“Way beyond the water source to millions of people downstream, and water to irrigate farmland, the river is a wildlife sanctuary,” said landscape artist Julie Trail, speaking about the mystical Mokelumne River.
Trail is one of the 50 artists participating in an exhibit organized by AmadorArts, currently on display at East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) in downtown Oakland. The exhibit focuses on the Mokelumne River, which extends about 90 miles from the Sierra Nevada to the East Bay, and has been the primary water source for Bay Area residents’ everyday use for decades.
“Sometimes, we’re disconnected from where our water comes from,” said EBMUD spokesperson Andrea Pook. “We experience it in our drinking water when we turn on the tap, but don’t get to see the beauty of the river.”
The California Arts Council awarded a “Creative California Communities” grant worth $40,000 to a partnership between the Amador County Arts Council, the Calaveras Arts Council, the Foothill Conservancy and EBMUD to complete the project. The result, the River Reflections Mokelumne River Arts Project, is about “artists living by the river and sharing their story,” said Amador Arts Executive Director Terra Forgette. The exhibition started in Sutter Creek last month, and is now on a month-long display at the EBMUD administration building at 375 11th Street in Oakland.
River Reflections boasts diversity in artworks from performance, paintings, photography, sculpture, jewelry and ceramics to literary art. Part of the grant was given back to the artists as a $200 stipend each after submitting their work. Displayed works are on sale, with some already reserved and sold. Thirty percent of the profit flows back to AmadorArts for next year’s project.
While the performance art pieces are not displayed, participating artists share their music at the exhibit openings throughout the course of the traveling exhibition. Visitors can also vote for their favorite artwork, with the top four winners getting a $200 cash prize each. “It’s not much,” Forgette said, but it is more than an incentive to inspire awareness of water conservation. A jury also chose top artworks in each of six disciplines.
Adam Gottstein lives in Amador County, and leads the Over the Edge, a dynamic quartet performing mostly original songs using Latin-based rhythms, jazz, blues, rockabilly, and traditional music. After receiving an e-mail calling on artists to submit an artwork, the group revisited their songs inspired by the river. Gottstein said that the river is not just a venue for recreation and relaxation; it has been “part of our repertoire.”
Gottstein won first choice for his musical submission, “The River Song,” an intimate breeze of strings with bass guitar, mandolin and electric violin, which he first composed in early 1980s. He said that the quartet has been performing “The River Song” in each benefit concert they hold around the Bay Area.
The sentiment of the song is “to let the river run wild and free,” Gottstein said. “My children yet are unborn,” the lyrics read. “They shouldn’t sacrifice. The beauty I have known is the beauty you have shown me all of my life.”
When the call for artists went out, Trail said she “jumped on the opportunity” to do a painting that reflected the beauty of the river. She won first choice in two-dimensional visual arts for her watercolor painting, “A Mighty Being.” Portraying salmon swimming and eagles flying overhead, Trail brushed the magnificent wildlife that live both under and above the river onto her canvas.
It “was a wonderful chance to express my love of the landscape,” Trail said. “The water gives life to the land, and I wanted my painting to show that valuable story.”
Organizers and artists alike said that the exhibit is not just a celebration of the river’s beauty. The river is a “lifeblood,” an everyday source for millions of people, Pook said. Ever since EBMUD was founded in the 1920s, “the Mokelumne watershed has always been our primary supply,” Pook said. It has been serving more than 1.3 million East Bay residents for years.
Forgette said that at one point, the river had to supply water to 3 million people. With millions relying on the water source, Pook said that EBMUD has always been focused on protecting the river. Pook said the exhibition is a way for the utility to increase public awareness on water conservation, for people to get the sense that “it’s a precious supply, and not take it for granted.” If people understood the river’s significance with their heads and hearts, she said, they would be more likely “to treat it with a sense of conservation and respect.”
Tyler Childress, a nature and wildlife photographer and a Calaveras Arts member, submitted “Moke River Diary,” his collage of photographs taken over 35 years of hiking and boating in the Mokelumne wilderness. From film images to digital snapshots, Childress captured the changing colors of leaves, the glorious skies and the snow embracing the river’s ageless beauty. Now, he said, he wanted to capture “human interactions with the river.”
Going down to the river since he was 12, Childress said he fell in love with the river and even became a whitewater river guide for various rivers on the West Coast. “Sitting near the river is nice, but being on the river is special,” he said. He said it gave him an entirely different perspective of “how much more the river is worth.”
Although Gottstein was unable to perform at the Oakland exhibition opening, he said he is set to perform “The River Song” with his wife when the exhibition flows upstream back to Mokelumne Hill on March before its final event at Pardee Reservoir in May.
Pook does not live near the river like the artists do, but inspired by the work she does with the watershed, she visited the Mokelumne River last fall. “I [had] never seen a salmon jump,” she said. “Before dawn, I looked down the river and a salmon just leapt right out. It’s incredible. It’s just incredible.”