Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Water Jobs: The Art of Water

Today on WaterJobs we welcome Chicago-based artist Lindsay Olson to discuss her latest project: Manufactured River. Manufactured River examines wastewater treatment through conceptual art, much of it involving textiles. When we first saw Lindsay’s work through Twitter, we thought she was a perfect candidate for WaterJobs. Not only does she blend science and art, but she also does so in an effort to draw people’s attention to the value of clean water! Lindsay studied fine arts at Columbia College Chicago and has used her work as a means to build community understanding about her local police force (Tools of the Trade). When not creating, Lindsay enjoys canoeing, and told me that she and her husband “haul our canoe ‘The Leaky Cauldron’ everywhere we travel, including Nova Scotia and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We even braved canoeing on the Illinois River and dodged commercial traffic until we came to our senses.”  
Filamentous Bacteria Nostocoida Limicola by Lindsay Olson

When did you become interested in using your artwork to bring attention to watershed management?
Fourteen years ago I was painting traditional, impressionistic waterscapes and focused mainly on idealized waterscapes. I deliberately edited out parking lots, electrical wires, buildings and wanted to portray a more rural looking waterway.

How did you become interested in wastewater treatment, specifically? Was there a triggering event, a moment of inspiration, etc.?
I had a defining moment one day while my husband and I were canoeing on the Chicago Canal.  We passed a SEPA station (Side Stream Elevated Pool Aeration) and this was not like any ordinary fountain I had seen. The             structure nagged at me. I wanted to know why someone would build such a structure. It was at that moment that I felt compelled to learn the real story about water use in a crowded, urban area.

I have to admit that often, as an artist, ignorance is my best friend. I had no idea that learning who built the SEPA station and why would lead me on such a huge technical and artistic adventure.

Growing up, I was always interested in the creative end of things. Like many creative people, I was intimidated by math and science. (If I had known then I could learn science by making art, I would have been much more interested in         science classes.) I knew if I wanted to portray the real story of water, I had to roll up my sleeves do my homework, literally!  I attended seminars, talked to scientists, engineers and operators, and read lots of books and articles. I did not want to just portray the surface details of wastewater treatment. I wanted my art to capture the science and the spirit of the industry.

Your work shows a broad knowledge about the science and technology of wastewater treatment. Do you secretly run a wastewater treatment plant in addition to being an artist, or how did you pursue that knowledge?
Thank you very much for a lovely compliment! I learned about wastewater treatment a number of ways. Early on in the project I had the good fortune to meet several key people. Dick Lanyon, retired Executive Director of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Great Chicago took a personal interest in me and the project and helped explain complex engineering processes in layman’s terms. He also took me under his wing and suggested ways to get the project out into the community. He introduced me to the Illinois Water Environment Association and Water Environment Federation officials so that the work was shown to water professionals. As a result of my participation in WATERCON 2013, I made connections in the Quad Cities, and last month I met with arts administrators, environmentalists, and water professionals to create programming around the art show. We are working on bringing this together some time in 2014.
Also, I am also delighted to be showing “Manufactured River” at the Water Environment Federation Technical Event and Conference in Chicago October 5-9.  
Crawling Ciliates Aspidisca by Lindsay Olson

Did you visit any wastewater treatment plants? How receptive were operators to having an artist capture their work?
Yes, I not only visited area waste water treatment plants but spent hours in the Pump House at Stickney in Chicago drawing plant infrastructure. Plant operators were very excited to hear about my work, and when I show the work locally, I can’t wait to invite the people I have met.

It seems like your work sits in an unusual intersection of art and science. How do you blend these two fields, and what kinds of opportunities and challenges has that presented?
Combining art and wastewater treatment was both a visual and intellectual challenge. Working in this particular way, with a large technical industry, requires focus, endurance, and intense curiosity. It can be intimidating to walk into a large industrial complex; I had never worked in a location that required wearing a hardhat and ear protection. It was like walking into a foreign land and learning a new language, in this case, the language of science.

At first I was overwhelmed by how much I did not know. But my usual response to any life challenge is to sit down and draw. Bit by bit, I acquired enough understanding of the activated sludge process to begin working on that part of the project. My first big creative breakthrough came when I dug into the microbiology of the process and discovered great joy and lots of information drawing the microbes that clean our wastewater. This was a very exciting moment for me. All of a sudden, I felt like my art opened a science door for me.

What do you hope your work will accomplish?
I want to use my skills as an artist to raise awareness about the importance of treated wastewater in discussions about watershed management. Most people flush and forget, but I am using beautiful materials and time-consuming processes to make art about a subject most people think of as unpleasant. Treated wastewater is, at its heart, water…vital, precious, and in limited supply.

Lots of people are intimidated by art. It’s funny how people will have a favorite song or band and not feel the need to have a music degree to appreciate music. But somehow art has been removed from everyday experiences and become rarefied.  I’m really excited to use my art in ways that connect people and show that art can be useful in contributing to issues that matter. Showing my work at WATERCON to engineers and operator was a wonderful experience. People really appreciated what I was trying to do with my art. They could relate their daily work lives to the work I showed.

Now it’s time get the work out into the community. Ideally, I want to use the art as a catalyst for events and discussions related to ecology, water treatment, and science education.  This is one way to educate the public about the value of science, art, and public health.

Would you tell us about your career path? How did you know you wanted to be an artist?
I was the oddball child growing up in a family that worshiped words. From an early age I was interested in visual expression, but I have to say it took me forever to work out how I wanted to be an artist. From the outside this path looks circuitous and illogical. I studied dance with a former Rockette. I studied fashion design and worked in that field for a number of years. As a mature student I attended Columbia College Chicago and graduated with a degree in Fine Arts. A defining moment came when I decided to invent an artist residency for my local police department.  I learned so many things about law enforcement that were not portrayed in popular media that I wanted to use my art work to share what I was learning with the communities law enforcement serves.  That was the beginning of my Artist/Activist career. I knew that the best fit for me was to combine my art skills with community activism and work on issues I care about.
Filamentous Bacteria Nostocoida Limicola by Lindsay Olson

What sort of educational and professional opportunities have you used to develop your career?
Attending WATERCON was a great learning experience. Although much of the technical information from the sessions confused me, I came away with a richer understanding of watershed management. Anything I learn, I funnel right back into my studio practice. 

I’ve received support from Columbia College Chicago where I have taught since 2000. I was awarded 2 faculty grants, and they have been very helpful with the practical elements of my artistic career.

Last summer I traveled to London, Ontario to study with a UK textile artist Jean Draper. I’ll be working with some of the concepts I learned in this workshop over the winter.

Are there any more water projects on your horizon?
In one way or another, water will “infiltrate” my work for a very long time. I am passionate about understanding how water and the watershed behave. Its complexity and the fact that we all depend on water is an exciting and meaningful intersection for me as an artist and budding citizen scientist.

Also, I have a dream to secure passage on a research vessel that works in the Great Lakes. It would be thrilling to go to sea and to observe scientists conducting research up close and personal.

What advice would you give students who are interested in using their art in fields like water resources?
A career in either science or art requires tremendous commitment and dedication. I’d say artists, especially, encounter massive amounts of rejection, but this is becoming true of other fields, too, now that the economic landscape has changed so drastically. My best advice would be to pay attention to what snags your attention. Sometime a small subconscious nudge in a certain direction will lead you to a project you absolutely can’t let go. This attachment to a project or idea can sustain you through outside skepticism, your own inner daemons, and all the cultural pressures one can encounter.  The act of dedicating yourself to a project and working on it one step at a time can lead to the adventure of a lifetime.
Stalked Ciliate Vorticella by Lindsay Olson