The Colorado River is in trouble. Now in its 23rd year of drought, the once-mighty water source flowing nearly 1,500 miles from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California is drying up at an alarming rate, sending potentially devastating ripple effects through communities and ecosystems whose existence depend on it.
The decimation of this crucial river system was among the grim harbingers of climate catastrophe discussed during a U.S. Senate hearing on Western drought earlier this summer, which spurred a suite of emergency measures to address record-low reservoirs in the Centennial State and beyond.
But can artists illuminate existential problems like the water crisis in ways lawmakers can’t? That’s the central question driving Water Is Life, a new group exhibition on display at the Dairy Arts Center from Sept. 23 through Nov. 19. Showcasing a diverse slate of artists from across the country, the eco-conscious show explores the politics of water access in a changing climate.
“Being here in the metro area, a lot of our water is brought from different regions, which is leaving other folks out,” says Water Is Life co-curator and exhibiting artist JayCee Beyale. “This is an opportunity to start having a real conversation about how our water is being distributed, who has access to it and how we are caring for it.”
Other featured artists include El Paso-born Zeke Peña, who expands on his 12-color serigraph The River, meditating on the past, present and future of the Rio Grande River on the U.S.-Mexico border. Educator Theresa Clowes offers a closer-to-home exploration with a new series of color studies using water from the Colorado River to create a hand-felted map of the essential and iconic water source.
Elsewhere in the upcoming Dairy Arts exhibition, visitors can expect a deep and diverse offering of works in a variety of media designed to spark dialogue surrounding water and how we use it.
“Many of these artists have stories about bodies of water they once swam in or were close to growing up, which at this point have become contaminated. Now this fond memory is tainted and toxic,” says Drew Austin, curator of visual arts at the Dairy Arts Center. “There’s a ton of personal connections that run really deep throughout the show.”
‘Painting an ecosystem.’
For Beyale, the journey to Water Is Life began on the Navajo Nation reservation in 2013. That’s when the artist and his friends set out on a rez-wide road trip across the Four Corners area of the southwest, painting murals and hosting talking circles to discuss tribal water rights. But he says the mission of exploring the politics of local waterways soon became bigger than his slice of the world.
“It started to grow into this more all-inclusive movement for me,” Beyale says. “Because water has become more commodified and less available not only for Indigenous people, but for people in general.”
Despite casting a broader net in this critical conversation about access, Beyale — now based in the Denver metro — says the tribal traditions of his ancestors color his approach to the subject of water and the art-making process writ large.
“My Indigenous background influences how I want to represent and create my works. Having that culture and tradition means a whole lot to me,” he says. “There’s a lot of knowledge, wisdom and teachings I can share with people, whether they’re Native or not.”
Visitors to the upcoming Dairy Arts exhibition will experience one important piece of Beyale’s intergenerational education through four large panels of acrylic on canvas. Together, the individual works explore water’s essential role in the Navajo creation story.
“In Navajo creation, water would create division, or water would create unity, or it would flood out different worlds. I’m painting about that as an underlying theme,” Beyale says. “But I also have images of animals, plant life and minerals that have a relationship with each other. I guess, in reality, I’m painting an ecosystem.”
Fellow Water Is Life artist Anna Tsouhlarakis also draws from her Navajo background in the new exhibition. In Her Second Story, an update on a previous installation at the University of Denver, the local artist and CU Boulder professor references tribal butchery traditions in the space between sculpture, video and narrative poetry. The result is a discipline-scrambling installation that tells a haunting story of violence through blood and water.
“I’m not usually so direct in my work, in terms of what I’m speaking about or speaking to. My pieces are usually not as aggressive as these are,” Tsouhlarakis says. “They’re very new, and it’s something I’m still working out, but I’m really excited about it.”
But for Tsouhlarakis, the new water-focused exhibition is about more than the experience of a single artist. As climate change continues to ravage the world’s water sources and forge new political realities, she says the show’s potential as a catalyst for social change lies squarely in its multiplicity of perspectives.
“I think all those different narratives and voices need to be part of the conversation to be truly heard,” she says. “Because people who are still trying to figure out if they should take action on climate change need to find their counterpart in that story. They need to find that connection. And I think the more voices that are part of it, the more possibility for people to find that connection and realize they’re a part of this fight to save the planet.”