On July 14, Athenaeum, a conglomerate of art and media, launched a gallery dedicated to Potomac River Life. Although largely looked over, art hangs meticulously along the walls and covers the building with a quiet importance. Mounting exhibitions from classic to contemporary artists garner an influx of movement here, and an extensive range of concerts, dance performances, and literary events keep the place busy. This mixed media asset is home to the North Virginia Fine Arts Association (NVFAA) and is supported by and for the community through events and donations.
The Athenaeum Gallery called upon artists in the DC, Maryland, and Virginia (DMV) area to explore concepts pertaining to the regional ecosystem and the importance of working toward healthy natural water sources.
Artists Lisa Shumaier and Marcel Deolazo use found objects to create sculptures and mixed media that depict realism and transform trash into desirable novelties. Shumaier's work titled Banks of the Potomac is an immersive experience, as she creates an environment to transport the viewer into a familiar world of wonder. In the multimedia piece, she uses metal, wood and paper, which works to illustrate the power of reusable materials as a medium to further promote conservation.
Deolazo’s Crystal Clear School is made from recycled plastics and wire. This installation and the idea behind it establish an ergonomic design in combination with his style, and highlights the theme of conservation. Utilizing light materials and creating individual pieces of art adds character. This malleability allows clients or curators to display Deolazo’s body of work based on their own interpretations.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Clean Water Act. According to the Potomac River Keepers Network (PRKN), within the next two years, we may have the opportunity to explore the beautiful DMV area from a new vantage point—the river! The Clean Water Act, which came into effect in 1972, regulates the chemical, physical, and biological quality of bodies of water throughout the United States. With climate concerns generating mass media attention, it is important to reflect on progress and your personal impact on the environment. Organizations like the Potomac Riverkeeper Network are striving for environmental justice through a multifaceted lens. The health of the Potomac and our local water systems has an immediate impact on native and front line communities. The end goal; create consistent self-sustaining systems that harbor the ability to withstand human intervention and complacent management. According to a member of PRKN at the Potomac River Life Gallery Talk, the possibility of a safe, swimmable Potomac by June 2025 is achievable.
For artist Joanne Kent, the DMV was meant to be a temporary arrangement, but the developing infrastructure, expansive environment, and community couldn’t drive her away. In fact, it did the opposite; she was diagnosed with a peculiar condition, ‘Potomac Fever.’ Kent writes, “My painting, Potomac Fever, expresses the tropical conditions favorable for a fever to thrive, plus its lushness and beauty, and the hope that the power and policy will continue to improve in honor of our beautiful river and environment.” The thick layers of paint resembling marine vegetation express the recent murky, troubled conditions and policies in effect on the outskirts of the Potomac. Her work is a culmination of lived experiences illustrated through mixed media.
As I made my way through the Athenaeum, a concurrent thrumming in my head and heart echoed through the corners of the gallery. The juxtaposition of the abrupt white interior with the captivating and varied artwork invites room for dialogue and poses many questions. I stumbled into the historical landmark on July 15, a few days before the opening night. Passing several people on my way up the steps, I received uninterrupted access to the methods of the artist's minds. The expansive space of the main hall carved a barren cavity within my chest. When walking along the original architecture of the building, I could feel the atmosphere shift as my mind began to take root in the abstracts, mixed media, and community.
The variety of techniques used in the exhibit speaks to the artists’ capacity of understanding of the social issues that transcend their works. The presence of foliage and marine life was emphasized throughout the exhibit in paintings, photographs, and sculptures. Their symbiotic relationship contributes significantly to the regrowth and development of our ecosystems. The exhibition utilized multi-media ideas to inspire progress, piquing the curiosity of the local youth. Being among one of the youngest attendees at the gallery talk, there was a call to action by older generations in need of a younger demographic to fill the shoes of our officials, leaders, and artists. This surge of regeneration between people and within the natural world will have to compete with natural selection and the flow of our respective ecosystems before it can begin the journey of creating strong, abundant roots.
