The Midwest’s bountiful supply of freshwater is invisible except when there is a drought, or a flood. Artists Libby Reuter and Joshua Rowan have been creating Watershed Cairns: Water Marked with Art sculptures, images, public events, and maps since 2011. Initially, the artists focused on the St. Louis Metropolitan area, making more than 80 images in Missouri and Illinois. They began to mark the Upper Mississippi River, from its origin at Lake Itasca, Minnesota, to its confluence with the Missouri River, north of St. Louis, in the summer of 2016. They expanded the project in 2017, traveling to northern Montana to trace the Missouri River from its beginning at Hell Roaring Creek, in the Centennial Mountains, to the Mississippi River. In 2019, they will follow the Mississippi from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico.
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.
Exhibits in public museums and galleries and events with community environmental groups introduce the concept of watershed—the land where all the water flows to the same body of water—to a broad public. In the American Midwest and much of the West, all the water flows from streams and smaller rivers to the Missouri and Mississippi rivers on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. Many people don’t realize that the Missouri-Mississippi River System covers 40 percent of the continental United States, grows 90 percent of the country’s agricultural exports, and provides drinking water to 50 million Americans. To draw attention to our freshwater resources, Watershed Cairns’ work includes cairn-making workshops for families, water-focused collaborations with other artists, river cleanups and celebrations with environmental organizations, presentations to school and community groups, and advocacy for a river–forward region. The artists hope that their evocative images and “artivism” will prompt a greater connection with the web of water and inspire the public’s appreciation and protection of our water-rich region.