Article originally appeared on Cornell Chronicle

Art brings science to life along the Mohawk River

By Holly Hartigan, Cornell Chronicle | May 20, 2024

Sreang Hok/Cornell University
Kailee Tomas ’26, an environment and sustainability major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, uses a lighter to melt plastic litter collected from the Mohawk River watershed. The litter is attached to the canvases in the shape of the river, over a collage of newspaper articles about the Haudenosaunee people past and present.

At the last meeting of the Art and Science of the Mohawk River Watershed class, students put finishing touches on their art projects.

Kailee Tomas ’26 flicked on a lighter to melt torn plastic into waves on a pair of collages.

Justin Chen ’24 painted the edges of a canvas black to set off an abstract data visualization in oranges and yellows representing bird species and conservation status.

Sreang Hok/Cornell University
Justin Chen ’24, an environment and sustainability major, paints the edges of his canvas black. His final project is an abstract data visualization that represents the rarity of bird species, conservation status by state and seasonality.

Jacob Duffles ’24 glued aqua-blue rhinestones to a vinyl-covered corset. A length of tube filled with creek water sat nearby, soon to adorn the water-themed garment.

Making this type of art was a first for most of these students, mostly environment and sustainability majors.

Anna Davidson, senior research associate and lecturer in natural resources in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, designed this capstone course to intertwine art, science and culture in the study of the Mohawk River, which travels through central New York and the capitol region. Marrying these typically disparate disciplines helped students deeply study a complex natural system, she said. They looked at the region through a variety of perspectives and used multiple methods and tools, from cartography to hydrophones.

“Using multiple learning strategies encourages students to work both within and outside their area of expertise and comfort, often exploring untapped talent and creativity,” she said. “This inherently connects the students with the watershed. People get profoundly personal with their work, and I think that creates a strong sense of place, which can help lead to long-term environmental stewardship.”

Over the semester, the class learned about the Mohawk River watershed from myriad perspectives. First they covered ecological art, studying artists who have created art with rivers as a topic or medium. Then they covered the science of the river, including hydrology, geology, toxicology and stream restoration in the region before moving on to Indigenous knowledge of the watershed.

They traveled to the Mohawk River several times to experience the area and learn from people who live there.

Olivia Fisher ’25 made a functional sculpture for her final project. A filter fashioned from an upside-down broken jar salvaged during a field trip hung from a rope. She can pour polluted water samples through to provide clean water to a Seneca red stalker corn seed – a variety grown by the Haudenosaunee – planted in a jar beneath.

“I’ve learned that by combining a scientific understanding and a historical understanding of some kind of place, you’re better able to make art about it, and vice versa,” she said. “By making art about a place you cultivate a sense of intimacy with the place that makes it easier to do science and understand the ecology of the place.”

Sreang Hok/Cornell University
Chris Rivera ’24, an environment and sustainability major, made a mosaic that tells the Haudenosaunee creation story for his final project.

The class also created large, community-engaged art projects fueled by messages about the watershed and climate change that they collected from Indigenous residents, scientists at the Mohawk River Watershed symposium, middle schoolers at the Mohawk River Watershed Youth Climate Summit and at New York Mills Middle School in Oneida County.

They made a canoe-shaped collage of the messages that Davidson will paddle down the Mohawk River this summer to Albany to be exhibited at the state capitol. The idea of “The Mohawk River Canoe Project” is to deliver the messages straight to lawmakers by placing it where they must pass by on their way to get coffee.

Sreang Hok/Cornell University
Chris Rivera ’24, an environment and sustainability major, made a mosaic that tells the Haudenosaunee creation story for his final project.

Master’s student Anna Mehlhorn, graduate assistant for the class, is also taking those messages and creating a large collage with 11 panels of 24-inch-square plexiglass cut in the shape of the river. The space between the panels creates 10 separations that represent the locks built into the Mohawk River as part of the Erie Canal. The locks have permanently changed the river’s hydrology, Mehlhorn said, leading the group to dub the piece “The Broken River Project.”

The messages represent the middle schoolers’ concerns and memories of living near the river. “The river is a significant part of their lives,” Mehlhorn said. “But obviously it has so many environmental issues. Students notice the pollution and the lack of fish and the fact that the water is brown all the time because there’s so much sediment.”

The students’ individual projects and the community-engaged projects will be on display this summer at the Schoharie River Center in Esperance, Montgomery County, New York. “The Broken River Project” and “The Mohawk River Canoe Project” will be exhibited in The Concourse at the Empire State Plaza in Albany at the end of summer and in Mann Library from November to January.

Davidson will spend this summer making plans for a similar class focused on art and water next year.

She received funding from the David M. Einhorn Center for Community Engagement and from the New York State Water Resources Institute to support this class.