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In a yard turned exhibition space, H2O meets art

on September 21, 2010

There’s nothing finer on a Saturday afternoon then a garden full of toilets.

It was cloudy on Saturday at Water Works, a month long show of art, design and … well … toilets.  And the show’s producer, Lauren Elder, was eager to show, teach, and demonstrate the functional art dotting her North Oakland backyard.

“It’s such a great big yard that I thought, ‘I really want to share this with the public,’” Elder said.  “So we’ve done this month of amazing activities.  Gardens are great places to learn, to have fun, to marvel, and to enjoy.”

Water Works is an educational work in progress, lovingly produced by Elder and curated by Christine Bertea, a friend of hers who goes by the job description “ecoplumber.”  The show’s intent is to illustrate, through art, how style and water conservation don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Plastic animals spurting water, solar powered bird baths, vertical veggie stacks, an aquaponics fish tank and a frog habitat made from Styrofoam and concrete are some of the innovative displays.

Even a toilet can have style.  Toilets have taken over the corner adjacent to Elder’s entryway and line the central walkway.  The corner toilet exhibit drew the largest crowds on Saturday afternoon—and with a name like Pee-Pee Ponics, it’s no surprise.

The artists at this show are also scientists, activists, and teachers—people who have been inspired to make a change.

Pee-Pee Ponics, for example, was designed with change in mind.  Human urine mixed with carbon is all plants require to survive.  So by connecting a urinal or toilet to a planter, water is no longer needed for either flushing the toilet or watering the plants.  The P.P.P. creator, Nick Bertulis, a natural building, regenerative design and permaculture teacher at Merritt College, says he was awed by what he learned during his own college years studying environmental science.  Poor sanitation is a leading cause of death among children around the world, Bertulis said. “By looking at these alternative or ecological sanitation options, not only are we making the planet better for humanity but also the rest of life,” he said.

Both Elder and Bertea are involved in water conservation—Elder as an environmental artist and Bertea with the organization, Greywater Action: For a Sustainable Water Culture—and added their own pieces to the show.  The brightly colored combination rain-catcher and clothesline was Bertea’s, and Elder built the popular vertical veggie stacks, plant bowls stacked vertically inside cylinder towers of wire fencing.

Elder said she was stunned upon learning about the limited water resources around the world, and that she became “completely pre-occupied with the topic.  As an artist and designer, I started coming up with little, simple solutions.  We decided to share that with anybody.”

Water Works is located in Elder’s garden, at 5809 Ayala Avenue.  The show is open 11 to six every weekend in September, and educational lectures are part of each day’s program.  Those take place in Elder’s basement.  Walking down the steps into this improvised classroom last Saturday felt like descending into the world of Steve Zissou and his Life Aquatic.  The walls and ceiling were painted a soothing bluish-grey, and a large piece of royal blue construction paper blocked light from the large back window.  With dimmed lights and spectacular pictures of water displayed on a projector screen, the total immersion was complete.

Heaps of toys had been haphazardly pushed to the sides of the room.  It was up to the audience to fill the middle.  Person after person entered, heads bent, and everyone squeezed a little closer.  They sat on couches, folding chairs, and upside down milk crates.  They lay on the floor.

A lecturer named D.L., Marrin, who describes himself as an international “water activist,” was the only person standing.  Marrin splits his time between Hawaii and California, and he looked the part, in nylon cargo pants and a form-fitting white T-shirt.  Marrin is a surfer, and despite the daunting title of his talk, “Hydro-Mimicry and Changing our Perceptions of Water,” his love of the subject shined through.

Water “was the only thing I had much passion for,” Marrin said in conversation after his talk was over.  “It was what I wanted to do.  It’s a source of inspiration to me.”

My hope is for people “to just enjoy a part of the natural world,” Marrin said.  “To enjoy a part of nature and to appreciate it in a way that has been fulfilling to me and I would hope would be fulfilling to others as well.”

Enjoyment was widespread at the exhibit.  Parents and children were drawn in by the interactive nature of the show.  Guests smiled as they poured water into the Pee-Pee Ponics urinal.  Children made funny faces at the chickens and hauled buckets of water around the “splash zone,” spilling water on anyone within a two feet radius.

“Look at how many people either haven’t seen each other, are hugging,” said another artist, Mary White.  “Having community, East Bay networking, is so crucial right now, that we need to be able to talk to each other.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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