For Brooklyn-based printmaker Florence Neal, water has always been a dominant presence in her life. She grew up in Columbus, Georgia, near the Chattahoochee River, which straddles the southern half of the Alabama and Georgia borders. There she developed an appreciation for the Native American stories about the river as well as first-hand knowledge of the negative impact that the cotton and iron mills of the past and the pervasive industrial pollution had had on its health.
Providentially, when Neal moved from Georgia to Brooklyn, New York in 1977, she lived first on Water Street in Dumbo and then in Red Hook, twelve feet from where the flood waters stopped rising in 2012 during Hurricane Sandy. The enormous destruction to property and land in her neighborhood from that major water event still haunts her to this day.
Fifteen years ago, as a result of her on-going interest in water, Neal began studying the traditional Japanese wood-block printing method called mokuhanga (moku = wood; hanga = print), whose origin dates back to the Edo period (1603-1867) in Japan. Unlike their Western counterparts, mokuhanga prints are made with water as a primary element: water-based pigments
, a wet wood block and handmade Japanese paper moistened by water. Most of Neal’s printmaking and public art projects that she has completed since she adopted mokuhanga have incorporated this printing method.
With her life-long attachment to the Chattahoochee River and a desire to bring attention to its history and importance, Neal returned to her Columbus, Georgia hometown in 2010 as an artist-in-residence at Columbus State University. While she developed her work for the residency, which she called The River Project, she established a relationship with Roger Martin, the local River Warden who was advocating for increased efforts to clean the river. (The title of River Warden harkens back to the early 1600s and refers to people who guarded rivers and streams throughout England. They protected anything associated with the river – drinking water, fish or land use – and knew that rivers were extremely important to the health of their community.) As River Warden for the Chattahoochee, Martin supported the long-term continuation of Neal’s River Project.
After a period of closely documenting the Chattahoochee through drawings and photographs, Neal began cutting an 8-foot linoleum block print on the banks of the river over a number of days and invited the public to observe the process and relate their own stories about the river to her. The stories, which were recorded for posterity, helped participants understand that the river is a living entity that existed long before the borders divided the land into states, as well as the centuries-old subject of human stories like theirs.
In 2011, Neal was invited to participate in a seminal, large-scale exhibition titled Value of Water at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York City. Curated by American painter Fredericka Foster, the six-month exhibition included 200 works of art that could stand on their own in the Cathedral’s extraordinary space. Notable artists in the exhibition included, among many others, video artist Bill Viola, conceptual artist Jenny Holtzer, multi-disciplinary artist Robert Longo, and painter/printmaker Pat Steir. Neal’s contribution to The Value of Water was a linoleum print titled Reverberations that she had completed before turning to the mokuhanga printing process. Her intention in the piece was to highlight the fragile line that exists between water’s intrinsic beauty and its destructive potential.
Neal’s positive experience engaging the public in The River Project and her desire to incorporate an educational component into her artwork prompted her to consider creating addition public art projects. In 2018, when her Waters of the Future proposal was accepted for an artist’s residency at the Sacatar Foundation in Bahia, Brazil, she jumped at the opportunity. Sacatar was an ideal setting for Neal, who fully embraced the program’s goals of presenting public programs, performances and educational opportunities and becoming immersed in the culture of Bahia.
Using a similar format to what she had developed for The River Project, Neal set up a working station at the local library and other public sites where she asked local residents to consider what the color of water would be in the future and why. She then carved a wood block designed to represent both water and the swirls of a fingerprint. The mokuhanga prints that she created from the wood block reflected the colors suggested by participants. (See installation detail above)
Calling the project, Águas do Futuro (Waters of the Future), Neal installed the prints in her studio at Sacatar as a series of scrolls and hung the answers completed by participants as a vertical floor-to-ceiling kinetic sculpture.
After her residency in Brazil was completed, Neal continued to create additional installations of Waters of the Future with different wood block designs and with contributions from both Brazilian and American participants: at the Five Myles Gallery in Brooklyn, NY, its first American iteration (2019); at the Fulcrum Gallery at Columbus State University in Columbus, Georgia with a sound component developed by composer Michael Kowalski (2021); and at the Galeria Gravura Brasileira in Sâo Paolo, Brazil. (upcoming 2022).
In addition to being a prolific artist, Neal is the co-founder and director of the Kentler International Drawing Space, a non-profit gallery in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn. The gallery, whose focus is on drawing and other works on paper, is located in a historic structure built in 1877 by the Kentler family to house a men’s haberdashery. Established in 1990, Kentler offers exhibitions, events, an extensive educational program and flatfiles containing the work of over 290 local, national and international artists.
As the world’s waterways and oceans continue to be impacted by manmade pollution and the disastrous effects of climate change, Neal joins the long list of artists around the world who are calling attention to our responsibility, like the River Wardens of old, to protect the waters that are so critical to the health of our communities and to serve as stewards for these precious resources.
(Top image: Águas do Futuro, detail, mokuhanga on washi scroll (handmade Japanese paper), installed in Bahia, Brazil, 2018)
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.
Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist and writer whose work has been exhibited widely in museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Since 2011, all of her paintings, installations and photographs have addressed water and the climate crisis. Her most recent work, called In the Beginning There Was Only Water is a visual reframing of the biblical creation myth. In 39 panels, it speaks to the importance and beauty of all living beings and what we stand to lose as a result of climate change. This fall, she is participating in an artist’s residency at Planet, an international company providing global satellite images, where she is focusing on the proliferation of sinkholes caused by climate change.