Basia Irland: 2013 AHN Awardee

“I definitely feel that both the artistic process itself and the physical objects that result from our process can lead toward healing for ourselves and for the communities within which we work. Since I usually work with riparian communities, I often receive the response that the work is healing for both the river and for the participants. Most of my work is about getting local communities to be physically present with their river, creek or stream and getting to know it intimately so that they can better listen to what the river has to say and take action.” –Basia Irland

Arts & Healing Network is delighted to present one of the 2013 AHN Awards to environmental artist Basia Irland. An author, poet, sculptor, installation artist and activist, Basia has created international water projects over the past three decades in Africa, Canada, Europe, South America, Southeast Asia, and the United States. Through her work, Irland offers a creative understanding of water while examining how communities of people, plants, and animals rely on this vital element. She is also a Professor Emerita, Department of Art & Art History, University of New Mexico, where she established the Arts & Ecology Program. Arts & Healing Network is so impressed by Basia’s dedication in making works of beauty that raise awareness about water issues. Her vision is both poetic and activist - encouraging awareness and action. We applaud her commitment and creative spirit.

To learn more about Basia Irland's work, please visit her web site at You could also learn more in her book, Water Library, published in 2007 by University of New Mexico Press. To listen to an audio interview with Basia Irland produced by Orion Magazine please click here.

Below is an interview from June 2013 with Basia Irland by Mary Daniel Hobson, the Arts & Healing Network's Director.

Mary Daniel Hobson: Could you begin by sharing a little bit about your background and what inspired you to make art about environmental concerns?


Basia: I grew up in Colorado with Boulder Creek flowing through the field in our back yard. It was a place of sanctuary/solace, a place to play and a soggy site of great curiosity about all the squiggly creatures found in the flowing water. Years later as a professor, first in Canada and then at the University of New Mexico (UNM), this fascination with water continued, and led me to found an Art and Ecology program at UNM and to teach classes such as “Art and Social Activism,” and “International Water Issues.”


Mary Daniel: You have been engaging water and water issues for much of your career - can you tell me about your commitment to this element?


Water is necessary to our lives, and yet, often we do not honor, respect and care for it. We take for granted that it will always be there, but for those of us who are living in the American Southwest in this time of drought, it is something we think about all year. Our rain barrels, which we rely on for watering the garden, are empty. Therefore I have constructed roof water harvesting systems at museums, campuses, and the Native American pueblos to show how simple technology can make an enormous difference.


The quantity of water is paramount and equally important is the quality of that water. Lack of clean water accounts for about eighty percent of all diseases in poor regions of the world, so I work to help bring awareness to the preventability of waterborne diseases. Some of these projects include creating scrolls with enlarged images of the pathogens; making videos, including ones in Nepal, India, Egypt and Ethiopia; and writing songs with indigenous communities in their language about how to avoid getting these diseases such as schistosomiasis, also known as bilharzia.


Etymologically the words, whole, health and holy are related. In many cultures there is a melding of medicinal and sacred practices. Water has been used throughout the centuries in every spiritual tradition, whether for baptism, ablution, blessing or in bowls on altars. There is sacredness in all of water’s shape-shifting selves -- dew, ice, fog, steam, and stream.


In an interview I was once asked, “How have you persevered for so long with such a continued focus on international water issues?” And my answer was, “In the overall scheme of things, I haven’t been at this for so long – only my lifetime – which, in relation to the life of a drop of water, is no time at all, since the same water has been circulating around the globe since the beginning of time.”


Mary Daniel: One of my favorite projects of yours is the Ice Books - I love their beauty and ephemerality, and at the same time they are so practical by releasing seeds. Could you talk about this project - what inspired it and what its impact has been?


Basia: The title of this work, Ice Receding/Books Reseeding, was first conceived for “Weather Report,” an exhibition about climate change curated by art critic/author Lucy Lippard for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Boulder, Colorado. I carved a book from 300 hundred pounds of ice and embedded it with a seed text of Mountain Maple (Acer spicatum), Columbine (Aquilegia coerulea), and Colorado Blue Spruce (Picea pungens). We carried the book out into the current of Boulder Creek, so that the seeds would disperse into the water. Arapahoe Glacier, which provides 60% of Boulder’s drinking water, is receding rapidly due to climate disruption. When the glacier is gone, from where will Boulder obtain its water? One of the ways to help sequester more carbon and reduce some of the effects of climate change is through plants: Hence, Ice Receding/Books Reseeding.


