Activist Artist Tests the Waters in Terre Haute

illustration by Sasha-K
illustration by Sasha-K

As the Year of the River draws to a close, a series of presentations by Betsy Damon, director of Keepers of the Waters, has taken place at various venues in the city. We attended the noon talk at the Swope Museum on October 30th.  Damon, after complimenting the local community for the enthusiasm she has seen during her visit, spoke about her work as a form of art because she “considers the earth our most important canvas.”

Damon asked the audience to take a moment to think about what they most care about, and to answer the question, “If you really believed you could do one thing to turn the ship around, what would you do?”

Her presentation began with a few slides showing feminist themed performance art she did in New York during the 1970s and 80s, prior to her art/activism on the issue of water. An early aquatic-based work was a cast piece called “The Memory of Water” for which Damon examined patterns made in nature by a drop of water. She began to do intense research on water when, after looking at the Milky Way, she had the insight that “everything is patterned by water.”

 illustration by Sasha-K

illustration by Sasha-K

Due to a series of fortunate events, which were not fully explained as a component of this particular talk, Damon was able to take charge of a project in Sichuan, China and Tibet which she termed the “the first public art for water in China.” This, in turn, led to her being hired by the Chinese government to oversee the creation of a “Living Water Garden” in Chengdu, China.

Like the flow of water, Damon’s talk was non-linear.

She interspersed her narration with references to everything from statistics on sources of water pollution to a 16th century Chinese manuscript that discusses medicinal properties of water from various sources.  She frequently strayed into stories about other projects she’s been involved in, stopping short to return to her prepared slides.

Damon had spoken on the Rose-Hulman campus the day before this presentation, and was keynote speaker at the Our Green Valley Alliance for Sustainability Annual Conference, held October 31st and November 1st on the ISU campus.

Members of the Wabash River Development & Beautification, Inc. Board were in the audience for Damon’s talk at the Swope. Damon’s work in developing water gardens to raise awareness of environmentally sound methods for water purification would seem to have possibilities as a model for this organization which has been working for at least 5 years on a project called Riverscape, an extensive plan for multi-use development of the Wabash River waterfront. Pat Martin, a Terre Haute city planner, was also in attendance.

Of course, no city in the U.S. would find it easy to undertake a project similar to the extensive work Damon was involved with in China. Damon told the audience, “I like telling good stories about China because we read so many bad ones.” Obviously, her experiences in that country were both personally and professionally rewarding, and they no doubt raised awareness of water-related issues. Still, holding up the Chinese government as champions of the environment is hardly accurate.

illustration by Sasha-K
illustration by Sasha-K

The talk at the Swope was given in the context of examining art as a means for improving the environment. Damon said, “I don’t think about whether I do art or I don’t do art; I just do!”

In this sense, the event seemed to me like one of the currently popular TED talks. The speaker is passionate, the rhetoric is inspirational, but one is left with little practical advice about how to emulate the speaker’s success, or to put insights gained into action.

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