How To Become A River


  1. Go to your nearest river
  2. Stand as close as you can
  3. Close your eyes
  4. Smell the river
  5. Breathe the river with your open mouth (don’t drink the water-it’s probably not safe)
  6. Touch the river (If you can)
  7. Listen to the sounds of the river
  8. Think about how corporations are killing you (you as person and as a river) with the commodification of water
  9. Water the river with your tears
  10. Kiss yourself is like kissing the river…we are all water

Interview questions for Hartford Residents.

Born in Hartford, I wanted to gain a different perspective of the Park River in Hartford as I believe that the miss-education of some will provide consequences for the environment around us as well as people who directly interact with the environment.

I came up with these questions to create a very different narrative of the relationship between water and people. My goal is to have people understand the gaps of understanding around water. I will share different  Hartford residents and their understanding of Park River.

How important to humans is water?

Do you know Hartford was built on a body of water?

Have you heard of Park River before?

If I told you everything you did that included water is contaminating that same body of water you live on would you find it to be an important to change your habits?

Would you let your child play in the river? Why/why not?

Would you allow your child to drink river water?

Do you drink tap water in Hartford?

Do you think the river water directly effects tap water in Hartford?

How often does the city flood?

Free Bottled River: An Interview On Art, Water, and Commodity

ParkRiver1.JPGReflections on making art at the Park River.

An artist interviews herself.

A work of art is a gift, not a commodity…Every modern artist who has chosen to labor with a gift must sooner or later wonder how he or she is to survive in a society dominated by market exchange. And if the fruits of a gift are gifts themselves, how is the artist to nourish himself, spiritually as well as materially, in an age whose values are market values and whose commerce consists almost exclusively in the purchase and sale of commodities?   -Lewis Hyde, The Gift

In 2016, artist and activist Desiree Duell did a performance piece, Free Bottled River about the commodification of water using the Park River as a site. Duell based in Flint, MI has spent the last three years creating work around the Flint Water Crisis using art as a tool for activism to create awareness around environmental injustice. She came to Hartford, CT for a graduate residency in the Nomad9/MFA program in Sustainable Culture. Every day, she walked over the Park River to attend class at the University of Hartford. She eventually spent some time contemplating at the Park River on the commodification of water.


Can you explain the impetus behind Free Bottle River? What was your relationship with the Park River when you performed Free Bottled River?

The performance was to examine my own relationship to rivers. Even though I grew up in Flint that has the Flint River running through the city-it never was a part of my existence until the Flint Water Crisis. Most cities in America have been built near rivers, but now it seems like they don’t exist within our built environment. When I was in school last year, I kept walking over the Park River then decided to really spend some time with it. What I realized is that a river is much more than just water-it’s an entire ecosystem of dirt, plants, wildlife, and water. Then thinking about how we consume water, bottled water, and the privatization of water in its relation to both environmental injustice on both humans and landscape. I thought by bottling the river as raw material and giving it away to the public by river was to show the absurdity of commodity in our culture.

You gave away the bottled river for free. Do you think the meaning of the performance would change if you sold the bottled Park River?

It’s been suggested to me on several occasions to sell Flint River water as art many times. Although, I don’t find that interesting as art because its just reenacting the same paradigm that lead to the Flint Water Crisis. Water has already become a commodity through the bottled water industry that making it into art seems to condone and support that industry which is dangerous for both the environment and humans.

How do you live with the tension of creating art as a commodity and sustaining yourself as an artist?

Well, water and art are not that different that we need both to survive. Humans need water for our physical existence and art for our psychological well-being. My work is about unveiling the injustice created by our capitalist society, which is rooted in commodity. So, I have to live with the contradiction of selling or funding my work as a commodity in order to make work about the toxicity of commodification. It’s completely absurd. Why should I do have to drink bottled water, but am also paying for poisoned water? Why do I make work about environmental injustice, but have no relationship with the natural environment? At the end of the day, I have to sell my art to sustain my family and buy water.


What did you learn from doing this performance? Do you think the performance was effective? How would do perform this piece now?

It was interesting to see how the public took the bottled river as a gift once it was presented as art. It always surprises me how we as a society are so addicted to our objects. I gave some away to children and people who passed by my bench. Although, I think the irony of getting bottled river while sitting next to the river was lost on the public. I think the performance was effective in that it I helped understand my own relationship with the river. Coming back to the Park River, I have a deeper sense of what a river truly is as an entire ecosystem. This year I stood in the Park River and it was a completely different experience than last year. If I could redo the performance again-maybe I would have people bottle their own water while standing in the river.



