Keeper of the Waters

For the last 50+ years, eco-artist and environmental activist Betsy Damon has devoted herself to community building – the coming together of individuals to achieve a common purpose. Since the 1980s, after a decade of engaging the public through public performances in New York City, she has worked at the intersection of art and science, focusing on the topic of water and on creating models for communities in the United States and China to know and become stewards of their own water sources. The brief descriptions below, highlighting four of Damon’s many exhibitions, ecological and sustainable design projects, publications, and organizations are only a brief glimpse into her prolific and important body of work.

Damon’s first major project on water came about after a cross-country camping trip with her children in 1983, during which she observed a number of dry riverbeds whose once flowing waters had been dammed and redirected. As a result of this experience and a growing reconnection to the natural world, she conceived of a project that would bring attention to the environmental loss that the dry riverbeds represented and serve as a living memory of the missing water. Damon was able to realize the project, called A Memory of Clean Water, when she brought together a group of master papermakers and local artists to create a paper casting covering 250 feet of a dry riverbed in Castle Rock, Utah. The stunning and powerful piece was installed in seven venues across the country from 1986 through 1991, including at the Danforth Museum in Framingham, Massachusetts; the University of Wisconsin at Madison; Everhart Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania; MoMA PS1 in New York City; and others.  

A Memory of Clean Water was pivotal to the evolution of Damon’s practice. During its creationas she was working on her hands and knees placing paper pulp over rocks, she looked up and realized that the patterns of stars in the sky mirrored the patterns in the riverbed. Profoundly moved by this personal epiphany, she promised herself to learn as much as she could about water and has spent the rest of her life since then fulfilling that promise.  

Documentary on A Memory of Clean Water, 1987

In 1990, Damon moved from New York to Minnesota to teach art and activism classes at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. One year later, she founded and directed Keepers of the Waters, a non-profit organization dedicated to encouraging and supporting community-based water projects. Under the auspices of the Hubert Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minneapolis, Damon and her colleagues held community meetings in Duluth, Minnesota, focusing on local water concerns, including wastewater treatment, toxic sites, and the condition of lakes and rivers. They developed performances, exhibitions, community workshops, clean-up efforts, lectures, and classes in order to inform community members about their waters and to promote activism. 

As a result of her work with Keepers of the Waters, Damon was invited in 1993 to San Antonio, Texas to teach a class called Art and Activism at Trinity University. One of her students there created a project to clean up a neglected park beside the San Antonio River. Her initial effort to improve the area has morphed into an annual cleanup event. 

While she was in San Antonio, Damon also attended meetings of a citizen’s group that had been organized to address issues impacting the Edwards Aquifer, the source of water for most of southcentral Texas. Her participation in the group inspired them to create an organization called Save the Edwards Aquifer to monitor real estate development encroaching on the water system. Looking back on this effort and on all of her projects since she began her work as an eco-artist and activist, Damon acknowledges that her “primary role throughout her practice has been to ignite activism, to get people to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do.”

 A Living Water Garden, flow forms, Chengdu, China, 1998

During a trip to China in 1995 to conduct a Keepers of the Waters project in Chengdu, Damon was invited by the Chengdu City Government to see their plans for establishing a series of parks on both sides of the polluted Jin Jiang River. After reviewing the plans, she suggested that they create a park that would teach their citizens how nature cleans water naturally. In 1996, impressed by the spirit of the events that Damon produced with her colleagues, the government officials invited her to design the park she had conceived. 

The Living Water Garden, completed in 1998was visited by governors and mayors from every province in China, and serves as a teaching model to this day. Zhu Rong Ji, the Premier of China, praised the project as “the best thing to happen in China that year.” Yu Guang Yuan, economic advisor to Deng Xiaoping, told Damon that unlike most people who had come to China to make money, “you came and gave us a future.” Of the many design projects she has developed throughout her career, she regards the Living Water Garden as the most effective in influencing a community’s relationship to water. 

Wetlands Section of A Living Water Garden

Over the years, Damon thought about writing a book that would document her work with water and community. In 2017, at a board meeting of Keepers of the Water, the idea resurfaced and became a reality. As she usually does when she has a project to develop, she gathered a group of colleagues and friends together to create the framework for the book. Part memoir, part scientific and spiritual exploration of water, and part manual on how to organize and energize communities to understand and protect their own water sources, Water Talks will be released by Steiner Books on April 5, 2022. 

Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE, British primatologist, anthropologist, and the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees, wrote the preface for Water Talks. In it, she describes the book as “based on science but filled with the spirit of the artist… containing inspiring moments and successes of people and communities that have organized around saving a water place.” In her introduction, Damon explains her fundamental belief that water should be a communal resource, immune to privatization: 

Every place, community and country needs to be in charge of its water. This means making bodies of water the common property of all who live near it, which will require policies and practices generated from an understanding of our dependence on one another and nature… the movement to grant personhood for nature is one of the most effective movements, reflecting the reality of our complete dependence on water, air and soil.

Damon has many plans for future projects, including expanding the reach of Keepers of the Waters by encouraging individuals and organizations everywhere to develop living water gardens. As has been the case in all of her endeavors, she will most likely achieve her goal.

(Top image: A Living Water Garden, Chengdu, China)

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 Connecticut-based painter, eco-artist and arts 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. She recently participated in an artist’s residency at Planet, an international company providing global satellite images, where she focused on the proliferation of sinkholes caused by climate change. 

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