Journeys and Visions

China, Tibet, and Florida

Betsy drinking healing waters, Aba County, China




ALL ECOLOGIES ARE RELATIONAL. ALL LIFE FUNCTIONS use basically the same elements — air, water, earth, and energy in many forms. Our connective tissue is so complex that we understand only a fraction of it, but in contradiction to this, nearly everything in our society is arranged in controllable boxes.

Ecological art by definition challenges many assumptions about art, and as such, it challenges the structures in our society. This piece will be about my journey and vision, and the vision of artists as change agents in re-establishing the connectivity that is integral to both human and biological ecologies.

Ecology is always inclusive and art is primarily exclusive. Eco art challenges perceptions of genius, of singularity and individualism. It challenges structures that ‘control’ culture and the economic imperatives of our culture. Above all it challenges us to become as alive and ever evolving as eco systems ourselves.

In my nearly fifty years of art making, I made some decisions that defined my path. The feminist art movement was formative in my early years in two ways. First, it was a movement for inclusion and social equity. Second, it expanded possibilities of art and art making with new mediums, materials, and forms.

In 1985 with the casting of a dry river with hand-made paper, I realized I knew nothing about water and so adopted water as my teacher. Water is the connective tissue of eco systems and all living things. Water nurtures all without discrimination. The next decision I made was that my art would have as small a footprint as possible. I initiated river clean-ups and staged public events that directed attention towards garbage and water resources. My work would be functional and in service to eco systems.

I adopted an attitude of inclusion when I was young which became sufficiently integrated into my beliefs that when I received a small grant from the Jerome Foundation, I used the funding for a workshop with artists and scientists to begin collaborations for the restoration and conservation of their eco systems. The workshop became the foundation of possible art works and activities by the community. This is my artwork and the product is the community initiative. The director of the foundation pointed out to me that I had used this funding uniquely.

In 1991, I conceptualized artists, scientists and citizen collaborations for water quality and quantity. Keepers of the Waters became a project of the Institute for Releasing Initiative, my not-for-profit. Soon Keepers began a variety of community-based projects to educate the public and begin activities to restore or preserve their water systems. When in 1993 in Minnesota I proposed a down stream project inviting collaborations with artists for the Mississippi River, I was accused by the largest funding organization of being a communist. I only mention this because it is an indication of how frightened some in power are of real equity in social/media processes. Unwilling to change my approach to suit funding for ‘art’, I found myself at a crossroads without funds and about to abandon my work with water.

A phone call from an unknown source of support (the Flow Fund, I later learned) carried me through. The support was to direct a public art project for water quality in China. There, 25 artists collaborated effortlessly. The Chinese system is informed with a different ontology than the US system. Collaboration is embedded in their system. We prize the individual above all, whereas in China the individual is less important than the group. An elegant mean between these two is my ideal. The process of designing and implementing the Living Water Garden was a complex collaboration in a system which I did not understand, yet it happened; and we are all still celebrating our relationships from those two years.

Artist cooperatives and initiatives are a big part of artistic communities in the US, yet we hear little about these thriving foundations of creativity. Artists are leading collectives of all sorts from urban gardening, grey water treatments, habitat restoration, and WEAD, to mention a few. Still I find the tension between individualism and collaboration looms large because we are staring straight into the values of materialistic capitalism — box it, price it and possess it and, above all, own it. Eco systems are complex, unpredictable and evolving.

Right now I am engaged in a number of projects and have chosen three to describe. While appearing quite different from each other, they all represent aspects of how I work.





Monks cleaning up their water source, Muli Monastary, Sichuan, China


Constructed wetland, Living Water Garden, Chengdu, China


WITH A TIBETAN MEDIA ARTIST, I HAVE BEEN documenting the Tibetan water culture since 2007 in a project called Resources: Saving Living Systems. This rich upland culture is undocumented and vanishing in the wake of globalization, extraction and industrialization, as are most other sources of fresh water. We photograph and film each site and talk late into the night with villagers and monks. We discuss possible sustainable systems and hope to begin implementing integrated systems for wastewater, electricity, rainwater harvesting and farming. The goals and benefits of the project are:

  • To bring attention to upland waters which are rapidly disappearing worldwide.
  • To bring to consciousness the importance of water quality — most of our waters are acidic. In acidic waters diseases can grow. Healthy waters are alkaline. Healthy waters are understood to have restorative, invigorating and even healing properties. Wishful thinking is that this will help to preserve upland water quality.
  • To provide a foundation for relationships to implement integrated sustainable solutions.
  • The most significant benefit that I see is reconnecting urban Tibetans to their culture and supporting rural Tibetans in their practices of protection and celebration, while providing new information about potentially useful technological innovations.
  • The images and histories for this project are the foundation for artworks, films and books.





Eco Art Treasure Coast meeting, Stuart, Florida: Brenda Leigh, Mary Segal, Jennifer Sylvia, Jessie Etelson, Gail Kosowski and Betsy Damon


Learning about the mangroves with Maggie, local environmental activist, who in the 1970’s made sure that Martin county had sustainability in its city planning.


