PURIFIED: A River In the Desert June 19, 2013
Saturday evening I returned home from Odessa, Texas where I spent last week constructing my newest show, PURIFIED: A River In The Desert. This installation, at the Ellen Noel Museum of Art, is made of 10,000 plastic water bottles collected by the museum’s small and dedicated staff, led by Curator of Education Doylene Land. Being a mostly East Coast girl, the terrain around Odessa and its close neighbor Midland was a new world to me. Both towns are in the Permian Basin, home of the largest inland petrochemical complex in the United States. This is where we get the fuel to drive our cars and live our lives. It is flat desert land and the countryside is covered with low-growing mesquite. The climate is hot and dry with big skies and grand sunsets. Everywhere, in town, close to town and out of town, you can see rhythmic pump jacks working to draw oil out of the ground. Constantly, all of the time.
The Permian Basin has had little or no rainfall for quite a few years. Oil is booming and water is scarce. Drought restrictions are a given. Unless the water is filtered most do not drink it. Almost everyone drinks bottled water out of necessity.
Last week, with the help of 12 smart, thoughtful high school students, we used all of the 10,000 bottles collected by the museum to make a waterfall flowing into a river. Everyone worked all week to make this happen, and we were well-rewarded by our efforts. PURIFIED, the first word of the title, came from the fine print on many of the water bottle labels and was brought to my attention by one of the students. This work was a community endeavor. The museum has a staff of 7 people and everyone began bringing in all of their water bottles in February. A woman who owns a local maid service heard about the project and began to collect all of the bottles from the houses she cleaned. And then there were interested citizens who contributed as well. The gathering of the materials for this work of art was the foundation from which it grew.
All week the students came each day and worked hard crushing, cutting and placing bottles. Everyone invested time and energy to make it happen. I thought the part that was the most fun was squashing the bottles in the river bed. Every once in a while we would decide we needed more and everyone would stop what they were doing and stomp for a while. The hardest part was cutting enough plastic bottles for the waterfall. It took all week with people continually cutting to fill it up with enough plastic. We used the few green PETE bottles we had to make hummingbirds to fly above the river and several students used some oddly colored bottles to make fish, which swim behind it. A children’s camp that was running concurrently added yellow and purple flowers made out of painted bottles. By Friday afternoon the 10,000 empty bottles had been transformed into a river in the desert.
Special thanks to the staff of the Ellen Noel Art Museum, the citizens of Odessa, Texas, and the participating students for making this installation a thought-provoking work of beauty.
PURIFIED: A River in the Desert will be open until September 8, 2013