Thursday, March 8, 2012

Reflections on a River of Words

by Will Broussard

Stream of Conscience beginning
to flow into the main gallery space
Last we talked, Christine and I were busy taping and push-pinning almost one thousand written contributions to the walls of the Prichard Art Gallery. It took us 5 straight days of death-defying ladder work, puncture wounds, and paper cuts, but we did it! Uncommon River opened on Wednesday, February 22 featuring the work of Christo, Christine Destrempes, Raymond Ghirardo and Megan Roberts, Philip Govedare, c.s. Thayer, and Jen Torres. Three weeks of tearing paper, speaking in classrooms, conducting workshops, and installing led to Art for Water's big evening, which coincided with the opening of the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival at the University of Idaho.

The creation of public-participatory installation art has many segments, and often takes on a life of its own. At some points the work was monotonous and anti-social, with time ebbing by slowly. Other moments were fleeting and bordered on the frenetic. Preparing the paper for workshops embodied repetitious, mind numbing data collection that was so common in my old life as a lab technician. Facilitating workshops and watching contributions take shape was much more interactive, and involved quick thinking, speaking, and acting. My classroom teaching experiences are limited, so our workshops felt more akin to working with diverse audiences in an environmental education setting. Once we stopped visiting school and civic groups, we engaged the written contributions directly and began an editing and classifying phase that was detail-oriented and reflective. When it was time to pin the paper to the gallery walls, the process transformed into an engineering project and aesthetic puzzle to be solved, with the content of each contribution weighed against the qualities of the paper it was printed on. Length, shape, color, and style of tearing was paramount to this process. Building the install involved an intense regimen of fitting, taping, staring, tearing, pinning, and hammering. The ultimate goal of finding the best piece of paper for the best spot on the wall (keeping in mind that it should also resemble a river!) is an involved activity. But all of those pieces of paper did end up looking like a river, and a powerful one at that because it spoke of the importance of water to all of those who participated.

Working in the skylight
Stream of Conscience in Moscow, Idaho took a lot of work, for sure, but was well worth everyone's great effort. This installation will have a lasting affect on those who continue to visit it and read the river of words for themselves. When participants read their contributions on the gallery walls, they will be reminded of Art for Water's visit and their own feelings about clean water. They might remember their attempt to carry the 5 gallon gerry can around their classroom, along with the images of the containers being carried on the backs of young children in Africa. When they see the memories, poems, and thoughts of hundreds of other local people, they can appreciate how vital clean water is to the entire Palouse region, and understand that everyone needs clean water, no matter where they live. 

Christine working upstairs
Christine and I left Moscow with many lasting friendships and future collaborators. We couldn't have come out in the first place without the invitation of guest curator, Gail Siegel, former director of the Prichard Art Gallery who contacted Christine back in May after seeing Art for Water's work on the web. Roger Rowley, current director of the Prichard Art Gallery made sure we had what we needed whenever we needed it, and it was the hard work of Dona Black, education coordinator for the gallery, who greatly facilitated our getting into the 36 classrooms to work with more than 900 students, teachers, and community members. It was always a treat to be in the presence of Nara Woodland's warm and welcoming smile, and Elizabeth Gibson's fearless leadership was beyond description on our road trip to Missoula. Thanks to Jen Torres for being such a great housemate, and Jeanne Leffingwell for letting us stay in your wonderful art studio/guest house. Final thanks to James Reid, for the music, laughter, and Valentine's Oreos. Until we meet again, Christine and I will miss the Palouse very much, and think of it often!

Partial view of Stream of Conscience at the Prichard Art Gallery


  1. Wow...I have seen the River visualized in Peterborough, NH and New York at St. john the
    Divine. They were creeks compared to this torrent! A question: the art casts a shadow downward, as if it were not mounted on the wall. Is this so??

  2. Thanks, Charles. The installation is mounted on the walls, however it is started within a skylight, which is about 20 feet from the floor. Roger Rowley, the Prichard Art Gallery Director, installed the flexible tube on which the river starts up in the cupola below the skylight. Then Will, my trusty intern, attached the part coming out of the skylight onto the walls. Are you seeing the reflection in the floor as a shadow?