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The Water About Us

View from the Field
By Dr. Gayle Seymour, Professor and Associate Dean CFAC

I am certain no one ever told me, as I was working on my PhD in art history at the University of California Santa Barbara many years ago, that my degree would prepare me to envision, curate, and produce large-scale arts events and festivals. However, my current project, titled “The Water about Us,” demonstrates how the art historian’s essential analytical and organizational skills can overflow their traditional boundaries to ignite fresh and original artworks, much like a curator who brings a museum exhibit to life.

According to Katy Hinz, Career Counselor at the University of Minnesota, art history develops essential abilities including but not limited to:

  • Strong written and verbal communication skills
  • Critical thinking and analysis skills
  • Creative problem-solving skills
  • Listening, clarifying, questioning, and responding skills
  • Ability to work independently and collaboratively
  • Research skills and attention to detail
  • Broad range of historical knowledge
  • Ability to interpret and assess art objects, as well as everyday images, objects, and the built environment

Indeed, the planning and execution of “The Water about Us,” a weeklong series of events centered on the theme of water resource awareness, Oct. 1-6, 2018, required me and my co-producer and former student Jennifer Deering (UCA alum, art history minor) to use every one of these skills and more!

Together, we envisioned a project that would culminate in an underwater dance/film/music/poetic experience at the UCA HPER Center pool. We wanted to produce a truly memorable and interactive feature event where the audience was in the water along with the artists. We were inspired by the ideas that, whether we realize it or not, water influences and can alter our everyday life, represents how our common reliance on it binds us together, and that our relationship to water is the source for stories about how we exist. We selected the theme of water not only because it is crucial to sustaining life but also because in a socially just world every person has a right to clean water supply. By giving the audience a full sensory experience of water, including how it sounds, our intent is to help people connect to water in a deeply personal way in the hope that their emotional responses to it will influence how they think about this precious resource and how they behave around it. In short, we want to use the arts to move people to action!

To make this dream of an underwater concert come to life, we assembled a unique team of collaborating artists. HEARding Cats Collective, a St. Louis-based multi-media ensemble led by the octogenarian Rich O’Donnell, performs improvisational musical sounds, under and above water, using hand built electronic and hydroacoustic instruments. HEARding Cats’s media artist Van McElwee creates high intensity animation video, and Anna Lum is the group’s poet. Core Dance, a contemporary dance organization, artistic incubator, and convener formed by co-founder and artistic director Sue Schroeder, uses dance to illuminate, educate, and question. Core’s work also leads them to share what they know about bodies and movement with isolated populations—those dealing with abuse, homelessness, language barriers, eating disorders, refugee status, substance abuse, aging, and HIV/AIDS. To round out the ensemble, we chose an emerging spoken word artist, UCA freshman Chauncey E. Williams-Wesley, to punctuate the music and provide the audience with powerful statements about this most important resource.

Planning the events began almost exactly one year ago. Immediately, we put our written communication skill to the test as we wrote grant applications to the Arkansas Arts Council, Mid-America Arts Alliance, and other funders, in order to assemble the $50,000 budget required to bring these events to life. Grant writing truly is the essential groundwork for any large-scale project because it forces you to think deeply about the goals and measurable objectives of the project on the front end. Research also happens at this stage not only about the topic but also about possible campus and community partners who might make the project outcomes even stronger, ways of assessing the success of the project, and identifying avenues of dissemination of the results.

By far, creative problem solving is the most important skill from the art historical toolbox. Imagine cold calling the director of the HPER Center to ask if we could stage a public concert in their pool! This is where persuasive verbal communication skills are required. Once the HPER Center director gave us the green light, we faced significant legal and safety issues that we had to solve. How many lifeguards were required? What kind of audience liability release forms did we need? How would we accommodate audience members with special needs? What would be the limits for attire in the pool? The devilish details seemed endless.

We put our listening, clarifying, questioning, and responding skills to the test as we brought our artists and community partners to campus for a site visit during the planning stage. As our ideas came more in focus, we had to keep questioning how exactly we would do this or that. For instance, if we had Core creating movement sequences in the water, how would the floating audience be able to see the performance of the submerged dancers? We solved this issue by having an underwater videographer providing a live feed of the dancers that we were able to project, intermittently with colorful art video, onto two large poolside screens. With the addition of 20 mood uplights around the perimeter of the room, transforming the UCA pool into a kind of aquatic cathedral, sights, sounds, and movements came together for a truly multisensory experience unlike any other.

1. Katy Hinz, What Can I Do with a Major in Art History?, University of Minnesota, College of Liberal Arts, https://cla.umn.edu/wcidwami/art-history (accessed September 20, 2018).