Interviewsand Articles


A Conversation with Sam Bower, part 2: Green Museum

by Richard Whittaker, Apr 8, 2020 was a non-profit online museum of environmental art. Since its launch in 2001, had become a source for information about this global art movement and much more. In 2009 when I met its founding director, Sam Bower, the website had lost its funding and was operating at a much scaled back level. Part 2 of our conversation of 11 years ago was lost and only found recently. As of the posting of this lost piece of that earlier conversation, no longer exists.

Richard Whittaker:  So getting back to our conversation yesterday. I wanted to get back to the question of an analogy between the environmental issues outside of us. Is there something like that with the inner life? Should we be concerned about the inner environment - like habitat loss, toxic waste and so on?  What do you think?

Sam Bower:  In relation to the idea of art as both a means and an outgrowth of an inner life – I think art emerges from whatever an artist is working on. It also helps people process information and heal and interconnect things that help them develop and clarify and illuminate and reflect on their own inner life. Obviously, it’s also a powerful tool for communication so that one’s inner struggle can be shared with others and help them with whatever it is they’re working on.
     I think in the context of environmental art, and especially with the more ecological projects, there’s the aspect of healing our relationship with the natural world. For many artists, it’s part of their life path. It’s really part of how they share their values and choose to contribute meaningfully in the world. It’s also, I think, something that, in the larger public dialog, tends to be under emphasized in the world. Artist themselves are working hard to be taken seriously.

RW:  Say more about the part that tends to be under emphasized.

Sam:  I think artists, very often, have been perceived as less serious, in terms of having a contribution to, say, helping with climate change or wetlands restoration -  or even community organizing. Often artists are perceived as focusing on things that have less practical value. In part, it’s because for a long time artists have been focused more on the interior life and showing their own perspectives. And a lot of art can be pretty quirky and about the artist’s deep experience.
     For art projects that are beginning to deal with the outside world and for projects that also involve collaboration with scientists and resource managers, with government officials and non profit organizations, the artist has to be taken seriously - at least as someone who contribute meaningfully to addressing some sort of issue in a way that enhances outcomes.

RW:  Right. So there’s the quirkiness of a lot of artists and you mentioned the artist’s deep experiences. Were you saying one or the other, or both things contributed to these perceptions? 

Sam:  I was saying that if artists are already perceived as being a bit “woo-woo” in terms of getting something practical done, I think it’s the sort of thing that… I mean, I don’t think artists have a direct line to spiritual experience anymore than anyone else. Certainly artists are often sensitive people and they can see things in special ways. But the capacity to be spiritual and to have a meaningful, rich interior life is available to anyone. So in that context, perhaps you could say that in the work world, where people are addressing climate change issues and have to go to big meetings, build big structures and things like that, there’s been an undervaluation of the interior life and spiritual experience.
     So for an artist to fit into that world, or even an architect or engineer, they might have a very rich spiritual life that’s very important to them, but in a work context, they tend to dampen that.

RW:    I can see that. So how do you relate this to the question of the outer and the inner environment?

Sam:   I think from a larger world healing context, it’s very important to interconnect the different aspects of our exterior and interior lives and our relationship with the natural world and all the different forces and things we depend on. Art has an unusual capacity to resonate on multiple levels. In a lot of ways, what we understand now is that art is more than just the object. It’s an invitation to see things in a certain way. Whether we call it art in this culture or something else, it’s important that it be there. The opportunity to communicate and share common purpose is going to be essential if we’re going to create any sort of culture that’s approaching sustainability.

RW:   So world healing is not just an outer need, but an inner need, too. 

Sam:  There are plenty of spiritual traditions that say this.

RW:  It’s the overall big thing. But healing is something that can be looked at on many different levels. Let’s bring it down to something less than a global scale. What’s in need of being healed? -  I see the expression on your face. I mean, I like big questions [we both laugh] or we could pass that one by…

Sam:  No. I’ll dive in. I think healing emerges from a recognition that something doesn’t feel right. It goes back to what we were touching on just before – “world healing” and “interior healing.” It really comes down to how big are you? What size are you? How big is “here”? And that’s something that the Harrisons [Helen Mayer Harrison (1927–2018) and Newton Harrison (b. 1932) ] ask a lot of times in their work.

RW:  Those are great questions.

Sam:  From a spiritual point of view, how big are we? There’s a great opportunity to begin to see ourselves as big as the world. Interconnected.

RW:  Yes. Well, water is one of those things. Let’s talk about water, let’s say a mountain stream that you could dip your hands into and drink and not worry. Water is so fundamental we overlook it, here in the U.S. anyway - like other fundamental things. How do you think about it?

Sam:  You can look at it from a wide range of perspectives. From a biological perspective, water is essential to life—at least as we know it. As human beings, when we encounter a fresh, clean mountain stream that we can drink out of directly without getting sick, not only is it essential for life, but represents healthy abundance and possibility.

RW:  Yes. From my own experience, it’s easy to feel why water is one of the two or three primary symbols used to represent the deeply spiritual.

Sam:  Yes. If you look at all matter as fundamentally being in flux - our own perceptions and experience of the world, and perhaps even our lives as spirits - if you believe in reincarnation - there’s the underlying feeling that everything is constantly flowing and changing. So water, as a metaphor for this, helps us understand this change in a deep and very physical way. Everyone drinks water. We all bathe and play in water.

