The Unnatural Beauty of Salt Ponds

March 30, 2012

South Bay artist Linda Gass’ water-inspired artwork has appeared on the covers of fine art magazines, books, and environmental reports. In a year with little rainfall, Linda’s art speaks to an enduring concern of all Californians: water, its origins, its conservation, its scarcity. Linda’s primary medium is silk, but she also does work in mixed media and land art. She is the curator of the Los Altos History Museum’s exhibit Shaped by Water, which runs through April 22.

BN: Are you a Bay Area native? If not, please tell us how you ended up here and why you stayed!

LG: I grew up in Los Angeles and came to the Bay Area to go to college where I met a lot of environmentally conscious people; it felt like I had finally found “home” and so I stayed. I continued on to get a Masters in Computer Science and that made it even easier to stay since I was right in Silicon Valley. I treasure the easy access to so much natural beauty and the environment of innovation and creativity. It’s hard to leave!

BN: Your silk paintings are very beautiful, but they’re not just “art for art’s sake”. Tell us a bit about your artistic focus on water and its signifcance.

LG: Thank you for the compliment! Yes, it’s true; my work explores land use and water issues in California. I portray the human mark on the landscape that affects our water in some way, such as water quality, water supply, or habitat destruction. I feel as though this focus picked me rather than the other way around. Growing up in Los Angeles during the drought years of the 1970s raised my awareness about water. But it wasn’t until I was an adult when I really learned where the water for Los Angeles comes from and it felt so wrong. Water began to subconsciously surface in my artwork, perhaps as a way to express these emotions, and once I realized this, it became my focus.

BN: What impact would you like your art to have on viewers?

LG: I want to raise their awareness about water issues. I use the lure of beauty to both encourage people to look at the hard environmental issues we face and to give them hope. I want to create an attitude shift from feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problems to feeling inspired and empowered to take action through the experience of art. I could create artwork that’s more confrontational and shows how horrible these problems we have created are; but then my work might just make people feel depressed instead of inspired.

BN: Your new Confluence series highlights the intersection of different bodies of water, and also contains some pretty “damning” statistics about what we’ve done with our waterways throughout history. What inspired this particular series?

LG: I was invited to exhibit my artwork as part of an art conference last year with the theme “Confluence”. And it was a new opportunity for me. I learned that river confluences are biologically rich with an abundance of plant, insect and wildlife species due to the mixing of currents and nutrients. In my travels I have seen several rivers and lakes that are now dry due to the diversion of water for urban and agricultural use, and I researched what happened to these once thriving confluences. This new series looks at three former confluences that are now missing: the San Joaquin and Merced Rivers; the Owens River and Owens Lake; and the Kings River and Tulare Lake. An aerial view of each missing confluence is paired with a species that is now endangered or extinct as a result of the diversions to create a poignant connection between the dry river and the life that relied on it.

BN: You’ve also done a Salt Ponds series that shows a before-and-after vision: how see the ponds are now, and how you envision them after they’ve been restored. Can you speak to this vision?

LG: I see the salt ponds in the South Bay as a contradiction: they have an unnatural beauty with their changing colors and interesting shapes yet they are the dead remains of essential wetlands. I’m fascinated by the fact that you can still see many of the former channels in some of the salt ponds – talk about a will to survive! I envision their future as living wetlands, with those persisting channels surrounded by living plants and wildlife again.

BN: Can you tell us about the Los Altos Museum’s Shaped By Water exhibit?

LG: It’s an educational exhibit about the history and future of water in the Santa Clara Valley that’s truly interdisciplinary and appeals to all ages. We tell the story through hands-on interactive displays, video, sound, and large art installations. It’s a very hip exhibit and it’s been getting rave reviews. People take water for granted and it probably doesn’t sound very fun to go see an exhibit about water. But everyone who has come to see it is really glad they did. I guarantee you’ll learn several amazing things that you didn’t know before.

BN: What’s your favorite park, hike, or place to go in nature in the Bay Area?

LG: Oh, do I have to pick just one? They’re all my favorites for different reasons. For example, I like Henry Coe State Park for great close-to-home overnight backpacking; the top of Windy Hill for a dog-friendly hike with views of the Bay and the ocean; Rancho San Antonio for a peaceful walk along a creek. I could go on and on!

>> Visit Linda Gass’ website to learn more about her art and view samples of her work.

>> Learn more about the Shaped By Water exhibit.

About the Author

Beth Slatkin is Bay Nature's marketing and outreach director.

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