Santa Fe Drain Basin: “Lessons from the Genius of Place” 2003-2008

30 minute excerpt from the Drain Basin Video

Catalog Text

We first came to the Santa Fe Art Institute to give a lecture on our work followed by a workshop. We found many people distressed by the destruction of their river, their problems with water and the fact that nothing could get done. Seeing the destruction of the river and being asked by the workshop to “do something,” with their help (primarily permaculture people).

Our first realization was that the basic problem was not the water, but the earth, which from generations of over-grazing and misuse had been eroded. Working with Hispanics, Native Americans and Anglos like ourselves, teenagers, engineers and permaculturists, among others, we offered five proposals and six considerations to restore the ability of the soil to retain moisture. Among these proposals were a “genetic diffusion” system to restore life in the arroyos and the regeneration of 7 miles of virtually dead riverbed. “raising the riverbed”. Several addressed the urban ecosystem and the dying of the Pinons.

The River Narrative installation shot
The River Narrative installation shot
The Santa Fe River Disabled.  5' x 75'
The Santa Fe River Disabled. 5′ x 75′
Dead River detail
Dead River detail

A River Narrative

Where clouds form
From which lightning comes
To energize the water serpent
Who lives within the earth bowl
Flowing waters
Rivers and streams
Nurture life

Studying the Tewa symbols
Made in earlier times by people who lived here
Not understanding these symbols
but feeling their vitality
We imagined an implicit narrative in them
And that narrative wanted to happen
So we asked our engineer
If for instance
A 40-foot zig-zag form
Or bowl forms
Or serpent forms
Could also be used in the riverbed
As forms that would catch earth
And forms that could create sinuosity in the river
Once the riverbed has been raised

He said
Why not
But it will be more expensive
Than an normal weir
You said
Art always costs a little more
I said
Sometimes even much more
The real question was
Did it want to happen

With a small group of students from the Indian School
And people who were wise and knowing
In the ways of Native American symbol structures
And the narrative potential embedded in them
This work was born
All who saw this images liked the idea
That an ancient river story
Might contribute to the restoration and wellbeing
Of the river itself

These proposals took the form of large and small maps, drawings and texts, a 70-foot long aerial photograph, video stories and an extended sculptural array of Tewa water symbols telling the story of water. Ultimately the Tewa symbols were designed to add sinuosity to the riverbed. The core elements of the work were moved out of the gallery and into the city plan. The river is being raised and the arroyos have begun to be planted.

A 4,000 square foot installation at the Santa Fe Art Institute, Santa Fe, NM.
The Harrison Studio was pressed to work with water which was scarce in the region due to over-development and historic overgrazing. We argued that water was scarce because the topsoil was dry and damaged by earlier massive overgrazing. Therefore, the exhibition made 5 proposals for topsoil restoration, some of which are now already enacted, and called for a 4 million dollar river restoration, which is now in the city plan.

28-minute DVD Catalog available for purchase from Santa Fe Art Institute. You can contact them at 505-424-5050 or by e-mail at

Where: Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Exhibited at the Santa Fe Art Institute
When: 2002-2005
Who: Exhibition Design: Gabriel Harrison, Vera Westergaard

Commissioned by: The Santa Fe Art Institute