Whether it’s satire, protest or celebrating people’s history, artists are uniquely placed and trained to shine a light on systemic inequality, oppression, racism, environmental abuse, war, and many other ways we humans fall short. From Goya to the Guerilla Girls, artists throughout history have employed their skills and strategies in the service of our most pressing political and social issues.
Right here in Topeka in our capital building, the muralist John Steuart Curry painted the brutality of war and the zealots who (although we may sometimes agree with their ends) used savage means to achieve their objectives. More recently, the beloved Wellsville artist, Elizabeth “Grandma” Layton unabashedly wore her heart and her beliefs on her sleeve in drawings that condemned our moral shortcomings, while celebrating our diversity and compassion and challenging us to embody our right to free speech.
Among other rights we take for granted in the U.S. is the assumed right to clean and plentiful water. Rarely have we considered it as a finite or vulnerable resource, until now. But as the Ogallala aquifer is depleted and our rivers and streams run dry, Kansans from the Governor on down are beginning to take notice. This exhibition creates a new platform for artists to join this crucial and timely conversation.
To understand how central water is to our (and the planet’s) health, economy and culture, I will be leading a group of Washburn students in a public campaign to inform and advocate on issues related to water. We will take a deep dive into the many places where water intersects with and nourishes our lives. We will examine water as a practical resource in Kansas and on the Washburn campus, and as a cultural signifier when used for decoration, leisure and social status.
To prepare for our campaign, we will study the strategies and techniques of political poster makers, muralists, conceptual and performance artists and their counterparts in movements from the Suffragettes to the Occupy Movement. As a part of the exhibition Drift and Drag, our research and design process will be open to the public via a studio space/installation created in the Mulvane Art Museum specifically for this project. Visitors will get to interact with the artists, watch our work unfold (including false starts and failures) and even join with us on special initiatives.
Half Empty broadens the scope of the community-based work I have been engaged in for the last twenty-five years by approaching a very specific subject with a flexible and ephemeral set of media and strategies. It is also a step forward for the university. By offering students a real world application of their art training that serves a social purpose, Washburn is acknowledging the critical role that artists can play in addressing the most complex and critical issues of the day.
- Dave Loewenstein