For each piece, river water is frozen, carved into the form of a book, embedded with an “ecological language” or “riparian text” consisting of local native seeds, and placed back into the stream. The seeds are released as the ice melts in the current. I work with stream ecologists, biologists, and botanists to ascertain the best native, riparian seeds for each specific river. In a restored ecosystem, the plants that grow along the riverbanks give back to us by helping sequester carbon, mitigating floods and drought, dispersing more seeds, holding the banks in place (slowing erosion), creating soil regeneration and preservation, acting as filters for pollutants and debris, supplying leaf-litter (for food and habitat), promoting aesthetic pleasure, and providing shelter/shade for riverside organisms including humans.     


The seeds do not transcribe a specific language -- neither Hindi nor Spanish, Swahili nor Russian -- the Ice Books can be read as a universal invocation of the earth. The tongues of the glaciers are receding, and the voices of our rivers are being dammed and clogged with toxic debris. Who are the scribes writing about our waters and where are the libraries that store their moist stories?


Ice Receding/Books Reseeding emphasizes the necessity of communal effort and scientific knowledge to deal with the complex issues of climate disruption and watershed restoration. Those who contribute to or participate in the Ice Book launches are determined by the location. For example, along the Nisqually River in Washington, Nisqually tribal members, salmon restoration specialists, forest rangers, musicians, fifth graders attending WaHeLut Indian School and students and professors from Evergreen State College all took part.


Part of the significance of the Ice Books is that they melt away. Time and energy that has gone into the carving of the books vanish in the current of a stream. Everything is actually in existence for only a period of time. Instead of dust to dust, here we have water to water. A marble sculpture will also eventually, over millennia, go back into the earth, but the process is speeded up drastically in melting ice.


The devastation we humans cause rivers is extraordinary and the need to educate and activate local communities is vast. A green future cannot be mapped without healthy watersheds. The cartography of the next generations must include communities working together to ensure clean, viable river systems, the arteries of our land.


Mary Daniel: What is your creative process like?


Basia: Since most of my projects involve working closely with local communities, my process is very organic. After an invitation to create either a Gathering of Waters or an Ice Book Project, I will make an initial site visit to meet with as many experts and community members as possible. These first visits are sometimes a tad difficult for the organizers since they usually want structure, and the very nature of these initial visits is to be spontaneous and see where the project will lead us. Each watershed and river has its own personality, just like people. So I travel as much of the river as possible, talk with its riparian inhabitants and learn from the people who know the river best. I also do lots of book and online research. Much correspondence with local authorities is done through e-mail, which greatly facilitates ease of obtaining information ahead of time.


Each time I am invited to a place to work along a river the experience is so different. One example of how events change depending on who is involved, was working on the Ice Books project with the Rivers Institute, a dedicated group of river stewards in Dayton, Ohio. Usually the Ice Books are launched from shore, but this time the decision was made to release the frozen sculptures from kayaks, with a colorful flotilla of boats out on the Great Miami River and an audience on shore.


Mary Daniel: What are you currently working on?


Basia: One of the pieces I created two months ago while in residency in Ohio was a portable River Apothecary Backpack, which contained 40 different medicinal plants that help heal both the river and other beings. I am still in the process of finishing it and also am currently putting together the research and images for an actual physical book about the Ice Books.


Mary Daniel: What do you hope the impact of your work will be on others?


Basia: An artist can never know this, but certainly with environmental work, we hope that there is a ripple effect with participants in these projects continuing to take direct actions on behalf of their rivers.


Mary Daniel: Do you believe artmaking can be a catalyst for healing and positive change and if so, how?

Basia: Yes, I definitely feel that both the artistic process itself and the physical objects that result from our process can lead toward healing for ourselves and for the communities within which we work. Since I usually work with riparian communities, I often receive the response that the work is healing for both the river and for the participants. Most of my work is about getting local communities to be physically present with their river, creek or stream and getting to know it intimately so that they can better listen to what the river has to say and take action.

Mary Daniel: What advice do you have for other artists who would like to use their creativity to help heal the environment?


Basia: Love doing what you do, persevere, be open to collaborations of all kinds, and work with an open heart and mind. There are not many people around the world who wake up each morning and truly enjoy what they do. As an artist who works with environmental issues I am amazingly blessed to look forward each day to pursuing art that is of service.

Mary Daniel: Is there anything else you would like to share?


Basia: Due to a recent loss in my family, I am currently in quiet, contemplative mode. The Ice Books I carve are ephemeral objects within a time-based practice. After having been with my partner as he was dying I have become aware on a much deeper and profound level of the ephemeral nature of this world -- and therefore how important it is that all of us take action as best we can to help this earth and all beings, in whatever way we can – now.


To learn more about Basia Irland’s work, please visit her web site at


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