touches the viewer in a less abstract way, something to bring them up short. "Watershed Cairns" has that potential.

Watershed Cairns. Libby Reuter, Joshua Rowan. January 2015. Devils Prop Nature Reserve, East Beal Road near Tolle Lane. N38.420392   W088.840353.

As a counterpoint to the textile work, Libby Reuter's glass cairns and Joshua Rowan's photographs of them in situ suggest a more direct reference to aquatic systems. The sculptures themselves are lovely, reminiscent of the sparkle of light on water. The cairns were stood as sentinels around the St. Louis metro area. In some locations, the artifacts blended with the environment; in others, they were a stark contrast in color, texture and mood.

My persistent thought was that it would be marvelous to be hiking along a riverbank -or just down the street- and find one of the cairns. What person, when presented with a delicate glass tower in an unexpected place, wouldn't take the time to look around, wonder what's going on, really think about that spot?  The perfect chance to ponder.  Ah, but the sculptures were not given the leisure to interact with the public. Yes, I realize they are delicate and could pose a danger if broken , but what if?

We are left with only the photographs and that brief moment of time. Is this good or bad? I'm not sure. Plenty of people will look at the body of images and continuity of subject, and form an opinion shaped by those static portraits. That experience will be totally different and, I suspect, far less emotional than the possibility of the jolt of discovery en plein air. Which would they remember best? Which would inspire most?

It is true that "Watershed Cairns" allows viewers to mentally visit new locales (hopefully promoting an actual corporeal transit) and think about the diversity of regional aquatic habitats. But what will they do next? For me, that is the burning question. I want artworks like these to be appreciated and create inspiration. But not just a transitory lifting of the soul or a brief twitch of the grey matter. What I really want is for art to start making a difference, one that can be measured by a shift in action, not just an uptick in "awareness."

Because I grew up and lived in the desert, I love rivers. The scents, sounds and feel of wetlands are dear to me. It is an ingrained habit to stop what I'm doing to go outside and watch the beginning of every rainfall, a habit left from a place where rain may not come again for months. Not many urban dwellers appreciate mud puddles and rivulets in gutters as I do. Because of this, I acknowledge and applaud the efforts of the artists in "Running Water." This is important stuff, folks. Water is life. It's super important. Here, in St. Louis. Right now. And everywhere else, too. For everyone else. We need to be paying attention. But we're not. Visit the "Riverwork Project," think about it, discuss it, then DO something to change your habits.
Riverwork Project” and "Watershed Cairns" are on display at the Jacoby Arts Center, 627 E. Broadway, Alton, IL through November 19, 2016 and admission is free. 618/462-5222.
Carmen Alana Tibbets is Creative Director and Owner of Agosia Arts. Based in Illinois, Alana exhibits her one-of-a-kind fiber artworks locally, regionally and nationally.