Watermarks: An Atlas of Water and the City of Milwaukee Blog

WaterMarks: An Atlas of Water and the City of Milwaukee is a city-wide public art project created by artist Mary Miss that invites the citizens of Milwaukee to explore and understand the water systems supporting their lives.
The Haggerty Museum of Art has been proud to collaborate with United Community Center, UCC Acosta Middle School, Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers, KK River Neighbors in Action, Reflo - Sustainable Water Solutions, and City as Living Laboratory on realizing the initial phase of WaterMarks. This blog highlights the Haggerty Museum of Art’s activation of key nodes in the WaterMarks atlas through a series of interdisciplinary neighborhood walks, workshops, and artist projects.  

We’re grateful to the Institute of Museum and Library Services for funding the WaterMarker at Acosta Middle School, and to Marquette University's Explorer Challenge Fund for providing critically important development funds.

April 27, 2019

We spent the afternoon dodging a late April snowstorm while discussing Jones Island and the Milwaukee Harbor with an artist, an urban planner, and thirty deeply committed community members. The walk explored Jones Island with artist Alexis Rockman, and Harbor District, Inc. Planning Director Dan Adams. An exhibition of Alexis Rockman’s work, The Great Lakes Cycle, was on display at the Haggerty Museum of Art from February 8 – May 19, 2019.

Alexis Rockman discussed his interest in exploring the changing natural landscape of America. Mixing research and observational studies, his work seeks to bring awareness to the human impact on the natural environment in and around the Great Lakes area, and beyond. In many ways this work demands a call to action. Participants explored historic images of Jones Island and learned about Milwaukee’s smallest piece of public land, Kaszubes Park, from Dan Adams.

Next we heard from Adam Schlicht, Director of the Port of Milwaukee. Adam shared a bit about the partnership between the Port and Harbor District, Inc. Their goal of creating a port experience includes transforming the port area into a choice neighborhood, while maintaining the port as a vibrant economic asset for the community. The port is busy, in 2018 the port carried 2.5 million tons of cargo!

Next Dan spoke about the water reclamation facility. Most of the metro area’s sewage drains through twenty-six miles of deep tunnel system, to this site. The water reclamation facility is the country’s oldest activated sludge plant, and it opened right here in Milwaukee in 1926. Milorganite is made here! Learn more about Milorganite, the country’s oldest recycling effort, and how we contribute to the process every day. 

Just as the snow started to pick up, we heard a bit more about the Harbor District, Inc. The organization spent two years working with the city to create a Water and Land Use Plan for the area. Check out details on their website here: https://harbordistrict.org/plan/.  Thanks to all that braved the weather to join us!

July 21, 2018
KKRNIA and SSCHC Family Picnic Featuring WaterMarks Artists!

With our walk series at the KK River concluded, it was now time for residents to vote for their favorite artist proposal to be installed along the new river trail Sixteenth Street Community Health Center’s Environmental Health Department worked to transform. All three artists who led WaterMarks walks communicated with residents and spent lots of time and energy on proposals that reflected what community members expressed they wanted for the space.

Everyone was excited for the picnic where the artists would reveal their final project proposals. When Saturday, July 21st rolled around, grey clouds were making their way across the sky. Rain was in the forecast, and at first this prospect dampened our spirits.  Yet, this year’s art-themed Kinnickinnic River Neighbors in Action and Sixteenth Street Community Center Summer Picnic was destined to draw residents out to celebrate the beautiful natural environment and enjoy food, music, screen-printing, face painting, and last but not least, time for talking to the WaterMarks artists.

The event was a huge success, and it turned out to be a beautiful day with only a few small rain showers. Gabriella Riveros and Jessica Meuninck Ganger enjoyed speaking with people about the ideas for their projects and showing off the beautiful illustrations and proposal materials they brought along. 59 people cast their votes for an artist’s installation, including Alderman José Perez who said all three projects were so wonderful that we needed to find funding for all three! The picnic was a joyful occasion where a community came together to celebrate, enjoy the outdoors, and give voice to their vision for Pulaski Park.


July 12, 2018
Re-greening the KK River Blog Post

The third WaterMarks walk along the Kinnickinnic River brought our largest group of residents, neighbors, and friends of art and sustainability out to Pulaski Park on a beautiful Thursday evening! We gathered at the Pavilion where Joanna Demas, Land Manager for the River Revitalization Foundation, and Jessica Meuninck-Ganger, Chair of Arts and Design at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, welcomed participants to the “Re-greening the KK River” walk.

