Water Works: Profiles of Sean Connaughty and Shanai Matteson

Water Works: Profiles of Sean Connaughty and Shanai Matteson

Posted March 27th, 2020 by Russ White

Ahead of their upcoming online discussion, two of the McKnight Foundation's 2018 Artist Fellows talk to us individually about their practices.

Article made possible thanks to the McKnight Artist Fellowship Program

The following is the third in a series of articles profiling the eight distinguished artists chosen as 2018 McKnight Fellows, a grant program for mid-career artists in Minnesota that is administered by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. (You can read the first in this series here and the second here.) 

The McKnight Discussion Series talk at Mia with curator Gary Carrion-Murayari has been canceled, but the two artists will give presentations and have a live discussion online instead, moderated by Russ White, on Thursday, April 2nd at 6:30pm Central. More info can be found at mcad.edu.

The live discussion will be hosted live on Zoom by Water Bar.

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Photo by Rik Sferra.

Everything feels like a Before and After now. Or maybe Before and During, since we don’t know yet when the real After will begin. But it was at the very tail end of Before when I visited Sean Connaughty at his home in South Minneapolis, during the second week of March, just a few days before we knew the extent to which the COVID-19 pandemic would soon impact our lives.

It was a pleasant day, and as I pulled up, I knew immediately which house was his thanks to the “Friends of Lake Hiawatha” sign in his front yard. That, and the massive concrete survival sphere plopped on the ground next to it, complete with solar panels and a porthole. It looks like some kind of Brutalist alien escape pod, incongruously crash-landed in the middle of the neighborhood. 

This is Connaughty’s Ark of the Anthropocene, an exercise in dystopian optimism that combines sculpture, science, new tech, and old life. The four-thousand-pound structure was built as a floating ecosystem, with an open underbelly to trap air inside the chamber and keep it afloat. In association with the Duluth Art Institute, Connaughty craned it into Lake Superior in 2014, where it floated for three days before a structural injury caused it to take on water and sink to the bottom of Duluth Harbor. 

“I made an error in my calculations,” Connaughty says plainly. One of the two anchors was set at the wrong height, and the added stress popped open a small hole that let water trickle in and drag it down.

Left: Ark of the Anthropocene, 2014, installation view in the artist's front yard. Right: The sealed capsule suspended inside. Photos by the author.

Now back on dry land, the Ark leans at a slight angle in Connaughty’s yard, and the opening is big enough for you to climb inside. There you’ll find a circular shelf of soil and moss around the opening, as well as what looks like a solid concrete hornet’s nest suspended in the middle of the chamber by wires. This is the Ark's heart, a sealed time capsule housing a collection of wild crop seeds, human hair from over thirty people, samples of animal fur, and an unborn queen bee in a small chunk of honeycomb. It’s a starter kit for a new world, a Stone Age doomsday bunker decked out with LED lights and a live-feed camera for monitoring the internal eco-system.

After the problems in Lake Superior, Connaughty began revamping his plans with the hope of launching the Ark in Lake Hiawatha, a much smaller body of water just a few blocks south of his home. Once a shallow, marshy wetland called Rice Lake, Hiawatha was dredged out by the City in the late 1920s and now serves not only as a lovely little public lake next to an 18-hole golf course but also as drainage for a massive system of storm sewers. Stormwater flows into it from as far north as Lake Street and as far west as Park Avenue, bringing with it a lot more than leaves and sticks. Lake Hiawatha is awash in garbage, which is then free to flow all the way to the Mississippi River and beyond through Minnehaha Creek.

“In the process of researching the site [for the Ark],” Connaughty says, “I saw the pollution and the trash and thought I would clean up to sort of prepare for this process. I started picking things up, and it just kept coming.” That was six years ago, and what began as prep work and good stewardship soon became central to the artist’s practice. Over the past six years, Connaughty and fellow volunteers have collected over 7000 pounds of trash from the lake, no minor feat considering that most of that has been incredibly small and incredibly light: plastic straws, styrofoam cups, cigarillo tips, street sweeper bristles, cigarette butts… the list is long and painful to read (not to mention disgusting). All picked up by hand along the shore or by kayak, and all sorted, counted, and catalogued, part of a data-driven survey Connaughty has performed year after year. 

The data are a key tool in his fight to convince the powers that be that there is another way. Some of those powers are the corporations supplying all this single-use trash — PepsiCo/Frito Lay, Coca-Cola, Mars, Nestlé, McDonalds, Starbucks. One of Connaughty’s projects was the creation of billboard-sized company logos made out of their refuse, along with the form letters returned from their PR departments promising innovation in compostable packaging years down the line.

Top, at left: Layered drawings of Lake Hiawatha's changing morphology over the past one hundred years. At right: a hand-drawn map of the stormdrain system that feeds into Lake Hiawatha. Bottom: Billboards from Lake Hiawatha Anthropocenic Midden Survey 2019, on display in the MCAD Sculpture Garden. Photo by Rik Sferra.

The other powers that be are the Minneapolis Parks & Recreation Board and the Hiawatha Golf Course. Connaughty sees a straight-forward solution to the pollution problem: installing a storm-drain filter to catch all the trash before it flows into the lake. But that’s just one aspect of it, with concerns for chemical pollution, habitat loss, and animal populations also factoring into what Connaughty and the Friends of Lake Hiawatha see as the necessary changes. The local governments, of course, need to see proof and take votes and hold hearings, moving the process forward at a snail's pace. The golf course and its advocates have helped draw the process out over years as well, attempting to stave off what is now the likely course of action: reducing it to a 9-hole. Still, Connaughty sees these folks if not as allies then as neighbors, and he's been pleased with measures they have taken to eliminate virtually all chemical runoff from the greens. The City’s Parks & Rec Board will be sharing their current plans for the redevelopment of the lake and golf course on April 9th. Even still, there are several more steps and at least two more years before work begins.

Looking through Connaughty’s extensively detailed reports, his drawings of the lake and the municipal pipeshed map, and the new redevelopment plans, it all adds up to a master class in civic engagement. But it makes me wonder where the art fits in. Is there a line between art and activism, or a tipping point at which “artist” becomes the second line on your resumé instead of the first? Connaughty isn’t really interested in the distinction. When I first interviewed him during a group clean-up of Hiawatha in 2018, I asked him how vigilante trash collection makes sense as an artistic pursuit. He replied with a calm sincerity, “I don’t take pains to separate art from everything else.” 

Talking now about how his clean-ups first began, he says simply, “like everything else artists do in their lives, it becomes part of their practice.” Connaughty’s artistic output also includes painting, drawing, sculpting, and mounting installations of his Hiawatha project. But “practice” is one of those funny, nebulous words that artists use, a catch-all for the relative weirdness of our daily lives. For Connaughty, it also includes taking photos of wildlife, posting updates regularly on Facebook, attending meetings, rallying volunteers, writing letters, and logging litter.

“Process” is another one of those words artists like to use. As a noun it defines the step-by-step nature of doing something, as in the process of picking and sorting garbage. But it’s also a verb for what that doing does to you. The process can help you process, whether through a loss, an idea, a situation, or a memory. Perhaps it’s the outrage and grief of seeing beavers trapped and killed, the disappointment in your fellow citizens who won’t stop littering, or the stubborn frustration of seeing practical solutions die in committee, year after year.

Installation views of Lake Hiawatha - Anthropocenic Midden Survey - Final Report, The White Page, 2019. Photos by Ben Lansky for The White Page.

On a personal level, Connaughty has also had to process the loss of wild spaces in Eden Prairie, where he found refuge as a child. “I spent most of my time outside in all those spaces that I loved so much, connecting with the wildlife,” he recalls. “But I didn’t realize I was on the leading edge of a population explosion that was going to consume it all. Then the earth-movers came in and destroyed it all, and that was really traumatic for me.” He pauses. “But then I think, what does it feel like to be Dakota?”

Now, as we thaw out from winter, every rainstorm brings in a new wash of garbage. And like clockwork, the artist and his band of volunteers will go out to collect it (although he's hoping the City will start helping out soon). I ask him, when a workable solution is finally implemented and there's no more trash to pick up, what he plans to do with all of his time. I was thinking he might hole up in the studio for a while and maybe work on some paintings for a change.

Not likely. “I’ve been thinking a lot about reestablishing connectivity in terms of habitat and wildlife,” he says. He’s been posting maps on Facebook recently, thinking about spots for wildlife landbridges across or under major roads.

It’s a reminder that there will always be problems to fix. The gravity of that knowledge can be overwhelming, and a lot of us are feeling that crush right now, like we're drowning in an endless deluge of garbage.

But it’s also an optimist’s mantra: there’s hope in the doing.

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Photo by Rik Sferra.

Content warning: sexual assault.

I want you to think for a moment about your earliest memory of water. 

What’s the story of that memory? Is it something fun? Maybe something scary? Was it traumatic, or funny, or formative? Are there other people attached to that memory? The more you think about it, does it help you understand any aspect of your life since then — your fears perhaps, your relationship to water, or maybe your family?

Whatever it is, Shanai Matteson wants to talk about it. She is an artist, a poet, and a storyteller, among other things, and water often plays a central role in the stories she tells. We got together two weeks ago at her home in Northeast Minneapolis, in what would be my last in-person meeting for perhaps a very long time. Matteson is in the midst of preparing work for an exhibition at the Weisman Art Museum that was scheduled for May but is now facing postponement because of the coronavirus shutdowns. Still, just as the river flows, so too the work continues.

Titled A Ship’s First Shape, the project is a collection of water stories from women working as climate scientists, health advocates, and water protectors. It's part of the Weisman’s Collaboration Incubator program, which connects artists to other professionals across different disciplines, often in the sciences. For this project, Matteson teamed up with Dr. Mae Davenport from the U of M, who studies the human dimension of natural resource management, including people’s attitudes towards wetlands restoration, watershed conservation, and recreational boating practices.

The research shows, Matteson explains, that regardless of “social class, culture, or geography, women always valued water in a different way. They used different types of words and had closer connections to the way that water sustains life.”

In some of the stories, water is a place of fear and violence: one respondent remembers being thrown into a river by her older brothers before she could swim. In others, it's a refuge: one describes secretly floating down the river on an inner tube to escape her family and visit her best friend. The artist’s own grandmother contributed to the interviews as well. “She started out sharing a memory about rescuing her sister,” says Matteson, “but by the end of the story, it was about the first time she was assaulted. It was a common story, but it was something she told me she had never shared with anyone.”

These stories, though specific and unique, actually flesh out the lived realities of many women. It's absurd when you think about it: a full half of the population is made to live in fear, to be both coveted and erased, commodified and devalued. The other half of the population, I can attest, remains willfully, scornfully oblivious. No surprise, I guess, in a culture built around extraction and exploitation. “There are so many parallels in how women are treated, how human beings are treated,” Matteson says, “and how the environment is treated.” 

Her plan is to work with printmaker and comic artist Zak Sally to produce a series of risograph prints that capture the essence of each story, boiling them down to an image and a phrase from each interview. Something simple, elemental, like a high-heeled shoe or a book in a ziplock bag. She sees this project through the metaphor of a raft, with plans to lash these touchstone objects together as a sculpture, forming a makeshift lifeboat. Here her background as a poet shines through, revealing a passion for etymology: in its most basic form, a raft is a group of things bound together, often for survival. Its Nordic root simply means “an abundance.” “I think about it in the way that anything we create together keeps us afloat,” she says. "I'm kind of a word geek," she adds with a laugh.

Top: Water Bar's pop-up tasting event at the Minnesota State Fair, 2017-19. Bottom: A meeting at Water Bar of the Ways of Knowing Water Research Collaborative, a group of artists, scientists, activists, and healers facilitated by the Weisman Art Museum.

Water has run through much of Matteson’s work over the years, especially as one of the founders of Water Bar & Public Studio. An art project turned B Corp, Water Bar hosts tastings of different municipal waters, on-site and off, as a way to get people thinking — and talking — about their connection to water. Or their lack thereof. Most of us probably don’t think too much about where our water comes from before it reaches our faucet; probably even less about where it goes once it slips down the drain. 

Water Bar is closing its storefront on Central Avenue this month but will soon launch an online platform (also called Raft), a social network for people creating content around water and climate, be it artwork, writing, podcasts, or videos. “Hopefully that’s a place where our partners in government and research and business can start to build relationships,” she says, “and hopefully have those transformative experiences with art and storytelling that they can bring back to their work.”

This emphasis on connection is the dominant through-line in Matteson’s work, even more so than water. Her practice is fundamentally collaborative, developing relationships with artists, musicians, social scientists, researchers, educators, community organizers, Indigenous activists, and the audience itself. “It’s not about the visual art as something that someone consumes in an art space,” she says, “It’s about the process.” 

Mine / Not Mine (detail), assemblage of found and hand-printed fabrics, 2019. Part of the ongoing Overburden / Overlook project.

Another ongoing project is Overburden / Overlook, a collaboration with social scientist Dr. Roopali Phadke that is focused on Minnesota’s Iron Range, where Matteson grew up and where her grandfather worked as a miner. Over the past four years, Matteson and Phadke have been interviewing residents there about mining as an industry, as an ecological threat, and as a cultural identity. 

As copper & nickel mining contracts get battled over in the courts, some locals have remained staunchly pro-mine thanks to what Matteson calls a “nostalgia of sacrifice and suffering.” It’s a difficult, dirty, dangerous job in an industry beset by labor disputes. It’s also tied, inextricably, to the philosophy of extraction. This nostalgia, Matteson thinks, is the result of good marketing and foggy memories. Alongside cultures of extraction, she says, there has always been regeneration — feeding, healing, and caretaking — women’s work that is often erased and undervalued. “That nostalgia is not just about mining, it’s about keeping an order that makes sense to people.”

Part of that old order, of course, is a culture of white supremacy. Like a skeleton just under the surface, it can be hidden but still visible, forming the backbone of this widespread entitlement to land and bodies. White women occupy a strange space in that hierarchy, subjugated by patriarchy but still empowered by their whiteness, while Indigenous people and women of color face sexualized and gendered violence (and erasure) at much higher rates, often as a targeted means of extermination. America's history of lynching shows plainly how white female sexuality has been sharpened into a double-edged sword, used to control white women even as it has been weaponized against people of color. Matteson, herself a white woman, tries to remain aware of that power imbalance in her own work, as she leads these conversations.

They can be tough conversations to have, but art-making helps get them started. Matteson has hosted craft workshops across the Iron Range, inviting residents to join her in rolling felt into balls the size of iron taconite pellets, or dying ornamental lace and fabric with the ruddy dust of mine waste that the companies call “overburden.” The stuff is everywhere up there, tracked inside on your boots and clothes. “When they see this [familiar material], then that’s an entry point for a conversation,” she says. “My hope is that people come into a greater understanding of the complexities of these issues and also a greater sense of who they are in a constellation.”

Top: Kinship Flags made during a public workshop led by Matteson and Graci Horne, 2019. Photo courtesy of the artist. Bottom: Felt earrings next to taconite pellets, part of Felt Here, a pop-up workshop in communities across the Iron Range, 2019. Photo by the author.

It all comes back to narrative, she says. “A lot of us are living in bad stories.” It’s a simple, devastating truth, one that cuts to the stubborn core of so many problems in this country. It’s the reason why we vote against our interests, why we stay in abusive relationships, why we let our trash fall from our fingers and flow down a storm drain. The cure can be as simple as telling those stories out loud to someone else, finding the moment when your own words stop making sense to you. It can also be a way to find empathy — in Matteson's words, "to recognize ourselves and others." A lot of lessons, though, take a lifetime to unlearn.

“I was told from the moment I can remember to be afraid of men, to be afraid of water, to be afraid,” she says. “And then you learn from the women around you how to survive in that world. And when it’s time to actually try to imagine something different, we’re left with these structures and these shapes that were really built for something else.”

“I think that the cultural transformations that are happening are really important. Artists have a unique role as listeners and witnesses, and in our ability to imagine different futures. I take that work really seriously.”

The story of the woman being thrown into a river as a young girl is, on its face, about fear and violence and vulnerability. About being powerless in the face of patriarchy and the forces of nature. “But,” says Matteson, “there’s a whole story underneath that about survival. Try to flip that story around to where you can remember that the river is a source of life. It’s about the nourishment and the care. It’s why women tell each other these stories.”

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The conversation between these two artists will take place online Thursday, April 2nd, at 6:30pm Central on Zoom

To view more of the artists' work, visit their websites: Sean Connaughty and Shanai Matteson. All images are courtesy of the artists unless otherwise noted.


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