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The road to NOEW: Living with Water art pitch

Oddly enough, local botanist/artist Jennifer Blanchard grew up spending her winters in Minnesota (with one parent) and her summers in the Honey Island Swamp area of Pearl River (with the other). Whatever the seasonal harshness of either locale, it gave her a deep appreciation for living connected with water.

“We always had an elevated house,” she says of her Pearl River digs. “And it flooded around us twice a year. I understand what it is to live on the water. For those who come to the city, that involves a huge adaptation.”

Living with water is a concept Blanchard will be selling next Monday, as one of three finalists for the Living With Water Civic Design Pitch, a part of New Orleans Entrepreneur Week that is sponsored by social innovation accelerator Propeller and the Arts Council of New Orleans. The winner will get $25,000 to create a new public art installation in the Lafitte Greenway near Bayou St. John, in what is the first crowd-sourced art competition in New Orleans.

“I learned about the pitch contest from the Arts Council,” Blanchard says. “It was a great fit for me, being a scientist and an artist, and with my background in coastal geology. I’m also into water connectivity, and how people and animals move through that environment. A lot of that comes out in my art.”

Blanchard, who has an undergraduate degree in environmental biology from the University of South Mississippi and a master’s degree in earth and environmental science from the University of New Orleans, has juggled her twin loves of earth science and nature art her entire life. She taught geology, physical science and biology at Delgado, spent a couple of years as a professional botanist, works tirelessly for wetlands conservation and opened and closed her own art gallery. And while she’s done “a little bit of everything” in the art world – photography, jewelry-making, painting – pottery is her go-to medium.

“Right now I’m really into raku,” she says. “It’s what I want to use in this project. The firing process makes these glazes with cool metallic sheens that strike and reflect the light.”

Blanchard’s project is called Contraflow, and she’s pulled together a team to flesh out the concept, including totem artist Peggy Bishop, native plant landscaper Mark Pastorek, landscape architect Dana Brown, and scultpor/installation advisor Michael Manjarris.

Contraflow uses a series of 5- to 6-foot metal totems topped with ceramic native animals to connect Bywater to Bayou St. John. The design includes a landscape of native plants, rainwater systems and a central rainwater collection basin.

“I wanted to do native animals because the way we do things changes their habitat, their pathways of movement and migration,” Blanchard explains. “And I like to create a palette with the landscape. I want to use native plantings that will enhance the art piece, as well as plant rain gardens that will show water use.

“Being a botanist, I do a lot of natural motifs in my art. Being a teacher, I come from a more educational standpoint than whimsical or metaphorical one.”

So Contraflow is designed not only aesthetically, but functionally and educationally. It would serve as an outdoor classroom or meeting point, a destination in itself, with lessons about vanishing coastlines and man’s effect on the environment. A series of terraces reflect former and current coastlines, so that when it rains, the “former” coastline vanishes, leaving only the new one. Blanchard also plans a berm that would function as a rainwater catch system, created in the shape of a barrier island.

“The art piece I’m doing is meant to be experienced in the rain,” says Blanchard. She was entranced by an Amsterdam park that fills up in the rain, creating unique play spaces depending on the daily amount of moisture.

The center of Blanchard’s piece is a “living in a bowl” diorama, a basin filled with ceramic houses, staggered so that water runs down them and into the catch basin when it rains. Each is emblazoned with a word having to do with living with water in New Orleans: erosion, subsidence, elevation, delta. An information kiosk would explain the vocabulary.

“If you don’t live in New Orleans, you probably don’t really understand subsidence,” says Blanchard.

The title of the piece, Contraflow, is another unique New Orleans term.

“If you look up the word, there is no mention of hurricane or traffic,” Blanchard says. “Contraflow has a different meaning for us – it means moving away in the same direction, unified as a group, from a hurricane. And it also reflects the idea of animals all moving inland in the same direction with coastal erosion.”

Whatever Blanchard creates – from ceramic sea turtles to rain basins – she weaves facts and lessons into the work. Art, she believes, is just one way to spark conversations about urban issues, and to teach, interactively, environmental concepts.

“When we had a disaster like Katrina, no one was prepared,” she says. “So if we educate in advance and know how to be adaptive in this environment, it will be more sustainable.”

Having New Orleans as the epicenter of a conversation about water is appropriate in other ways, Blanchard addes. "When you talk about sea level rise of salt water intrusion, New Orleans is a microcosm of what is happening regionally and globally. So much of it is going on right here."

Living With Water Civic Design Pitch

  • When: Monday, March 23 at 10:15 a.m.
  • Where: The Chicory, 610 S. Peters St.
  • What: The three finalists have 5 minutes and eight slides to pitch their art installation for the Lafitte Greenway. The winner will be determined by audience vote, and receive $25,000 to implement the winning design.
  • Register: www.noew.org/register

The other finalists

Native New Orleanian Michel Varisco is a photographer and installation artist whose large-scale photographs have chronicled Louisiana's shifting coastline and explored the complex relationship between natural and engineered environments. Her Living With Water project, titled Turning, is a kinetic sculpture that she hopes would reconnect residents to their origin story as a city and a state, through  symbols, lights, sounds, motion and shape. She describes the project as a talisman of sorts that looks into Louisiana's origin symbol, the wild Mississippi river, and how we have altered it and learned many lessons as a result. She says that her hope is to evoke an innovative and brave spirit in moving toward the inescapable questions of our future with water.
Amy Stelly and Darryl Reeves, Drop in the Bowl
Urban designer Amy Stelly and metal artisan Darryl Reeves team up on Drop in the Bowl. Here is their project statement: "I love the water. And I've always been fascinated by the relationship between New Orleans and water. So I jumped at the opportunity to illustrate the element in a way that arouses curiosity and promotes accessibility. My hope is that my rendering will encourage the intimate relationship between New Orleans and water to be embraced. Our relationship with water has been based on fear. We must change that and become fearless."
The 5th Annual Water Challenge: Propeller has taken over management of the 5th annual event, which is part of New Orleans Entrepreneur Week. The daylong event on Monday, March 23, will include, in addition to the Civic Design Pitch, a workshop on The Water Landscape: Coastal and Urban, from 1 to 2 p.m., a session on Entrepreneurial Opportunities in Water, from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m., and the $10,000 Water Challenge Business Pitch, at which five finalists will present their ideas for water-related start-ups, from 3:45 to 5 p.m.

Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]