On December 13, 2019 LRWP collaborator and coLAB Arts co-producer and Director of Education John Keller delivered the opening plenary to the 2019 Jersey Water Works annual statewide summit at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in New Brunswick, NJ. John talked about the intersection of art, and our work in the watershed. He gave lots of examples of our collaborative effort these past 5 years. With thanks to John for allowing the LRWP to share his words.
Good Morning Everyone,
Uh, oh. I have to be that first person who annoyingly chastises you for being lack luster in your morning greeting. Think of it this way. It is Friday! You are coming to have a great time at this symposium, learn lots of stuff, have some good conversations, have la meal and still be out by 2:30! And as long as you don’t have a boss who is a party pooper it’s highly unlikely that any of us are going to go back to the office for just a few measly afternoon hours so that means found time! Maybe you’ll stop by your favorite independent coffee shop and have a nice afternoon latte in your favorite reusable cup. Then go over to the local day-spa maybe get a message or a nice facial (as long as it doesn’t have any microplastics in it), then meet up with some friends or family for a movie afterwards, but you will bring your own refillable BPA free water bottle because you are a little dehydrated from the latte, message, and facial and don’t want to pay $12 for a bottle of water at the theater. Then you will get out of the movie and think to yourself… wow that was a pretty good day.
So, let’s start this over.
Good morning everyone!
My name is John Keller and I have titled this presentation. 5 years of art in 9 minutes.
I am the director of education and outreach for a non-profit arts organization called coLAB Arts. You can find us on all the social media stuff as @colabarts.
I am here to tell you a story. The story is how an arts organization found itself motivated and inspired to facilitate conversations around our watersheds, and our relationship to water.
First, a little background. What is coLAB Arts and how does our mission drive us to collaborate with non-arts based social advocacy organizations, government institutions, and community groups?
Our mission is quite simply an equation. We engaged artists, advocates, and communities to created transformative new art-work. For us transformation must be three things. It must be sustainable, positive, and community focused. We work in areas as diverse as juvenile justice reform, transgender rights, domestic violence prevention, and dignity for our immigrant neighbors.
But this one is about water. So here we go.
In 2015, myself and two coLAB Arts’ board members attended a watershed education workshop with the then recently formed Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership (LRWP). After the workshop we adopted a local stream and found what so many find in our urban areas: a stream in need of some love. We asked ourselves what we ask ourselves whenever engaging with a new advocacy concern:
How does the artist engage in this space?
What are the core issues that the advocacy partners are wrestling with? What are the historic contexts? What are the socio-political barriers to equity, diversity, inclusion, Justice and Access that the arts might help dismantle? Who are the communities not yet at the table? What are the questions not being asked? What are the ways artists can influence and augment research? – quantitative and qualitative data gathering. What are the complex ideas that artists can infuse into the conversation to make advocacy and even infrastructure better?
When LRWP heard these questions. And challenged us with some of their own for us to ponder. It was kismet. We began working together. Two organizations, arts and science. We formed a working group of artists, landscape architects, community organizers, and civic scientists, to wrestle with arts-based interventions to our natural and built environments. Early recognition from the American Architectural Foundation and their Sustainable Cities Design Academy gave us the opportunity generate bold ideas around on how the arts can drive sustainable changes to complex structural challenges.
We centered on a seemingly simple idea to drive the story of the work. It is the idea that the river is both a physical entity in our landscape, but it is also a powerful metaphor in our daily lives. It is all around us. It does not just exist in the physical limitations of the banks of a body of water, but it exists in our storm water systems, in the run-off from our homes, in our sprinklers, our faucets, in our dreams for quality of life, in our stories of migration, and our desperation in times of crisis. We began asking ourselves as well as the artists and communities brought into the work to #LookForTheRiver in all things.
We began work in earnest. Going alongside the LRWP on stream clean ups. Participating in macro invertebrate trainings, touring spaces and landscapes that maybe weren’t the most obvious places of water stewardship. We began engaging professional artists through programs like our National Endowment for the Arts funded residencies where we partner an artist with a non-arts based organization and task each with creating an engaged arts project that facilitates a conversation with community that generates new works of art inspired by some big problem or question that advocacy org is wrestling with. The model of that residency which now has multiple artists with a diverse group of organizations is successful in no small part to LRWP piloting that program our first year. Our Watershed Helping Hands Sculpture Project on display in the lobby is one such example of one of the community based art engagement programs that resulted from that artist residency.
Once the communities have been engaged and you have built a critical mass of participation. You have to think next steps.
