Public Art Saint Paul (PASP) engages artists in shaping a public realm that fosters imagination, explores and illuminates civic values and the community’s evolving history, and strengthens public places as vessels of civic life. Over 25 years, PASP has partnered with the City of Saint Paul to promote its identity as a creative city at the head of navigation on a great world river.
In connection with its expanded City Artist in Residence (CAIR) Program, Public Art Saint Paul supports a Watershed Artist in Residence (WAIR) in the Saint Paul metropolitan area, an innovation that creates a synergy between artists placed far upstream in Saint Paul’s infrastructure. ArtPlace spoke with Christine Baeumler, Ramsey Washington Metro WAIR since 2010, about her work as an artist focusing on water quality.
ArtPlace: Describe how your position is like the City artists’ immersion in the City of Saint Paul’s infrastructure.
Baeumler: Water residency has evolved for me over the three years I’ve been immersed in it. Initially I shadowed staff at two water districts—they are very open to having an artist in their midst. My learning curve was very great as I came to understand how they monitor water quality and then try to integrate art into their systems. I soon realized that one unique aspect of my perspective was caring about water quality as an artist, which is so different from engineers or other construction professionals. I bring something different to the table by reminding the team about the power of experience. Sometimes being the artist in residence means informing people that places in the public realm are more than static features, they’re sites of engagement, curiosity, even beauty, beyond simply being a feature of infrastructure. So my involvement shapes the watersheds’ ideas of outreach as we engage in lots of conversations about people’s experiences around water. Working upstream is very rewarding!
I had the pleasure to be part of a very collaborative group that created an interactive cistern at a local mall. It captures rainwater and runoff, filters it via a system that includes hand pumps that people actively engage with pumping—which makes a chiming sound—then the water feeds rain gardens at the site. “Stop Water Where It Drops” is the message on the cistern, and signage near the hand pumps describes the process. We think about it almost as “ambushing the audience,” trying to meet people right where they are with this large, somewhat silly-looking installation that makes sound, unlike anything they’ve seen at the mall before. It invites people to stop and come up to it.
Like the resident City artists, I have the opportunity to look for or create opportunities that engage the public within systems of infrastructure that already exist. There are so many entities that work with water quality! I talk regularly with PASP President Christine Podas-Larson and CAIR Marcus Young about the intersection of ideas we’re all working on. Near the mall cistern project there may be an opportunity to band trees and record their growth and collect data about water they’re cleaning. There are 1,000 trees at this site—it’s exciting. The CAIR team is also currently investigating a tree project. Not the same project, but still, collaborating as artists can be extremely helpful.
ArtPlace: What are the challenges of an artist in residence position like yours and the CAIRs?
Baeumler: As part-time artists in residence we don’t always get involved in projects at their inceptions—this can be a challenge. What’s the point of entry into an established process? It can be very complex. In one recent instance with storm water planters I was brought a project when it was nearly complete but the industrial design was judged to need something we might call aesthetic refining. I’m not the artist they needed, but because of my position, I could bring in an artist from within my community of practice who has just the right skill set to create what was needed.
ArtPlace: Are there activities that engage your community of artists, to better enable collaboration?
Baeumler: In developing our community of practice, I find it extremely useful to organize “hydrosocial” activities. PASP sponsored an event last fall and will sponsor another this August in connection with the International Low Impact Development Conference being held in Saint Paul. In addition to the ongoing City Artists’ dialogue with me in my water residency, we’re also collaborating with other artists such as Shanai Matteson, who manages PASP’s City Art Collaboratory of artists and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) professionals, discussing water issues and policies in places under the city’s jurisdiction. Our overlapping interests help advance work among a variety of City systems and within a broad cohort of artists.