Art & Science: The Story of a Single Stream

In spring of 2017, the story of “Becoming Water” made waves at Gordon Snelgrove Gallery. Along the walls and floors webbed a story that merged two worlds, art and science. This exhibit was a course-based artistic response to the facets and facts of Saskatchewan’s water. A 14-day, interdisciplinary experience embarked on by eight undergraduate and three graduate students resulted in an invitation for the University of Saskatchewan community to better understand and appreciate the conditions of Saskatchewan’s oldest bodies of water. Among the assorted student installations using various artistic mediums was that of Kelsey Ford, an undergraduate artist whose work with art in the environment continues to take form. 

Language Channels

“Science speaks to the brain, art speaks to the heart,” are the words of Graham Strickert, one of Ford’s professors who used this phrase to set the scene for the interdisciplinary collaboration in ART 356. The course provided students with tools to craft, interpret, respond to, and challenge the conditions of water in Saskatchewan. For Kelsey Ford, who grew up in Saskatoon, the class was an opportunity to check out her province’s backyard and observe the blending of Mother Nature and Mother Modern.

Diving into Research

The process was unlike any Ford had previously experienced. Local experts and scientists brought in facts while student artists provided educated and creative responses. Experts, professors and students established a common language through developing bubble maps. These maps opened up conversations as the topics percolated as ideas about water and then settled into a more precise plan for the art installation.

The students involved were given an opportunity to engage with water-oriented locations throughout Saskatchewan including the Saskatoon water treatment plant, Saskatchewan river delta at Cumberland House, the Gardiner Dam, and the Mistaseni rock – a glacier deposited erratic rock sacred to local Aboriginal cultures. During field trips and conversations with experts, the students’ minds brewed. They were only given a few hours to craft each of their artistic responses to these class-based experiences. For artists who are used to taking time planning every detail of their pieces, this pace was challenging. In a moment they were required to respond, represent, adapt and recount their experiences having only a few hours from the end of one the class before they arrived the next morning with a creation in hand.

Making Waves

Growing up next to the South Saskatchewan River had much more of an impact on Ford’s art than she would have initially thought. Water is essential to this province, in fact she believes, “if you’re an artist in Saskatoon, water is going to find its way into your art.” Prior to this experience, Ford may not have realized how her pieces included or addressed water, how they may have flown as the South Saskatchewan does. Now, she has a new appreciation for the impact and inspiration this life source provides.

While Ford has grown up in Saskatoon and pursues her education at the University of Saskatchewan, she has had various adventures exploring other parts the world, including solo backpacking recently in Australia. It is clear when talking to Ford that she seeks out novel experiences, taking every opportunity she can. Her worldly experience is reflected in her artistic choices, building rich strokes, nuanced sculpting and intriguing installations.

Reflections in the Water

“Becoming Water,” tested observers, pushing us to question our relationship with water. In the gallery, onlookers observed the pieces to gain insight and have perspectives challenged, often sharing a sound or a look with others in the room. Ford’s piece transported the viewer to Cumberland House as 2.5 meter prints of phragmites crept up the wall to reach the ceiling. Phragmites are a non-native grass species which consumes bodies of water and in some cases can reach up to over 3.5 m. Water in IV bags with their lines hung to the ground were connected to the bodies of trees. Water depicted as the human life source Ford had realized over the course of participating in the class. She developed this piece such that the each viewer would roll the IV with them as they moved throughout the gallery, always maintaining the connection and forcing the audience to face the truth of water’s importance.

Absorbing and representing two different fields, art and science, and establishing a common language between them can pose a problem to anyone involved with an interdisciplinary endeavor. Through this collaboration came understanding and a new found appreciation for both fields involved for Ford and others involved. Professors Susan Shantz from the Department of Art and Art History and Dr. Graham Strickert of the School of Environment and Sustainability supported students to realize their individual and collaborative components of the exhibit with support from their respective departments, college/ school, and the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness. Notable guests included professor emerita, Basia Irland from the University of New Mexico, and Métis guides and Saskatchewan River Delta ambassadors, Gary Carrier and Karen Carrier.

Pouring Forth

Since embarking on this artistic and scientific collaboration Ford has pushed herself; challenging who she is as an artist, breaking out of her comfort zone and developing a passionate, educated and precise point of view on what water means to her and inviting her audience to do the same. Her new found knowledge on the conditions of Saskatchewan’s waters motivates her to make waves as she explores different channels in art. She plans to craft pieces that fulfill what she feels is her political and social responsibility. Working with and alongside nature as an Eco-artist enables Ford to pose a call for action to observers and to share the story that influences her daily, that of our earth: our water world.