At the end of the day we are an arts organization and the greatest way to partner with artists is to provide opportunities for them to create bold artistic gestures.
Our work has been both conceptual and literal.
We have used the process of cleanups, data collection and public access as our points of inspiration to create works that both reuse found materials as well as engage with artists from diverse backgrounds and disciplines such as sculptural work, dance, theater, and mixed media.
To integrate both professional arts creation with community arts creation. Recognizing that while not everything can be called great art, great art can come from anywhere. We balance the ethereal of the performative with the substance of created artifacts; both a natural growth from a new communal education on watershed health and quality and the provocation of a call to action.
When this happens a new kind of reality might be possible. Where if we truly look for the river in all of the aspects of our lives. We begin to question why is it absent? And we see our spaces built in essence to do whatever they can to keep the river out. To blot it out from our landscape…
But when you create the potential for new vision we can inspire ourselves, our planners, and political leaders to reintegrate the river into our lives; into our built cities, and our story telling. Accepting the river back becomes our way of solving infrastructure problems. Like a new art and history based greenway connecting public spaces through the heart of an urban area, or an art and green infrastructure concept project which includes a two-story sculpture work that becomes a wayfinding landmark, urban beautification, and a five thousand gallon cistern to keep water run-off from reaching the storm water system in times of flooding.
When empowering communities to create art that allows them to connect with both their environmental and social justice history we can make space to dream about ways in which we can work with our built communities to remember the landscape of our past. And find new ways to interact with it.
The arts are in incredible communicative tool. But the first act of social justice is to listen. Our creations cannot come before we first strive to listen with the intention of learning. Artists and water experts need to engage in this process together. When the artist is involved in the process – not just brought in at the end to slap some paint on a wall, not just asked to develop the PR or marketing strategy, rather allowing the artist to be in response to this listening process.
In 2019 we began an oral history archive which is about capturing those stories. Balancing the narratives. We research and collect the stories perhaps lost, perhaps suppressed, perhaps forgotten, around one very simple idea: Water is everywhere, and water is important to everyone. And then doing what we do… make are that is in response and helps us all frame a greener future.
By Arianna Illa, Coordinator, Civic Engagement and Experiential Learning, Middlesex County College
The Watershed Sculpture Project: Middlesex County College
On Tuesday, November 21st of last year, students enrolled in Integrated Reading and Writing (ENG 096) at Middlesex County College (MCC) did something unusual for a typical college course. Rather than meeting in their classroom, they boarded a college van to travel to the Fox Road underpass, a stretch of road off the highway in Edison, NJ. This class excursion was the culminating event following a semester focused on reading, writing, discussing, and learning about environmental issues faced by local communities. In collaboration with the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership (LRWP) and the Edison Environmental Commission, students planned and executed a community cleanup service project as part of the greater service learning initiative happening at the College.
Students Jessica Colon or Rahway (left) places trash in the bag held by Carolyn Muncibay of Old Bridge.
The cleanup involved spending 3 hours of class time bagging trash and recyclables along the underpass. The location of the cleanup was especially significant as it is uphill from the Raritan River. When it rains, trash and other contaminants travel downhill, further polluting the already vulnerable river. By the end of the cleanup, 17 bags of trash and recyclables, nine tires, a suitcase, car seats, as well as other large trash items were collected.
John Keller, Director of Education and Outreach of CoLAB Arts, assists students during the hand sculpture creation process.
During the cleanup, students selected one small trash item to bring back to campus. In collaboration with local arts advocacy organization CoLAB Arts, students created cement hand sculptures which are now on display in the MCC College Center in an exhibition titled The Watershed Sculpture Project: Middlesex County College. Each sculpture is of a student’s hand holding the trash item they saved from the cleanup.
The display demonstrates the large impact seemingly “small” amounts of littering can have on the environment as a whole, and likewise demonstrates the power of simple acts of stewardship (including stream clean-ups and socially engaged art) to effect positive environmental change. This work seeks to raise awareness of issues of environmental damage happening in the local community, and to prompts viewers to examine and reflect on their own relationship and interactions with the environment.
If your non-profit organization is interested in getting involved with service learning at MCC, please contact Arianna Illa, Coordinator of Civic Engagement and Experiential Learning, at email@example.com.
With grant support from the Middlesex County Office of Arts History, the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership and coLAB Arts will implement the first component of the #lookfortheriver Public Art Program in New Brunswick’s Boyd Park in Summer 2018. The grant will allow for engineering and construction of a footing (the base) for a new public art piece for New Brunswick’s Boyd Park. The creative work to be installed at that site will serve both environmental/watershed awareness and cultural/community engagement purposes for the Raritan River waterfront at that site. Grant funding has been provided by the Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholders through a grant provided by New Jersey State Council on the Arts / Department of State.
