Seeing Water

Krisanne Baker defines herself as a multi-disciplinary eco-artist, water activist, citizen scientist, and educator. In all of these disciplines, she has devoted herself to researching and revealing the condition and beauty of our rivers, streams, and oceans, and to advocating for their protection. 

Baker’s interest in water is a natural outcome of having lived in coastal communities for most of her life, first as a child growing up on Cape Cod, Massachusetts and then for the past thirty years as a resident of Waldoboro, Maine, which is located at the head of the Medomak River on Muscongus Bay. She describes her father as a “sailing fanatic,” who taught her to swim in the ocean with her eyes wide open so she could see the beauty of what lies below its surface. From her mother, a chemistry and biology teacher, Baker learned to closely observe the world through both the lens of a microscope and the naked eye. Her work over the last decade embraces what she learned from her parents as she incorporates her keen observations of life under the surface of the ocean and studies the micro environmental and chemical toxins that affect water quality.

Pawtucket River/Chesapeake Bay Water Column, Green Too: With the Earth in Mind, installed at Ann Marie Garden and Sculpture Park, Dowell, Maryland. Site specific water samples and debris, acrylic bars, screws, monofilament, and acrylic bags, 4’ x 4’ x 14,’ 2010.

Water Columns

In 2009, after receiving her MFA in Ecological Art, Baker began fabricating large-scale, site-specific installations at venues in multiple states. The installations, which she called Water Columns, contained layers of local water samples. Her goal for the project was to raise awareness about the water quality of rivers and drinking water in the designated communities, and to establish a connection between residents and their water sources, which included the Chattahoochee River in Atlanta, Georgia; the Saco and Sandy Rivers in Maine; the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and the Pawtuxent River in Maryland.

For each site, Baker installed a four-sided, structure comprised of clear, acrylic bars, and heavy duty monofilament. On each of the bars, she hung quart-size, Ziplop plastic bags that contained the water samples, starting with the clearest water from the surface of the river at the top of the installation and ending with the dirtiest samples from the lowest level of the river at the bottom of the structure. The water in the baggies also contained living organisms that represented individual biospheres. 

From a distance, the Ziploc bags, which are tinted blue and reflect ambient light, created a glowing and visually pleasing impression that enticed visitors to come closer and observe the level of dirt and pollutants in the water. The installations were also successful in stimulating conversations among the visitors and encouraging them to become engaged in water advocacy.

Malawi mural completed by local teachers. Acrylic on canvas, 4’ x 15,’ 2018.

Malawi Artist Residency

In 2018, Baker spent three weeks in the Ntchisi region of Malawi in southeastern Africa on a residency near the top of a rainforest mountain. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. The village that Baker visited had no running water, electricity, or source of fuel other than wood. In order to make a fire to heat water and cook, the residents cut down local trees, an action that has disturbed the area’s root systems which normally absorb rainfall. As a result, rainwater regularly runs down the mountain, causing a frequent shortage of available water.

The Malawi residency was sponsored by Go! Malawi, a non-profit organization based in Maine that collaborates with 12 local villages to develop programs in education, health care, commerce, and conservation for their residents. As Baker explained, “my mission was to incorporate art and the local rainforest ecology in a teachable curriculum for the Ntchisi district teachers that would encourage ecological stewardship….” 

When Baker arrived in Malawi, she hired a forest ranger to guide her and the 12 teachers in the program through the rainforest to learn about the connections between water, the ecology of the region, and themselves. She was surprised to learn that despite its proximity, many of the teachers had not actually been to the top of the rainforest mountain. 

In the classroom, Baker taught the teachers about global water systems, weather cycles, and how cutting down trees for cooking fuel would eventually collapse the water system in their locale. Using a digital microscope, she also introduced them to the experience of looking closely at water samples. 

For the culmination of the project, the participating teachers created a permanent mural in one of the Ntchisi school classrooms as well as two murals that would travel from classroom to classroom and school to school. The teachers intend to use the murals to instruct their students on water systems and stewardship. Each mural depicts what they learned about the connections between water cycles, plants, trees, animals, fish, phytoplankton, zooplankton, and people. In the end, all of the teachers expressed their gratitude to Baker for opening their eyes to the world around them and introducing them to water activism. 