Joanna and Jessica explained the impact of the concrete riverbed on the wellness of the community and landscape, discussing the river’s current state and reputation since the 1960s as a “lost river.” Joanna discussed the goals of the revitalization project and explained how replanting native species in the restoration area would help to naturally control flooding and reduce erosion due to the stronger and larger root structures native plants can achieve. They shared images of the river before its channelization, and the group discussed the river’s relationship with the community in the past as a vibrant hub of recreation and wildlife.

A fun feature of the walk was Biodiversity Bingo, and along the walk, participants asked questions about the trees and plants in the park -- their ages, types, health, and if they would be preserved. The kids especially enjoyed looking for plants and animal species as we walked, and three Bingo winners took home a packet of native plant seeds.

The final walk destination was “Victory Garden” where Jessica set up a demonstration with UWM’s Peck School of the Arts students, who cooked paper fibers from invasive plants removed from the hillside days prior to the event. Jessica’s research at UWM in sustainable practices involves transforming discarded invasive plant specimens as well as growing and harvesting native plants for papermaking and pigments.

Claire LaFontaine, a recent UWM MFA alumna and biologist, described her research in growing native Wisconsin plants for papermaking and pigments. She described the PMF (PaperMaker’s Farm) at UWM as an outdoor lab that fosters sustainable research in papercraft practices. Participants got to glimpse part of the process firsthand and pass around examples of paper made from invasive species such as Japanese knotweed and reed canary grass. This activity led to an exciting discussion about the relationships between arts, culture, and sustainability.

At the conclusion of the walk in the Victory Garden, residents expressed their hopes for the river restoration, and their faith in the project due to their previous relationships with project partners Stephanie of SSCHC and Travis of the KK Neighbors in Action Association.  We are eager to see this project progress!


June 16, 2018
River Development and River Myths

On June 16th, Patrick Elliot, Senior Project Manager from Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD), and illustrator Gabriela Riveros led the WaterMarks walk entitled, “River Development and River Myths.” We gathered at Pulaski Park Pavilion on a hot, sunny day, a group of both residents and community members, some of whom worked in the neighborhood.

Patrick talked about the Kinnickinnic River in regards to engineering and development – he spoke of the previous attempts to manage flooding and control the river through design. He also provided a deeper look into the new proposal for the river restoration. Gabriela spoke about water deities from around the world, as examples of how people throughout history have understood the nature of the river, its importance, and the ways it served them. Gabriela began the walk by acknowledging that we are on indigenous land and telling the Ojibwe creation myth of Turtle Island, because it was the Ojibwe that named the KK River.

 Patrick and Gabriela led the group down to a river bank that intersected the train tracks. Here, Patrick pointed out some invasive species, such as wild parsnip and talked about how the river restoration plan will include a sizeable area where native species will be replanted and used as a buffer zone to decrease erosion and flooding hazards. He also spoke of 100-year flood events, which describe an amount of rainfall that occurs, on average, once every 100 years. Patrick pointed out the railroad bridge, which stood about 10 feet above the water level, that was once flooded during one of these rare events. 

Here, Gabriela paused and asked us to engage in a brief, silent mediation. She asked the group to pay close attention to the sounds of the river, and we all were transported from a dense urban city to a natural oasis for those brief moments in time. We ended the walk by crossing 16th street, where we stood in the area which was cleared of homes to make room for the restoration.

Residents expressed their concerns for safety during the construction and transition time, and Patrick and Stephanie from Sixteenth Street Community Health Center talked about the temporary trail and public art that will be installed later this year to help unify and activate the green space along the river.

The walk was a fascinating way to reflect on the different perspectives Patrick and Gabriela brought regarding the ways in which people from different cultures and time periods understand and work with rivers.  Water can both take life and give life, and when we try to control the river, it reminds us of its power and finds ways to push back.


June 9, 2018
Walking the Past, Present and Future of the Kinnickinnic

 On June 9th, community members convened at the Pulaski Park Pavilion on the southside of Milwaukee for the first WaterMarks walk along the Kinnickinnic River. Over the course of the walk, Mollie Oblinger, Associate Professor of Art at Ripon College, and Nancy Frank, Associate Professor and Department Chair of Urban Planning at UWM, led the group through the history of the area of the Kinnickinnic watershed, beginning with the Ice Age in 10,000 BCE and extending into the future. Each stop marked a different point in the history of the watershed and the surrounding neighborhoods, and Mollie and Nancy invited participants to help them present each “timeline stop.” Some attendees were surprised to learn that the neighborhood was once comprised of Polish immigrants, as it is now primarily a Latinx community. Nancy explained how the timeline illustrated "a narrative of the geology, people, and transformations of the land beneath our feet and the river flowing by."

