Monday, December 23, 2013

Water and Balance

Downstream Water Release, 2011-2012
From Downstream/Upstream: A Journey
Through the Urban Water Cycle

Jonee Kulman Brigham, Full Spring Studio
Last January, I was asked to be one of a group of artists speaking about our views on art-making and the theme of "balance." I recently reviewed my notes for the talk which included comments about specific environmental art projects that connect people to water like the Downstream/Upstream project. The third part of the talk was a more general reflection on how my work relates to the theme of balance, and rereading this, it still seems to represent something essential to me, so I am posting it here. It helps remind me, as I plan new projects with water, of the underlying goal of my work.

About Balance
After being invited to speak on the topic of balance in my work, I was concerned. I just didn’t feel connected to the idea of balance. It reminds me of the difficult work of balance in tenuous relationships between two separate forces. But through reflection on balancing water, I’ve made peace with the idea.   

Let’s say you have two buckets of water, and one is filled above its maximum fill point, and the other is filled below its minimum fill point. You could say they have an imbalance in their use of water. One has more than its share, and one has less.

If you measure and scoop water from one bucket and put it into the other, you can balance out their portions so that they are even. This is what I would call balance between. It is negotiated, it is measured. It may come from stewardship, or war, pity or compassion. It is a relationship between two.

On the other hand, if you interconnect the buckets at their bases by a tube, something happens. Water flows. Boundaries are blurred. The two buckets function as a single water body.  They find equilibrium easily, both responding to the weight of the water. This is balance within a single whole – a system of water. This is what I call balance within. It is emergent, coming from an interconnection between two that creates a whole that includes both.

This is what I am trying to do with my work. To create relationships – to make interconnections that reveal a larger whole, blurring the boundaries between our lives and our surroundings, so that we might naturally come to equilibrium within an earth that we love.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

River-Wash at Little Mekong: Selected Views

Alternately, I'd thought of calling this post "Interconnections Between Portraits and Landscapes." I have an exhibit reception this Sunday called "River-Wash at Little Mekong: Selected Views," that is a joint reception with pastel artist, Elizabeth Strootman in the adjacent gallery at White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church. Elizabeth makes careful (caring...) portraits, landscapes, and still life drawings. It is a striking contrast to the in-the-flow-of-the-moment photographs I am exhibiting that document a public art project in St.Paul that is as much or more about the performance of healing activities to connect people to the river than it is about the final product - a set of posters displayed in storefronts that document the business owners participating in the project. The adjacent exhibits and joint reception offer me a chance to think about how River-Wash at Little Mekong is, in a way, also a collection of portraits and landscapes and something in-between.  


The exhibit gives a glimpse into a larger, simultaneous exhibit at the site of a current public art project in Little Mekong Business and Cultural District along University Avenue between Mackubin and Galtier Streets in St. Paul. “River-Wash at Little Mekong” engages the people behind storefronts with the stormwater below the street —connecting Little Mekong to the Mississippi River. Participating business owners display a poster in their storefront showing an encounter where they mark a watering can and water-paint the sidewalk to answer two questions: "What do you want to flow in to this place?" and "What do you want to wash away?" Then, washing the sidewalk, their hopes and concerns flow into the storm drain, to water trees and be carried by the  river, a healing symbol. In turn, the human role in river health is expressed by marking storm drains with the St. Paul stormwater stencil. I collaborated with Friends of the Mississippi River, Asian Economic Development Association, and the City of St. Paul to create the project, which is supported by Irrigate.

The Integration of Portraits (and/or) Landscapes

River-Wash contains both portraits and landscapes. In the upper left corner of each poster (see detail to right) is a portrait of the participating business owner - sometimes posed, sometimes candid. There are many parts of the poster (see above), but the dominant element in the composition is a landscape of the St. Paul Riverfront, just as the clouds have parted and a spot of sunlight highlights the St. Peter Outfall, the place where the stormwater from Little Mekong, and much of St. Paul emerge from underground tunnels to be released into the Mississippi River. But many of the images in the posters could be seen as an intersection of portrait and landscape. For example, in the picture below, if one focuses on the person, especially with other context in the poster, this is a portrait of a woman washing away "cry," - we don't know what this word means to her - what stories are behind this expression, but she appears to be the subject. Alternately, if one thinks about the context of the recent light rail construction - one of the reasons for this art grant program -  and especially if the pictures of each participant watering the sidewalk are taken out of their posters and viewed together, they can appear as landscapes, with themes of place and place history. 

Mai washing away "cry"
from "River-Wash #5: Infinite Hair Salon,
Collected 9/12/2013"


I am interested blurring the boundary of portrait and landscape - in shifting focus to the relationship between people and places which help to define each other. The Irrigate program that funded this work,  uses the term, "placemaking" to describe artworks that engage people and create a sense of place for visitors, businesses, and residents along University Avenue. My hope is also to enhance this placemaking activity through place-linking - by suggesting interconnections between places: between the street, through the threshold of the storm drain, to the river.

For more about the project

Visit and visit Little Mekong to look behind the storefronts yourself for a Thai lunch, hairstyling, car repair, or manicure and support small businesses recovering from construction.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Beginnings of Blowdown

While I was preparing and co-leading an interdisciplinary workshop on the affects of climate change on trees of northern forests in Cloquet, MN major storms were blowing down  trees further south in the Twin Cites and knocking out power lines. Workshop participants and leaders were affected by this living example of severe storms as we learned about how climate change increases their frequency and severity.