Ocean Breathing, installed at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, East Boothbay, Maine. Upcycled, slumped, and soldered glass, monofilament, steel, solar LED lights, strontium and copper wire, 8’ x 8’ x 28,’ 2019.

Ocean Breathing:  Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences Artist Residency

In 2019, Baker spent six weeks as a visiting artist-in-residence at The Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, located in East Boothbay, Maine. Bigelow is a nonprofit research institute that studies the health of our oceans and works to find solutions to the impact of climate change on them. In addition to research areas like ocean warming, acidification, algal bloom, marine virology, and numerous other, Bigelow houses the largest living library of algae in the world. 

A devoted underwater swimmer, Baker has been fascinated by the glowing phytoplankton that exists below the upper sunlit layer of the water. Microscopic plants responsible for sustaining the chemistry of the ocean, phytoplankton also provide a sustainable, breathable atmosphere in the water. In collaboration with Dr. Michael Lomas of the National Center for Marine Algae and Microbiota, Baker completed drawings of the algae samples, which she used as research for the large-scale, glass installation she was planning to construct at the end of the residency.  

Because diatroms, or types of single cell algae, have natural glass exoskeletons, Baker chose to work in glass to convey their glowing, gem-like qualities for the installation, which she titled, Ocean Breathing. Using recycled glass and upcycled pipettes, she created over 100 different glass sculptures by slumping or melting the glass pieces into molds, and in some cases, soldering them together around LED lights. As multi-faceted and beautiful as the ocean itself, Ocean Breathing is currently installed at the Bigelow Institute.

Citizen Scientist

In addition to her work as an artist and a high school art teacher, Baker is a volunteer with two local land conservancies for the Maine Department of Marine Resources. As a result of climate disruption, the temperature in the Gulf of Maine is rising faster than anywhere else in the country. She and her colleagues are responsible for warning the state when water samples contain dangerous levels of toxins or pollutants so that they can close the clam flats and/or oyster beds if necessary. 

What’s Next?

Baker is currently planning an ambitious project in the Yucatan Peninsula where she has often gone to explore the Mezoamerican Coral Reef, which runs along the coasts of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras, and is the second largest coral reef in the world. In collaboration with a local community and school system as well as the University of Mexico, she hopes to take students out to the reefs for their first experience snorkeling so that they can understand how their lives are connected to the ocean. She is also proposing to install a permanent outdoor sculpture celebrating the reefs. 

All of Baker’s work, past and future, is motivated by her desire to encourage us all to really see water, for its inherent beauty and, most importantly, for its critical importance to our lives and to the survival of the world’s ecosystems. She is also demonstrating what Dr. Ellen Moyer described in her 2015 article for the Huffington Post when she said that “art allows people to relate to vast and often unfathomable concepts by engaging the heart and the senses. Art compels thought, helps us feel and process emotion, starts conversation and sparks creativity… An observer’s reaction to art can translate into caring, determination and action.” 

(Top image: Gulf of Main: Phytoplankton Breathing III, detail. Oil and phosphorescent pigments on canvas, 48” x 16,” 2017.)

This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate disruption a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.

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Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist and writer. Her work has been exhibited in numerous museums and galleries throughout the US and she has received many grants and commissions. Since 2011, all of her paintings, installations and photographs have focused on water and climate change. She co-created a national, interactive public art project, The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and has inspired thousands of adults and children of all ages, abilities and backgrounds to protect this vital resource. Her most recent body of work calls attention to the growing number of rampikes along our shores – trees that have been exposed to salt water and died as a result of rising tides.

2 thoughts on “Seeing Water

  1. Great to learn of your work. Especially as a fellow artist passionate about the importance of marine ecology, it’s health, significance and desire to share the links to climate change through public engagement . Look forward to hearing about your work in on the Yucatan Peninsula.

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