Braided Channel is the Schuylkill Center’s latest gallery show, which opened Nov. 7 as we presented the Henry H. Meigs Award for Environmental Leadership to artist Stacy Levy.
Braided Channel celebrates Levy’s career to date and presents a new extension of her community-based water work.
Levy has developed a new iteration of a body of work that engages community members in gathering water samples along the full length of local waterways. For the Schuylkill Center, Levy instigated a gathering of water from the two streams on the our grounds (Smith Run and Meigs Run), displayed in a library of local water specimens. Starting from the headwaters near Hagy’s Mill Road and ending near the Schuylkill River Trail, teams of staff and volunteers walked along the stream channels, grabbing a 16-ounce sample every 130 feet.
The wall abstractly maps the Schuylkill Center’s small watersheds as a cabinet of water, with the cardinal direction northwest being up toward the ceiling. The streams originate from groundwater springs not far from Hagy’s Mill Road (at right) and flow into the Schuylkill River (left).
The water samples provide a visual representation of water quality and the life of the stream in different areas. Ponds encountered along the stream have murkier samples (complete with duckweed, a native aquatic plant) from their still waters, while samples gathered from fast-flowing bedrock streams appear completely clear. With the agricultural history of this land, we also encountered a number of ruins, including old pipes, springhouses, bridges and mill infrastructure.
The experience of walking the streams was both intriguing and challenging. Though the streams at times flow alongside trails, finding the spring source required extensive bushwhacking offtrail, sometimes through thick brush and brambles. But the effort was worthwhile to capture this visual snapshot of these two bodies of water in one day and experience these streams from source to sink in one moving adventure.
This Water Pantry provides one way of looking at a small watershed comprehensively, and the visual display of these samples invites reflection on what is seen and unseen in water quality. An additional sample of water from the end of the Schuylkill River in South Philadelphia was gathered by the artist, which has a notably different visual quality to the small, spring-fed streams of the Schuylkill Center’s forests.
The gallery also features moving image documentation of a sampling of Levy's site-based works.
Much of Stacy Levy’s most compelling work has existed outdoors in site-specific, landscape pieces around the country. Unless visited in person, the scale and power of these kinds of works can be difficult to convey in more traditional art settings. Documentation is often a challenge for site-based works, which are ever-changing in response to environmental conditions and activated in new ways over time by the presence and participation of people and nature. In Levy’s case, how nature interacts with and responds to the installed work over time is also critical, particularly with regards to works that engage with ecological processes directly. How alive these works are is often difficult to capture in a gallery setting, with still images serving as a very limited translation of the experience of a site.
For this exhibition, Levy has developed short, gestural videos that offer dynamic views of 10 of her site-based works. They span almost two decades of Levy’s art practice and explore a range of topics of rivers, tides, mold, nutrient pollution, sunset, wind and native plants. Some are still active, while others were temporary installations. The videos offer windows into the places where a selection of Levy’s works live out into the world, just as Levy’s work offers windows into how nature works.
Notably, Smith Run and Meigs Run are named for two of the founding families of the Schuylkill Center, which include the namesake of the Meigs Award. The stream bottles are for sale at $5 a bottle, if you’d like to take one home with you at the end of the show.
Braided Channel: Stacy Levy is on view in the Schuylkill Center’s art gallery until Feb. 2, 2019.