Water Conversations, The Goddess Brigid, and Mayflies

By Susan Hoffman Fishman

Irish visual artist and researcher Anna Macleod has spent the last 15 years exploring the environmental, economic, spiritual, political, and scientific aspects of water through interdisciplinary collaborations, performance, public interventions, and socially engaged activism. 

Like most artists addressing water issues in their work, Macleod can pinpoint the time when she first became focused on the topic. In 2007, she attended a workshop/residency in Carrick-on-Shannon, Ireland, led by Chilean-born artist and architect Alfred Jaar, for which she developed a sculptural public fountain that operated solely with rainwater. The project was a resounding success for residents of the town, who were delighted with the fountain and began using the water for their personal needs.

At the same time that the workshop was taking place, the city of Galway in Western Ireland was facing what Macleod refers to as a “catastrophic failure” of its public water system. The drinking water serving the entire city and surrounding areas had become contaminated by human waste, forcing the government to provide bottled water for an extended period of time. Both the positive experience of community engagement around water and her observations of the disastrous impact of poor waste water management and failing infrastructure propelled her into an examination of water in all of its dimensions and the creation of an on-going series of collaborative interdisciplinary projects called Water Conversations

Water Conversations: Alberta. Performative walks around Lake Miniwanka, Banff National Park and Lefarge Exshaw Plant (cement factory), Alberta, Canada. Sculpture: recycled rubber and aluminum, steel bar, gas torch in custom-made holster, 2015.

At first, Macleod began looking at the colonial vestiges of water systems that had been built and left behind in countries ruled by the British Empire. She questioned whether or not infrastructure failures had occurred there as they had in Ireland. Ultimately, she developed a process that allowed her to visit communities all over the world, talk to residents about their local water concerns, and create artworks related to these issues using her own participation in artist’s residencies as a vehicle for realizing her projects. 

To date, Macleod has conducted Water Conversations work in Ghana, Canada, Northern India, Mongolia, the United States, Spain, Australia, and Ireland. Her goal is to address local water issues, empower people to lobby their own local governments for change, and help heal the emotional impact of water problems and climate change. 

In 2015, for example, at an artist’s residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Alberta, Canada, Macleod studied the complex issues related to fossil fuel extraction in Western Canada. At the same time that she observed how the process of extracting oil impacted local bodies of water and contributed to the global climate crisis, she acknowledged that by serving as consumers of fossil fuels, we ourselves are contributing to the degradation of this same environment. For her culminating project, she conducted performative walks around both Lake Miniwanka in Banff National Park and the Lafarge Exshaw Plant, which manufactures cement just outside the National Park. (See photo above.) Carrying a portable sculpture made from recycled rubber and aluminum as well as a gas torch, she became the living embodiment of our collective guilt, a counter monument in a changing landscape.  

Atomic Journeys: New Mexico Banner Project. Red Water Pond Road Community Banner, 214 x 107 cm. Cotton Fabric, mosquito netting, cotton embroidery threads, wooden poles, 2017.

During a three-month residency in 2017 at the Santa Fe Art Institute in New Mexico, Macleod researched the 1979 Church Rock Uranium Spill and its impact on Navajo Nation Tribal Trust lands as part of her on-going Water Conversations project. Caused by a breach in a dam wall, the industrial accident sent millions of gallons of solid and liquid radioactive waste downstream into the Puerco River and onto Navajo property. The spill contaminated the groundwater and left the local residents, mostly Navajo peoples, without water for drinking and irrigation.

As an act of solidarity with the Navajo community, Macleod proposed to make a banner that could be used at future lobbying and protest events and during their annual Uranium Legacy, Remembrance and Action Day, an event which raises awareness, commemorates, and protests the July 16 spill. The Red Water Pond Road Community Association (RWPRCA), a grassroots organization of Navajo Nation families and sponsors of the annual event, agreed to host a workshop to create the banner design, which was attended by twenty community members and approved by the community Elders. Macleod presented the embroidered banner to the RWPRCA on April 20, 2017. (see above) 

Walk North: Durational performative walk through Paonia, Colorado, USA. Hand-embroidered netting fabric, cotton yarn and thread, silver plated serving tray, cotton fabric, and 10-pound block of ice, August 2018.

