Arts News: Kansas City artist’s public art project connects water and art in Seattle

Don Wilkison a.k.a. Minister of Information (m.o.i.) in his Kansas City studio (photo by Jim Barcus)

Water is a basic, life-giving necessity, often taken for granted until it becomes scarce. All around the U.S., it is expected to flow freely from spigots, as if by magic, and wash over us or quench our thirst. However, beneath our feet and lodged within mysterious buildings, is a system that collects, cleans and cycles our water. As the City of Seattle began revamping their combined sewer overflow (CSO) facilities, they put out an artist call through King County’s 1% for Art Program and 4Culture. Enter Kansas City-based artist Don Wilkison, aka m.o.i, The Minister of Information.

Wilkison is both an artist and a hydrologist, making him a perfect fit as he understands both the inner workings of these facilities and has the vision to represent them artistically.

Wilkison was accepted into the King County CSO public art program in 2018. The arts group Sans façon designed an extensive Arts Master Plan as a guide between the sewer facilities and art projects. In it, they sum up their goals, saying, “Artists can help us envisage, enjoy and marvel at the systems and processes of this largely hidden world.”

Wilkison was given the concept Hidden River/Invisible Architecture, as well as two sites to work with — Georgetown Wet Weather Treatment Station and Rainier Valley Wet Weather Storage. Beyond that, he had free rein to interpret and enact the project. Ultimately, he broke the project into three pieces: Downstream, Midstream and Headwaters, like a river in reverse.

Downstream includes four posters designed by Wilkison on a drop structure, which appears to be a massive concrete cube but is actually a part of Georgetown Wet Weather Treatment Station. In it, pipes collect and transport water. The main Georgetown building is new, state of the art and is its own feature within the area, but Wilkison wanted to pull people away from the familiar. As he explains, “I began to think about doing work that brings people to places they wouldn’t otherwise go.” In doing this, he was able to highlight lesser known, yet equally important, features of water treatment.

Don Wilkison’s “Hidden River (Pollinator Seed Mix),” (2023), a component of his public art piece for the Georgetown Wet Weather Treatment Station and Rainier Valley Wet Weather Storage in Seattle, Washington, was distributed to the public at a series of events. (King County Public Art Collection, photo by joefreemanjunior.com)

Midstream switches sites from the cutting-edge Georgetown facility to the undistinguished Rainier Valley Wet Weather Storage. Because the facilities stand in stark contrast architecturally, Wilkison found himself musing, “(Georgetown is) super technical and the other site is nondescript, so how do I connect all these together?” Ultimately, one of the panels became the throughline, as it demonstrates what happens at the Rainier facility. The image shows Seattle’s transit hubs and Mount Rainier. It also illustrates water’s journey through green infrastructure as it feeds plants and gray infrastructure as it is collected in underground piping.

Using the same image in Headwaters, Wilkison designed a pollinator packet, filled with seeds of plants native to the Pacific Northwest. He then held a series of public art events where he distributed the packets as well as clean water information to the public. While the image on the packet is easily interpreted as art, for Wilkison it is actually deeper than that. When recipients take the packet home, plant and tend to their new garden, they are producing art and furthering the project’s message in a way that is far reaching and long lasting.

Wilkison explains the importance of all these facilities, saying, “The treatment plant is designed to hold up the community in many ways, by treating the water and providing clean water.” Through Hidden River/Invisible Architecture, he has turned the spotlight on the rarely seen cogs that keep our cities running through public art that engages the community.

Hidden River/Invisible Architecture was featured in Seattle, Washington, in August and September 2023.

For more information, www.4culture.org/public_art/hidden-river/ or www.warriorantpress.com.

Emily Spradling

Emily Spradling is an adult English-language instructor, freelance writer and founding member of the arts/advocacy organization, No Divide KC. She is particularly interested in the intersections of art, culture and LGBTQ+ issues.

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