This month’s “Year of the Woman,” feature is unique because of the way I found the woman featured, Stacy Levy. Last month I had the plan to check out ecological artist Stacy Levy’s current art exhibit on display at Towson University titled, “Collected Watershed.” Stacy has been planning this art installation for a couple years, working with Towson University professors and students. In a week they collected over 1,000 gallons of water from all the waterways surrounding the Towson area in Baltimore County. With this water, Stacy filled over eight thousand recycled glass jars and laid them out to correspond to create a 3D watershed map with water from the actual waterway in the jar, so you can walk through the watershed like a giant.  

While I couldn’t physically explore the installation at Towson, I had the pleasure of having a phone interview with Stacy who is currently isolating herself on her 80-acre farm in Pennsylvania. Stacy is originally from Philadelphia, where she grew up along the Wissahickon Creek, which is part of Fairmount Park. I asked Stacy how she became interested in connecting waterways with art, and she said, 

“I’ve always been interested in water. I would spend my time growing up exploring different streams. There was one stream in particular where I’d spend a lot of my time especially when it would rain and I would make little stick boats and watch them sail down the stream. But it was always really smelly and I realized later that I was really just playing in a sewage outfall.” She told me and we both couldn’t help but laugh at this. “Seriously though, this is what pushed me to want to know more about how our local waterways connect.”

After my first phone call with Stacy, I knew I wanted to feature her as a female leader and inspiration in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Stacy is a pioneer when it comes to combining art with science and helping people better grasp and understand science through art.

Stacy has a background in both art and forestry. She spent time in the 80s working as an urban forester. “I worked from Washington DC, up to New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut – managing urban forests for corporations, city parks, and landowners. Instead of thinking about the forest as a wood resource, I wanted clients to see the forest as something filled with beauty and habitat resources. This was something people weren’t really adapting at that time in the early 80s and it was a new way to look at urban forests. I worked restoring these landscapes to become healthier.”

From Stacy’s experience with forestry work in different places along the east coast, she started to explore more with connecting her daily work to her art expression. “So as my work in art evolved , I wanted to talk about those dynamic natural systems of the forest I learned about as a forester and the watery connection of the watershed that was part of my growing up, but I wanted to come at it from a different angle.”

Stacy Levy, Collected Watercourse, Photo courtesy of Towson University

Stacy’s first “Water Collection” installation was in Scotland in 1998. She knew that she was curious about this connection of art, waterways, and visuals but she admits that she came up with the collected water idea when she was in Scotland because she had her desire to explore. 

“I really wanted to make a way for people to see the whole watershed and to experience it in some way that was different then a map on the wall. And I also had an ulterior motive: often when I do these installations in art galleries, I was going to Scotland and I thought ‘oh dear, I’m going to go to this wonderful place and will be practically living in the gallery and I’m not going to be able to see anything outdoors.'”

The watershed water collection provided a way for Stacy to get out and discover the landscape by following the local waterways. Stacy finds it intriguing to translate the blue thread-like lines you see on a map into the actual waterway. 

“You see a blue line on the map and you think ‘oh yeah that’s water’ but when you go down to see the actual stream, it is a completely different experience, it could be running behind a mall or parking lot or it’s running between railroad tracks or some bridge that you never really gave much attention to.” Stacy loves to not only explore these new tributaries for herself, she also enjoys bringing locals with her. “I realized that there were two part to making a watermap: creating the actual map that people could stand in later, but also taking a number of people out on a tour of collecting the local streams. They could see all the streams in their backyards but they never thought about how the waters were connected or what it looked like find this blue thread on the map.”

When collecting water for her installation in Towson, she had a variety of students helping, including students majoring in art history, biology, sustainability, and the one I really wasn’t expecting, music majors. Stacy loves having a diversity of backgrounds and knowledge working collectively on a project, because everyone brings different perspectives. “Having a diversity of views coming down to see the water is really important to me. It is not just an art focused project- anyone who is interested in biology, zoology, geography, or geology can get something out of finding where the waterways are.” Stacy also explained to me that these students were not only helping her collect water, but were also working towards their own projects. The biology students were also testing the water for pH levels and conductivity. At the same time, the music students were working on a project recording the different sounds of the waterways to make a composition.

Stacy was also able to work with the biology department to incorporate their data into her art. In a series of jars for each tributary, she placed blue glass marbles that showed the pH and conductivity. This allowed people to understand the different degree of saltiness in each tributary as “a way to bring science into a visual form that is more interesting than a graph. This idea that data can be shown in a different way and still be quite truthful and visually stimulating.”

Stacy strongly believes that it’s important to look at an issue through different lenses to help provide different perspectives and ideas. “For a long time, science has been a descriptor of ecology, but not everyone understands science.”   

Stacy and students collecting water samples. Photo by Stacy Levy

Stacy believes that this kind of clarity is something that has been missing in the last 30 years of ecology. “I think a part of the reason we are such dunderheads about the state of our planet is just because we just don’t “get” ecology because it hasn’t been well translated to us.” She also pointed out to me that scientists and artists really aren’t that different. They are both “kindred spirits,” both have have a lot of curiosity and wonder about the world. Artists just have a different way of showing it visually to a larger audience, since not everyone understands scientific graphs. “In some way scientists are really no different than artists, except scientists might want a more quantitative answer and artists are happy with qualitative answers. But they are answering none the less.”

I really enjoyed my interview with Stacy and wanted to feature her as this month’s “Year of the Woman” because of her unique passion for combining a variety of different perspectives and focuses to help people better understand the world around them. “This art component is not about “decorating” science, but about expressing and making science legible and giving scientist a new way to see the world which might lead to more answers”

Stacy labeling the water samples. Photo by Stacy Levy

As well as her watershed installation pieces, Stacy is also active with “Artworks That Work” creating large scale artworks that treat water pollution and stormwater runoff. She works with teams of engineers and architects to make her outdoor pieces, that tell the story of the site as well as solve site issues. She makes large-scale public installations at nature centers, schools and parks, and in rivers, streets, and parking lots.

If you’re interested in learning more about Stacy’s work, check out this list of some of the other unique projects Stacy has worked on:

  • “For Rain Ravine” (2016) at the Frick Environmental Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (a Living Building Challenge Project). She worked with architects, landscape architects, and engineers to direct all the roof rainwater through the artwork. 
  • She worked with the Coast Guard on the Ohio River, the Army Corps of Engineers on the Schuylkill River, and city and state municipalities on the Hudson River. Regularly bridging art with science, her research often includes collaborations with scientists, fluid dynamic engineers, and geologists.
  • The cornerstone piece of her work took place in Seattle, Washington (1997), where she worked with zoologists from the University of Washington by sampling Lake Union to determine its correct aquatic microorganisms. 
  • Fairmount Waterworks Freshwater Mussel Hatchery (2017), Delaware Estuary ecologists provided an intricate food web that was translated visually for the project.

This idea of combining art and science is something the Alliance has been working on as well with one of our projects, the Chesapeake Collective. The Chesapeake Collective is a creative platform for diverse voices to express their vision for a healthy bay watershed. The Chesapeake Collective is a way to bring together diverse voices and narratives to be shared, seen, heard, and incorporated into the broader conversation about our common vision for a healthy, flourishing, and resilient bay watershed through creative means. If you’re interested in learning more about this project, you can visit our web page.