During the season of Lent, I am practicing as the Artist in Residence at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Seattle. Each week, I’ll post a brief reflection on my work with the week’s theme and my own artistic process.
Each of the past two Saturday’s, while most of the continent has been hit hard by cold winter weather, we who live beside Puget Sound have been lavished with warm sunlight to mark our slowly lengthening days. And for the past two weekends, I have taken to the water.
Hearing water rake and curl past bow of boat, slipping through changing hues of gray and green and blue, slows me down–takes me out from linear tick of time, and into a melodic, syncopated keeping; a cycle of belonging that invites me to hold and be held by the world in holy ways.
As I contemplate the readings for this week’s practice of Lent, I am–of course–flooded by the imagery of water. In the creation narrative of Noah’s family and the flood, God establishes a covenant of belonging with humanity and all creatures of the earth, promising to provide for and not destroy us with rising waters. The author of 1 Peter ties the ancient flood with the rite of Baptism, by which we are joined with Jesus. And Mark’s gospel tells of Jesus’ own baptism, where God proclaims the belovedness of Jesus.
And so, for this week’s piece, I wanted to create something that spoke to the wholeness of water–the connection of water with every living thing on earth, our participation and belonging to the belovedness of Jesus through the waters of baptism, and the complexity of our human impact on the water cycle around our blue planet.
I’m also keenly aware of the way in which water invites my body to slow down–to know my belovedness, belonging, and connection to the world in deeper ways. I wanted this piece to invite an actual interaction with water. Moreover, I wanted the piece to require human participation in order to work.
By creating a fountain that doesn’t run on electricity, the viewer cannot experience the activity of the water cycle without literally being drawn into the action of the fountain itself. While the global water cycle is propelled by solar warming, air flow, evaporation, precipitation, the aspiration of plants, condensation of atmospheric moisture, and countless other factors, still, human participation in the water cycle cannot be denied.
There are over 40,000 large, human-built dams (40 feet or taller) shaping the world’s waterways. And it’s estimated that somewhere around 60 million people have been displaced by these projects–this, of course, doesn’t tally the impact on other species. (These stats are widely reported by various bodies, but I’m drawing info from http://www.internationalrivers.org/)
And while our ambitious water projects often provide electrical power and can hold back water, allowing room for agriculture and cities, time itself is on the side of water. We know the power of floods and mudslides. Dams give way. Levees are allowed to fall into disrepair. Zoning permits allow developers to build homes where geologists have warned of impending erosion.
From the flotilla of trash in the Pacific Gyre, to the sterile rivers of Appalachia turned green from copper mines, we shape the water cycle. We also plant riparian buffers, welcome back Salmon to their ancient streams, and are moved by compassion to respond to our global neighbors devastated by deforestation, desertification, agricultural erosion, and drought. Insomuch as we are participants in damaging the water cycle, we also have potential to participate in its repair. But doing so may require us to slow down, consider the whole before rushing to another technological solution, and commit ourselves to faithful, actionable repentance.
For my creative process on this piece, I kept circling around the biblical creation narratives of an ordered world emerging out of watery chaos. There’s the Genesis 1 account of a world formed by God hovering over water. This is followed with the story of the great flood. Later, the infant Moses is launched out on the waters, the nation of Israel flees slavery through the parted waters of the Red Sea, and the desert wandering people of God cross into abundance by moving through the waters of the Jordan river (I’m aware that these accounts can be told in ways that disregard the fate of Noah’s neighbors, the drowned Egyptian army, or the invaded inhabitants of Palestine–yet these people too are connected in this water cycle).
The echoes of these and other Ancient Near Eastern accounts of worlds emerging through water birth are brought to bear in New Testament accounts of Jesus’ baptism which becomes sacralized in our understanding of Christian identity and our participation with God in the ongoing creation/wholeness-making of the world. But our belovedness offered in Jesus is present in the earlier Genesis account, where God places the rainbow as a sign of covenant in the sky.
In the piece, above the baptismal interaction of participants, water, and leaves, a small lantern hangs watchfully overhead. Inside it, a rainbow of sea glass is immersed in water, illuminated by a flame; human waste, transformed by water, represents the symbol of a God who remakes the world on our behalf.
I wanted to hold these things together with the ecological realities of water and our planet. My idea was for a fountain made up of elements that would break down, and that is powered by the actions of those who encounter it. I wanted to communicate the beauty of what was happening in the given moment, while also drawing attention to the experience of impermanence. The piece is built in place, meaning that the form that is encountered is only an iteration of these particular elements.
The elements: stones from the garden pathway at St. Paul’s, cups made of clay, a rain chain of rolled Madrona leaves, harvested from the fallen branch that forms the upright structure of the fountain, and water, that with enough time and interaction, can transform each of these elements, freeing each to become something else in the community of the world.
Part of the beauty of sacramental theology is that the actual actions of participants matter. We are invited by God’s Spirit to know and live into our wholeness-making participation in the watery life of the world.
Our lives depend on water–the particular molecules filling our bodies and surrounding us in the air, and the regional and global cycles. And, we are active participants in a biological, geological, and hydrological communion. Each molecule is wholly water, and altogether, the coming together and breaking apart of hydrogen and oxygen, mirrors our own coming together and breaking apart as parts of the whole community of life on earth.
My hope is that through interaction with this piece, entitled “Water Cycle” participants will be invited to experience their bodily participation as prayer/action–a sacramental sign/act that opens their imagination to participating prayerfully in all of their life’s movements within the water cycle. In this way, the piece is meant to echo baptism–a holy birthing and reordering of our life in the world; an invitation to be taken up in the belovedness of God and flowing as holy, embodied persons, participating in the life of the world.
Like the shape of a cresting wave–“Water Cycle” can be felt and experienced only while it is being expressed, but even in that moment, it is being transformed into another iteration–just as whole, beautiful, and sacred as the one that is disappearing. I want participants to slow down and feel something of the connection between the wholeness of the part and their participation with the whole. In this way, the art is not the sculpture, but the action and the elements coming together to birth a deeper, unfolding mystery.