Interview: Dams, Artists, and Envisioning the Future

Katy Yan

(untitled) from the series, Shifting Territories. 91x52
(untitled) from the series, Shifting Territories. 91x52" oil, 2011
Jennifer Downey

Earlier this summer, I had the good fortune to meet local artist Jennifer Downey during her open studio in Oakland, CA. She had just completed her first painting in a series tentatively titled "Shifting Territories," which examines humanity's relationship with the land through the lens of dams and river diversions. Below is my interview with her:

What drew you to do this series?

JD: Since I was very young, I've had a deep fascination and love for nature. It's always been a source of grounding in my life. Over time, I've become more and more curious about humankind's relationship with the land-how we as a species interact with the rest of the natural world. I recently began investigating the ways we humans physically alter the land, and was amazed to learn how much humans have, since ancient times, altered rivers and waterways. I approached the creation of this series with the question, "What happens to a river's ecosystem and its species when you dam the river?" I wanted to depict the changes from the perspective of the non-human animals that are affected when humans change the course, flow, and physical and spiritual characteristics of a river.

What did you do to prepare for this series?

JD: My initial research on dammed rivers covered quite a geographic range, so I decided to narrow my focus to the Sacramento Delta and the rivers that feed it. I researched the endemic species that are becoming imperiled or threatened there, and thought it would be visually interesting to pair the Delta Smelt and California Least Tern together in this painting. In order to develop the mood of the painting (and series), I knew I needed to experience altered rivers first-hand to get a feel for the energy of a dammed river. So I drove through and explored the surreal landscape of the Delta, and went canoeing on a man-made reservoir, where I paddled through stands of submerged redwoods.

What does this particular piece represent to you?

JD: In terms of the visual motif of the painting, the juxtaposition of fish and bird represents an alternative space for these species to interact. In reality, these two species don't interact as they do in the painting, but I'm deliberately placing them in another space-time, and exploring different species interactions. With this idea, I am referencing aspects of the mythologies of Australian Aborigines. Species endangerment and extinction is an incredibly depressing topic, so I'm also trying to make art that maybe offers a respite of beauty, while still dealing with the issues.

Jennifer with her next painting
Jennifer with her next painting

What do you see as the role of artists in the dams debate?

JD: I believe there is an incredible opportunity for artists to collaborate with scientists in service of their mutual environmental interests, and to help communicate critical issues to the larger public. Many environmental issues are discussed within the public dialogue using the framework and language of science. Unfortunately, I think this can sometimes limit how the public understands or relates to the issues. When artists collaborate with scientists, drawing from the scientific data they can, through their art, contextualize those topics in the human experience. If audiences engage with the issues on a visceral, personal level, there is a better chance of personal engagement, action, and deeper understanding. I think artists also have a role in helping to address the uncertainty, grief, and fear that large problems like climate change bring up.

There is currently a series in the Brower Center called "hello tomorrow: Bay Area Artists Envision the Future." If you were to paint what you envisioned the world should be, what would it look like?

JD: I would hope for a world where humans return to our connection with the earth as one (not the only) of the many species who inhabit the planet. I might create paintings that come out of a framework of a multi-species perspective. I often wonder what it would be like to experience the world as other species do-those who inhabit the air, water, and other terrains not frequented by humans. I also wonder about the sensory and perception abilities, as well as unique intelligences, of other species. I would love to create works that explore a sense of species connectedness rather than separateness.

I think the world of our future is drastically different from what we're used to. We will need a new land ethic, new living communities and mythologies, and an incorporation of ancient knowledge to continue our existence on this incredible earth. I'm afraid the state of the environment will become worse before it gets better, so we – citizens, artists, politicians, community leaders – have a lot of work to do.

More information: 

A native Californian, Jennifer lives in Alameda, across the bay from San Francisco. After graduating from UC Davis with degrees in English and Economics, she pursued a "sensible" career in business. However, after finding office politics, hour-long commutes, dress-down Fridays, and cubicle confines anything but conducive to creativity, she quit, packed her bags, and left for Ireland. In the small, coastal town of Galway, the Atlantic wind cleared her head and she rediscovered her original love: art.

You can view Jennifer's art on her website.