The #lookfortheriver Public Art Program is a component of the LRWP’s #lookfortheriver watershed restoration campaign, which is designed to encourage community members to “look” for buried streams using landscape cues and historical research. #lookfortheriver is a package of actions communities can engage in around flood resilience and environmental restoration. The LRWP will be rolling out aspects of the #lookfortheriver campaign through 2018 and 2019.
Interview conducted by LRWP Raritan Scholars intern Quentin Zorn
Why did you decide to work with the LRWP?
In the past couple of years my work has been in community gardening, locally organized composting and food system development. I have focused my creative drives toward innovating and troubleshooting in these sectors via grassroots organizing and business startups.
The opportunity with coLAB and LRWP came along at the perfect time. I had just finished installing a geodesic greenhouse in an exhibition called LANDHOLDINGS at Index Art Center in Newark, NJ and was looking to invest more energy to art-making. Additionally LRWP’s mission incorporates scientific and geological considerations that at the time I was not familiar with: the focus on watershed heath and its intersection with the urban environment. I was eager to learn more.
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How do you relate to the LRWP’s goals?
LRWP’s goals are to inspire environmental appreciation and stewardship, to inform relevant stakeholders on the watershed by building networks for sharing data about its health, and to innovate to improve watershed health responsibly with a diverse group of partners.
My role as a Resident Artist with the LRWP is to support their on-going projects and help generate new projects that align with these goals. Because my personal viewpoints also align with LRWP’s mission, my own integrity as an artist is not compromised. In fact, exposure to their programs and operations has been challenging and enlightening. The public needs organizations like LRWP to bring together science and community towards making impactful environmental efforts. Art plays a big role in this as it can help folks make the connection between the health of local environmental resources and one’s personal well-being in exciting and thought-provoking ways.
How does integrating art with science change the way you think about your own art?
Even the most traditional art forms require scientific understanding. For example, oil paint is an exceptionally difficult medium that if applied improperly can result in cracking and flaking once it sets. Research- historical, social, and technical- is always necessary for an artist and in-studio discoveries can be, in many ways, scientific in nature. I am used to shifting my medium to convey different kinds of ideas. As an interdisciplinary artist I am excited to collaborate and learn more technical languages.
How does the interpretive nature of art help or hinder conveying the messages you want people to understand?
This tension is one of my favorite parts of art making. The artist Patricia Piccinini is a huge inspiration of mine as much of her work is about the “creator’s” inability to control their “creation.” Experienced artists are able to walk the tight rope between intention and perception, directing the viewer but leaving enough space in the work open for the viewer to be able to identify and enter into it. Of course, not all art works intentionally speak to all audiences.
How do the sculptures from project WADES help achieve the LRWP’s goals or environmental goals in general?
Project WADES stands for Watershed, Action, Dialogue, Education and Stewardship and aims to develop Environmental Education curriculum. The sculptures are positioned at the intersection of WADES with a public sculpture project under a program called Rail Arts River, which aims to connect New Brunswick communities to the Raritan though art and green infrastructure. The sculptures from Project WADES are casts of the hands of youth clasping pieces of trash collected at clean ups along the streams of the Raritan Watershed. They serve to inspire increased connection between human behavior and watershed health within LRWP’s watershed curriculum.
When the sculptures are completed, what is the reaction you are hoping for?
To be honest I haven’t reflected on the reaction as much as the intention and the varying methods that coLAB, LRWP, and I have discussed for presentation! So far this work is still going through a collaborative gestation process. The sculptures will be brought back to the schools for semi-permanent art installations but will also be used in a larger public sculpture at Boyd Park. When the work is complete I am very much looking forward to seeing what people think.
How did you create the River Walk book and what do you hope people take away from it?
River Walk is a kind of functional art work, much more sentimental and straightforward then my typical work. It is a usable notebook made primarily from recycled materials: reused paper, cardboard, old art prints and wood binding. The wood binding was fabricated from materials gathered from a FEMA buy-out home that was deconstructed and transformed into a rain garden and flood storage park, an exciting project done by landscape architect and Rutgers Professor Tobiah Horton. The signature sheets include linocut prints of humans in nature. These images were taken directly from a hike with coLAB Arts on the D&R canal in New Brunswick. The only way to acquire this work is by donating to LRWP. My hope is simply that people enjoy it and use it!
What effect do you think the Windows of Understanding project has on the community or the local environment?
