A Southwestern City Engages Its Residents in a Multimedia Artistic Presentation of the Area’s Cultural and Water-Supply Heritage

Static displays, interactive activities, storytelling and music mark this area’s celebration of indigenous culture and canals.

A Southwestern City Engages Its Residents in a Multimedia Artistic Presentation of the Area’s Cultural and Water-Supply Heritage

The aqua-colored “stream of water” leading to the circular display area where exhibition attendees viewed the water-themed artworks.

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Not far from Mesa’s Northwest Water Reclamation Plant in Arizona is the 2,100-acre Riverview Park. More than 200 years ago, a series of canals traversed the site as a source of water for Native Americans in Arizona.

For 10 days in November 2019, it was the site of a unique public art display celebrating that history and emphasizing the role of water in everyday life today.

Named “Water = Life” by its primary creator and lead artist, Tony Duncan, the exhibition was designed to engage and inspire the public to think about the sustainability of water. Static displays, interactive activities, storytelling and music served to educate attendees about the area’s ancient Indigenous civilization and canals. More than 6,000 people attended.


“It was a tremendous success, even though Mother Nature didn’t cooperate and kept many people away,” says Kathy Macdonald, water resources planning adviser. A “stream” created with ribbons of aqua-colored textile led visitors to the center of a circular display representing the canals.

Defining the circle and mounted between individual posts were a series of water-themed paintings with related historical dialog. A soundscape and storywalk emphasized people’s relationship with water. It all served to highlight the legacy of the canal system as the foundation of the modern water system. 

Ceramic pieces created by community members lined the outside of the circle. At its center, mounted on a pedestal, was a large clay vessel made by renowned potter Ron Carlos, a member of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. Through art, Carlos follows his elders’ tradition of telling stories.

“Visitors were asked to immerse themselves in the stories, sounds and community art to consider their own history with and relationship to water,” Macdonald says. Other activities included live painting and performances of hoop dancing by Duncan. A mobile screen-printing kiosk inscribed blank T-shirts that attendees brought to the event. 

Members of the Mesa Water Resources Department manned a water-bar kiosk to refill visitors’ water bottles. The water bar keeps about 30,000 plastic bottles out of the landfill each year.


An Arizona Community Foundation program called the Arizona Water Public Art Challenge, aimed at raising awareness about water, inspired and partially funded the project. Mesa was one of five $50,000 winners of a contest to create a temporary art project honoring the legacy of the ancestral Sonoran Desert people.

The Mesa Arts Center also secured a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to support the project. The Mesa Water Resources Department provided technical support to a task force charged with designing the project.

“The art center was the lead partner on the project,” says Casey Blake, the center’s director of marketing and public relations. “The Water Resources Department worked closely with us, along with several other city departments.” Blake says the project highlighted a separate “Water, Use It Wisely” campaign in Mesa.


Tracing the history of the canals that first brought water to the community was the foundation of the art challenge, but the Mesa team wanted a project that also inspired residents to think about the role of water in their lives, now and in the future.

The entire community was encouraged to offer ideas for the project. A dozen workshops engaged people in art, storytelling, pottery and hoop dancing. More than 200 collaborated. After the opening celebration, the Water = Life exhibit remained in place for nine more days.

“The project was an overwhelming success,” Macdonald says. “It met everyone’s goals and heightened awareness about the environment in general and water in particular.”  


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