Protecting existing trees, habitats, and wildlife, promoting connectivity, and funding organizations that support planting trees are not the silver bullet to all of the conservation issues we face, but their efforts make a difference and it is evident in the last 30 years of research conducted on the health of the Potomac River. By utilizing natural organisms, we are mobilizing the earth's resources to return our marine ecosystem back to health.
The largest piece identifiable from the moment you crack open the double doors of the Athenaeum is Extant, by David Whitmore. An explorer led to create this canvas drop cloth of acrylic, river water, and wood remnants out of nostalgic necessity. Whitmore explains:
“For over 25 years, I have had a close connection and engagement with the Potomac River, with focus on the Little Falls (fall line) area. The fall line of the Potomac is the meeting zone of two physiographic regions—the Atlantic coastal plain and the rocky Piedmont. This zone offers conditions favorable to the sustained presence of globally rare species. Periodic flooding, and the presence of geologic pockets trapping transported upstream mountain seeds, are two of the unique aspects of the Potomac Gorge.”
In 2009, repairs were made to the Chain Bridge crossing the Potomac River and a nearby fall line zone. There was a sign that announced the unique bio-treasure of the Potomac Gorge. The sign was removed during repairs and was never reinstalled. After an extensive search and expedition with the National Park Service looking for a photo or any remnants of the sign’s contents, days passed and messages went unanswered. So, unable to recover a physical copy of the sign, Whitemore created one from the fragments of his memory and materials from nature as a tribute. Using the water from the Potomac as a symbol of his reverence, he submerged the canvas to crystallize the effect of wet-soaked cloth. Later, in an attempt to emphasize our lack of control in the realm of the natural world, he then applied high-flow acrylic paint. He then used lumber and dried reeds in front of the floodplain as stencils to separate the two regions on the canvas. Lastly, undulating typography was applied to evoke the shimmer of migrating shad [fish/marine life] conquering the fall line.
Nancy Ramsey, an abstract painter from Alexandria, Virginia, also values the exploration of the natural world and uses nature as a reference often in her abstracts. In, ‘Watershed: Historic Alexandria Waterfront, 1798,’ “[she] begins much of her landscape related work through studying maps or en plein air. She sees art as another way of processing the world and recreating life's experiences. Bits from photographs, maps, and memories are combined to suggest local waterways, land, and native flora.” Ramsey enjoys collaborating with creators of all mediums: writers, artists, and dancers, which captivate and strike a particular inspiration. Her process and style are an intricate production. Her art is a response to the world, and along the way, the thoughts that culminate in between. The completion of her work is the period that follows a fragment of her life, sealing a glimpse of that moment in time and acrylic.
Individual and community-led actions in your everyday life are great places to start when implementing environmental conservation into your routine. There are a plethora of actionable items you can start and sustain. For example, next time you are on a walk, bring a bag with you to collect trash on your local trails. A significant contributor to pollution in the Potomac and most natural water systems is our ignorance when it comes to disposing of waste. The primary cause of pollution in our waterways is not due to people throwing trash directly into oceans or rivers, it comes from the rainwater drainage and runoff on land.
Personal efforts can only affect so much. Natural water sources uninhibited by human-made devices or waste have seemed relatively unattainable recently, considering The Clean Water Act is only fifty years old this year and polluting natural water sources has been amply normalized. To execute legislative appeal, people should be prepared to make sacrifices in order to implement systems that will fulfill the needs of our communities and ecosystems.
Coastal cities are an inspiration for artists around the world and provide endless creative fuel. It has brought this collective together to steal our attention to a pertinent topic through a medium anyone can admire. Art has the capacity to connect individuals and expand perspectives. Through paint, a lens, or even man-made materials, I can bathe in the thoughts of the creator and relinquish my own understanding. The raw anticipation of learning, a blank canvas, an empty roll of film—opportunity to proceed down any path you see.
Potomac beach walks/clean up email@example.com
Percentage of sales from art will benefit the Potomac Riverkeepers Network.
End of exhibition: August 21, 2022
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