Windows of Understanding is a public art project set in multiple storefront businesses. It operates like a rhizome, utilizing the brain power of local advocates and artists to filter their mission and work through a prompt. This year that prompt is ”We See Through Hate.” I see so much mutual benefit here and I’m excited about the realistic, but hopeful message. Our country is going through rapid change that seems to hark on hard times for so many of us. Americans are under incredible pressure from the media, from the antagonistic government, from the precarious state of healthcare, and from a job market threated by automation. To be truly resilient, in an environment filled with risk, disparate communities should be given opportunities to know each other face to face; to move past bigotry and ignorance and to see through hate. Windows of Understanding will address these struggles, but provide hope and positivity to the surrounding public. I believe this effort will have a positive effect on the passerby, increase the visibility of advocate organizations, and increase community cohesion.
Healthy soil is important to stormwater management, and “Healthy Soils” is the research and action theme for the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership in 2018. The LRWP has planned multiple soil-focused talks, tours and events throughout the year, with a kick-off seed give-away at Kim’s Bike Shop (111 French Street, New Brunswick, NJ) on Monday January 15 (Martin Luther King Day). This is organized in conjunction with unveiling of the “Listen to your Neighbor, Listen to the Land” art installation developed by the LRWP and COLAB ARTS Wonderful Resident Artist Jamie Bruno. Jamie’s work is part of New Brunswick’s “Windows of Understanding” project.
The Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership and Kim’s Bike Shop invite you to join us from 2-4 PM on Monday January 15, 2018 for the unveiling of Jamie Bruno’s “Listen to your neighbor, listen to the land” and for refreshments. This is part of the City of New Brunswick’s “Windows of Understanding” project. We will be outside in front of the store planting milkweed for participants to take home, and handing out seed packets for summer gardens.
COLAB ARTS Executive Director Daniel Swern will lead a tour of the “Windows of Understanding” storefront windows leaving from Kim’s at 2:30 pm.
Background: The LRWP and COLAB ARTS National Endowment for the Arts resident artist Jamie Bruno developed “Listen to your neighbor, listen to the land” – an installation at Kim’s on display from January 15-February 28. “Listen to your neighbor, listen to the land” reflects the way the LRWP hopes to connect to our communities. The installation incorporates shoes filled with soil and plants. The shoes represent people, travel, and change. The soil represents our origins in the land.
• Counteract the negativity and hate perpetuated in the headlines – by installing community art interventions that illustrate the compassion and love being exercised around us.
• Promote awareness about the vast array of social justice issues being addressed in New
Brunswick, connecting organizations with the wider community and each-other.
• Transform our “Main Street” spaces into literal windows of understanding.
The LRWP was paired with Kim’s Bike Shop (111 French St, New Brunswick, NJ 08901). Working with Kim’s and our coLAB Arts National Endowment for the Arts resident artist Jamie Bruno, the LRWP has developed “Listen to your neighbor, listen to the land” – which will be installed at Kim’s from January 15-February 28. “Listen to your neighbor, listen to the land” reflects the way the LRWP sees through hate as well as the way we hope to connect to our communities. The installation incorporates shoes filled with soil and plants. The shoes represent people, travel, and change. The soil represents our origins in the land.
From Jamie Bruno’s artist statement:
Across religion, race and culture we all spring from the earth and its water and soil. The plants give hope for survival and sustenance: hope to grow new roots and make new connections. The title asks the viewer to listen to their neighbors over the din of every day life. Our neighbors are people who live near us. People who live on the land we live on, yet whose stories we often do not know. In urban environments it can be difficult to know land too, yet she is everywhere: Under the pavement, in the water we drink, in the air we breathe.
• The shoes represent the human element, the “neighbor” through travel, labor and economic change in addition to empathetic connection across class, race and culture; an admonition to “walk in another’s shoes.”
• The soil represents land: absorption, filtration, and contamination. Soil health effects human health though the quality of our fruits and vegetables as their roots gather nutrients and the quality of the water in our watersheds as water either filters slowly through healthy soil becoming clean or flows quickly above compacted soil carrying waste.
• The plants represent the hope to grow new roots in new places and to make new connections. Plants store and slow water as it moves through the landscape, further cleaning it, thereby increasing the landscapes inherent value to local wildlife and to neighbors, whether they pass through or decide to stick around and plant their own seeds.
The LRWP and Kim’s invite you to join us from 2-4 PM on Monday January 15, 2018 for the “unveiling” of “Listen to your neighbor, listen to the land” and for refreshments. We will be outside in front of the store planting milkweed for participants to take home, and handing out seed packets for summer gardens.
