Art and Places, a Vital Conversation
Guest writer Todd Gilens joins us for this week’s blog post about art and nature. His Confluence public art artwork is a fiscally sponsored project of the Truckee Meadows Parks Foundation. Drawings from his 2020 National Forest Foundation Commission are currently on display at the Truckee Tahoe Airport through July 17th.
Installing a materials test on First Street in 2016, with art students Mahedi Anjuman and Depaul Vera from the University of Nevada, Reno. Photo by Konah Zebert
Art means to do things as well as possible; there is an art to cooking, arranging flowers and gardening, to dance, ceramics, and so on. And when we strive to do something really well, we become part of a history of what others have done and what they make possible for us. It is both a responsibility and a gift.
What is a place, and how do people experience places as vital and necessary? My work as an artist has revolved around these questions. Where places feel wonderful, culture and nature seem to be in conversation. We feel related, our own experience connecting to textures and shapes, sounds and movements, that form meaningful and changing wholes.
Public art is one area where I have been lucky to work for several decades. It has connected me with the capabilities of government and non-profit workers, engineers, materials fabricators, and with the traditions of public art from cave paintings and parades to public monuments and urban infrastructure. Last year, the Truckee Meadows Parks Foundation welcomed my project-in-development as one of their fiscally sponsored projects. Titled Confluence: Stream Science, Handwriting, and Urban Curbs, it is an artwork meant for Reno sidewalks. A mile-long poem about water and land will run from Idlewild Park to City Hall. We are working to raise funds to accomplish it this fall.
For the last eight years I have been fascinated by water moving in mountain streams and city streets. Sensuous and immediate, water shapes landscapes over millennia, and sustains the life forms and civilizations of a rich, diverse world. From 2014 to 2018 I helped researchers survey streams and meadows in the Sierra Nevada backcountry, wondering how the dedication and insights of scientific inquiry could translate into everyday places. Expanding from mountain streams, I pursued my own research on the engineering and personification of water in the ancient Mediterranean, water history in northern Nevada, and the design of modern urban stormwater systems.
An idea for a public art installation gradually emerged: texts could be placed along sidewalks to describe how water shapes landscapes, ecologists study streams, and stories orient us to the places we’re in. A prose-poem of over six-thousand words would run continuously for a mile through Reno, following the flow of water and structured by block lengths into themed sections.
Planned project routes for texts. Image courtesy of Todd Gilens.
The look of a text carries meaning too, so I created a unique font for this project. After a review of historic documents in archives in Reno, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, and the Owens Valley, I chose the handwriting of Claude Dukes, Federal Water Master for the Truckee watershed (d. 1984), whose papers are in the University of Nevada, Reno, Special Collections Library. Using software technology, the font guides a blade to create the calligraphy, cutting the letters from bright yellow, slip-resistant material. This fall, the lettering will be applied to sidewalks and pathways with a team of Reno residents. (We will be hiring assistants to work full time on the project for about three weeks. If you are interested in participating, please contact the project director.)
Extracting the alphabet from historic handwriting. Image Todd Gilens, documents courtesy of University of Nevada, Special Collections.
Flowing cursive, urban spaces, rhyming prose, and a walking pace along the Truckee River: each layer of the artwork addresses how water and culture converge. The installation, which will be in place for a year and a half, is an invitation to read with our bodies, to read along the slopes of land and street immersed in the sounds of water, wind, and traffic. Perhaps too, the project will return something of writing's primordial sources in breath, movement, and the shapes of things.
Confluence has received financial support from the City of Reno, Nevada Humanities, Washoe County, businesses, and individuals. To support this project and learn more, visit tmparksfoundation.org/confluence-art-project.
Materials test, 2016 Photo by Todd Gilens
About the Author:
Todd Gilens has been creating temporary public artworks for over thirty years. His work has been seen on public transit buses and forest paths, in historic prisons, desert washes, public gardens and private living rooms, among other places. Todd’s drawings, prints, and photographs made while working with stream ecologists in the Sierra Nevada will be the subject of an exhibition at the Monterey Museum of Art from August 4th to October 1st, 2023. His website is www.toddgilens.com
Social Media handles:
Facebook: Todd Gilens