A Conversation with Betsy Damon: Environmental Art as a Life of Action

Even before she became the founder and director of Keepers of the Waters.org, at age 51, the environmental artist Betsy Damon had begun a quest to integrate her art with a comprehensive purpose: clean water and sustainability. Since 1991, Damon has led a worldwide effort to transform the way individuals, communities, and city planners interact with this most precious resource.

Keepers of the Waters “encourages art, science and community projects for the understanding and remediation of living water systems. It serves as an international network for people engaged in projects that transform our relationship to water…. [W]e aim to make the natural process of water treatment visible and integrated into daily life and culture.”

Q: You came of age during the birth of the exuberant feminist art movement of the 1960s and 70s.

Yes, I completed my masters at Columbia University in 1966, and was exhibiting my artwork in Europe during the ‘60s. I joined the feminist movement in 1970. I was at the College Art Association when the Women’s Caucus for Art [WCA] was formed in 1972, with Anne Harris as the first president.

Q: And in New York, you worked in street art and founded the pioneering group No Limits for Women Artists. Where did you first show your work?

I moved back to NYC in 1976, where I was very active. I performed the 7000 Year Old Woman, a gritty street performance piece, in 1976. I was in the first lesbian art show at the Green Street Gallery. There were a lot of us feminists, we knew each other and helped each other often. We organized for each other. Just a few of the women who come to mind: Miriam Schapiro, Nancy Spero, Joyce Kozloff, Monica Sjöö, Ana Mendieta, Kate Millett, Barbara Hammer, Arlene Raven, Faith Ringgold, Kay WalkingStick, Harmony Hammond, Mary Daly [see Mary Daly, Desire, and Exuberant Feminist Ethics at Bloom], and Rita Mae Brown.

Ms. Magazine was born in those years. There were also many writers, Fluxus folks, the experimental intermedia of Elaine Summers, and innovative groups with artists such as Coco Gordon and Alison Knowles; they were close friends with whom I worked.

I founded No Limits for Women Artists in New York City in 1981. The idea and format of support groups spread across the United States to become a national organization. It evolved because I witnessed the discouragement that took over many women’s lives, and the general disintegration of the feminist movement. No Limits for Women Artists was born to contradict the internalized sexism. I believe—I know that the feminist movement changed the art world, and that has been pushed under the rug.

Q: By 1985, you were incorporating your role as water activist into your work with the installation, A Memory of Clean Water, a casting of a 250-foot dry riverbed, which was presented across the United States. Could you talk about that?

Making Memory of Clear WaterThanks to No Limits for Women Artists, and a radical papermaker, Coco Gordon, I conceptualized my first big project for water, A Memory of Clean Water. This work brought a profound change. In 1988–89, I had two one-woman shows. A Memory of Clean Water toured a number of galleries and museums. But I felt like having all these shows and producing all this work was not what I wanted to do as an artist.

I wanted to have a permanent impact on the ecosystem. I wanted to make work that did not add to materialism. It shocked me learning about water. All the headlines in 1988 and ‘89 were water issues, big headlines. This is where I became an activist artist. And in 1991 [at age 50], I created Keepers of the Waters at the Humphries Institute.

7000YearOldWomanI made Memory to wake other people up, but it really woke me up. Doing the early street performances, such as 7000 Year Old Woman, I made temporary pieces, which I loved, and directed large groups of people. This was my first step out of the gallery. Memory was created as a gallery sculpture, but it ultimately led me to thinking about very different works that had no relationship to the gallery space.

After creating Keepers of the Waters, I focused on community organizing. I worked throughout the USA, including in Texas, Minnesota, and Oregon. I took teaching jobs as an opportunity to get students excited and organized around water projects. There is an annual San Antonio River clean up that happens annually to this day, and it all began with my students’ actions in 1993.

Q: In the 1990s, you also began working in China. How did that happen?

