Water is essential to life on Earth, it's exploited, desired, revered and feared the world over. It's also a topic on the minds of locals more than usual lately, thanks to the devastating drought of recent years and the intense storms and flooding of recent weeks.
For the next exhibition in its year-long "Climate Connections" series, the Palo Alto Art Center presents "Under Water," an artistic exploration of the crucial role of water in an ecosystem, and some of the many ways in which human society and water are intertwined.
The works on view are all tied to the aquatic theme but represent a range of perspectives. Palo Alto Art Center Director Karen Kienzle curated the current exhibition, and was struck by the diversity represented by both media used and topics explored.
"As I was thinking about the show, I was looking at what is underwater literally and underwater figuratively," she said.
Environmental activist and artist Linda Gass, who's based in Los Altos, has a deep-rooted relationship with the Palo Alto Art Center, including her 2015 Creative Ecology artist residency, for which she led community projects centered around East Palo Alto's Cooley Landing, a former garbage dump transformed into a bayside park. Her large-scale photo mural "The Living Shoreline Project" grew out of this residency, depicting the project in which she and her community volunteers marked the former, natural San Francisco Bay shoreline with temporary blue plastic survey whiskers and, later, a permanent installation of California native plants. The work was done in collaboration with the nonprofit Grassroots Ecology.
Her "Hard and Soft Series" of glass and textile artworks represents the process of turning industrial salt ponds back into wetlands. She said she hopes her contributions to the exhibition "create a curiosity in viewers about the value of wetlands and the need to protect them, given how much effort and energy it takes to restore them."
Barron Park fiber artist Judith Content has long been influenced by the natural environment around her, particularly wetlands, intertidal zones and the California coastline. "I also find inspiration in the creeks that flow through our area, connecting the mountains to the Bay, particularly Matadero Creek, Adobe Creek and San Francisquito Creek," she told this news organization.
Content created "Gyres," her vibrantly colored fiber sculpture piece, using the traditional Japanese dye method arashi-shibori. The vivid, rainbow-hued sculptures are reminiscent of pinwheels or water lilies, and represent ocean currents, which regulate the climate of adjacent landmasses and help nourish migrating sea life. Content's recent work reflects her ongoing concerns about climate change and resulting natural disasters.
"I hope my work intrigues viewers. I hope it makes them want to stop, question and consider it awhile," she said. "As a whole, I hope the exhibition reminds people that water is complex, essential, precious, as well as beautiful, mesmerizing and potentially at risk."
The work of Stanford-based artist Sukey Bryan may be familiar to art center regulars, particularly the large-scale photographs that graced the facade and garden wall for the center's sky-themed exhibition a few years ago. For "Under Water," Bryan said she was thrilled to create "Flection," an immersive, site-specific photographic piece installed in the Glass Gallery that gives visitors a "frog's-eye view" of a pond in Washington, with photographs printed in 60 sections and attached to the gallery's walls and floor. On a recent Saturday, children and adults alike took the opportunity to experience a few moments in the peaceful space, perhaps imagining themselves as an amphibian on a late-summer afternoon.
The piece's title refers to "bending for the arching shapes and zig-zag reflections," Bryan said in an email interview. "The pond seems to draw with the inky calligraphic reflected lines its own art, or a secret code."
Marin County artists Judith Selby Lang and Richard Lang have been visiting the same 1,000-yard stretch of Kehoe Beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore since 1999, collecting and documenting plastic debris from the Pacific Ocean and turning it into art, under the ongoing "One Beach Plastic" project, which has been featured in more than 70 galleries, museums and other venues. For "Under Water" Selby Lang and Lang have contributed a sand table with samples from Kehoe Beach, as well as two photographic prints —"Cascade I" and "Cascade II"— depicting what upon first glance appear to be pearls, moonstones or jellyfish but what are actually Kehoe Beach nurdles.
What's a nurdle? They're polypropylene resin pellets that are used to make plastics of all types, and are a major source of ocean micropollutants. These tiny particles are difficult to distinguish from sand, and are often mistaken for food by wildlife.
"Nurdles were something I wasn't really aware of," Kienzle said. "Hopefully this is an opportunity for more people to learn."
Other participating artists include Kim Anno, Barbara Boissevain, Jeffrey Downing, Ana Teresa Fernández, Tanja Geis, Liz Hickok, Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle, Hughen/Starkweather, Trinh Mai, Danae Mattes, John Sabraw, Adrien Segal and Joan Takayama-Ogawa.
Several upcoming free, public events will be held in conjunction with the exhibition.
On Feb. 24 at 5 p.m., artists Sabraw and Hickok, both of whom use innovative techniques to create art responding to the issue of water pollution, will offer a virtual presentation.
Interdisciplinary artist Hinkle will be in conversation with historian Bridget R. Cooks in a virtual event on March 17 at 5 p.m. Hinkle's contribution to "Under Water," titled "THEY: A Temple of Black Possibility," consists of three photo-based paintings of Allensworth, California, the state's first all-Black town, founded in 1908. Once a thriving, utopian community, the town was deprived of its promised water supply, and the state eventually discovered high levels of arsenic in the supply it did have, forcing the remaining residents to leave. "The story of Allensworth," the piece's gallery description states, "is inextricably linked to resilience, racism, and water."
The Art Center will also host an on-site family day, with art-making activities and water conservation lessons, from 2 to 4:30 p.m. on March 5.
The "Climate Connections" series, which began in September with the "Fire Transforms" exhibition and will continue in the summer with a planned juried show focused on "Earth," aims to use art to foster reflection, dialogue and action surrounding the topic of climate change. It ties into the Palo Alto City Council's inclusion of climate change among its 2022 and 2023 priorities.
"The whole premise is basically rooted in the fact that no one wants to talk about the reality of climate change," Kienzle said. "Artists present us with a new way of looking at things. The hope is that some of these works will inspire conversation."
"Under Water" is on view at the Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Road, Palo Alto, through April 8. More information is available at cityofpaloalto.org.