The Language of Waters Speaks to Us All

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I believe that art is a universal language. It is a form of communication that every individual can understand, no matter their origin, no matter the language that rolls off their tongue, no matter their individuality. It is through this principle that I craft my art. 

One of my first pieces began in 2019 at the annual Water is Life festival in Mackinac City, Michigan. Water is Life is an event that takes place each year during Labor Day. During the event people from around Michigan are invited to learn more about protecting the water in the Great Lakes state and the work being done by Water Protectors across the nation. In addition, participants also gather to actively protest the contamination of our waters by corporate actors like Enbridge who use life-threatening gas pipelines, or industrial polluters who dump PFAS and other chemicals into our most precious natural resource.  It is a time where all can join in the building of loving communities of folks who want nothing more than to preserve and protect our sacred waters which are key to our survival. 

For this purpose, I wanted to create something that could speak to my love for nature, the love of the community, and our shared goal for defending the water. Modeled after a turtle’s back, I created and designed a copper water shield. I chose to design my piece after a turtle’s shell and used copper for a multitude of reasons. Firstly, the shell contains 13 sections; each representing the 13 moons that cascade across our skies each year. Secondly, the turtle is an aquatic animal that spends its lifetime exploring the depths of our waters largely untouched by mankind. The turtle, therefore, has a deep understanding of our waters and its mystic forces. Additionally, the turtle is known for carrying mud to the surface, aiding in the flourishment of other species that utilize these new landforms. Thus, they are also symbolic of providing pathways for creation and survival. 

Copper also has strong metallurgical properties. Its conductivity allows for the flow of various frequencies and energies making it expressive of the idea of interconnection and transfer. In addition, both copper and the turtle are special to women who are also conduits for energy transfer and who provide the foundation for new life. Like the turtle, women gather mud (prepare the land) to foster survival and bring forth new life from wombs encompassed in water. Together, the turtle and copper speak of the harmony of the cycles of the moons which are intimately related to cycles of birth and rebirth. 

Through my work, I sought to bring harmony and enact the properties of interconnectivity. I did so by asking participants at the Water is Life Festival to write the word ‘water’ or ‘love’ on the turtle shell in their own language or choose one from a list I created of languages from every corner and crevice of our world I could find. This included everything from mathematical codes, to ancient hieroglyphs, to even the Hobo Code. By the end of the festival, the Turtle Copper Water Shield had approximately 150 words and symbols representing “love” and “water” in the penmanship of those who stood with us in solidarity. However, while she was painted with these historic imprints, she was far from complete. It would take a few years, and a pandemic before I would finish the piece. 

I was asked to contribute a piece for the 2022 Biannual International Indigenous Art Exhibit in Saint Ignace, MI. It was then that I determined it was time for the shield to meet its completion. So, after painstakingly adding the necessary words of “love” and “water” from the remaining unwritten languages and adding hundreds of more symbols related to the ideas of harmony and togetherness, I felt the languages of connectivity were complete. Her front now engraved across almost every inch, her back required the same time and patience. With my material of choice, sinew, I hand-sewed her up. 

Finally, lacking an accouterment to make it hangable, I braided basswood cordage, which had spent a frigid winter bathing in a stream. After this process, softened by the water and transformed from wood to twine, it was ready to join the shield. I attached the cord to the edges and she now was able to be hung as pleased.

For the final touch, I intricately and purposely selected the medicines that had been harvested from many seasons behind me to accompany the shield. I wrapped and sealed these medicines in a red cloth pouch, sealing the protection of the shield itself and those who lay their eyes upon her. Time and patience taking its effect, she was now complete and ready to make her debut. She spent some time at the exhibit in St. Ignace, wintering along the waters of the Straits and then, on her way back home to me, she took a moment to once again find her way back at the Water is Life Festival in 2022, where she took center stage. It was here after the concert that she weaved her way through the crowd; and those who were in attendance a few years before, their calligraphy still present, got to gaze upon the shield that they helped me begin all those years ago. 

You hear people say the phrase “history always repeats itself” as if this is always a bad thing. But what a privilege it was for this piece of history to return to its origins and to revisit its relationship to the most significant of purposes—to protect our water, to protect our connections to one another, to protect life itself. 

Olivia Guarisco is born and raised in Northern Michigan. She learned the love of Mother Earth through the exploration of Nature’s beauty. Much of her art infuses natural fibers and mediums harvested with love and ceremony and blends languages to connect cultures and humanity together. She is currently a sophomore in a college prep high school and plans on exploring her studies abroad in 2023.