River Talk

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Women and Water Rights

By Guest Blogger Anna Metcalfe

...the role of artworks is no longer to form imaginary and utopian realities, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real, whatever the scale chosen by the artist.[1]

We live in a world where we are perpetually being reminded of all of the things around us that leave so much room for improvement. This is oftentimes overwhelming. Where do we begin? How do we move forward? Are science's statistics the best language to use to convince our world that changes must be made? Are policies made by our politicians the ultimate means for making changes in our society? How do we choose which battles to fight, especially when such basic necessities exist in our world: clean water, healthy food, education?

I teach art at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, and one of the first things that I tell my students at the beginning of the semester is that whether or not they knew it when they signed up to take my class, they have actually signed up to learn a new language. I like using this metaphor because while there are some people who use language more affectively than others, we all speak some sort of language, and most likely we use it to communicate with the people around us. I believe that art is one of the many "languages" we use to communicate our thoughts, ideas and emotions, and I believe that everyone is capable of learning that language. Not only that, but it is the sort of language that can garner the attention of hugely diverse audiences and can even say different things to different people - at the same time.

"Women and Water Rights: Rivers of Regeneration" is an art show that is up through the 24th of March in the Katherine E. Nash Gallery in the Regis Center for Art at the University of Minnesota. Focused on Water Rights as a topic, all of the works in the show are made by women and some about women. All works have something to say about water, and though each piece has a different message, meandering through the gallery reveals a microcosm of conversations about our world's most important resource. Some of the works in the show are thoughtful reminders of our interconnectedness with water, while others insight viewers to action. Still others, like Christine Baeumler's moveable rain garden model are art works that are "ways of living and models of action within the existing real" (Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics). Artworks such as these not only provide a model for action, but cause real, concrete improvement in the world's water systems.

"Women and Water Rights: Rivers of Regeneration" is a beautiful example of artists harnessing their language to speak out in the name of social change. It calls each of us to find our voice - in whatever language we speak - and to say something.

For more information about the show and events in coordination with it, please visit: http://womenandwater.net/

[1] Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (France: Les presses du réel, 1998, in English, 2002), 13

Telling River Stories

The Story Boats in the RiverThere's an affinity between rivers and stories. The best stories flow like rivers; some of our best stories are about rivers; something about being on a river elicits stories. One of the best known stories in American literature is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and since Twain's time hundreds of people have tried their hand at telling their river story. 

Our web site Telling River Stories may not be as ambitious as Twain's account, but it does "aim high," if you will. Our stories show actual people, doing river-shaping work in actual places. The "actual" is important to us: this is not a "grand march of time" history site where users aren't really sure who did all that stuff. A good rule of thumb to think about what are "river stories" would be "the things you should know to understand the river in that spot." 

For example, "Navigating Our River Communities" tells of the work done by art student Anna Metcalfe in her work with the Minneapolis Green Team. The Green team is a group of disadvantaged Minneapolis youth who have been brought together in the summer to conduct habitat restoration work along the Mississippi. The young people, all high school students, undertake projects under the guidance of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, the National Park Service, and the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization. The collaboration is modeled on work pioneered by the Community Design Center of Minnesota. All in all, this is amazing work that is a prime example of what's happening on our riverfronts today that will lead us into a more sustainable future.

So what do we hope for from the Telling River Stories (TRS) web site? The primary audience for the site is the hundreds, if not thousands, of people who are working every day to make a more sustainable future for our riverfronts. We hope that you will come to the site, explore stories that interest you, and then continue to pursue information about the partners and projects that are described there. The TRS site is companion to the home site of the River Life program, which contains descriptions and links for the most innovative, far-reaching, and substantial projects, programs, and people engaged in all facets of river restoration. The map-based TRS site tells "where" the great work is happening; the River Life database shows who and what is involved in doing this great work. 

We hope to get your work included in our databases, so we can tell the world all about your successes. Get in touch with me at pdn@umn.edu and let's see what we can do!
Young people from disadvantaged communities within the Twin Cities have been involved in restoration of Mississippi River natural areas for years through programs of the Community Design Center of Minnesota.  The long-standing Green Team program in St. Paul brings together youth from the city's Hmong, Hispanic, African-American communities with gardeners and nonprofit restoration ecologists to clear invasive vegetation species and replant areas of the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary.  In 2008, the Green team concept expanded to Minneapolis, where youth worked with staff from the National Park Service Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, and the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization to begin ecological restoration work at the Father Hennepin Bluffs Park, located on the east side of St. Anthony Falls.

Ceramic artist Anna Metcalfe, a graduate student earning her MFA at the University of Minnesota, approached project coordinators in early summer with a new idea: why not ask the program's members to draw and write their "river story" on paper outlines of boat shapes, which Metcalfe would then fire into a series of "story boats," each illustrating an individual's expressive relationship to the Mississippi River?  The coordinators agreed that the expressive opportunity offered by the story boat project provided the students a chance to reflect in a different way about their evolving relationship with the river that they had been working with all summer.  Metcalfe held workshops for both the Minneapolis and St. Paul teams, collected their drawings and writings, and fired a series of clay boats, nearly 60 in all.

Toward the end of the summer, students had the opportunity to see their boats as artistic objects, co-created between themselves and Metcalfe.  Many of the drawings were exquisite, and the stories quite moving accounts of the students' ongoing emotional and personal attachment to the River. This is just one example of the transformative work that can take place when a bright student, active community partners, and engaged teens all work together.

Drawing River Stories

The process begins with the program's members drawing and writing their own personal "river story" on paper outlines of boat shapes.

Story Boats by Anna Metcalfe

Metcalfe then fired the stories into a series of "story boats".

Story Boats and the Stone Arch Bridge

Metcalfe held workshops for both Minneapolis and St. Paul teams, collected their drawings and writings, and fired a series of clay boats, nearly sixty in all.

The Story Boats in the River

Toward the end of the summer, in 2008, students had the opportunity to see their boats as artistic objects, co-created between themselves and Metcalfe.

Images courtesy of Anna Metcalfe.

  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.