During the walk, she continues, "We honored the Paleoindians who populated this land as the Ice Age melted away, forming Lake Michigan and the Kinnickinnic River.  We recognized the subsequent diversity of indigenous people and the waves of immigrants from Europe and Mexico escaping ethnic and political persecution.  All these people found a home along the banks of the KK." Exploring the rich history of these communities along the river with Nancy and Mollie gave the group a chance to appreciate and honor what has come before, as the neighborhood transforms yet again with the widening of the river and the KK River restoration project led by MMSD.

Mollie illustrated how the concrete lining of the river established in the 1960's constrained the river by passing out a blue ribbon, which each participant held as we walked single-file and parallel to the tamed waters. She pointed out the contrast between this movement and the free-flowing movement the river will once again exhibit once the restoration project is complete.

We concluded the walk by sharing hopes for the future of the space using a talking stick, as another way of honoring the traditions of people who had previously inhabited the space we held. Thank you, Mollie and Nancy for helping us reflect on the KK River’s past and helping us envision what is to come!  



May 8, 2018
WaterMarks Workshop

The WaterMarks walk series with United Community Center’s Acosta Middle School culminated in the May 8th Workshop, where we gathered at UCC AMS to celebrate what students, teachers, and community members learned through exploring water in their neighborhood. Students also voted on the letter to sit atop the first WaterMarks marker, which will be installed outside of the new UCC AMS building in August 2018.

Three teams of students served as "captains," sharing their new knowledge with peers in a poster-board session and were accompanied by the walk facilitators. We then broke out into three groups, led by the artist and scientist co-facilitators. Here, students were invited to share ideas about improving water management in their neighborhood, based on what they had learned during the walks. Students shared creative and innovative ideas and discussed how painting rain barrels, organizing their own neighborhood cleanup walk, and marking storm grates with aquatic animals could help call attention to the connection between water and the larger ecosystem. We re-convened as a large group where both students and parents shared stories about what water means to them and how it plays a role in recreation, cooking, and special celebrations.
Finally, it was time to count the votes for the letter and concept to represent the role of water in the neighborhood!  The group selected the letter “A” for several reasons; A is for Agua, Acosta, and Art, and it represents the highest grade that a student can receive. The first letter of the alphabet also seemed like an appropriate choice for the inaugural marker at this new pioneering school. We look forward to seeing the marker installed later this year!



April 22, 2018
Take a Walk with WaterMarks!

Identifying, Understanding, and Envisioning Storm Water Management

WaterMarks celebrated Earth Day on April 22nd, 2018 with another artist and scientist-led community walk. The walk, “Identifying, Understanding, and Envisioning Storm Water Management”, concluded the spring program series with community partner UCC Acosta Middle School. Marquette Civil Engineer PHD Candidate Paige Peters, who is also the founder and CEO of Rapid Radicals Technology, led the walk with Milwaukee artist Colin Matthews, who writes that, “traveling [a] very local and familiar landscape provide[d] the opportunity to introduce the hidden in plain sight architecture of storm water management.”  The walk began outside UCC Acosta Middle School on Washington Avenue with an introduction to the topic by Paige, who is an expert in rapid water treatment and its applications in stormwater management, especially during extreme weather events. Paige notes that "an entire network the footprint of the city lives underground where our wastewater and drinking water infrastructure provides necessary services to taps and toilets, [which allows] us to live in an urban setting."

 A scavenger hunt encouraged kids to identify stormwater infrastructure along the route, including manholes, storm grates, downspouts, and pavement types. Walking north toward National Avenue, the Colin and Paige stopped to discuss the fish markings on a manhole cover. The fish was accompanied by a sign reading, “Dump No Waste,” alluding to how stormwater travels from the streets through the sewer system and eventually into a fish’s habitat in Lake Michigan.
In making this connection, the kids on the walk became energized to pick up litter from the streets, making a timely Earth Day contribution to cleaner, healthier rivers and lake! The group stopped on National and 7th to discuss a new development that includes designs for green infrastructure such as rain gardens, green space, and, as one of the participants pointed out, possibly a green roof. Participants learned about the importance of integration of water management and green infrastructure in urban development.  At an empty lot, the group envisaged means for homeowners to contribute to a healthier water system by adding landscape features such as vegetation, intentional landscaping, and rain barrels to capture rainwater where it falls. Paige discussed how rain barrels help to reduce stress on the combined sewer system during periods of heavy rainfall. The day ended at Paliafito Eco-Arts Park on 3rd and Walker where the group witnessed the epitome of innovative, green infrastructure right in their neighborhood. We concluded the walk with an energizing open discussion on visioning the future of green infrastructure in Milwaukee and how communities can contribute to a sustainable future.

Many thanks to Paige and Colin for spending Earth Day with us and helping us brainstorm how to best manage stormwater in our community!


