Mud Gallery

BY DANI DOLBOW, ZOE KASPERZYK & ALANNA MATTESON

Mud Gallery celebrates the beauty and life that could return to the waters of the Washington State Capitol with the restoration of the Deschutes Estuary. Currently the biggest obstacles to restoration are public perceptions of mud and concerns about the odor and appearance of the estuary at low tide. Mud Gallery showcases a year’s worth of mud-centered art explorations and transforms them into novel community outreach methods designed to engage the public imagination and get people excited about the mud of a restored Deschutes Estuary.

In 1951 the Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Deschutes River in Olympia, Washington to create a man-made reservoir that would reflect the Capitol Building and provide a freshwater recreational amenity. The dam achieved these goals while effectively destroying a functioning estuary, displacing an informal settlement, and inundating the ancestral tidelands of the Squaxin Island Tribe. Over the years, the Deschutes River filled the reservoir with sediment. The water quality deteriorated until finally it fell below state and federal regulatory standards, prompting an environmental impact statement to evaluate management alternatives. 

In the past, most advocacy work has focused on the ecological benefits of a restored Deschutes Estuary. However, it has not addressed community members’ anxiety about the odor and appearance of mudflats. With our experience in design thinking and place-based aesthetics, we saw an opportunity to complement the work of local advocacy groups by focusing on public perceptions of mud. 

We found the perfect partner in the Deschutes Estuary Restoration Team (DERT), a non-profit organization that has been advocating for the restoration of the Deschutes Estuary for over a decade. While DERT rationalized the need for estuary restoration, we invited people to form their own relationship with mud through art explorations, as well as to see themselves as active stakeholders in a community design process. By carrying an element of playfulness from exploration to outreach, we were able to ease tension around a controversial topic and encourage community members of all different ages and walks of life to touch the mud together and imagine new ways of relating to it. Working together and implementing a variety of outreach methods enabled us to engage a wider audience than would have otherwise been possible.

The following article documents the process and works created through these outreach events.

DESIGN AN ESTUARY 

We created estuary collages to represent the tidal landscape that would emerge with the removal of the 5th Avenue Dam. We used photos from estuaries around Olympia to show tidal changes and a range of possible ecosystem shifts over top photos of Capitol Lake. The collages were displayed at the outreach event facing Capitol Lake, just a block away. Our collaging process evolved into a community engagement activity through our Design An Estuary Magnet Board. Using the estuary collages as a backdrop for a future estuary scene, the public was invited to design a scene using magnets we created. By inviting the public to be designers, they began to imagine an estuary scene that they had a stake in and would enjoy visiting in the future.

Participants used salt marsh plants to make ikebana-inspired arrangements, in bowls imprinted with shells from the region’s estuaries.

GIFTS FROM THE SALT MARSH 

We worked with a local potter and florist to create arrangements using mud, shells and plants collected from a nearby salt marsh. We wanted to incorporate overlooked and undervalued materials into display pieces that people would recognize as elegant and desirable. 

At our outreach event, we used mud-glazed and shell-pressed bowls as the base for minimalist arrangements that highlight the relationship between mud and salt marsh species. We invited each visitor to take a bowl home in the hopes it would help them to remember that mud is a gift.

COMMUNITY MUD QUILT 

Variations of mud dyeing have been used for thousands of years by the Coast Salish People, native to this region. The rich, black mud of the local estuaries has been used to dye barks, fabrics, and other materials in a variety of ways. With the intent to help the public reconnect to this important native landscape, we designed a mud dyeing outreach activity: a collaborative tide-dyed mud quilt. The Community Mud Quilt is about the relationship between the estuary species and the mud. Prior to the event, we drew a variety of species on the fabric squares using a clear glue resist. Without mud, you are not able to see the species; with mud, life appears. We invited people to paint or dip-dye quilt squares in mud in order to reveal the animals that could return with a restored estuary. Not every square contained an animal, and community members were encouraged to add their own expressions to the patchwork. 


DANI DOLBOW, ZOE KASPERZYK & ALANNA MATTESON are a group of three University of Washington landscape architecture students from Olympia, Seattle and Baltimore. We share a deep love of the Pacific Northwest region and a desire to connect people with place. We are excited about the way the community of Olympia, Washington is coming together right now to decide the future of Capitol Lake, formerly the Deschutes Estuary or the Steh-Chass. For our graduate capstone project we explore perceptions and aesthetics around a restored estuary, as the EIS and community process is underway. Through our research and outreach, we recognize that tidal mud flats are not to everyone’s tastes. This body of work explores our own evolving relationship with mud and invites the public to imagine a future in which mud can be celebrated as an indicator of a healthy and biodiverse ecosystem for all living beings in Olympia.

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