Like many American communities, Leavenworth, Washington, is facing enormous development pressure. Set in a picturesque valley amidst the towering Cascade Mountains, the area is a magnet for Seattleites looking for escape from the urban rush. However, the nearly million-acre Wenatchee River watershed, in which Leavenworth sits, harbors the highest occurrence of rare plants in the state, nesting neotropical songbirds, black bears, elk, migrating salmon and bald eagles. It encompasses steep mountain slopes, rocky canyons, forested valleys, agriculturally rich foothills and sandy plains that meet eroded basalt cliffs along the Columbia River. As second homes began replacing orchards and wildflower meadows at what many residents considered an alarming rate, a unique response took shape.
Three local artists created and nurtured the Watershed Art Project from its origins in 2000 through the culminating final exhibitions, catalog and video in the fall of 2002. Working with fellow artist and educator Tony Angell, whose participation in a similar Artists for Nature project in Alaska proved invaluable, they invited 14 internationally acclaimed sculptors, painters, illustrators, writers and photographers to spend time together at the Sleeping Lady Mountain Retreat in the Leavenworth Valley. They wanted the artists to create works of art in response to their surroundings in the hope this would provide new insight and understanding of the natural beauty that is being threatened. Their vision was to use art as a tool for protecting sensitive areas within the Wenatchee Watershed and for shaping the management of growth within its boundaries.
Recognizing they couldn't do this alone, the organizers reached out to the United States Forest Service (USFS), which has a major presence in this region. Originally, the artists approached the USFS for help in visiting wildlife sites that were not generally accessible to the public, but greater collaboration blossomed as each realized what an asset the other was to accomplishing their common goals of education and stewardship.
For Watershed Art, finding the financial support in an isolated community of only 2,000 people was a huge challenge. Over the course of three years, key grants (including a $2,000 project grant from the Washington State Arts Commission, a $2,000 Challenge America grant from National Endowment for the Arts, and $10,000 from the USFS) combined with private and small business donations, a community foundation, the Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce, local colleges and thousands of hours of volunteer time to make the project a national model.
"As outsiders, artists bring the purest vision," Angell explains. "They are unencumbered by political and emotional screens that may exist in a community. Through their eyes you get new interpretations and people begin to see their surroundings differently."
Watershed Art brought together an impressive array of talent to tiny Leavenworth, including Robert Bateman (named the most influential wildlife painter of the 20th century by Wildlife Art magazine). All of the participating artists have successful careers built on subjects from nature and are frequently published in national and international magazines. In lieu of payment, the artists were enticed by an opportunity to be guided to wilderness sites and learn from local artists and residents. The public was invited to meet the artists and learn about their work during the two weeklong sessions, helping demystify the artistic process.
Angell describes a great chemistry among the artists that was an added benefit of the group dynamic. "Ideas and emotions bounced off each other, fired up our imaginations and invigorated everyone's artistic expression," he recalls.
Part of that chemistry was fueled by the Forest Service rangers and volunteers who led the artists into backcountry areas. Working for several months before the artists' arrival, the USFS assembled detailed maps and photos of some possible spots to explore. "We tried to identify places we were already monitoring, but would be of particular interest to the artists," recounts Heather Murphy, wildlife biologist for the Lake Wenatchee-Leavenworth Ranger Districts.
The USFS also put on an orientation for the artists and general public titled "A View into the Ecology and History of the Wenatchee Watershed -- Assisting Art Based on Science." This helped set the tone of cooperation for the entire project, as artists and scientists began to realize how valuable each could be to the process.
"The more we did, the more we realized we could do together," Murphy continues. "We want the public to know more about our endangered zones, but we can't bring them there without disturbing these habitats. The artists proved a perfect messenger."
Painter David Barker's "Trinity Interior" pays homage to the watershed's historic structures and reveals a deep interest in the human presence of the valley.
To ensure the artists wouldn't unknowingly cause any damage, Murphy asked each one to sign a "No Trace Art" agreement that has since been circulated throughout the USFS. This document reminds the artist not to stay too long at nesting sites, lure wildlife with food, trample brush to improve sight lines, or reveal the location of sensitive sites. With these simple rules in place, the artists were free to absorb their surroundings.