Upon returning to the Twin Cities, and with all the climate change talk in my mind, I was more aware of how a blown-down tree is not just an accident of weather anymore. It is also a symbol of our self destruction. I captured these impressions in a first draft of an artist's book based on photographs of blown down tree stumps. Here is the text of the draft introductory page of "Blowdown." 

Climate change creates the conditions that favor more severe and frequent storms, although no single storm can be directly attributed to climate change. This situation creates a troubling and ambiguous shadow narrative for severe weather events. Blowdown documents the remains of blown down trees from the storm that struck the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, in June of 2013 - damaging landscapes and causing widespread power outages. By July, when these photographs were taken, most branches had been hauled away, but stump removal had not yet taken place. Upturned trunks and roots attached to torn fragments of lawns formed a temporary memorial to lost trees and a reminder of the power of severe weather.

Images: In the images, I am trying to evoke my experience of this post-storm landscape. Standing by the toppled trunk of a large tree gives a visceral sensation in my gut of the power of the wind that blew it down. It also leaves a feeling of absence -- a hole in the memory of what my neighborhood street is supposed to look like. And it is laden with a vague sense of accountability - however remote the connection - our lifestyles of consumption, exhaust, and emissions are altering the atmosphere to help create opportunities for this storm that blew down these trees.


The work has a somber mood. I started with photographs in normal color and altered them to be black and white as that seemed to give a more stark and documentary feeling that fit the work. I plan to explore adding more text to each page, even if it is "data" like estimated age of trees, or wind speeds, and weather forecasts. But for now, the project is incubating.  I want to convey the darkness of the experience, but also in a way that feels constructive. It is not really this particular storm or these particular trees that are my main concern. It is the way they remind me of something much larger and more troubling, but so hard to grasp.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

29 Nights: Change & Constancy

night 27

night 28
I've been working on an artist's book with a working title of "29 Nights: A Journal of Moon Meditations."  It started this spring, when I decided to get more tactile work into my routine and use a brush, at the suggestion of a friend. I'd used sumi ink a bit before, including in the development of the Full Spring Studio logo. I decided I wanted something simple to work on - calming. So I decided to paint one moon every night for one moon cycle, starting on a new moon. 

I painted a traditional "enso" (meditation circle) and then used white crayon for the portion of the moon that was lit. Then I washed sumi ink over the whole page, revealing the white crayon, retaining the enso, and filling the page with a watery gray that created its own patterns as it pooled and dried.These images show the last three paintings in the moon cycle.

I started playing with a moon journal layout and poetry and research on how the phases of the moon actually work (as opposed to my initial misconceptions in my first draft of the poem.) Then I got busy and set it aside for a while to let it incubate. The theme that had been emerging as I worked on the paintings, poetry and learned more about the moon phases is that of Change & Constancy.

night 29
Change: In addition to the tides responding to moon phases, it seems like my friends and I rise and fall with the moon as well. I don't know if there is any science behind this seeming pattern, but I often feel low and slow near the new moon, and full of energy and ideas near the full moon. My whole perspective can change on what is interesting, advisable, and possible. Near the recent new moon on  August 6th, I was low again -- exhausted and overwhelmed, and noticing it was the new moon reminded me of this project and the other half of its theme.

Constancy: It is easy to cycle bright and dark like the moon apparently does. Before I looked into it, I used to think the moon was in the earth's shadow when it was a new moon, deprived of light, entering its dark phase. But in reality, the moon, (except during an eclipse) is always in the sun's light, it is just our perspective - our view of the moon that changes as the moon revolves around the earth. Behind all the apparent changes is something constant and reliable. The moon remains a solid sphere, bathed in light no matter what portion of its illumination we see at the time. I find this reassuring and a good metaphor for appreciating what is whole and constant in my life throughout the changing perspectives I have over time.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Water Lily Card

water lily card: front, (blank inside), back

I often go for walks down to Keller Lake. Sometimes I bring my camera with a project in mind and sometimes I just take photographs for pleasure. I took this water lily photograph on 7/15 and shortly after thought of it when I wanted to send a sympathy card to a relative who'd lost his mother. I'd thought before of exploring cards as a type of work for Full Spring Studio (FSS) and decided I would try it with this one and put the studio name on it. While I liked the photograph, I wasn't sure if FSS should expand into straight nature photography. The FSS mission is to explore stories of connection and flow, and I'm particularly interested in interpreting infrastructure as a way to reveal interconnecting systems. So a flower card seemed a weak link to the body of work - until I thought of expanding the card to include a poem about interconnection. With the poem, the card was more like my artist's books, merging image with a story line. It is still just a greeting card, but now it does some work toward the mission. The flower - so easy to see and name as an object - is recast in the poem as part of a larger organism and process. While that interconnection is described with poetic license, it remains true to the actual interconnectedness of the flower with its stem and roots in the dark silt below. I like it best as a sympathy card, but I've also used it as a card for other purposes. I'm not sure whether I'll add cards to my work publicly, but I'll continue to explore this form. It interests me to think of a card as a small, interactive artist's book. There's the cover, what is written inside, and a post-script on the back. How does the inner message, relate to the card's story? How does the story in the the image and poem of the card affect how the inner writing is perceived?