Eugene Weekly : Visual Art : 8.20.2009


Beauty and Threat
Water, and its lack, at Maude Kerns
by Sheena lahren

Skunk Cabbage by Justin Williams

When people look at 18th century French Rococo paintings which depict a life of enjoyment and leisure using delicate colors and decorative elements, they often get a sense of lightheartedness and serenity. At the same time, there’s a sense of foreboding for the French, knowing that these times dissipated with the Seven Years’ War in which France lost the majority of its colonial possessions. 

I got a similar feeling of foreboding, not for France but for humanity, as I walked through the Headwaters exhibit at the Maude Kerns Art Gallery.

The show, up through Aug. 28, features black and white photos by Charles Search and Justin C. Williams and color photographs by Gary Tepher and Walt O’Brien. While looking at these photographs of streams and rivers, and the ecological life that results from water resources, I felt inspired by their beauty. But when I came upon one of Gary Tepher’s photographs of Fall Creek, a place where I have spent many summer days, I felt sadness knowing that the beauty of the creek may not last.

Headwaters, the sources of rivers or streams, range from small streams to glacial ice melts. Inspired by the ongoing saga of Amazon Creek headwaters protection efforts, Headwaters is a photography collaboration intended to bring an awareness of the importance of headwaters. On August 12, viewers were invited to attend the Headwaters Exhibit Artists Panel Discussion with O’Brien, Search, Williams and water rights lawyer David Moon.

“Headwaters are the source of our most precious resource,” Moon said, emphasizing that water is a finite resource threatened by pollution and overuse.

While all the photographers contributed equally to the exhibit, the idea for the exhibit came from Williams, who was disturbed by human development on headwaters of the Amazon Creek and what he saw as a lack of urgency from the City of Eugene to protect the area. 

“There are a lot of communities that allowed the de-struction of headwaters to happen in this country and have come to sorely regret it,” Williams said. “I thought it would be important to bring this issue to attention in a visual form.”

Through a photos with a broad range of locations, from Spencer’s Butte to Mongolia, and a range of perspectives — from landscapes to detail shots of plant life — the goal of the four photographers is to raise awareness.

“What I’m trying to do is to bring back something of what it felt like there,” O’Brien said. “In doing that I’m looking at what it is to pull the viewer into the photograph.” O’Brien often experiments with light to create this result.

The photographers said they believe that while the photographs may not offer a lot of information on the destruction of headwaters, they do appeal to people’s spiritual interest. Search describes that spiritual interest as the enjoyment and sense of fulfillment people get from riding a bike along a stream or taking a scenic drive along the McKenzie River. 

“Our society is an instant gratification kind of society, so unless it’s having a direct impact today, it’s easy for us simply to push it down the line,” Search said. “The goal of the exhibit is to demonstrate that what you see is a pristine area that gratifies us every day from a spiritual point of view, and that is an immediate impact on society that is at an immediate risk.” 

The main concern the photographers have is that help will come too late. “Sometimes we say that the legal battle will take place tomorrow and sometimes next year,” Search said. Williams pointed out that “without water none of these photos would happen; there would be pictures of rocks and sand.” He said that already many of the areas he photographed are no longer there because logging has destroyed them.

Many people from many different communities have watched the destruction of headwaters impact their lives, an audience member said. So if you walk through the gallery appreciating the photos of this element that is so much a part of our lives, you might also find that you have an image in your mind of the waters receding and the wildlife dying — because you’ve seen this happen before. Headwaters might make you want to do something about it.