October 15, 2015

Gila River Collaborative

Gila River Collaborative
By Clark Frauenglass & Joanna Keane Lopez
October 15, 2015


For the past week, the Gila Wilderness has been home to Land Arts of the American West, a collaborative group of artists coming together to explore the environment and work with natural materials in response to the proposed diversion of the Gila River, the last un-dammed river of New Mexico. Land Arts of the American West is a semester long place-based art & ecology program through the University of New Mexico. As a group we have created a four-foot tall woven olla, traditionally a clay vessel for holding water, made of willow whips that we collectively gathered along the banks of the Gila River.



Since arriving in Gila, we have been learning from local artisan, Orien Macdonald. Orien has shared his knowledge of local materials and basketry with us. Under his instruction, we have harvested and processed willow, sotol and yucca from the surrounding area. With the materials we spent a day learning to weave our own individual baskets.

Local ecologist, Carol Fugagli, paid a visit to our camp and took us on a hike up the watershed. Carol shared her knowledge of the flooding cycles of a healthy river system, and the many endangered species that take refuge in the Gila Wilderness.


Our collaborative project, the olla, was built in stages with groups of four artists coming together to weave each successive panel. Once completed we carried the woven olla to the river where it was passed from hand to hand and dipped in and out of the river in a weaving motion, allowing the water to fill the basket and escape through the gaps in the woven walls.

The olla traveled from one artist’s hand to another down the river to a site on the bank. The olla was then planted along the bank in an act of renewal. As the willow whips take root and continue to grow, the olla will reconnect to the riparian ecosystem creating new habitat and paying homage to the vibrant wild communities and traditions that depend on the health of the Gila River.




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