Rivers Soundtrack

I’ve been afraid of water for most of my life.

I had tubes in my ear at six years old, and my parents had to be hypervigilant about not getting water in my ears. I had to wear earplugs for taking baths and swimming blocking out the sound of water.

I never learned how to swim as a child.

I have been deeply afraid of drowning most of my life.

Before the Flint Water Crisis was exposed, I got out of the shower one night to find my ears were bleeding like they had never before.

Flint Shower, 2015

My childhood fears were triggered. I stopped showering for a while. In order to cope with this fear, I started listening to songs related to rivers while showering.

Listening to songs about rivers while existing in a concrete landscape has kept me ever reflective on my relationship to water, landscape, and rivers. Although, when the opportunity arises to listen to the sound of a river fully there are no words to describe hearing an ecosystem. Cultivating a relationship with nature is a difficult task when our built environment has divorced us from our natural resources.

Living in Flint, it’s hard not to think about the river as a site of trauma. Incorporating music that spoke about rivers into my daily existence was a small gesture to move beyond my fear of water. Yet, this small gesture has had a profound impact on how I consume culture mindfully as a tool for healing and reconnecting with the environment.

I was struck by how most of songs involving rivers was that river, became a metaphor for speaking to love and sacredness. Currently, my favorite river song is “River” by Ibeyi.

Below are suggestions for creating your own river soundtrack:


Find The River-R.E.M

Watching The River Flow-Bob Dylan

Down To The River To Pray-Alison Krauss

Yes, The River Knows-The Doors

Take Me To The River-Al Green

Standing Knee Deep In A River Dying Of Thirst-Kathy Mattea

Boat On the River-Styx

Following The River-Rolling Stone

The River Of Dreams-Billy Joel

By The Rivers Dark-Leonardo Cohen

By This River-Brian Eno

I Follow Rivers-Lykke Li

Interview with Dr. Sherry Buckberrough

I spoke to Dr. Sherry Buckberrough, Chair of the Deptartment of Art History at the Hartford Art School about the intersection between HAS, Park River Watershed Association and the arts.

SH Can you tell me a little bit about your relationship to the Park River and many art and science projects that you and Mary Rickel Pelletier produce around the Park River watershed?

SB I have lived near the river, in the west end of Hartford for many years and so naturally, care about the condition of the river. I had met Mary Rickel Pelletier socially, as we both live in the West End and found her work with the river included some very interesting projects-not necessarily art projects.

SH I am interested in the history of some of the many courses and exhibitions that were designed around the river and the history of how that developed.

SB In spring 2009 I developed and presented the Eco Arts class (Environmental and Ecological Art), as you know. As part of that class, I brought Mary Pelletier in to talk to the class about her work around the river. That stimulated lots of interest and discussion from the students and in the nascent Environmental Studies program. We began plans for a year long series of events on and off campus that would take place the following year, 1910-11. I taught a year-long interdisciplinary Humanities Seminar entitled Art for the Earth. The seminar sponsored a spring serious of public lectures by University of Hartford faculty and faculty from other universities. I also taught a First Year Seminar (with freshmen from the College of Arts and Sciences), called Art for the Earth, that was supported by a $2000 grant from the Provost’s Office. We had the students clean up trash from the river, (something they were not so keen about doing….) and making art from that trash that was then presented in an exhibition in the Mortensen library. In that seminar, they also did an ‘Andy Goldsworthy’ inspired piece using found natural objects, such as stones, leaves and flowers, that they really enjoyed making.

Working with Bin Zhu and Katharine Owens (University of Hartford Environmental Studies faculty), and Natacha Poggio of the Visual Communication Design program, we organized several curricular events that engaged issues having to do with the Park River. Mary Pelletier was a vital presence in most of these courses and events.

I also developed a series of events around the river, called the “Park Water Arts” campaign. For that project, I focused on organizing inspiring and coordinating ecological events at the arts organizations within the watershed area including the Wadsworth Atheneum, the New Britain Museum of American Art, the Joseloff Gallery, Real Art Ways, the Ct. Historical Society. We coordinated several events with the CCSU Gallery, where Elizabeth Langhorne was also offering an eco-art course and curating related exhibitions. (There may be a couple of additional organizations, but I’ll get you that information See brochure texts for more.)

Programming for Park Water Arts included a full day conference, held in the Wilde auditorium on campus, entitled Water on Our Doorstep. that It was very well attended, with over 150 people. Mary Pelletier was instrumental in bringing brought in presenters for the conference from the MDC, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and a number of outside scholars. I raised funds for this event ($10,000) from various programs across the University.

