A little boy stares into a river while ghostly shadows move through the current. The long, lithe bodies could be lost souls or river spirits, past lives or unspoken dreams, but whatever life force they represent, they’re rushing onward away from the boy—and away from you, the passive observer. The headline reads, “What we do to water, we do to ourselves.”
The image is one of 13 Risograph prints that comprise “Wellspring: A Portfolio of Prints Celebrating Water,” at The Gallery at Studio IX. Created by artists from the Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative and curated by Sarah Lawson, the show features work that asks viewers to do more than sit idly by. Rather, it asks us to reflect on our own relationships to water, consider the critical role it plays in our lives, and hold the baton of preservation, prevention, or management in a rapidly changing world.
“For me, engaging with others’ art is a way to grapple with issues that are sometimes too complex to try to address head-on,” Lawson says in an email interview with C-VILLE. That same spirit moves Justseeds, the collective of 29 artists across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, who work together to produce collective portfolios and other creative responses to contemporary struggles for justice, from environmental and racial equity to migrant issues and the prison-industrial complex.
“For this exhibit specifically, I hope that people find the art interesting to look at and engaging to think about, but that it’s also a chance to get your feet wet and hopefully become motivated to take some sort of environmental action,” Lawson says. Though she recommends simple shifts like reducing water waste through more efficient appliances, donating to non-profits, or calling representatives about water-related issues like pipelines, the exhibit itself stops short of prescriptions.
According to the artists’ statement for Wellspring, “These graphic tools are for you, as a human that recognizes that you need clean water to continue to be. The messages can be used for uniting, inspiring, warning, inciting, animating, empowering, invigorating.” Rather than focus on specific struggles over water—such as contamination in Flint, droughts in California, or the Pacific Garbage Patch, among other issues mentioned in the statement—each print leaves room for personal interpretation.
The final exhibition offers a broad swath of creative concepts to generate viewer inquiry and impact. In response to the water theme, each artist created a unique visual they rendered via Risograph, a printing process akin to automated screen printing. By pressing single shades of vibrant ink onto paper, then layering new colors and images on top, the artists developed multi-dimensional work with a vintage feel.
Each piece takes a different approach to the topic of water. In one, two frigate birds swan dive alongside a polar bear poised atop a towering iceberg; the root of the ice feeds choppy blue waves through which jellyfish glide. In another, neon pink and blue raindrops scatter across the word “commonwealth,” simultaneously conjuring visions of Virginia and the universal wealth water provides.
Calls for change range from literal, like Colin Mathes’ doodles and handwritten list of improvised water filters; to pointed, like Erik Ruin’s whale emerging from a whirlpool of trash; to abstract, like Josh MacPhee’s graphic blue-and-green grid embedded with the words “aqua para todos!” In the gallery itself, art pieces are punctuated by quotes from scientific and political commentaries on the contemporary state of water in our world.
Regardless of the clarity or obfuscation of storytelling, the overall message of the exhibit is clear: There are as many ways of approaching and working with contemporary water issues as there are voices communicating what’s possible.
Lawson says this diverse artistic conversation seeks to soothe viewers and would-be activists rather than overwhelm them. Given the scope of issues like climate change and global water pollution, “it can be really difficult to focus on [these problems] in any meaningful or sustained way without feeling like we’re doomed,” she says. “This exhibit attempts to create small moments of engagement with the issues, through each interaction with one of the prints, in order to foster awareness and concern but in a way that doesn’t make change seem impossible.”
In this way, an exhibition like “Wellspring” can become “a useful buoy in a sea of bad news,” as the artists say in their statement. Like the little boy watching spirits of past and future flow beneath the surface, we have the chance to reflect on what is, in order to change what could be.
“Wellspring: A Portfolio of Prints Celebrating Water” is on view at The Gallery at Studio IX through September 1.