RW:  Are there any really memorable experiences of water for you?

Sam:  Yes, actually. When you were talking about drinking pure stream water, I thought of when I lived in Ecuador in a community alongside a river. It was a long trip to get there by dugout canoe and was right next to a nature preserve. So it was the topmost community on this river. You could walk to the edge of town, jump in the river and swim, and drink the water.

RW:  Really?

Sam:  Yes. It was just the most amazing thing. Downstream from there, of course, the water quality went down.

RW:  But you remember instances when you were drinking from the river?

Sam:  Yes. While swimming! The beauty of swimming in rivers is that you can swim forever and not go anywhere. [laughs] You find the right spot where you’re not going to be swept downstream and you adjust to swim at the right speed. It was wonderful!

RW:  A significant part of our bodies are water, like 60% or 70%, I think. [adult brain and heart 73%, lungs 83%, kidneys and muscles 79%, bones are 31% water: USGS Water Science School] There must be, on a molecular level, some resonance when one is really thirsty. In some cases, I think the satisfaction is so primal it’s almost transcendent. I mean, I had that experience. One summer, I got myself in a desperate situation once on a hike climbing up from the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. I’d done a couple of stupid things. One of them was having no water. Another was walking in a new pair of boots. I started above the rim. It’s a drop of 5000 in elevation to the river below. I’d made down and was coming back up. I’d climbed maybe 3000 feet and was getting just desperate for water. Fortunately, a couple of hikers came by and I asked them for water. They’d drunk all theirs, but one of them gave me an orange. Swallowing just that relatively small amount of juice is an experience I’ll never forget. It was like the cells in my body were dancing with joy.

Sam:  If you think of what we are, bodies made of cells, each little cell contains a drop of seawater. In some ways, all the little creatures that emerged from the seas found each other and figured out ways of collaborating effectively and sharing the recipe over and over with modifications that would be helpful, and here we are today. We’re really a bag of seawater bringing our own little ecosystems with us. Every chance we get to replenish that connection to the seas in a way we can process is just a delight. On a cellular level, it’s a reminder of home.

RW:  That’s a nice way to put it. A reminder of home. The metaphor is often used in a spiritual sense that at death one returns to the great ocean. That’s not such a far-fetched metaphor, is it?  Most likely, life first appeared in the ocean or in an environment where there was water.

Sam: I think the oceanic spiritual tradition, the Judeo-Christian tradition, tends to be more about air than water. You’ve got the idea of God being in a cloud up in the sky. There’s a kind of spiritual dryness that seems to come from the deserts.

RW:  Although, a cloud is water vapor.

Sam:  Yes. That’s true. Do you think the oceanic feeling is as common in Western spiritual traditions as it is in Eastern spiritual traditions?

RW:  I don’t know. That’s a good question. But how much do we know about this?

Sam:  I mean, it tends to be vertical much more than horizontal. And water is horizontal.

RW:  But of course, there are plenty of deep references in the Christian religion to water, like Jesus saying something like, “I am the water of life.” And there’s baptism. I’d think that in a desert, water would be even more deeply called upon to represent this spiritual level. In the desert, of all places, the appearance of a spring, an oasis, of water would be the source of life, unforgettably so.

Sam:  So when you cross over, where do you go?

RW:  No. I agree that there’s verticality. I mean, we’re wandering around here. The cross is an interesting symbol, the intersection of the horizontal and the vertical. In order, really, to investigate this whole thing I suppose it would be interesting to know what was going on in the first and second centuries. There were many different things going on. Doctrine was far less codified, or canonized, than it is today.

Sam:  Sure. Going back to sacred water sites, I think that what you were saying about the preciousness of water, especially in arid places and throughout time, has helped people value the importance of a spring, of taking care of that resource. There are so places where springs mysteriously bubble out of the stone or water just accumulates in a pool for no reason you can see. It’s almost miraculous. It’s a source of life. And it provides life for a lot of creatures other than people. And very often places like that are beautiful and a refuge filled with diversity. Great things. And from a survival perspective, humans who didn’t revere water and take care of their springs didn’t do as well as those who did.  You can also see that aspect of stewardship and reverence is a really important thing.

RW:  Speaking of springs, did you want to say anything more about Betsy Damon’s work?

Sam:  I think Betsy’s work with sacred springs throughout the world is very important work for some of the reasons we were talking about earlier. There are so many cultures that grew up around springs and learned to revere them through spiritual practice, through songs and stories and ceremony – those cultures, and that tradition of taking care of a spring has really come under a lot of strain in modern times. The sacred sites get taken over by big cement structures or sometimes pumping for agriculture downstream, which lowers the water table and the springs stop producing. Communities that depended on those sources have to go closer to the cities or wherever they can find water. We’ve seen the conflicts that have emerged from that in Bolivia and Tibet, in India and parts of Africa, and all over the place, really

RW:  We’ll see more of that, don’t you think?

Sam:  I expect we will.   

return to part 1 

About the Author

Sam Bower was the founding director of and currently continues his work for a more sustainable culture.
Richad Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.   


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