For more information contact Jamie Bruno: firstname.lastname@example.org
This fall the LRWP joined Jad Kaado and coLAB Arts for conversations about the role of artists, illustrators and authors in advancing environmental restoration. Then at the annual Comic-in-a-Day art making competition at the end of November, coLAB celebrated the artists and authors who incorporated themes of environmental restoration in their work. Three teams of illustrators and writers worked together to create a standard American size comic book of 24 pages, all within the span of 24 hours.
Monday September 18 is World Water Monitoring Day!
Join the LRWP and coLAB arts to celebrate with an after-work picnic (5:30-7:30pm) along New Brunswick’s Boyd Park waterfront! Bring your dinner (or something to share). We’ll supply beverages, paper products and dessert. RSVPs requested: email@example.com
The event will include water quality monitoring demos (ph, salinity, phosphorus, nitrate-nitrogen, turbidity, dissolved oxygen), project updates on the Rail-Arts-River and “frames” sculptural installation, picnicking and a Raritan River “story slam” with coLAB Arts.
Want to participate in the Story Slam? We are looking for 4-5 people to tell their stories about the Raritan River at our September 18 event. Do you have a special, original Raritan River story to share? Let us know by August 31! We’ll then make arrangements for you to work with coLAB’s Dusty Ballard and John Keller who will help you prepare to tell your story on stage. This must be a personal, true story, that happened to you where you are the central character and it should somehow relate to the Raritan River or Lower Raritan Watershed. Though we love fiction, we’re interested in the truth. Your truth. Spill all of the details!
Stories must be within a 4-to-8-minute time frame. Tell ONE story with a beginning middle and end containing a series of events that grow to a climax. Though we love stand up comedy, this is not a stand up set. We’re only interested in the thoughts, feelings, and emotions you experienced through this ONE story from your life that you’ve prepared.
What is the most common type of litter in Boyd Park? Is there more paper or plastic in the grass? How many cigarette butts can you find? How many bottle caps? What is the most unusual item hiding in the bushes?
Join the LRWP and coLAB Arts on Sunday September 10, 10-noon for a River Health Workshop and “Scavenger Hunt” Clean-up of New Brunswick’s Boyd Park!
This event is coordinated in conjunction with the DIY MARKET at Rock New Brunswick. DIY Market is an open air marketplace that celebrates the creativity and spirit of the New Brunswick music scene. It is being held in Boyd Park, alongside a day-long homegrown New Brunswick music festival.
Editor’s Note: The LRWP and coLAB arts are pleased to welcome Jamie Bruno to our work in New Brunswick. Jamie will join us for the next 9 months as our National Endowment for the Arts Resident Artist.
Hello Dear Reader. Happy to be writing to you today.
As the new Resident Artist with the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership my work is to bring people to the river and bring the river to people. Increasing that knowledge and access increases people’s value of a healthy river and watershed. Much of my work will be dedicated to CoLAB Arts and LRWP’s existing programming such as Rail-Arts-River and Trash Troubadour, within which the already incredible experience of cleaning up a stream also becomes an experience in arts and culture.
I live in Newark, NJ. My most recent work has been focused around urban agriculture, food security, food waste management, and organizing for urban agriculture alliance development. I manage a small farmers market for a local nonprofit once a week at a hospital in Newark. My most recent artwork, “And all our dead can live again,” is a functioning geodesic dome that, in many ways, is a reaction to doing urban agriculture and local food development work in a post-industrial inner city.
All Our Dead Can Live Again
As a graduate of Rutgers Mason Gross School of the Arts, I am already familiar with New Brunswick though I am still orienting to this new position and a changed city. My eyes see the river differently from the scientists, geologists and academics who study it. Slowly I will see more. For now I notice the strange interactions between humans and the human built riverfront. On my first trip re-visiting Boyd Park I see moments of departure in the landscape by an uncooperative nature, consistently unconcerned with our good intentions. And neglect by us, to simply sit and listen to her. I can’t wait to tell you more about that visit.
You don’t know me and I will only be with you, officially, for a short nine months. But within that nine months I hope that we can make sweet, passionate earth caring goodness together. Earth Care. People care. Future care. In the incredibly succinct lyrics of M.I.A.’s song “Meds and Feds”: We just “give a damn,” and, another inspiration, Y.A.L.A. (You Always Live Again as opposed to the formerly popular phrase, Y.O.L.O., You Only Live Once)… Earth karma.
Thank you for reading. If you’d like to see more of my work please visit tothedirt.net