March 28, 2018
Exploring the Hidden Blue/Green

On March 28th, 2018, 44 UCC Acosta Middle School students, teachers and community members met for the second installment of WaterMarks neighborhood walks. Melanie Ariens, artist in residence for Water Commons, and Dr. Carmen Aguilar, Associate Scientist at UWM School of Freshwater Sciences, teamed up to facilitate a multifaceted exploration of green infrastructure in the neighborhood and its impact on water systems management.
The walk titled, "Hidden Green/Blue," led students from UCC Acosta Middle School to the School of Freshwater Sciences by way of Washington Street, South Polycn Street, and Greenfield Avenue. Melanie Ariens stenciled "Hidden Blue/Green" logos along the route, which students enjoyed pointing out at each stop along the way. The scientist/artist team pointed out the green roofs at UCC, Bruce Guadalupe, Braise restaurant, 88.9 Radio Milwaukee, the Clock Shadow Building, and the School of Freshwater Sciences as well as raingardens, rain barrels, pervious pavement, and water reclamation systems. Carmen Aguilar was excited "to see students using their knowledge about the water cycle and how that relates to the effects of rain." She started working with rain in North Carolina, looking at the effects on Chesapeake Bay, coastal areas, and open ocean in the Atlantic, and now continues her research in Milwaukee with Lake Michigan.
The walk engaged its audience by heightening awareness of green infrastructure and exploring simple ways to relocate water in concrete-dominated urban environments, highlighting community members and businesses, big and small. Students and community members learned how landscape choices and infrastructure help retain water and prevent runoff, and learned about the Greenfield Avenue Gateway, a fountain designed by UWM architecture professor Jim Wasley that treats runoff from the roof of the building.
The walk culminated at the School of Freshwater Sciences where participants viewed a classroom laboratory aquaponics system and observed a quagga mussels science experiment that demonstrated the impact of invasive species on Lake Michigan. Melanie then lead a hands-on activity where students used origami to create a pamphlet about the Great Lakes. At the end of the day, everyone received a blue marble which represented the importance of water and put the "earth" in the palm of their hand.
Many thanks to Carmen and Melanie for sharing their knowledge and helping us become active stewards of water systems in our own neighborhoods!


November 7, 2017, 4-5pm
Hidden Water Stories
WaterMarks CALL Walk

On November 7, 2017 more than twenty-five students, teachers, interested community members, folks from local non-profits, and WaterMarks project partners gathered after school at UCC Acosta Middle School for the inaugural WaterMarks neighborhood walk. The interdisciplinary walk was facilitated by visual artist and longtime Walker’s Point resident Jill Sebastian and environmental engineer Justin Hegarty, director of Reflo - Sustainable Water Solutions.  Sebastian and Hegarty invited walk participants to uncover “hidden water stories” in the surrounding area.
In the heavily reshaped environ of Walker's Square, the walk explored the disjuncture between the historic natural water pathways and the legacy of industry and infrastructure on our current perceptions. At Walker Square Park, the group explored how the surrounding water and landscape in the area has changed due to human activity. They then followed storm drainage to a man-made canal sculpted from a landfilled Menomonee Valley. The walk circled the massive I-94 interchange, allowing participants to consider its environmental and social impacts on the neighborhood. Cement dominates the area, burying from view the presence of birds seeking sanctuary among the ruins of factories.
Sebastian reflected, “As an artist who generally works in public space, I had exempted myself from doing projects where I live. Having been attracted by the diversity and grittiness of Walker's Point, I admit to rather liking it the way it is. However, that is changing around me, and like my neighbors, I am challenged by questions of gentrification. As I do with projects I have done elsewhere, I complemented my direct observations, in this case over 25 years, with research that filled out the questions I ruminate upon - things that catch and hold my curiosity. How has what we see come into being? What forces, commerce and habitation, have formed the unique character of how we live here?  The environmental engineering perspective that Justin Hegarty provided deepened my understanding of what we cannot see and what we might do.”
The group wondered—how can the ample water resources that were exploited in the late 19th and early 20th century be revealed to enhance our densely populated urban-scape? How might we live more responsibly here? In the area, local schools are becoming sites of responsibly—reclaiming green space from pavement. Under sections of the high overpass, one finds evidence of adaptive community engagement—activating underutilized spaces that currently work as barriers to community cohesion. As the group returned to their starting point, they explored historical photographs and discussed how local water use—and misuse—speaks to the potential power of water in an urban context.
The first WaterMarks maker will be installed at UCC Acosta Middle School in summer 2018.  In the coming months, we invite you to join us—along with Milwaukee-area artists and scientists—in considering how we can all become active partners in recognizing water as a resource that is vital to both life and general well-being throughout the region.




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