How do you perceive water?
That was the question that fueled the latest collection of artwork to be featured in the Salt Lake City library system’s Day-Riverside Branch in Rose Park.
Teenagers from the Salt Lake Valley Youth Center, which offers educational programs for at-risk youths, were asked to use the Jordan River as inspiration for a series of self-portraits that will eventually make it to the walls of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.
Every piece in the “We Are All Water” exhibit is anonymous to protect the privacy of the student who created it, but each picture tells a personal story.
“This is me and the river,” one of the descriptions reads.
The work shows a brown-haired girl with a halo and a black, red and orange checkered shirt. A dyed piece of paper representing the river flows across her face.
“Why I chose black, red and orange,” the description said, “is because it shows my day [and] how I was when or while I made it.”
A tie-dye cloth, made by students and shaped to look like the winding Jordan River that flows near the youth center in South Salt Lake, was also installed as part of the exhibit.
Most of the art the students create is introspective, said Kathryn Nelson, a science teacher at the youth center.
“Most of it,” she said, “has to do with sort of the way they see themselves in the environment.”
Often, these students have experienced hardship while trying to complete a regular public school curriculum, Nelson said. They’re also usually not involved in other parts of the community.
“They’re not on ballclubs. They don’t go to church,” Nelson said. “They’re just one of those [groups] that’s sort of moving ghostlike through our community.”
But works like “We Are All Water,” she said, give these students an opportunity to share their hopes, dreams and worries with the broader community.
The exhibit is a product of the STEM Community Alliance Program — a University of Utah and Utah State Board of Education initiative that provides science, technology, engineering and mathematics learning opportunities to at-risk youths.
After seeing the finished work, program organizers said the exhibit provided an important platform for the students to express themselves.
“Often, students in youth-in-custody settings feel that they’re being represented a certain way by other people,” said Laura George, associate director of STEM Community Alliance Program. “And so I think it’s powerful for them to be able to create an image of themselves that they get to put out into the community.”
It’s also a chance for students to have their voices heard on important issues, George said, and advocate positive changes on a topic they care deeply about: the environment.
“We can’t reverse the damage, but we can make change so we don’t cause more,” one student wrote under a drawing. “Hopefully, this gives you something to think about on the individual changes you can make. We can each make a difference.”
Nelson said the students are tuned in to how Utah is changing as relentless drought grips the state and the Great Salt Lake shrinks.
“They’re really, really worried about the way that the character of this place is going to change if we lose the lake,” Nelson said. “And they do understand the significance of having water close to our environments.”
STEM Community Alliance Program and the Day-Riverside Branch organized a reception Thursday to celebrate the exhibit with the general public. Attendees admired the beauty of the artwork and the depth of the message behind it.
“They want the community to care more about the water,” Megan Singleton said after reading the descriptions that accompany each piece. “And then they also said that about themselves, that they like this project because they just want to be seen, and they want others to see them and see the water.”
The library is only the first stop for the art installation. The collection will move to the Utah Cultural Celebration Center in March before heading to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.
There are tentative plans to add more work from students in other programs who were inspired by different bodies of water, such as the Provo River and Ogden River.
Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.