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River Objects Provide Artistic Opportunity

For the more than 150 volunteers who participated in Project AWARE last June, the weeklong canoeing expedition was an opportunity to scour the Iowa and English rivers in eastern Iowa for trash. But for Iowa artist David Williamson, it was a chance to obtain new raw material.

This summer, Williamson will create his third sculpture as part of Riverse series, his effort to demonstrate the continued usefulness of objects that in some cases have spent years on the muddy bottoms of Iowa’s waterways.

Of the estimated 24 tons of material volunteers retrieved this year, Williamson has about eight tons of metal from which to create this year’s work.

“These objects are compelling enough to say there’s some serious metal in the water,” Williamson said.

Brian Soenen, coordinator of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ IOWATER program, a volunteer effort to monitor Iowa’s water quality, said the material in the river generally comes from one of three sources.

First, in the 1960s and 1970s, he said, people would position large objects—including cars—along the river banks in an attempt to prevent erosion. In other cases, floodwater would carry nearby objects into the riverbed.

Some of the material, though, arrives via unscrupulous dumping along Iowa’s rivers.

While Soenen acknowledges that part of the story, he prefers to focus on cleaner water in the state’s future.

“The folks who volunteer for this event are really unbelievable,” he said. “The fact that so many people are willing to go out and improve our rivers is a sign of where we’re headed.”

Williamson, who said his career is dedicated not to the process of making public art but to making the process of art public, joined the project in 2004 to help publicize Project AWARE—a natural fit for an artist who has long specialized in using recovered objects in his work.

“I’ve been working ahead of the bulldozer for 40 years now,” he said.

Explaining that his art draws upon a hunting and gathering tradition, Williamson said his house in rural Ogden is constructed of recycled material. In his kitchen, for example, the paper towel holder used to be part of a croquet set and the floor was a basketball court.

“We were considered an oddity,” he said of beginning work on the house. “In the 1990s when recycling became fashionable all of the sudden, we were hip.”

Further underscoring the theme of gathering in his art, the sculptures Williamson has created for the project are collaborative efforts—with visitors to the Clay County and Iowa State fairs playing a substantial role in creating last year’s piece titled Drop In.

Each year, Williamson also pieces together the ideas of more than 100 individuals associated with the project to write a poem about the year’s cleanup efforts. Read the 2004 poem, Clear, and find out more about Williamson’s work by visiting

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