Creating a Living Water Map: Stacy Levy’s Collected Watershed Employs 8,500 Glass Jars to Tell the Story of Towson, Maryland’s Watershed

We hear a lot about watersheds, but how many of us really know where we live within the dendritic system of our own local waterways? We may glance at highway signs telling us we’ve entered this or that watershed, but can we name the creeks, streams, and rivers that flow around us, and do we know how they connect to each other?

Environmental artist Stacy Levy sets out to give one community a visceral, lyrical, and ecologically accurate sense of exactly where they live, water-wise, with her new project, Collected Watershed. The project, on view now through April 25th at the Towson University Center for the Arts Gallery in suburban Baltimore, employs more than 1,000 gallons of locally collected stream water to bring an entire network of Chesapeake waterways into view.

In order to get all that water back to the gallery, Levy and her collaborators—including biology students and faculty, music students, and art students—ventured out into the Towson area landscape for a full week of water collecting. Using 5-gallon buckets, participants gathered samples from over forty waterways. “It’s a very involved process,” Levy notes. “Locating the tributaries can be difficult—we’re often working with waterways that have been sent underground, or that run behind strip malls and invisibly through our neighborhoods. We all become water detectives searching out these hard-to-see waterways.”

Levy and an assistant lay out the watershed map on the gallery floor using blue tape and flexible plastic chain.

Once back at the gallery, those ungainly 5-gallon buckets filled with gathered water became, in Levy’s words, “very important water, like fine wine that you label.” And while that precious water waited, the next step of “Collected Watershed” took shape: participants carefully placed jars along blue masking tape on the gallery floor, mapping the shape of the many waterways surrounding Towson, from Gunpowder Falls in the north to Jones Falls in the south. Then, over the course of many days, participants filled those jars with water from the corresponding streams and tributaries. Now viewers can literally walk through a giant living map of their watershed, comprised of 8,500 recycled glass jars branching across the floor of the gallery.

A project participant carefully fills one of 8,500 recycled glass jars with gathered water.

For many participants, this process of gathering water and watershed mapping was an eye-opening look at the state of their watershed, as well as the hydrological issues that intersect with issues of social justice. Erin Lehman, lecturer and director of the Holtzman MFA and Center for the Arts Galleries at Towson, points to issues like water justice, paying water bills, storm runoff, and crumbling infrastructure causing pollution in local creeks and tributaries. “This project felt really germane to our gallery and the Baltimore area in general,” said Lehman, “because water is so important here, and so much of it is underground.”

Visitors to Collected Watershed can literally walk through a giant water map of the Towson area

For Levy, the project’s ultimate goal is simple: To bring to the forefront waterways that are often hidden and forgotten. “Our waterways are like capillaries across the land, carrying water from sky to sea,” she says. “The same branching pattern as our blood vessels, the watershed carries the life blood of our planet. Nowadays we know our roads far better than our waterways. By not knowing where the water flows, we fail to protect it.”

Collected Watershed at the Center for the Arts Gallery, January 31 – April 25, 2020. For more information go HERE

Abby Minor is a poet and essayist living in the ridges and valleys of central Pennsylvania.

(Top image: Collected Watershed collaborators gather samples from one of forty different waterways)

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ecoartapace ecoartspace is a nonprofit platform providing opportunities for artists who address the human/nature relationship in the visual arts. Since 1999 they have collaborated with over 150 organizations to produce more than 40 exhibitions, 100 programs, working with 400 + artists in 15 states nationally and 8 countries internationally. Currently they are developing a media archive of video interviews with artists and collection of exhibitions ephemera for research purposes. Patricia Watts is founder and west coast curator. Amy Lipton is east coast curator and director of the ecoartspace NYC project room.

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