Making an impact on the public with wastewater is a huge achievement. Impressing wastewater experts is even greater – particularly for someone not associated with the industry. Enter Lindsay Olson. Olson has been a landscape artist for years, painting waterscapes, including the Chicago Canal and Lake Michigan.

She is now taking on the task of creating wastewater-based art. Her project is called Manufactured River.

While canoeing with her husband, an aeration station at the Stickney Water Reclamation Plant on the Cal-Sag Channel in Cook County, Ill., piqued Olson’s interest in wastewater.

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“I started to wonder who built it, why was it there, and what connected it to the waterways,” says Olson. “In answering that question, I discovered the whole world of wastewater treatment. Instead of making idealized landscapes, why don’t I find out the real story of water in a heavily populated urban area?”

Talk the talk
Olson set off educating herself on the ins and outs of wastewater processes and operations. “I have dug in, but there were times when I was at my intellectual capacity,” she says. “It’s very important to me to understand the science so the art is well-informed.”

She toured a few of the seven water reclamation facilities throughout the Chicago area, and met with plant staff for one-on-one insight.

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“The microbiologists at the plants were so excited,” says Olson. “Their enthusiasm for the lifecycle in the aeration chamber ignited my imagination. Operators use exactly what’s happening in nature, but they condense the process and nurture the bugs. I had no idea how intimately the microbes work with our bodies, and what a crucial part they are in wastewater treatment.”

Olson uses a range of materials to represent the unique sectors and people in the wastewater industry. “We take sanitation for granted, but it’s a luxury, so I use some luxurious fabrics,” she says. “I also use a variety of other textiles to represent the diversity of jobs at a wastewater treatment plant: denim, silk, dress shirts, and a workman-like canvas.”

Show and tell
Olson started an online fundraising project to raise awareness for her art, hoping to get the word out about wastewater and its importance. The fundraising platform ends Dec. 21, and all funds go toward framing costs, traveling to wastewater plants and conferences and documenting the work. 

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“I’m trying to organize an opening in Cook County,” says Olson. “But I want to take the show to other communities.”

Olson has truly become a member of the wastewater community. She was invited to speak and showcase her art at WATERCON in March, presented by the Illinois Section American Water Works Association and Illinois Water Environment Association, of which Olson is a member. 

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“I’m so excited,” she says. “They’re going to feature my artwork in the grand opening, and I’m going to be speaking about my art.

“I’m going to WATERCON to enlist the help of other professionals to see if they’re interested in using the art and my speaking to raise awareness about the value of wastewater treatment in various communities in Illinois.”

Olson credits support from IWEA board president Krishna Pagilla and retired executive director of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Dick Lanyon for helping her get a direction in wastewater.

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“For an artist, one of the best things is making meaningful work,” she says. “For me, it’s one of the most important things to do with my art. I use my art in a way that contributes to my culture and raises awareness about issues people might not know about.

“It gives a boost to the people working in the industry. It’s a way of honoring their work, and they honor my work as well. It’s a wonderful experience. Who knows where it could go from here?”

For more information on Olson’s art, visit www.lindsayolsonart.com/manufactured-river_1.html.

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