River-Wash project connects people to place...and to the Mississippi River

Yuwadee Lor, owner of Thai Cafe, washing away grief.

Photo: Jonee Kulman Brigham

Artist Jonee Kulman Brigham works at the intersection of art, healing, and environmental education. Her latest project, River-Wash at Little Mekong, engages business-owners and the public in place-based art activities that emphasize resilience and stewardship of both human and natural communities. This project is one of many supported by an Irrigate grant from Springboard for the Arts, which sought to address issues and interests of neighborhoods affected by the lengthy construction of the Green Line light-rail along St. Paul’s central corridor.

River-Wash is a three-part project. First, Brigham asked participating business-owners about both their struggles and their hopes for the future. She began by asking “What do you want to flow into this place?” and had participants write their answer on a gold-painted watering can. Then she asked them to fill the watering can with tap water, pointing out as they did that our tap water comes from the Mississippi River. Moving out to the street, she asked, “What do you want to wash away?” Participants wrote their answer with water on the sidewalk. Then, in a healing ritual, they poured clean water over the words to flow into the streets and down the storm drains. These drains connect to new filtration trenches that water the trees on University Avenue before flowing back out to the Mississippi River.

Brigham then created posters with images from the activity and individual stories from the business owners. The posters are displayed in storefronts to let the public know about the people and their stories in this district. They also tell the story of the stormwater connection from Little Mekong to the Mississippi River, and express how human and river well-being are intertwined.

To further emphasize this connection, Brigham worked with Friends of the Mississippi River to stencil the storm drains on University Avenue in the Little Mekong district. The stencil message, which reads “Keep ‘em clean, drains to river,” reminds passersby of the flow of water from urban neighborhoods to the river and of the role we all play in protecting local waterways. This was the first application of St. Paul’s new storm drain stencil (see “St. Paul’s new storm drain stencil” article in this issue).

The posters are on display in storefronts of participating businesses in Little Mekong through mid-November, and the River-Wash website further documents the project.

Jonee Kulman Brigham of Full Spring Studio is a local Twin Cities artist who is particularly interested in the storytelling potential of infrastructure to reveal how our daily lives are interconnected with nature. Previous projects include Downstream/Upstream: a Journey Through the Urban water Cycle. River-Wash was created in collaboration with Friends of the Mississippi River, Asian Economic Development Association, and the City of St. Paul.