"This project showed the importance of reaching out to the public in a new way," Murphy says. "We got a different audience to look at our forest lands and understand the complexity of natural resource management. Without Watershed Art we would still be seen as dry and stuffy. Not only are public meetings better attended now, they also have a more positive atmosphere."
There were two conclusive exhibitions for Watershed Art, one at a gallery in Leavenworth and the other in Wenatchee. The shows offered another occasion for the artists and community members to learn from each other. "In many ways art is clearer than conventional language and it offers an entry point for conversation," Angell says. "There were times at the exhibits, for example, when someone would come up to me and ask 'How did you capture that bend in the river? I pass it all the time and never saw it that way.' It gave me an opportunity to talk with people and to listen and learn about the pulse and diversity of that community. All of this shapes my art and in turn helps promote community dialogue."
Leavenworth is beginning to see itself differently, as well, since Watershed Art began. Mayor Bill Bauer is excited by the new possibilities this project raises. "Before, I couldn't conceive of it -- to view things I see every day through the eyes of such talented artists," he acknowledges. "Now, there is a drive to recognize our artists as a resource and bring more people to see their work. At the same time, the message of ecology is clear. We have to be careful about what we're doing, how we manage our water, our green space, and our growth."
While there is no immediate measure of Watershed Art's impact, there is strong evidence of change. "Since Watershed Art, local businesses now know the arts are an essential component for a successful event," Murphy points out. "They stepped up with $6,000 to support a new, three-day bird festival that will cap a week of related activities in our schools."
Although Watershed Art officially concluded, the project and its vision live on in a half-hour documentary that provides a rare insight into the creative process of each participating artist. The video, by local photograper Jay Bender, was funded by a Challenge America grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, with matching funds from the Washington State Arts Commission (WSAC) and the Leavenworth Advertising and Promotion Committee. "It was a perfect fit for Challenge America -- to help an isolated rural community with extremely limited resources bring the arts into community life," explains WSAC Awards Program Manager Mary Frye. The arts commission found the project appealing because it brought artists together in a collaboration with the community, with each other and with the Forest Service to address the statewide issue of land use. Yet, as Frye points out, "we don't see a lot of community groups documenting their efforts. They are often consumed by putting on a short-term event and it ends with no public record. We think the video will help get the message out there that this is a model to learn from."
In addition to the video, a 40-page book highlighting the work of each artist was published. Perhaps the most lasting impact of this artistic convergence, however, is best captured by the words of artist and long-time resident Bill Reese: "As artists we can show people the beauty of the watershed, its poetry and soul, and hope our work will highlight the reasons to protect it. In a way, the watershed is one of nature's works of art."
Michael Levine is a freelance writer, editor and project director. He lives in Middlesex, Vermont.
More Voices on Watershed Art
Jeri Nichols Quinn, plein air painter, impressionistic landscapes
"I was completely knocked out by the magnitude, the mist, the energy that was created. I think we all got wired just jumping around looking at this stuff."
Robert Bateman, nature painter
"The exciting thing about being a nature painter? You never know what's around the next corner. But if some present trends continue, will there still be wonderful things in nature and are there steps we can take now that will make sure it stays that wonderful place?"
David Barker, landscape painter
"I developed parallel themes. One was the historic -- the barns and work buildings found in the river valleys. The other was the water -- the lifeblood of the valley itself -- from the highest ridges, where it first lies as snow, on down to the Columbia, and the various appearances this water assumes on that journey."
Bill Taylor, executive director of the Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce
"There's been a lot of discussion lately about trying to diversify our tourism appeal. The Bavarian theme has carried us this far, but we see agriculture, eco and arts tourism as our keys to future growth. Watershed Art was a remarkable achievement, and I don't think its significance will be realized for years to come."
Heather Murphy, wildlife biologist, Lake Wenatchee-Leavenworth Ranger district
"Since starting work here in 1975, I've wanted a book portraying the natural history of the area. Such beautiful and diverse work came out of this. The words and images are a perfect way to capture the growing interest in the arts and better inform people about our fragile environment."
Partners is a publication of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, 1029 Vermont Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20005, 202/347-6352, email@example.com.
Partners is published in cooperation with the National Endowment for the Arts. The work of NASAA and of state arts agencies is supported and strengthened in many ways through funding and programming partnerships with the Endowment.