Walk North, another example of Macleod’s Water Conversations project, was inspired by her attendance at an artist residency and symposium at Elsewhere Studios in Paonia, Colorado in August 2018. A two-hour durational performance walk, it referenced both the prolonged drought caused by the reduction of snow melt and the increase in summer temperatures in North Fork Valley, as well as the tensions between the farming and coal mining communities over the way in which water was being distributed for industrial, agricultural, and domestic use. Dressed in mourning black and wearing a hand embroidered veil, Macleod walked through the town of Paonia carrying a 10-pound block of ice on a silver tray. She describes the goal of Walk North as an effort to “mourn the receding glaciers of Colorado and highlight the threat that climate change poses to the human and non-human habitats in the region.”

When she was prevented from traveling during the pandemic, Macleod focused her attention on water issues at home. The growth of the agricultural and commercial forestry sectors has brought bigger and more powerful polluting machines, and an increase in the use of polluting fertilizers to what had once been environmentally clean waters. She also developed and maintained an interest in Irish mythology, still vivid in the imagination of local residents. The pre-Christian Goddess Breed (or St. Brigid), the guardian of nature, healing, poetry and metalsmithing, and the harbinger of the Celtic Spring Imbolc. is still celebrated with community-wide tributes on February 1st every year.  

Mayfly Research, Anna Macleod and Padraig Cunningham, 2021

Macleod is currently participating as one of 20 artists in the innovative Eco Showboat project, initiated by Paris-based Irish artists Anne Cleary and Denis Connelly. Eco Showboat is a traveling art expedition along the inland rivers and lakes of Ireland, taking place on a solar-powered electric vessel over a four-month period from May through August of 2022. Its goal is to foster awareness of and conversations about climate change and promote a zero-carbon future. 

Macleod’s contribution to the project will take place at Lough Key (Lake Key), the body of water near her home in County Leitrim, Ireland. Working with a group of 11- and 12-year-old students from the St. Michael’s National School in Cootehall, she will conduct a series of art/science workshops on the mayfly and its role as an indicator species that responds to changes in bodies of water. She will also teach students how to create sculptures using materials from nature. 

Mayflies are an ancient species very sensitive to water quality and temperature. An important component of freshwater biodiversity, they contribute to the diet of fish in rivers and lakes and to birds, frogs, beetles, and spiders on land. Macleod is focusing on the mayfly as a way to bring attention to the importance of biodiversity. To her, the mayfly is a metaphor for “the precariousness of our existence in the Anthropocene, and a symbol of survival and renewal.” As part of the project, she is collaborating with Dr. Mary Kelly Quinn, an expert on the mayfly and Associate Professor in the School of Biology and Environmental Science at University College Dublin. She is also creating a film on mayflies in collaboration with filmmaker Padraig Cunningham and musician Shahab Coohe

As Macleod continues to develop work on water issues across the globe for her on-going Water Conversations series, and create the Mayfly project close to her own home, she emphasizes that all water issues are in fact local and can be successfully addressed through activism and the concerted engagement of community. 

(Top image: 49th Uranium Mining Legacy, Remembrance Day and Action Day, Navajo Nation, Grants Mining Belt, New Mexico, USA, July 12, 2018.)

This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate disruption a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.

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Susan Hoffman Fishman is a Connecticut-based painter, eco-artist and arts writer whose work has been exhibited widely in museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Since 2011, all of her paintings, installations and photographs have addressed water and the climate crisis. Her most recent work, called In the Beginning There Was Only Water is a visual reframing of the biblical creation myth. In 39 panels, it speaks to the importance and beauty of all living beings and what we stand to lose as a result of climate change. She recently participated in an artist’s residency at Planet, an international company providing global satellite images, where she focused on the proliferation of sinkholes caused by climate change. 

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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