A project in Washington brings together some 1,200 students to create an artwork that depicts the water cycle and the importance of water resources.
One drop of water may seem insignificant, but if you trace the path it follows during its infinite lifetime, you see how important it is.
From that idea came the “One Water: The Infinite Journey” art and education project, a spring 2016 collaboration between the LOTT Clean Water Alliance of Olympia, Washington, and artist Carrie Ziegler. The project brought more than 1,200 Thurston County middle and high school students together to create a piece that isn’t just an art installation — it’s a story of water.
“The LOTT Clean Water Alliance is committed not only to STEM education, but STEAM, which adds art to science, technology, engineering and math,” says Amber Smith, education program manager with alliance’s WET Science Center. “Carrie had been involved with a few other collaborative art projects, so this just made a lot of sense as a way to further engage middle school students from the three school districts in our service area.”
It wasn’t Ziegler’s first foray into using art as an environmental outreach tool. As part of the county’s 2013 outreach on disposal of plastic bags, Ziegler and some 800 students from 18 schools built a 35-foot-long gray whale out of 9,000 plastic grocery bags. It was showcased in a special Earth Day parade.
“Her whale project was a huge success, and we knew she specialized in environmental education,” says Smith. “We loved the idea of working with an artist who incorporates education into collaborative art projects for the community. Conservation is something she cares passionately about.”
To kick off the One Water project, Ziegler made more than 45 presentations to students, mostly in middle schools but including high school students and adults. These covered water conservation, the natural and urban water cycles, and clean water appreciation. “The main idea was how water is so important — how it touches everything we do,” says Smith. “The water cycle is continuous; we share and manage one water.”
After the presentation, students created embossed aluminum water drops and fish, reflecting on what they learned. “They were asked to illustrate how each of their lives are connected to water,” says Smith. “Some of them drew a picture with a conservation theme, some focused on interesting water facts, and others illustrated ways they interact with water. All of their unique designs had a connection to water.”
Ziegler incorporated these pieces into an artwork to hang in the front windows of the WET Science Center, an environmental education outreach facility. The full piece depicts an infinity symbol, showing the cycle of water from the urban environment to Puget Sound. Like the water cycle itself, the symbol has no beginning and no end. The piece made its debut on Earth Day in 2016.
“We had a huge grand opening event to coincide with Olympia’s Arts Walk Festival on Earth Day, and hundreds of people came out to see the piece,” says Smith. “We were very pleased with the number of teachers, students and their families that came to see the finished mural.” The “One Water” mural now serves as a teaching tool and as a jumping-off point into the alliance’s education programs and tours. It’s also a conversation piece for visitors to the WET Science Center and makes an impact on the contributing students and teachers, who bring their families and friends in to show what they were a part of.
“We still get students who come in with their families and try to find their drops,” says Smith. “So many of these families weren’t even aware of the WET Science Center. Their kids were just so proud to be a part of this project; they couldn’t help but take notice.”
Smith was quick to praise Ziegler, who jumped into the project wholeheartedly with the support of alliance staff: “Carrie met with us, talked through our key messages and goals, and created sketches based on what we were all thinking” she says. “Her ability to blend environmental education and art is inspiring. We believe the result will inspire people to become stewards of our most precious resource.”
Several utilities have already reached out for more information, hoping to mimic the success of “One Water.” The key to success is finding the right artist. “You want someone with experience leading collaborative community art projects, who works well with kids, and believes in the message,” says Smith. “They need to have a good plan and a solid vision. When you work with a lot of students, it’s easy to let the project get off track. The artist is truly the one who brings the vision to life.”
Smith believes that the more people involved, the better the result. “We have so many great exhibits and art pieces at the science center, but when 1,200 kids can participate in making one, it creates a new layer of impact,” Smith says.
Others have taken note: The project won the 2016 Sustainability Award from the Pacific Northwest Clean Water Association. “It is very nice to receive recognition for what we’re doing, because in the end, it’s about educating our future ratepayers,” says Smith. “The more young people we can reach, the better. That’s one way we measure success.”