Oddly enough, local botanist/artist Jennifer Blanchard grew up spending her winters in Minnesota (with one parent) and her summers in the Honey Island Swamp area of Pearl River (with the other). Whatever the seasonal harshness of either locale, it gave her a deep appreciation for living connected with water.
“We always had an elevated house,” she says of her Pearl River digs. “And it flooded around us twice a year. I understand what it is to live on the water. For those who come to the city, that involves a huge adaptation.”
Living with water is a concept Blanchard will be selling next Monday, as one of three finalists for the Living With Water Civic Design Pitch, a part of New Orleans Entrepreneur Week that is sponsored by social innovation accelerator Propeller and the Arts Council of New Orleans. The winner will get $25,000 to create a new public art installation in the Lafitte Greenway near Bayou St. John, in what is the first crowd-sourced art competition in New Orleans.
“I learned about the pitch contest from the Arts Council,” Blanchard says. “It was a great fit for me, being a scientist and an artist, and with my background in coastal geology. I’m also into water connectivity, and how people and animals move through that environment. A lot of that comes out in my art.”
Blanchard, who has an undergraduate degree in environmental biology from the University of South Mississippi and a master’s degree in earth and environmental science from the University of New Orleans, has juggled her twin loves of earth science and nature art her entire life. She taught geology, physical science and biology at Delgado, spent a couple of years as a professional botanist, works tirelessly for wetlands conservation and opened and closed her own art gallery. And while she’s done “a little bit of everything” in the art world – photography, jewelry-making, painting – pottery is her go-to medium.
“Right now I’m really into raku,” she says. “It’s what I want to use in this project. The firing process makes these glazes with cool metallic sheens that strike and reflect the light.”
Blanchard’s project is called Contraflow, and she’s pulled together a team to flesh out the concept, including totem artist Peggy Bishop, native plant landscaper Mark Pastorek, landscape architect Dana Brown, and scultpor/installation advisor Michael Manjarris.
Contraflow uses a series of 5- to 6-foot metal totems topped with ceramic native animals to connect Bywater to Bayou St. John. The design includes a landscape of native plants, rainwater systems and a central rainwater collection basin.
“I wanted to do native animals because the way we do things changes their habitat, their pathways of movement and migration,” Blanchard explains. “And I like to create a palette with the landscape. I want to use native plantings that will enhance the art piece, as well as plant rain gardens that will show water use.
“Being a botanist, I do a lot of natural motifs in my art. Being a teacher, I come from a more educational standpoint than whimsical or metaphorical one.”
So Contraflow is designed not only aesthetically, but functionally and educationally. It would serve as an outdoor classroom or meeting point, a destination in itself, with lessons about vanishing coastlines and man’s effect on the environment. A series of terraces reflect former and current coastlines, so that when it rains, the “former” coastline vanishes, leaving only the new one. Blanchard also plans a berm that would function as a rainwater catch system, created in the shape of a barrier island.
“The art piece I’m doing is meant to be experienced in the rain,” says Blanchard. She was entranced by an Amsterdam park that fills up in the rain, creating unique play spaces depending on the daily amount of moisture.
The center of Blanchard’s piece is a “living in a bowl” diorama, a basin filled with ceramic houses, staggered so that water runs down them and into the catch basin when it rains. Each is emblazoned with a word having to do with living with water in New Orleans: erosion, subsidence, elevation, delta. An information kiosk would explain the vocabulary.
“If you don’t live in New Orleans, you probably don’t really understand subsidence,” says Blanchard.
The title of the piece, Contraflow, is another unique New Orleans term.
“If you look up the word, there is no mention of hurricane or traffic,” Blanchard says. “Contraflow has a different meaning for us – it means moving away in the same direction, unified as a group, from a hurricane. And it also reflects the idea of animals all moving inland in the same direction with coastal erosion.”
Whatever Blanchard creates – from ceramic sea turtles to rain basins – she weaves facts and lessons into the work. Art, she believes, is just one way to spark conversations about urban issues, and to teach, interactively, environmental concepts.
“When we had a disaster like Katrina, no one was prepared,” she says. “So if we educate in advance and know how to be adaptive in this environment, it will be more sustainable.”
Having New Orleans as the epicenter of a conversation about water is appropriate in other ways, Blanchard addes. “When you talk about sea level rise of salt water intrusion, New Orleans is a microcosm of what is happening regionally and globally. So much of it is going on right here.”