This article is reposted with permission from King County Wastewater Treatment Division. The art project will be on display at Camp Long on August 26-27 for the 2017 Arts in Nature Festival

In a multicultural Seattle community, a King County project team connected students to infrastructure and the environment through art. The program opened young eyes to the value of water and teaching them how to represent their ideas in paint. But that’s not the only outcome. Their artwork will help address two common problems during construction of a major wastewater facility.

King County Wastewater Treatment Division (WTD) has started building the Georgetown Wet Weather Treatment Station. The Georgetown station benefits the Duwamish River in an area where the stormwater and sewer systems run together. Heavy rains can cause overflows to the river. Once it is completed, the Georgetown facility will collect and treat up to 70 million gallons of stormwater and wastewater per day during heavy rains.

King County’s experience tells us that community engagement in art can address both problems. Personal and public art helps people understand how a facility will serve them and meet their values. This understanding fosters patience during construction. And community art displayed on construction fences tends to escape the spray paint can.

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The Murray community in West Seattle helped to create artwork for construction fencing.

The project team drew from experience to support a partnership with a local non-profit organization and an art teacher at Maple Elementary, a Seattle Public School. Located on Beacon Hill, Maple Elementary serves the diverse, low income Georgetown neighborhood. About 90 percent of students are of color. More than two-thirds of the children are on free and reduced-fee lunch programs.

Dedicated teachers at Maple Elementary have welcomed WTD into the classroom to contribute to a high quality learning environment. First, award-winning teacher Marcia Ventura welcomed WTD to provide her students hands-on education in water systems.

This year, Visual Arts teacher Monica Whitford created space in her spring schedule for a water art project. Whitford’s fifth graders worked in teams to create artwork reflecting the value that water has for them and their families. Images of that artwork will be incorporated in banners that hang on the construction fencing at the facility.

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Maple Elementary teacher Monica Whitford

“When we decided to create construction banners, we automatically thought of the students at Maple Elementary,” says WTD’s Kristine Cramer.

King County hired Nature Consortium, a part of the non-profit organization Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association, to develop and run the program. Program Manager Yeggy Michael developed an eight-week curriculum to introduce 80 students to the Duwamish watershed and water art techniques.

The program launched with a high energy wastewater education session and music about water. After this introduction, the students still weren’t sure what to expect. The next week, a representative from the Duwamish Tribe visited the class to describe the value of clean water, salmon, and the Duwamish River to native peoples.

Then the hands-on work began. Students created water mosaics that were transferred onto paper. Students worked in teams and everyone contributed an element to the artwork. The artistic discussion and debate started then and continued throughout the program as students warmed up to the project. When teaching artist Ellyn Rivers lifted the marbled papers from the pans, students realized how creative they could be.

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Teaching artist Ellyn Rivers displays a marble

Inspired student teams collaborated on concepts and painting to decorate wood panels with their perspectives, values and hopes for our waters. The marbled papers will provide a background for these panels.

Michael described his approach to engaging such a diverse group of kids as about respect.

“It’s all about respect — for different cultures, different languages, for children,” he says. “You can’t show up with a set outcome and pace for everyone. You have to let them each come to the work.”

Some students and their parents were eager to participate in a short video documentary of the water art program. The video will share their experiences and artwork with their own community, and people throughout the region.

Other families were hesitant about their children appearing on camera, but the students changed their minds.

“The kids would see others being interviewed about their ideas and concepts,” says Michael. “They would say, ‘I want to talk about my ideas, too.’ And they would go home and convince their parents to let them join in.”

These students’ words — and their artwork- will help the whole community understand the value of the facility. They will help to connect families and communities to clean water. And their voices will carry inspiration and perspective far beyond Georgetown.

Watch the video below to learn more about the Georgetown EcoArt Project.