Princeton Artists Alliance has used art as commentary on social and political issues for 25 years and is now tackling “The Politics of Water” with an exhibition at the Woodrow Wilson School’s Bernstein Gallery, on view through Friday, December 9, and a panel discussion Wednesday, November 9, at 4:30 p.m. in Robertson Hall.
“When water is scarce, we have to use it intelligently and recycle it as much as possible,” says Peter Jaffe, professor of civil and environmental engineering and associate director for research at the university’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, as well as a participant in the November 9 panel. “In general we just can’t look at water as a medium to carry away our waste, including excess nutrients, but understand how to preserve it for its ecological services and a key resource for humans.”
The 22 “Water” artists respond to such issues as climate change, dried up lakes and riverbeds, and how local economies and natural habitats have been affected. Some have focused on the degradation of our oceans and waterways by human pollution. Another focus has been the level of conflict or cooperation between neighboring states with growing populations as they negotiate access to a limited water supply.
The artists are Joanne Augustine, Hetty Baiz, Joy Barth, Anita Benarde, Rajie Cook, Clem Fiori, Tom Francisco, Carol Hanson, Shellie Jacobson, Judy Langille, Eva Mantell, Pat Martin, Charles McVicker, Lucy Graves McVicker, Harry Naar, Jim Perry, Maria Pisano, Richard Sanders, Madelaine Shellaby, Marie Sturken, and Judy Tobie.
“Taken together, the work in this expansive, multi-media exhibition is a meaningful visual exploration,” says Bernstein Gallery Curator Kate Somers.
Artist Rajie Cook, who in his career as a designer developed the Symbols Signs for the United States Department of Transportation, has put together a color catalog of the entire exhibition. His contribution, “Double Standard,” an assemblage, addresses the Palestinian-Israeli struggle over water.
Originally scheduled for spring of this year, “The Politics of Water” had to be moved back in the Woodrow Wilson School schedule, and now the artists are especially eager to bring the work they created specifically for the exhibit before the viewing public. One of the most enthusiastic has been Marie Sturken. Widely known for her works in handmade paper, Sturken has embedded discarded bottles into “Bottles in the Ocean.”
“Bottled water sounds like a nice thing, but when you think about it, it really isn’t,” says Sturken. “I thought about all the water in the world and how badly it is being used, and all the water bottles that are being thrown away, which, in turn, are clogging our bodies of water,” she says.
“I’ve embedded things in my work before but never to this extent,” Sturken adds. “After I collected enough empty bottles, I soaked the labels off and saved them to ‘float’ around the background.” To create the work Sturken spent a full day at Dieu Donne Paper Mill in New York.
Eva Mantell, too, has been thinking about this project for a long time. “I was preoccupied during the process of creating my work by questions about art and activism. How does art carry a message?” she asks. “How does it move between art and idea and how far can an artist go to one extreme before one of these two categories fritters away?”
While contemplating how message, medium, and process could unite or disunite, she began researching the state of groundwater. “I felt the information slipping out of my hands as if it were a liquid substance, slippery and uncontainable.”
Mantell’s mixed media interactive installation uses clay, plastic, and antique glass bottles with QR codes that can be scanned by a smartphone and link to articles about imperiled lakes. “The QR code promises to connect us to a source of good information, yet a lack of access persists.”
Judy Tobie, who also works in handmade paper, is among the newest members of PAA. She has been with the group two years and this is her second exhibit with them. She says she is excited and honored to be in the show, though “it can be a challenge to make art based on a particular theme. It can also be refreshing to figure out how to rise to the occasion and create work that uses one’s particular artistic vocabulary to make an artwork that expresses an assigned topic.” Her “Wave” is made from shredded currency, and she is so pleased with the outcome that plans to create more work in this direction.
Harry I. Naar has drawn a disappearing lake in Tintamaria, Bolivia. For several hundred years the fishing communities surrounding Lake Poopo depended on fishing as their sole livelihood. As silver-mining companies moved in and the water became polluted, the fish died off. Then climate change took its final toll. “People take water for granted,” says Naar, pointing out the abandoned fishing boats stuck in mud, surrounded by garbage. “If we’re foolish, our water is going to disappear.”
Madelaine Shellaby also examines a lake. Her digital print shows the Lake Peligre Dam in Haiti. In 1956 it caused flooding that destroyed the livelihood of farming communities. Shellaby cofounded Konekte Princeton Haiti to improve the lives of children and their communities through educational Initiatives, organizing groups of volunteers to rebuild schools. Konekte means to connect in Haitian Creole.
The situation that sparked Maria Pisano’s work also stems from a mid-20th century flooding. In 1966 the Arno River in Florence, Italy, overflowed its banks by 22 feet. Water mixed with oil, sewage, mud, and debris and inundated the city, destroying thousands of works of art, books, and historical documents.
At the time, Pisano was studying and teaching book and paper conservation at Rutgers. “This was a watershed moment for the conservation field,” Pisano recounts. “Many new methods were developed and implemented across global cultural institutions to understand the importance of preserving the original artifacts and how devastating it would be if they were lost forever. Many institutions today have disaster preparedness plans to be put in place at cultural institutions, libraries, and historical sites, and that year the U.S. passed the National Historic Preservation Act.”
Her handmade paper work, “Mud Angel,” interprets and highlights the destruction of cultural memory in the form of a handmade paper piece showcasing a folio from a book where the text has been erased and replaced by mud. “It is imperative that the public remains aware of the benefits that prevention and preservation offer to communities and the nation,” Pisano says.
Shellie Jacobson tackles the topic of micro beads — those plastic particles in certain cleansing products — in a work with ceramic fish. The Buffalo, New York, native read about the beads and felt compelled to do further research. “This struck a very personal chord with me,” she says of the fish that suffer from ingesting the micro beads. During her childhood, “We swam in Lake Erie and ate fish from the lake. It was a source for recreation.” She advocates for policy that puts the health of our lakes over personal cosmetic needs.
When Lucy Graves McVicker learned about the “assignment” from curator Somers, her first reaction was to go to the library. “I took out three documentaries on our planet’s water crisis,” says McVicker, who in turn created three works: “1900,” “2000,” and “2100.” “It was shocking to hear about other nations having to import bottled drinking water, or having a law against catching rain water. Then I read about the section of the Pacific Ocean where trash is dumped, and that, perhaps, is where I got the idea to paint our fragile ocean in three different centuries.”
Indeed it is terrifying to think of what the future of water on our planet might look like. Anita Benarde seeks a more hopeful solution for future generations, one that combines the quests for peace and environmental sustainability. Her “Water without Boundaries,” depicts a desalination device to be installed on West Bank rooftops, providing potable water daily.
As artists raise awareness in a school for public policy, and a community comes together around the subject of water, Benarde’s dream might become a reality.
The Politics of Water, Woodrow Wilson School. Through Friday, December 9. Panel discussion and reception, November 9, 4:30 p.m., in Robertson Hall, free. wws.princeton.edu/about-wws/bernstein-gallery.