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WVU Art Exhibit Celebrates Water and the Women Who Protect It

Stair case with a wake board suspended in the middle.

Originally written by Brittany Patterson, WV Public Broadcasting

A collaborative art exhibit at West Virginia University focuses on one of the state’s most abundant resources -- water. It also celebrates the many women who protect it. 

 Featuring brightly colored panels covering wide swaths of the downtown campus library’s walls, “WATER: Exploring the Significance, Power and Play of Life’s Critical Resource” explores the state’s rivers and wetland ecosystems, celebrates the art and recreation opportunities afforded by water, and explores challenges and solutions facing the state’s water resources. 

 “We wanted to have a full picture of what West Virginia water looks like,” said Megan Kruger, the interpretive curator of WATER, and environmental education and outreach coordinator for the West Virginia Water Research Institute. 

 Kruger was part of the team that sifted through contributions from more than three-dozen scholars across campus and the wider water community, including restoration and advocacy groups working to preserve the state’s water resources. In addition to showcasing where the state’s water comes from, the exhibit takes on other water-related challenges such as the 2016 flood that impacted southern West Virginia and the pollution challenges posed by acid mine drainage, a remnant of the state’s coal mining legacy. 

 In addition to using vivid imagery, the exhibit also features tactile elements. For example, the staircase between the first and second floors of the library celebrates water-based recreation in a big way. 

 Vivid, life-sized photos of rafting and kayaking adorn the walls. In honor of the winter months, a pair of snowboards and numerous ski poles are suspended in the stairwell. The second floor features a full wall of plastic water bottles artfully hung to show the impacts of plastic pollution. Students crafted the message, “Water is life, plastic is not” from bottle labels.

Students also have the option of listening to a soundtrack while interacting with the exhibit. 

Kruger said WATER is supposed to be splashy, and the multi-faceted approach to displaying information aims to draw in both students and the public. An estimated 4,000 WVU students pass through the downtown library daily, she said.

 “So as soon as they come in the door, they’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, what are those cool panels on the wall,’ and we didn't want it to be something where they had to kind of walk right up to see it, because many people work on the computers in the library,” she said. “So, something where they can kind of view and appreciate from afar, and then if they were more interested, they could walk up and and check it out.” 

 The WATER exhibit is free and open to the public. It will be up through June 2019.

Celebrating W.Va. Women Water Stewards 

Inside the library’s tutoring center, a complimentary 20-item exhibit featuring photos, paintings and sculptures created and curated by women working to protect West Virginia's water resources, will run through the end of April. 

 The exhibit was born from research conducted by WVU Assistant Professor of Geography, Martina Angela Caretta. Caretta studies gender, climate change and water. 

 “Being that West Virginia is a water state, I was really interested in understanding their all different roles women and men play in the management of water in the state,” she said. “What I realized was that the most important watershed organizations in the state that work on water quality and water restoration are actually headed or completely staffed by women.” 

In 2017, Caretta interviewed about 30 women working on water issues across West Virginia. The next year, the participants gathered to discuss the work, but also how to balance advocating for the state’s water resources and having lives outside of that work. As an ice breaker exercise, Caretta asked each woman to bring a photograph or object that sparked joy or inspired them to keep working on water-related issues. 

“The pictures depict the women — what they like about their job, what they don't like about their job, what makes them inspired to work in West Virginia, and for West Virginia,” she said. “It's an honest picture or recollection in a way of, you know, the struggle of doing work that’s often underpaid, that offer requires free work during weekends, and the results are not fully recognized by the communities and the society around them.” 

Many of the pieces collected in the exhibit depict aspects of the 2014 Elk River chemical spill. Caretta said for many of the women she interviewed, the event really mobilized them. 

Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition Project Manager Robin Blakeman was one of the women who contributed to the exhibit. She submitted a cloth tapestry created during the first Radical Joy for Hard Times event hosted by OVEC. The event was hosted in the Kanawha State Forest near a mountain top mining site. During the gathering in the park, Blakeman said people celebrated their favorite places. 

“The slips of papers pinned on the the tapestry were their thoughts about those places or their prayers for those places,” she said. The tapestry was also taken to North Carolina for another event where additional prayers were added. 

Blakeman said while there are some really great men working as environmental advocates across the state, women seem to more intensely connect with this work in part because of their ability to have children. That amplifies concerns about what the world will look like for future generations. 

She said it was “powerful” to see that expressed in the exhibit. 

 Caretta said many of the people who have so far interacted with the exhibit or attended the outreach events associated with it have been surprised at the critical and leading role women in West Virginia play in protecting the state’s water. 

“I think a lot of people don't think that women play such a big role in the community — although West Virginia has a very strong history when it comes to women being engaged in the labor movement, union movement, also environmental movement -- for some reason people keep forgetting about it,” she said. “So, that's why it's important to have this exhibit, to actually highlight something that we tend to forget, like, pretty quickly, which is that there are a lot of people and among the majority of women, that putting in a lot of free time to preserve the natural resources of our state.” 

Bethani Turley, a geography graduate student at WVU, Amanda Pitzer, executive director of the Friends of the Cheat, and Beth Warnick, media and outreach specialist for the Friends of the Cheat helped curate the exhibit. The exhibit will run through the end of April. Two more events associated with Women & Water are scheduled and will be held at the WVU downtown campus library in room 104. 

 - March 28, 4-5:30 p.m. — A panel titled “Flint and Charleston: Drinking water pollution and its impact on women’s health.” Panelists will discuss drinking water and its impacts on reproductive health. WVU Department of Public Health PhD candidate Maya Nye, WVU Economics Assistant Professor Daniel Grossman and WVFree Executive Director Margaret Chapman are expected to attend. 

- April 11, 5-6:30 p.m. — A screening of short films by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection