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Eco-Artist Basia Irland Visits Dayton

Dennie Eagleson

Antioch College and the University of Dayton have teamed up to sponsor a visit by environmental artist Basia Irland this September and again next March. Irland is known internationally as a pioneer in the field of “eco-art”. She conducts community-oriented projects designed to aid in restoring the health of waterways. Irland’s project for the Dayton region began with a summer exhibition of artwork at Antioch’s Herndon Gallery, and continues in September with events at the University of Dayton.

Fifty college students are gathered in a large circle at Island Metropark in Dayton. They’ve just kayaked several miles down the Great Miami River, and now they’re creating “river sound poems” with visiting artist Basia Irland. The students are River Stewards from UD’s Rivers Institute. They’ve been eagerly awaiting Irland’s visit for months. So, what can an artist teach us about rivers?

“She’s an artist that uses the natural world around her, particularly water, to make art that brings awareness to environmental issues and to community issues, and that fits in alignment with what the Rivers Institute is trying to do with bringing people back to the river to help restore the river’s health and the community’s health,” says Rivers Institute Coordinator Leslie King.

Eco art, a practice that combines the arts with ecology, has evolved since the 1970’s in response to increasing environmental degradation. Over the past three decades, Irland has worked on water issues in Africa, Europe, South America, Southeast Asia, Canada, and the US.

“One of the things that I do are to take these blocks of ice and hand carve them into the form of a book, which to me is a very interesting sculptural metaphor for learning and for things that we can know about our environment,” Irland says, “and then I meet with botanists and various biologists and plant specialists and community members and tribal elders to decide what are the best seeds for any particular riparian zone, the riparian zone being the banks of the river. These seeds are then embedded into the books, so it becomes a kind of text. So we will be working with students, faculty, community members carving a series of these ice books, and then we will have various events at the river where these ice books will be put into the river.”

When the floating icebooks melt, the seeds are released into the river and eventually wash up on the bank. As grown plants they’ll improve the river’s ecosystem.

Irland creates these beautiful, poetic objects to address themes of waterborne disease, the health of rivers, and water scarcity.

“We simply can’t survive,” Irland says, “We can survive without food; we can’t survive without water. It’s important for us to think about future generations, not just our generation. Hopefully, through our actions, any of our actions for the better, that these actions reverberate out. The more people there are, for instance, working for the health of our rivers, the better, and I think that each one of us individually provides a kind of example for how others might move forward. So it’s not any one person, it’s not what I’m doing, it is all of us working together.”

Irland’s visit was made possible through a partnership between the University of Dayton and Antioch College. Basia Irland’s artwork is on display at UD’s ArtStreet through September 16th.  Irland will deliver a public lecture on Thursday, September 13th and lead a community parade to launch “ice books” into the Great Miami River on Friday, September 14th. For more information about Basia Irland’s visit and public events, go to www.udayton.edu/arts.