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Tapping into the art and science of water

Hometown: Queens, N.Y.
Major: Biology/Studio Fine Arts, Interdepartmental
Minor: Environmental Studies

Maya Whalen-Kipp was on a term abroad in Cambodia sophomore year, working at a school for street children, when she learned that nearly half of all Cambodians, most of them living in rural areas, don’t have access to clean, safe drinking water.

Inspired to learn more, she applied for, and won, a summer fellowship at the Center for Khmer Studies in Siem Reap. While there, she began conducting her own research on Cambodian water management.

"I began to think about water solutions for a community that had experienced 1,000 years of colonialism, war and genocide. I saw clay being used a lot for water filters. I thought that was really cool, and I decided to do my senior thesis on it,” she says.

Describe your project.

I built a ceramic water filtration system out of stoneware clay, sawdust and colloidal silver. It was an interdisciplinary multimedia art project with a biology component about low tech design. My final product was showcased in the Senior Visual Arts Show in the Mandeville Gallery in the Nott Memorial.

What is your ceramics background?

I had no experience with ceramics before coming to Union but I had a lot of help from the instructor in the ceramics studio. Primarily, I work in sculpture and digital art, so this helped expand my art techniques.

How do you build the filters, exactly?

The clay-based filters are shaped like circular discs. After firing them in the kiln at 1600 degrees Fahrenheit, the sawdust burned away, leaving pore holes large enough to let water molecules through, but still small enough to filter out bacteria. I tested the water to find out if my filters’ pore sizes were small enough to capture all the bacteria by calculating their flow rate. The pore size was larger than is ideal for world health organization standards because my filters were all made by hand. To correct for this problem, I coated the filters with colloidal silver (nanoparticles suspended in water), which is a natural antibiotic.

Did you have to learn other techniques?

Yes. Aside from learning how to build the filters, I had to become familiar with water quality testing for microbes. In addition to the filtration aspect of my project, I created many small clay vessels to capture and hold the clean water in my art installation. These are decorated with images of human faces through a process known as hydrographicing. This involves a very delicate process of ink-jet printing onto water-soluble paper.

Can you tell us a little more about your final product?

As part of my gallery installation, I planned to sell the small clay vessels to raise money for Potters for Peace, the organization that inspired my project. By supporting their work for water justice, I can use my art to raise awareness about how complex it is to access clean water. My project aims to tackle the question: Can a connection with the natural elements provide solutions to massive global issues? At the very least, I wanted my project to get people talking.

It sounds complex.

It was!  

How would you characterize the entire process?

This was a two-term project and it was very rewarding to see everything come together. It’s great that there were so many people happy to help me to make this a reality. Professor Jill Salvo helped me test the efficacy of the filtration system in the microbiology lab. I worked in the chemistry lab with Professor Michael Hagerman to see if the silver came through the filters. And my thesis adviser, Fernando Orellana, not only teaches digital art but lot of his own art is conceptual installation, so he was able to advise me on the installation design process. 

Did you receive any other support from the College?

I was awarded a Union Presidential Green Grant because of the strong environmental component of my project. As part of this, I gave a talk on the science behind the water filters during Steinmetz Symposium research day.

How else have you mixed and matched your interests at Union?

The summer after my sophomore year, I was a Union Bittleman Research Fellow for eight weeks. I worked with Professor of Art History Lorraine Cox. We researched environmental artists who are involved in projects that address major ecological issues. That research got me thinking about how to use art to be an environmental activist. And that’s the whole point – to express my personal experience with water in the world through my art.

Convergence: Jakub Kaczmarzyk,
neuroscience and music

Click play (above) or view on VIMEO