Betsy Damon is a resident artist at Albion College, and on Thursday, Oct. 24, she gave a talk titled, “Water Rules Life: The Earth at Risk.” Her lecture highlighted global issues concerning water, one of many environmental messages echoed in her own art. I was lucky enough to get a few words with her before the talk.
Tell me about yourself and the approach you take to your art. I’m interested to learn where your large-scale works of environmental activism come from.
Well, it comes from the state of the world. It comes from the great, big mess we’re in [laughs]! It actually came from a very personal experience. In 1985, I was casting 250 feet of a dry riverbed with hand-made paper in Utah [this is the process of making a mould of the river bed]. I was in this valley. At that time, no one was living in it. But the water wasn’t potable, and the spigots in the public campground said, “Don’t drink the water.” I can remember when I was a child, you could drink the water everywhere. I learned the water was polluted from mining and agriculture. In a riverbed, you have to be on your hands and knees doing this work. At the end of one day, I looked at the sky, and the Milky Way was coming out. It was gorgeous, but it also looked just like the river bed. I went, “Oh, the universe is patterned by water, and I don’t know anything.”
What was your next step after that?
To learn. I just started looking. I went to conferences about water, and I couldn’t find anything but chemistry. I wanted to understand water. Water is much more complicated than three phases: ice, liquid, steam. It’s many more things than that. I posited that since water is the foundation of life, it should be the foundation of planning and design. That’s the main quote I’ve come up with [laughs].
How does your art inform that principle?
I try in every way I can to communicate it. I got to design the living water garden in China, and that’s that principle. Whenever I do any planning and design, which I did for five years with the Beijing Bureau of Hydraulic Engineering and Research and the Planning Bureau. If you start with water, your plan will work brilliantly. You’ve got to have water, right? What happens usually is people plan everything but the water, and they add in how they’re going to get the water. The don’t even plan ahead of time if there’s enough water. This school [Albion College] does not have a water plan in its twenty-year plan. What the talk is about tonight is designing with water and for water and the infrastructures we need to head towards. We can’t do these things tomorrow, right? But a wise city, a poor city, even–I worked in a very poor district in Pittsburgh–has this new infrastructure in place. Albion’s the perfect place, frankly, since the infrastructure’s clearly ancient. They could easily change to a bio-swale solution. Instead of stormwater going into a pipe, which then sends everything dirty into the river, the stormwater just runs off into a deep ditch which cleans it and sends it back into the ground.
What’s the most important thing about moving forward with these kinds of attitudes? What can we do to educate ourselves?
It’s hard to know when you’re here that you’re part of a worldwide thing, right? You should work with your hometown. Around here in Albion, a coalition of the farmers could stop excessive use of nitrates and chemicals. The campus should stop putting chemicals on the lawn.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’d like to leave people with a vision that they can really do something: Albion could be the first city to not pollute the Kalamazoo.
Photo by Spencer White