My work in China came about because my son chose to study in China…. I met a professor who was studying the medicinal qualities of water. I attended the first real ecological conference in China. This led me to organizing performance events around the Fu Nan River in Chengdu, Sichuan in 1995.

From these performance events, the Chengdu Government asked me to design a city park for them, which ultimately became the Living Water Garden, an internationally acclaimed innovation. I had never done any design before that project. After that, I continued to work with the Beijing Hydraulic Bureau, on the Olympic Forest Park and many planning projects in China. The design for the Olympic Forest Park led to a greater integration of wetlands in the final design. Many of these projects won international awards. I also worked with The Chengdu Urban River Association. This ecological group evolved from the Living Water Garden.

Q: How do you connect your work’s evolution with your feminist artist roots?

In some ways, my work with water came out of working with feminist groups and performance. All projects begin with finding a group of people, getting to know them, and working with all our strengths. A Memory of Clean Water was a collaborative effort with several dedicated and knowledgeable papermakers. The Chengdu River Performances required organizing 25 different artists from all over China. For the design of the Living Water Garden, I worked with brilliant ecological designers.

Q: What recent projects have you worked on in the United States?

In 2012, when the Mattress Factory Museum in Pittsburgh asked me to do an installation, I made sure that this project would live outside of the museum. This is what led to my recent project Living Waters of Larimer, a project that involves a whole community, and which has earned grants from the Heinz Foundation and ArtPlace America. I started Living Waters of Larimer with the Larimer community in Pittsburgh. That project is ongoing, though I have taken a more backseat role. I still work with members of the Larimer community to do small projects, such as providing a community garden with structures that integrate rainwater capture and cleaning infrastructures.

Q: Are there other large scale projects going on now?

Again in China, I have an ongoing project called Resources: Saving Living Systems. It is in collaboration with a Tibetan videographer to document sacred water sites and Tibetan water ritual in western Sichuan. We visited over 40 different water sites, each of which comes with a story related to its origins, or how to protect it, or descriptions of its medicinal properties. The Tibetan culture around water has been able to maintain pristine water sources for hundreds of years, and only in the last few decades has there been major destruction of these sacred water sites from development and industry.

Q: What else is keeping you busy these days?

I do a lot of speaking and writing. I will be a plenary speaker at the International Wetlands Conference to be held in Shanghai this fall. I am a Senior Scholar with the Center for Humans and Nature. We are developing content for a series on a resilient future.

Betsy DamonAnd finally, I am taking more time to work in my art studio, drawing and making videos. Drawing has always been important to me. It brings me joy, so I am dedicating more time to that. These drawings reveal the motion of water creating. From the macro to the micro, water creates all form, such as the vortex of the human heart, and the complex network of rivers of the brain. I am also inspired by the living water drop, and the movement of mist and fog—water rising, although it is heavier that air.

Q: As if you aren’t busy enough, you are currently writing a book about your life as artist and water keeper. It’s your first book? You are 75 years old, and this marks yet another new chapter for your life and work.

I’m very excited for the book. It’s called The People’s Water…. My hope is that it informs, inspires, and guides people to stand up to big business and thoughtless design. Beginning a community water project is not straightforward. To create a successful project, one that rallies the initiative and creativity of a place, we must start with a process of listening––to each other and our environment. The book touches on so many things water, from water bottling, to wastewater treatment plants, to green infrastructure.

I discuss my own water projects in the USA and China, including the adventures of getting to know different communities, where I found inspiration, and how I was able to develop ideas. The book culminates in the process of developing a vision, of designing for a whole community. I hope for the publication…as soon as possible; 2017 is not so far away!

For more information on women eco artists, visit /weadartists.org/betsy-damon-25-years-on-water.

And to read more conversation with Betsy Damon, http://www.conversations.org/story.php?sid=222


Dena Santoro is a writer and editor who lives in NYC. She can be found on Facebook and at http://zhsquared.com/.


All photos courtesy of Bestsy Damon.  


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