CURRENTLY I’M INVOLVED AS THE FIRST MENTOR artist on Eco-Art South Florida, in a yearlong project, conceived by MJ Aggerston, to spread eco art through the five counties of South Florida. This project, Eco Art Treasure Coast, is based in Stuart, Martin County, on the Indian River lagoon, the largest fresh water lagoon on the east coast. The project is an invitation to care about local eco systems. It is inclusive and is designed to inspire initiatives in the local community with broad based collaborations. The six artists who joined the project form a loose group and have begun to collaborate with each other and community groups.

I challenged them to begin by integrating art and science. Nine months into this project, they are creating floating islands to provide shade and nutrition to a saltwater aquarium, and, on an Audubon site, they are doing bank restoration and installing riparian habitat. Rainwater harvesting and urban gardening are also some of the projects the group is working on. A recent collaboration is focused around plastic. This is a seacoast town, so discovering the vast vortices of plastics in oceans and the millions of sea life killed by plastics created a flurry of ideas and activities. Additionally the constant flow of heavily polluted water from Lake Okeechobee into the lagoon has us nearly paralyzed as the Army Core controls this annual abuse. However, we may start to address this with proposed designs of outfalls and in-situ treatment systems. The greatest impact is that the once skeptical public is becoming aware, active and hopeful.

Consistent with my philosophy, every artist was invited to start on an art-science project. To begin I introduced them to the strategy of “the conversation” and a local marine biologist/activist assisted with the art/science collaborative possibilities. However, each artist had to find their way with their particular skills towards this complex new idea and there were various challenges including building relationships. I noticed that each artist had to challenge their own limits in various complex ways. This has been a particularly messy process with numerous stops and starts. Artists can be central to community as vision makers. That is what we do. I am spending 8 weeks in the community as the mentor. The artists receive a small compensation, and also a workspace and some funding for materials.





Living Water Drop Fountain, Living Water Garden, Chengdu, China


Flow Forms, Living Water Garden, Chengdu, China


AFTER THREE YEARS, I AM COMPLETING A PUBLIC art project with 4Culture in Seattle. Fifty- eight damaged acres are the site of King County’s first release of effluent to enhance a wetland. Many agencies have been involved. In the process, it was decided to return it to a wild place and remove the flood control berms. I did not easily find ways to interact with the various agencies. Although I would like to think that my insistence on process and real eco system design influenced them, I do not know for sure. Eventually I decided that my work would be educational and relate directly to the needs of the local community. I made a 14 foot diameter granite compass with a Living Water Drop sculpted in it, a 24 ft pole to measure floods composed of 12 beads, 6 in glass and 6 in stone, which references a spine and is topped with a raptor roost, and designated seating from glacial boulders with etched images and the words ‘Reveal,’ ‘Restore,’ and ‘Revere.’




HERE I AM TWENTY THREE YEARS AFTER MY FIRST CLEAN UP, and clean-ups are still leading the way. I love sculpting and opportunities are more frequent now than 20 years ago. The public understanding of living systems is increasing, and with that, more and more opportunities for the integration of art and science on many levels are now apparent.

Art and artists are integral to the human community. The human community needs to re-establish an equitable relationship with eco systems. I often see the initiative to make ‘art’ as art actions, big and small. These are efforts to reconnect to ourselves, others, and the world. Each act is a bold act for that person. Like newly hatched turtles heading back to sea, we encounter many predators and wrong directions until we make it into the oceans to swim and, even there, the chances to survive are slim. Our nascent attempts, whatever they be, and in whatever medium, such as counting plastics used in the kitchen, inviting stores to recycle, working to preserve a small water system, and creating a front yard garden, are important. When an individual says, “this is my artwork,” it is so and gives that person a platform to reclaim real relationships in both social and biological ecology. This is where and how artists are major leaders and change agents. And any act that connects a human being to their ecologies, social and biological, is a step towards humanizing our society.

We’ve been dramatically separated and severed from our eco systems by the imperatives of a material world that is dominated by shortsighted economic strategies. Can we as artists become so bold, so enmeshed in evolving systems that lines become blurred? Can art become this messy, complex project of relationships – like an eco system?

The invitation to be an eco artist must be one to join in as a creator for creation. This invitation has no imperative except to do no harm to biological systems or fellow humans. One tree, one composting toilet, one garden, one action at a time, welcomes a magnificent plurality of activity. The aesthetics will emerge with new ideas, visions and images. This may be messy at times, revolutionary in its cooperative nature and perhaps unstoppable in essence.

Early I defined my art activism life as one that actively participates in eco systems – to restore, revitalize, conserve. However, in recent years, I have found it might be too narrow a definition. It was a literal approach; and the eco system per se is much more complex, invisible, poetic, harsh, spirited and still mysterious.

As I have became more visible I found myself being defined and being asked to define myself.

Often I am asked what do you do? I reply, “I am water. I work with water.”

Next questions: “What do you make? Are you an engineer? What is the art?”

“The art is water,” I reply. “The art is any action to do with water.”

Finally, I am water. I act, I try, and that is what I do. I invite you to join me.