The conference was one of two major events that concluded the year. The second was an exhibition of the work of Mary Miss in the Joseloff Gallery. For this she produced an exterior installation of markers for places of ecological interest on campus and a large map (22’ x 30’) of the North Branch of the Park River that was installed on the floor of the gallery. The map is still exhibited today in sites throughout the watershed. She also exhibited enlarged documentary photographs of past work, many of which are also still in our possession, and were brought out, along with the map, for her return visit to campus last fall (Sept., 2016).

There was a lot of energy around that year, but it couldn’t More than could be sustained on an annual basis. We needed to give it a break for a couple of years. There was media piece developed by Gene Gort and Ken Steen where Ken taped sounds from different parts of the river to become the music for a video Gene added. The piece was shown at the Ct. Historical Society in a closet. Yes, you had to go sit in a closet to see the work. (Susan—see if you can find that on the Park Water Arts calendars). It probably was created in spring 2011.

Last year, part of the university’s new strategic plan stressed the need for partnerships. I talked with the Environmental Studies faculty and HAS faculty and proposed that we partner with the Park River Watershed. Katharine Owens, Bin Zhu, Cat Balco, Carol Padberg and, of course, Mary Pelletier were the prime organizers of the project, for which we obtained a Goal 2 grant of nearly $20,000. The focus of the partnership was to create a cohort of students, staff and faculty dedicated to the care of the Park River. It was called River Ambassadors.

We used this grant to revisit Mary Miss’ piece, CaLL-City as Living Laboratory, developing an exhibition, several classes, bringing Mary Miss back to campus, sponsoring a number of field trips for the students. Among the trips, students went to Carl Andre’s Stone Field Sculpture, the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, the Hartford Waste Water plant. All classes enjoyed a river walk with Mary Pelletier and a formal lecture by her about the watershed. Participating classes grew as the year advanced and in the end included: Katharine Owens’ Introduction to Environmental Studies, my Environmental and Ecological Art, Bin Zhu’s Intro to Environmental Science, Cat Balco’s Freshman Foundations: in Drawing, Colin McMullan’s Public Sculpture, Mike Scricco’s Civic Design, and Seth Holmes’ architecture class. Holmes class worked on rethinking Parking Lot B; Michael Scricco’s class designed the posters; Colin McMullan’s class worked with clearing the phragmites from the pond on campus and working with the phragmites sculpturally; Katharine Owens’ class created woodcut prints of invasive species in the Park River watershed, later made into postcards by Scricco’s class. All of these, plus poster projects from my class and Bin Zhu’s class and large charcoal drawings from Cat Balco’s class were exhibited at River Day, a half day, multi-disciplinary program held in Regents Commons on April 6 of this year. Complete with live birds of prey, sweet tree juice and cookies made from cricket flour, it exposed a good part of the university to the work done by River Ambassadors. I think River Day was a big success! It kicked off a lot of events.

Part of the grant was also used to create documentary videos. The videos will be used for education-both by the university and by Park Watershed. Most of them are still in production, but one is pretty close to being done (although Mary Pelletier would like to do a little more editing to it…). I think I can share that with you. I’ll send it to you with a ‘we share’ link.

SH Do you think would be possible for me to write to Mary Miss and speak with her about the “CALL-City as Living Laboratory” project she did around the Park River Watershed with you and Mary Pelletier?

SB Mary Miss is so busy with various projects, she is very difficult to reach, but, I can share her email address and you can write to her to see if she has time to speak with you. I’ll you that information and some more material with dates and details of what we did around “River Day”.

I have to say, Mary Pelletier and I were at the core of it. I feel good knowing there’s enough interest that other people will pick it up after I’m gone. You may want to reach out to Katharine Owens and Bin Zhu. They also worked closely on this project.

SH Thank you Sherry!

On rivers, art and experiencing small miracles-

For this blog, I’d like to revisit our experience last autumn in Minneapolis/St Paul as part of the Nomad 9 grad program. One of the experiences we all worked on, was creating a group performative/ceremonial piece about water, that was performed on the banks of the Mississippi River. Everyone’s experience and interpretation of the time we spent at the river working with Sandy Spieler, was, as you would expect from a group as diverse as ours, unique.


What I found especially interesting, was how different our interpretations of water/river were from person to person. For some, it was the quiet intervention of demonstrating the motion of the current; for some, the river represented an opportunity to reflect on bridging cultures-Western and indigenous; for some it reflected directly back to their personal lives at that particular moment in time; and for some, it was an entry point into a mystic experience that was shared with us through quiet meditative experience and carefully curated sound.


