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Published April 22 2012

Art exhibit looks at how Red River diversion looms large on psyches

Though there may be no flood this year, the Red River diversion plan continues to make headlines in and around the Fargo-Moorhead area. And now, a new art exhibit at the Plains Art Museum tries to make sense of it all.

Called PROJECT Flood Diversion, the exhibit, which runs through May 31, looks at the topic through six different art projects ranging from visual art to interactive expressions quite literally attached to the people who conceived them.

The theme at the heart of the exhibit, says curator Megan Johnston, is the concept of how artists respond to context, which, for the F-M area, has so much to do with the unpredictable Red River and its floods.

Back in August, people were looking ahead to the spring and “wondering what to do about the flood,” Johnston says. “It loomed large in the psyche of the place.”

But a mostly dry fall passed into a mild winter, which shifted into a warm spring without a threatening flood.

So, instead of having artists respond to the imminent concern of the rising river, Johnston says, “We were able to transfer that and say, what are the broader issues about the flood?”

With those issues in mind, she and other area artists collaborated on the exhibition, which includes a third-floor gallery of diversion- and water-inspired prints created by college students from Concordia, Minnesota State University Moorhead and North Dakota State University.

John Volk, an assistant professor of printmaking at MSUM, helped organize the display between the three colleges, which involved 36 students.

Because many of the students involved aren’t from Fargo-Moorhead, Volk says they approached the project through research, reading newspapers and even traveling to places like Hickson, N.D., to interview people who could be directly affected by the diversion process.

The end result, he says, is that the student artists realized when it comes to the diversion, and to the larger issue of the flood itself, there are no easy answers or solutions.

“They became aware of the complexities of the issues, that their ideas could become part of the dialogue of how they could resolve these issues,” Volk says.

The prints are divided by themes, with NDSU students focusing on the topic of water while students from MSUM and Concordia drew on flood or diversion themes for their prints.

The artwork ranges from an old-timey, black-and-white living room flooded with blue water (“Home Sweet Home” by MSUM student Sarah Poepping) to a red dragon surrounding the names of local townships (“The Red Doesn’t Listen,” by Concordia student Katie Weikle) to a striking image of Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker as Moses.

MSUM junior Rachel Brixius, who created “Walaker’s Moses,” says she started work on the project by thinking about the flood in terms of her own experiences, primarily helping to sandbag during the 2009 flood.

But, Brixius, from Melrose, Minn., says the more time she spent researching the project, the more she realized the varying perspectives about flooding and the diversion.

“It’s hard to say if building a diversion plan is a good thing or a bad thing because you always are going to lose something,” she says.

Brixius hopes that her depiction of Walaker as a Biblical figure makes people smile or chuckle, but she also wants it to inspire people to think critically about what she’s trying to say.

“People can take what they want from it,” she says. “Whichever way you choose to see it.”

That kind of dialogue, Johnston says, is exactly what she was hoping to accomplish with the exhibit.

“This is one of the ways that (artists) can do something unique about talking about the flood,” she says. “Artists can also help push the conversation in new directions.”

In addition to the student prints on display, the Plains exhibit also involves several projects of a more interactive nature that Johnston hopes gets the community more involved in the art.

“I wanted for it to allow for people to have more relevant experiences, rather than just having five seconds in front of each artwork,” Johnston says.

Earlier this month, artist Jeff Knight created 150 small, wooden wishbones that were then given out to city workers who had a role in fighting the floods of the last few years.

The wishbones, Johnston says, are meant to be broken as part of a wish for the future.

And on April 15, Reflect, a project by Andrea Stanislav, involved two performers covered with buttons, walking throughout downtown Fargo and interacting with passersby.

The performers handed out buttons to more than 400 people they met in exchange for stories of flooding in the F-M area, which were recorded.

As the exhibit continues into May, Johnston says she’s been happy with how the community has so far received and interacted with the exhibit and the artists.

“Good art can have sometimes both positive and conflicted feelings, and that’s something that really gets you going,” she says. “I think we’ve gotten some amazing responses, and I think we’re going to try this every year.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sam Benshoof at (701) 241-5535