Visions of Water, Visions of Life: Jessica Varin

This is the first interview for a new series hosted on Water for the Ages called Visions of Water, Visions of Life. This interview series will feature people from around the world interacting with water on multiple scales: technological, cultural, social, political, spiritual, and aesthetic.

For this interview, I am pleased to introduce Jessica Varin. Jessica is a senior at Oregon State University majoring in Natural Resources and Environmental Engineering. We first met during our International Water Resources Management class taught by Dr. Aaron Wolf (best known for his work on global water conflict management). Near the beginning of the quarter, she asked me to contribute to a journal she was putting together to document the different ways that people in our community view water. She asked each contributor to draw, write, paint, or otherwise express their interactions with water. Recently, she presented these journal contributions of over forty-nine adults and children to our class. The results showed that each person – no matter their race, ethnicity, creed, or age – interacted with water in a unique way but there were unifying themes. To me, this project reiterated the beauty and sanctity of water. I would like to share her story with you.

Can you please tell us a little bit about your project?

I asked people in my community a simple, complex question: What does water mean to you? Participants in the project drew, painted, wrote, and explored their answers in a collaborative art journal.

What made you want to start compiling this journal? And what first led to your interest in the field of water?

I’ve been working on personal art journals or sketchbooks for about a year. Through 1001journals.com, I started sending collaborative art journals to strangers around the world. I knew that I wanted to do a water-themed journal eventually … the opportunity to get academic credit kick-started this particular project.

I grew up in and around water. Canoing and swimming were a big part of my childhood. In high school, I started doing research work on water quality in a nearby watershed. I had really outstanding mentors and the experience made me passionate about issues surrounding water.

Where did you find your participants? How did people react to being asked to complete a journal page on water?

I passed it around my poetry class, coerced co-workers, and talked to strangers on the street. One of my goals was to get a diversity of perspectives on water.

Reactions to the project were overwhelmingly positive. Some people were overwhelmed by the scope of the topic, others dove right in and started drawing or writing. I had a harder time getting adults to participate. Many adults insisted that they weren’t artists; not one child refused a crayon.

What were some of the overarching themes that you found among the journal contributions?

My goal was to see if there was a cohesive ethic of stewardship with regard to water in my community. Many people associated water with intangibles. Beauty, life, and spiritual connection were among the things that participants found meaning in.

Do you feel that this type of project could influence the future of watershed management?

The creation of policy is often values-driven as much as it is economically-driven. We continue to be bound by right and wrong as well as the bottom line. Several of the participants expressed values in their artwork that water cannot be quantified. These values are often overlooked in traditional cost-benefit analysis. It’s easier to ignore what does not fit into a matrix. To reach the next level, watershed management efforts will need to incorporate these values.

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All photos were taken by Assistant Professor Wang Zhijian from the School of Law at Hohai University in Nanjing, China. He runs a blog on international water law called International Rivers & International Relations. So if you know Chinese, you might check out his blog here. And if you would like to contact Jessica to learn more about this neat project, please e-mail her here.

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