8,500 recycled glass jars holding gathered water tell a visual story of one community's watershed.

Collected Watershed

Center for the Arts Gallery at Towson University

Towson, Maryland

2020

8,500 recycled glass jars, 1,000 gallons of collected stream water, vinyl letters
 

Thousands of recycled glass jars branch across the floor of the Center for the Arts Gallery, where visitors can literally walk within this giant living watershed map. More than1,000 gallons of water collected from local waterways fill the corresponding jars, which replicate the dendritic pattern of the Towson area's watershed. An interdisciplinary team of Towson students and faculty accompanied the artist as she gathered water. Collaborators learned to read USGS maps and seek out hard-to-find suburban and urban streams, runs, and creeks.

The installation aims 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,” notes Levy. “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.”

Protecting our waterways and finding beauty in them might go hand in hand. “When people come to the gallery, they will see something they didn’t expect to see,” says Erin Lehman, lecturer and director of the Holtzman MFA and Center for the Arts Galleries at Towson. “It’s not art on the wall. What they will see is unexpected lyrical beauty. It’s so many jars, and it’s so beautifully laid out. It shows the beauty of what’s in the gallery, but also a representation of what’s underfoot all the time.”

Project participants used 5-gallon buckets to gather water from dozens of tributaries and rivers feeding into the Chesapeake Bay, from Gunpowder Falls in the north to Jones Falls in the south. They also collected 137 buckets from the Bay itself.

As Levy notes, map-reading becomes an essential part of the process: “Locating the tributaries can be difficult," she says. "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.” Labeling the collected water is also an important part of the process, so that water can be poured into the corresponding part of the water map back at the gallery.

Project collaborators came from many fields. Biology faculty and students tested water quality and studied algae in each stream; music students captured the sounds of the different waterways, from rural runs to urban streams; The Office of Sustainability donated collecting buckets and helped to collect samples; and Art History and Art Department students got to experience all the steps of a site-specific installation project. This interdisciplinary focus is reflected in programming and events held across campus throughout the exhibition.

Back at the gallery, using gridded maps to lay out the watershed to scale. Blue tape and flexible chain help draw the map on the gallery floor.

Then carefully filling the jars with water from the corresponding waterways.

Many waterways are polluted by excess salt from winter road treatments and fertilizers. Towson Biology Department faculty and students sampled each tributary for conductivity and Ph. Those results are charted in a series of ball jars holding blue glass chips; the more blue chips in a jar, the higher the salinity. Visitors can learn about the health of their backyard streams and compare their waterways.