My own small contribution to the performance that day, involved sharing with the group a simple use of diving rods to ‘find’ the water-something I had relied on to find the undocumented well on our property years earlier.


Divining water, dousing, water witching, are different names for a time-honored (and time tested!) method for people to connect with water. Exactly how dousing works is a little unclear. It is an ancient, cross-cultural tool that some believe was referred to in the Old Testament (the “rod” that was used by Moses and Aaron to find water in the desert); but images of dowsing rods have appeared in caves in North Africa that have been carbon dated to over 8,000 years old; there are also images from China that are over 2,500 years old; Homer referred to dowsing as rhabdowmancy. The point here, its been around a long time and perhaps deserves a little more respect than it’s been given in our Western culture. I personally choose to understand it as evidence of the incredible connection between our bodies, our energies and water of the earth and keep it stored in my mind carefully filed away under the heading “Rational Stuff I Still Don’t Completely ‘Get’”. (Its in there along with Schrodinger’s cat, (and every thing else ‘quantum’, come to think of it), various UFO images etc, etc, etc—you get it, I’m sure. )


So my point, such as there may be in this post, is to remind us of our previous river experience and just how varied (and beautiful!) everyone’s response was to the Mississippi River last autumn and ask that we apply this strength-our diversity of practice-to our new river challenge.

Here we are on one side of the Mississippi, a little new at water-divining….But there was a magical moment, one that I did not anticipate, that occurred as we walked toward the far bank of the river. We had been walking together, each carrying hand-made divining rods, that most of group had not used before. Our group began to turn the corner, we were still singing the ‘river song’ Sandy had taught us, and I saw, for a moment, that our divining rods were all pointed to the river; One small, but magical moment. The picture below is one that Carla shot as we walked, sang and participated in a tiny miracle


Here we are, moments later, on the other side of the river.

That water, one single body of water, could mean so many different things to a single, small group of artists is something that bears contemplation as we move ahead in this public art piece, remaining receptive to the potential to create other tiny, everyday miracles and share them with the community.


Park River soil sampling

-The samples have to be collected along the river, it can be soil, soil mixed with other things, or even dirt from urban area, basically every particle next to river.

-Everyone can contribute to the archive (Their archive).

-It can be subjective, individual experience is more important.

-It aims to raise the awareness of the connection with river of each person in the neighborhood.

-Encouraging people to act and rediscover.

-Seeks for narratives to read river and the condition of the river and the surroundings.

Of Hartford, the Park River, and Poetry


Wallace Stevens watches the sunset over the city and listens to the Hog River
behind 61 Woodland Street

Of Hartford in a Purple Light
A long time you have been making the trip
From Havre to Hartford, Master Soleil,
Bringing the lights of Norway and all that.

A long time the ocean has come with you,
Shaking the water off, like a poodle,
That splatters incessant thousands of drops,

Each drop a petty tricolor. For this,
The aunts in Pasadena, remembering,
Abhor the plaster of the western horses,

Souvenirs of museums. But, Master, there are
Lights masculine and lights feminine.
What is this purple, this parasol,

This stage-light of the Opera?
It is like a region full of intonings.
It is Hartford seen in a purple light.

A moment ago, light masculine,
Working, with big hands, on the town,
Arranging its heroic attitudes.

But now as in an amour of women
Purple sets purple round. Look, Master,
See the river, the railroad, the cathedral…

When male light fell on the naked back
Of the town, the river, the railroad were clear.
Now, every muscle slops away.

Hi! Whisk it, poodle, flick the spray
Of the ocean, ever-freshening,
On the irised hunks, the stone bouquet.

One of America’s most famous poets was a long time resident of Hartford. Wallace Stevens was born in Reading Pennsylvania, but spent his later years living, working and most significantly, walking the streets of Hartford. Stevens never learned to drive and so, typically walked the two miles from his west-end of Hartford home on Westerly Terrace, to his job, as a Vice President of the The Hartford Insurance company in Asylum Hill.


Westerly Terrace, Hartford Ct

The cadence of his steps, he said, helped to develop the rhythm of the poetry he composed in his mind as he walked to his job and home again. Modest, conservative, Hartford served as Stevens’ muse.


In the poem above, where he refers to ‘the river, the railroad, the cathedral’, it is believed he referred to the Park River, the nearby Hartford rail and its Union Street station and the cathedral of Saint Joseph on Farmington Avenue-all of which could be seen on his walk to work or in the neighborhood of his office on Asylum Avenue Hartford, Connecticut.


Stevens maintained his job at The Hartford, while earning the 1951 Book Award for “The Auroras of Autumn”, several honorary doctorates and the Pulitzer Prize for “The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens”.

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