The University of Arizona

Exploring Water Issues Through the Arts, Humanities

By La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Communications | November 9, 2012
"We hope people will be moved to think about water differently and appreciate the complexity and diversity of human responses to this precious natural resource, and also to think about the roles of both the sciences and humanities in forming their opinions and behaviors," said UA faculty member Ellen McMahon, co-editor of a newly published artistic book about regional water issues.
"We hope people will be moved to think about water differently and appreciate the complexity and diversity of human responses to this precious natural resource, and also to think about the roles of both the sciences and humanities in forming their opinions and behaviors," said UA faculty member Ellen McMahon, co-editor of a newly published artistic book about regional water issues.

Edited by UA faculty members, the soon-to-be published "Ground|Water: The Art, Design and Science of a Dry River" considers serious water issues through the lens of the arts and humanities.

In a collaborative initiative, UA faculty, artists, architects, scientists, general community members and writers of various genres have worked to meld art, the humanities and the sciences through the use of data and creative processes. Their work is now documented in
In a collaborative initiative, UA faculty, artists, architects, scientists, general community members and writers of various genres have worked to meld art, the humanities and the sciences through the use of data and creative processes. Their work is now documented in "Ground|Water," a newly published book about the presence and absense of water in the Southern Arizona region.

Snaking throughout the Southern Arizona region for much of the year are dry riverbeds, some of which are only a few feet wide, and others are wide enough to hold tractor-trailers.

The Pantano Wash, Santa Cruz River and Cienega Creek are among those that often lay bare, lest the monsoon is active. 

Serving as sandy remnants of water running free in earlier years, an embedded meaning exists within these dry riverbeds – or desert washes, as they are commonly referred – which is what Ellen McMahon and her colleagues set out years ago to explore and document.

"One of the most important functions of the arts and humanities is to enable us to interpret what we see, clarify how we feel, determine what matters and inspire us to act," said McMahon, a University of Arizona professor of art and visual communications.

The culmination of years of community-based collaboration and artistic initiatives is "Ground|Water: The Art, Design and Science of a Dry River," a new book being published this month by Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry and distributed by the UA Press, the University's nonprofit publishing house.

The book is the first in Confluencenter's new series, "Beyond Boundaries," which is devoted to spotlighting the work of UA faculty members. Also, the book will be presented during the center’s Nov. 14 Show & Tell from 5:30-7 p.m. at Playground Bar & Lounge, 278 E. Congress St.

"We are really happy to be able to bring the work of our colleagues downtown and to bring to the public's attention an awareness to what the University and our colleagues are doing," said Javier D. Durán, who directs Confluencenter.

"What I think this book does, through artistic expression, is to call people to think about the problematics of water," Durán said. "It brings innovative perspectives, creative insights and an unusual level of interaction between academics and the public. This is a very good step in establishing a connection to the general public."

Though projects date back to 2009, McMahon received $28,033 in funding in 2010 from what was then called the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Grants – funding that is now administered by the Confluencenter.

Under the grant, McMahon collaborated with Beth Weinstein, an associate professor of architecture, and Ander Monson, an associate professor in the English department who teaches creative writing.

"We need the arts and humanities now more than ever to help us to filter, sort and absorb the flood of information about global environmental issues brought to us by advances in science and technology," said McMahon, also a Fulbright Scholar. "We wanted to increase our own understanding of local water and its relationship to global climate and pass that on to our students."

From the start, the UA faculty members worked with scientists and members of the Rillito River Project, a Tucson-based public art project that has comparable aims. Together, they set out to explore the various ways they could raise public awareness about environmental issues through the use of art, design and science.

"The wide range of people who became involved in the seminar and in later stages of this project did so because they understand the role of art and design in determining how people perceive and interact with their surroundings," McMahon said. "Although science provides the contemporary world with its information, how we feel about that information is profoundly influenced by artistic expression and visual communication."

Thus, the groups created public works of art, performances, architectural installations and other projects to study and address the importance of water in the southwestern region. In particular, the group wanted to explore the meaning behind living in a drought-prone environment, one of expanding population growth coupled with initiatives to improve water conservation and environmental restoration.

"Together these works build a case for employing diverse methods of inquiry, representation and communication for the purposes of understanding our experience, imagining new possibilities and responding to increasingly complex environmental challenges," McMahon said.

So came "Ground|Water," which McMahon co-edited with Weinstein and Monson.

"'Ground|Water' is an ode to a dry river, the kind of river most familiar to those who dwell in Southern Arizona. It is also an experiment in making something beautiful from something that has been desecrated. And it is a strong message about community and responsibility," Katharine L. Jacobs, director of the National Climate Assessment in the White House, noted in the book's foreword.

"Why do we act as if our resources were infinite when they are so obviously finite? The issue is not inadequate science; it is an issue of perspective and world view," Jacobs, a UA faculty member and specialist in the department of soil, water and environmental science, also wrote.

The 112-page book, with letterpress printed covers and open sewn binding, includes 66 photographs and 39 illustrations with work by UA faculty members Alison Hawthorne Deming, Allison Dushane, Gregg Garfin, Ander Monson and Nathaniel Brodie.

"The idea of creating a cultural artifact – this book – was very appealing," Durán said. "It's not a common book, and we believe that our mission at the Confluencenter is very well represented in the book."

McMahon noted that artists and designers produced intercontinental comparisons of arid regions and river systems along with drawings and photographs, including those depicting Bat Night 2010, a community event that drew thousands of people to the Rillito riverbed to watch tens of thousands of bats.

For example, a then UA fifth-year architecture student, Jennifer Heinfeld, initiated a research-based ephemeral installation designed to interpret and reinterpret geographical markers in the Rillito that divide the city of Tucson. The analysis was then used to build a space for children to sit and play during Bat Night 2010.

Another contributor, photographic artist Camden Hardy, walked nearly two dozen miles along the Pantano Wash producing a video of his experience and also detailing the objects he found in the wash.

Other contributors from the Rillito River Project are Ellen Benjoya Skotheim, John Newman and Jennifer Powers-Murphy. And artists, designers, poets and writers who contributed include Christiana Caro, Logan Phillips and Jeff Leinenveber.

"The book is not only about writing and ideas, but also a reflection of how people collaborate and talk about water," Durán said.

"One of the most important things to come out of this is an awareness of the importance of water in our community and how people of different backgrounds look at water, whether from an environmental, scientific, artistic or creative perspective," he said. "It's an interesting reflection, and our hope is that the general public becomes aware of what needs to be done for our future." 

Contacts

Ellen McMahon

UA School of Art

520-621-1493

emcmahon@email.arizona.edu

 

Javier D. Duran

Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry 

520-621-5137

duran@email.arizona.edu