Although they live just miles from Lake Michigan, some young people in the Walnut Way community had never seen the lake. Thanks to a collaboration between Walnut Way Conservation Corp. and artist Raoul Deal, they not only have been to the lake, but have learned about the practical, political and environmental aspects of water.
From fall 2009 to summer 2010 Deal, senior lecturer at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee Department of Art and Design, conducted workshops at Walnut Way. The students, ages 14 to 17, created a series of silk screen prints relating to water issues. In addition to expressing their activism through art, they learned skills that could lead to economic opportunities, according to Sharon Adams, program director of Walnut Way.
Their work was displayed as part of a UWM gallery show, Watershed: Art, Activism, and Community Engagement. Adams and two other experts were invited to speak at a gallery event that attracted 50 people.
The exhibit is the product of a three-year project that tackled issues of water shortages, water privatization, invasive species, industrial pollution and water as a human right. In addition to workshops, it includes exhibitions, screenings and discussions that offered opportunities for artists, scientists, farmers, community activists, teachers, students and friends to work together.
Walnut Way has been involved with water issues since its founding in 2000. The community-based group has built rain gardens and urban farms throughout the neighborhood and is now focusing on creating green alleys, which will further contribute to reducing water run-off. Water run-off in urban areas pollutes rivers and lakes with contaminants such as oil and gas from cars, road salt and fertilizers. Excessive water run-off in Milwaukee can also contribute to sewer overflows into Lake Michigan.
Walnut Way has developed and conducted workshops since 2005 with young people relating to rain gardens, stewardship and the water cycle. “Awareness is the first step to stewardship,” Adams said after her talk on the history of Walnut Way and its conservation efforts.
Deal and the students also built and painted a mural at one of Walnut Way’s garden plots on the theme of stewardship. A photo of the mural was displayed as part of the gallery show.Walnut Way’s collaboration with Deal goes back to 2003 when he participated in an oral history project with the group. The organization has published a 36-page booklet, “Caring Neighbors Make Good Communities,” that compiles the residents’ stories and is illustrated with Deal’s artwork. The original artwork now is displayed at Walnut Way.
The gallery show will be travelling to other cities. “We want to take it to cities bordering the Great Lakes first: Detroit, Buffalo, Cleveland, Toronto, and others,” said Nicholas Lampert of UWM, who organized the water project with Deal. Lambert is in the process of selecting galleries in cities that will bring a local component to the show and help engage each community in water issues.