Institute of the Environment 2017

When Art and Science Flow Together

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Image after image of moonlit water revealed the haunting beauty of a polluted river.

The pictures, part of a series of photograms titled “Water Flow: Under the Colorado River,” by Kathleen Velo, revealed the stark deterioration in the quality of the river’s water as it snaked from

Lake Mead: Colorado River #53 by Kathleen Velo

  "Lake Mead: Colorado River #53"  by Kathleen Velo.

northern Colorado to the Colorado Delta in Mexico.

“Sometimes, the best way to get people’s attention is through art,” said Velo, a Pima Community College photography instructor who explained her Colorado River project to a rapt group of dancers, writers, other artists, and environmental researchers during a luncheon hosted by the University of Arizona’s Arts, Environment & Humanities Network.

It is this network, Velo said, that encouraged and assisted the presentation of her work exploring the changing water quality of the Colorado River through art.

“The Arts, Environment & Humanities Network is fabulous because it encourages people to think differently and to see things with more imagination,” she said. “Both artists and scientists. There’s an open-mindedness there that I really appreciate.”

Crossing Disciplinary and Community Divides Through Art

Launched in 2012 by Diana Liverman, co-director of the UA’s Institute of the Environment, the network transcends disciplines—climate science, geography, engineering, dance, and Spanish and Portuguese, to name a few—and supports collaborations and conversations between artists, writers, humanities scholars, and environmental researchers at the UA and in the broader community. The common thread uniting this motley mix? A shared curiosity about what might emerge.

“The Arts, Environment & Humanities Network not only expands the opportunities to communicate about the environment, but also provide us with inspiration and creative ideas about how to solve environmental problems,” Liverman said.

Collaborations, Conversations, and Outcomes

Velo created her photograms by submerging light-sensitive photographic paper underwater at night, then exposing the paper to artificial light or the full moon.

Headwaters, Colorado River, by Kathleen Velo

"Headwaters, Colorado River" by Kathleen Velo.

Velo’s interest in the Colorado River began when she compared river water to groundwater in a previous photogram project and discovered that Tucson’s water, which comes from the Colorado, appeared brown, green, and gritty in her images.  

“It didn’t look like the beautiful water images I was getting from groundwater sources,” Velo recalled. She decided to extend her project, capturing images of water along the entire length of the Colorado River—from northern Colorado through Utah, Arizona, Nevada, California, and into Mexico—as a way of questioning the quality of the water consumed in the western states.

While acknowledging that the city did its best in treating its water, Velo wanted to see the river’s water at its source—partly to investigate the change in water quality as it flowed from Colorado to Mexico, and partly to present another perspective of a “very seriously endangered river.” Velo paired her images with water quality tests. What began as a personal quest to understand the drinking water quality in her home city of Tucson morphed into a novel way of combining art and science to understand the river, a source of life in much of the Southwest.

Before she joined the network, Velo struggled to find scientists who would work with her. “Nobody was willing to even entertain the notion that an art project could help further their cause,” she said.

By sampling water along the way for laboratory testing and researching each state’s approach to water use, Velo learned that the water in the Colorado River Arizona is far from pristine. “I learned a lot, and we are not taking good care of our water source,” she said.