Imagining the Earth through Art

By Casey J. McLaughlin

Written descriptions of the earth can be quite informative, but all good Geographers (in my opinion) know and love pictures and maps of the earth.  National Geographic is an incredibly successful example of the visual appeal of our planet.  I am not a huge art connoisseur, but Conversations XIV: Water hosted by the Spencer Art Museum at the University of Kansas had a few pieces that really jumped out at me and that I find relevant to human health and the environment.

The Big Blue Thread is rooted in the idea that the Missouri River ties the four states (Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska) of Region 7 together.  Water is critical for our region’s population and agriculture.  The Spencer Art Museum introduces their water exhibit:

Water is timeless… or is it? This installation of works from the Spencer’s permanent collection explores contemporary artists’ perspectives on the elixir of life: H20. Many of the works assembled for this installation take an eco-critical approach to the subject matter, exploring pollution and scarcity, whereas others address water less literally and more symbolically, as a cleansing or destructive force. From this selection of 20th- and 21st-century works, a subtle visual dialogue emerges between the Kaw River of Kansas and the Yangtze of China.

Maple Tree and Stream

Maple Tree and Stream at the Spencer Art Museum (KU). Credit: Casey J. McLaughlin

Many maps depict water with various shades and hues of blue.  It seems universal from my bubble perspective, but Maple Tree and Stream from the Japanese Edo Time period (1600-1868) reminded me of the swirling muddy waters of the Missouri River. The piece is a folding screen, ink, color, and gold on paper — that’s the description provided by the museum anyway.  I have a personal affinity for nature scenes and I felt an emotional bond to this specific piece given my work with the Big Blue Thread.  Seeing the brown stream reminded me of the swirling waters where rivers meet (Kaw Point) and the green trees of the spring.

Bridge over the Yangtze River. (2001)

Bridge over the Yangtze River (2001). Credit: Casey J. McLaughlin

More poignant to Region 7 and protecting human health and the environment is the exhibit by Chinese artist Chen Zhiyuan, Changjiangg Xingzou—Jingti (Yangtze River Walk – Crystals).  I remember visiting the Yangtze River in graduate school and have studied the river a bit – plus my kids and I love The Story of Ping.  I can hardly imagine the journey that took Chen from Shanghai to Qinghai along the Yangtze River (also known as the Chang Jiang).   For 21 days he walked and drank river water.  At the end of each day he distilled the salt from his intake.  As noted in the Museum’s description, he was hospitalized at the end of his excursion.  The piece was behind some shiny plexiglass so I couldn’t get a good picture with my cell phone.  I was first drawn to the huge wall map with a simple blue stream winding on a white background broken by pictures of each stop he made.  In front of the wall map, Chen has displayed his collection of dark colored salt crystals in glass beakers.

I am unsure where in the museum my appreciation of the art moved into concern for the water quality, but it did.  EPA does a lot with water monitoring and you can find out more from the Big Blue Thread ( PAHs in the Water, What’s in Your Water, and most recently in Gone Fishin).  I really wonder what a trip from the upper reaches of the Missouri to St. Louis would look like both from a naturalist (Lewis and Clark) perspective (can it even be walked?) and from a water quality one.  How many salt crystals or other materials would be distilled every day?  Would 21 days of drinking Missouri River water necessitate hospitalization?

Casey McLaughlin is a first generation Geospatial Enthusiast who has worked with EPA since 2003 as a contractor and now as the Regional GIS Lead. He currently holds the rank of #1 GISer in EPA Region 7’s Environmental Services Division.

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