Since at least as far back as the 15th century, people have been using the curious practice of dowsing in an attempt to find ground water, metals, ores and other materials. Dowsing involves the use of a forked rod or twig that supposedly twitches when pointed toward the substance or object that is being sought.“I don’t understand how [dowsing] would work or if it’s something that people would just consider superstitious, but a lot of well diggers use that method,” local woodcut artist Bridget Henry says with a chuckle.
The image of a man using the technique of dowsing is central to Deeper Well, a black-and-white woodcut mural that Henry created for the Ebb & Flow River Arts Project. Henry used this image as “a symbol of looking for water or looking for things that are hidden: having tools to find things that are not visible to our eye.” The artist also notes, “I like that as a symbol for how we have this beautiful natural feature in our town, but it’s not always visible to us because of the levees, so a lot of people can be walking around and not even know that [it is there]. [The dowser] is kind of a signpost pointing the way to the river.”
The dowser in Deeper Well, which Henry and several assistants wheat-pasted to a wall of a building on Front Street, directs the viewer to a small stream that leads to Beaver Dam, the second part of Henry’s Ebb & Flow installation. In explanation of her choice to wheat-paste the image of a beaver to the back of a building at 504 Front Street, Henry says, “Because we’ve been in a drought for so long, I was looking into river health and found some information about beavers: how they’re considered a keystone species. They increase ground water because of the way they build dams. It enables the storage of water, which increases ground water. I found out that they used to live around here.”Henry created her Ebb & Flow installation in an effort to encourage viewers to rethink not only the manner in which we make our way around town and engage with our environment, but also the way that we view species that have been maligned in the past. “I like the idea of taking an animal that had previously been considered a pest, and maybe still is by people who are affected by flooding that may be caused by their dams, and look into how they’re actually a species that causes more good than harm,” she explains.
The idea of making temporary public art for Ebb & Flow was especially appealing to Henry. “I think public art can change the way people look at the landscape,” she states. “You can see something over and over again for years and stop really looking at it, and then when we put some public art on or about a building, suddenly you can see things in a new way. I like the fact that that happened with the temporary public art, but then it went away again, so you’re back to seeing what was there before the art, but maybe with a fresh set of eyes: what had been there and what was taken away.”
The Ebb & Flow installation was Henry’s second wheat-pasting project, the first being a series of nine large panels that the City of Santa Cruz and the Santa Cruz Public Library sponsored her to create for the outside walls of the library in 2013. “I really didn’t know what I was doing, so I just kind of went for it, and there was a whole team of people that helped me get it installed,” she recalls. “I felt empowered after that to do the Ebb & Flow project on my own.”
Henry, who currently co-manages the print shop at UCSC and teaches Intro to Printmaking at the university in the summertime, says many of her woodcuts convey themes with psychological elements. “I really am interested in exploring the human condition and how we go about being alive in our communities and in our environment, so that’s generally what I try to address in my art,” she offers.
Henry is currently collaborating with another Ebb & Flow contributor, artist Ann Altstatt, on a project that will be on display at the Felix Kulpa Gallery in May. “We’re taking some woodcuts from the 14th century, printing them on a large scale and then collaging on top of them and adding a contemporary perspective,” she explains.
Asked if she has any additional comments, Henry jokes, “Maybe we should start a campaign: ‘Bring Back the Beaver.’ We can come up with some beaver outfits and signs and start the movement next Ebb & Flow.”
To see more of Bridget’s work, go to bridgetmaryhenry.com.
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