Since 2011 artists Libby Reuter and Joshua Rowan have collaborated on defining what a watershed looks like and how people use them. They have traveled to 300 locations across the Mississippi-Missouri basin placing Reuter’s glass cairns in local watersheds photographed by Rowan. Every glass cairn is strategically placed in specifically scouted scenes of some of the most beautiful and unexpected sites along the upper Mississippi and Missouri rivers. The cairns are handmade sculptures assembled from household or antique glass. The cairns mark the watersheds metaphorically as fragile, beautiful, and deeply connected to everyday life. The large- scale, color photographs vividly bring to life the locale and intimately reveal the connections of the people and communities to their local watershed.
For each Watershed Cairns location, Reuter assembles a site-specific, found-glass sculpture, or cairn, that is temporarily placed on land or in the water to mark the watershed. Rowan photographs the landscape. After the cairn’s location, including its latitude and longitude, has been recorded, the cairn is removed and stored. The photographs are displayed online; later, they appear in museum and gallery exhibitions of large-scale photographic prints and their accompanying cairn sculptures.
All images are labeled with the cairn site’s street address and GPS coordinates to enable people to visit the actual sites where the cairns were photographed and to note changes over the span of years (construction, pollution, or erosion) or with the seasons (water levels, plant varieties, or human activity). Text accompanying each image discusses the watershed in that location.
Watershed Cairns®: Water Marked with Art visually connects people, land, and water and provides an opening for community discussion about fresh water. The exhibition celebrates the Mississippi River basin’s water wealth. The Mississippi-Missouri basin is one of the world’s largest watersheds covering 40 percent of the continental US and providing drinking water for 50 million people, and irrigation for 90 percent of the nation’s agricultural exports.
How This Project Began
In 2010, Joshua Rowan exhibited photographs at the Schmidt Art Center, Southwestern Illinois Community College, Belleville, Illinois, where Libby Reuter was the executive director. One of the images showed antique glass bottles glowing in front of a small window. Beyond the window was a field dotted with round hay bales. Rowan’s photo captured both the light coming through the glass and the quiet beauty of the landscape. Reuter saw that Rowan had the vision and skill to realize a project to draw attention to water resources. Reuter had been assembling glass sculptures inspired by religious reliquaries, and she wanted to place the assembled glass in the landscape to mark the watershed, a sacred connection between land and water. Because the glass markers were fragile and couldn’t remain on-site, photographs would have to capture the moment. Rowan agreed to collaborate and named the sculptures “cairns,” because they were similar to the stacks of rocks that hikers make as trail markers and memorials.
Over the next five years, their Watershed Cairns partnership created more than 100 site- specific cairns and images in metro St. Louis. To represent the extent of the Mississippi River watershed, the fourth largest river system on Earth, they decided to expand their range. In 2016, Rowan’s van was filled with crates of cairn parts they used to create new work on the Mississippi River, from its origin at Lake Itasca, in northern Minnesota, to St. Louis, Missouri. They repeated the process in 2017, driving to the Missouri River headwaters at Hell Roaring Creek, north of Yellowstone National Park, and following the river to its confluence with the Mississippi, near St. Louis. In August 2018, they marked the joining of those two great rivers at West Alton, Missouri. They will complete marking the southern portion of the Mississippi River watershed from St. Louis to its mouth in Louisiana, at the Gulf of Mexico, in 2019.
Libby Reuter was associate dean, Washington University School of Art (now the Sam Fox School of Design and Art), St. Louis, Missouri, and executive director of the Schmidt Art Center at Southwestern Illinois College, Belleville, Illinois, until her retirement in 2012. She is an Alton Illinois sculptor and installation artist whose work deals with social themes. She has been building found-glass sculptures for Watershed Cairns since 2011.
St. Louis Missouri artist Joshua Rowan’s photographs are in numerous private collections. His design and illustration clients include 4Hands Brewing Co., St. Louis Magazine, Riverfront Times, numerous tattoo studios and PETA. His personal photography includes landscape series in the American West, Iceland, and on the US / Mexican Border. http://joshuarowan.com/main/
Missouri Coalition for the Environment: www.moenviron.org
Heartlands Conservancy: www.heartlandsconservancy.org
Kiefer Creek Watershed Restoration Project: www.moenviron.org>gis-mapping
Deer Creek Watershed Alliance: www.deercreekalliance.org
East West Gateway Council of Governments: ewgateway.org/environment/waterresources/waterresources.htm
National Great Rivers Museum: www.mvs.usace.army.mil/rivers/museum.html
Great Rivers Research Center: www.ngrrec.org
Piasa Palisades Sierra Club: illinois.sierraclub.org/piasapalisades
Misfit Stream: misfitstream.wordpress.com